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Thursday, August 25

Visiting Rellies in Rwanda

Brett: We stayed at One Love, the only campsite in Kigali ($8pppn). We didn’t get a good impression of it when we arrived as we had to camp in the car-park with the roof tent, the toilets were smelly and far and the music from the bar was really loud. Fortunately the live band stopped just after we arrived and we had slightly quieter music til midnight. The guy at reception was fairly disinterested, and we didn’t get a chance to sign in before he went back to sleep on a chair in reception with his head inside his jersey. The place was a bit better in the morning, and the staff were much friendlier.

We spent the day in Kigali – the Genocide Memorial is very good and tells the story of how carefully planned and manipulated the situation was leading to the genocide. A quarter of a million bodies are buried on the site in mass graves. The whole experience is very moving and it ends with a short display on other genocides (Jewish, Serbian, Khmer Rouge, Herero in Namibia, Armenia) which was very interesting. There seems to be quite a lot of emphasis on blaming the international community for their lack of intervention.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the fairly modern Union Trade Centre – lunch at the Bourbon Cafe, where Mary had her first proper coffee of the trip, and our first Nakumatt supermarket (excellent and even has thai curry paste). We also bought a 3G dongle at MTN to try to be more self sufficient with internet. Rwanda is really great – it is a small, very populated country that feels very well run (although definitely helped along by all the aid money – we also heard stories about secret police and dodgy politics from some Kigali residents suggesting that things aren’t exactly as they seem?). The vegetation is very green and every bit of spare space is used to grow crops. The houses in and out of town are very neat, with hedges, flowers and cleanly painted. Kigali feels like a small, clean European city with friendly people – it would be a very easy place to live.

We spent another night at One Love and met a few other travellers: a couple from Netherlands living in Nairobi, Willie (a South African motorcyclist riding a Honda Africa Twin to Turkey) and Tarmo from Estonia in his minibus who bravely went through Southern Sudan and Somalia on his way down.

We had tried emailing ORTPN about gorilla permits but didn’t get any response, so we organised these through Greg from Amahoro Tours. We met Greg in town in the morning and went together to the ORPTN office to pay for and collect our tickets ($500 each). We had booked our tickets about 3 days before the date of the trek (there were 3 possible days in the 10 day window we had given, but we were told that we were very lucky and most people book 6 months in advance. I would definitely recommend using an agency to get permits as they seem very helpful and responsive, and the booking fee was only an extra $20 each.

 

Mary: After a lazy morning, we headed off towards the Volcanoes National Park and stayed at Kinigi Guest House ($5pppn). We got up early and headed over to the park headquarters (a few hundred metres away), guided by the drumming and dancing. As we were the only ones in our own vehicle, we got to join the “guides only” meeting where they decide who gets to visit which group of gorillas. We were very lucky to get the Susa Group, which is the biggest group with 33 gorillas, but is also the hardest to find, as they tend to stay higher up in the hills. We were also lucky to to get Edward, a fantastic guide, and nice group of other guests. We drove for about 2 hours to a small village where we started the trek (the last bit of the drive is up a rocky track). The walk starts out fairly flat through the amazingly densely farmed village complete with kids shouting “mzungu! mzungu!” until we reached the edge of the park. From here, it became steeper as it headed up a path through beautiful bamboo forests and then through the even steeper indigenous forests. The last stretch is where it becomes very steep and slippery, following a tracker who was cutting the path with a panga. I had to be literally dragged up over some of the steepest sections which were just a mass of mossy, muddy logs that I couldn’t even scramble up. The stinging nettles made the last bit even more challenging.

We left our bags with the porters and walked the last stretch to the gorillas with only our cameras (and spare batteries). The first sighting is amazing and the gorillas immediately seemed very relaxed around us. The group had 3 silverbacks, many females, a pair of young twins (apparently quite rare) and a 10 day old baby. The dominant male beat his chest as we arrived to show us he was in charge, but was soon lazing around while the youngsters wrestled and play-fought each other. They act exactly like humans – playing, eating, grooming each other and generally playing the fool - it’s amazingly obvious that we are related. The gorillas ended up moving towards us so that we were more like 3m instead of the recommended 7m away. I think we were incredibly lucky as they were so relaxed and some people in the group who had been before said it was an incredibly good visit. People are only allowed an hour with the gorillas to prevent them getting over-accustomed to us, and the time went very quickly. We moved away from the group and had lunch before starting the slippery hike back down to the car. We gave Edward the guide a lift to Gisenyi where we were going to be staying for the night – Edward gets up before sunrise to catch the bus to the National Park, spends a full day guiding visitors, and then a bus back to Gisenyi for 6pm where he finishes off his long day with several hours of night classes at the Tourism College. He was a super guy and a fantastic guide.

We spent 2 nights at Paradis Malahide ($8pppn after some negotiation, down from a crazy $12ppn) in Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. Again, we camped in the parking-lot as Rwanda isn’t really set up for camping. The parking lot is small and we felt a bit watched by the very curious security guards, but the setting on the lake is beautiful (pity you can’t see it from the parking lot) and the hot water bucket showers were fantastic.

Brett: I was very keen to climb the Nyiragongo Volcano, an active volcano “red liquid magma”, just over the border near Goma, DRC. When we were in Gisengy in Rwanda, we were about 20km from it, and it is apparently a fairly easy hike to reach it. But Goma is a dangerous place (2008 National Geographic article) with the worlds biggest UN base, LRA rebels, Interhamwe still in hiding from the Rwanda Genocide, as well as both pro and anti- government local rebels. Saying that, it has been considered safe over the last 3 years and people have been going to the volcano. The main problem comes from the visa – it appears that the Goma region of DRC doesn’t recognise visas issued by the embassy in Kigali (or many others around the world including Kinshasa), so you have to buy a visa at the border at a cost of $285 each. The park fees are another $200. As we couldn’t take our own vehicle and would have to go with a tour group, the total fees work out to about $600-$700 each for 48 hours. We decided against it due to the high costs and also because several people we spoke to had paid for their visa and were still not allowed to cross the border.

Instead we crossed into Uganda and headed towards the lakes. We entered Uganda from Rwanda at the small Cyanika Border, which was easy, but took 2 hours because we needed to go to sign so many different books, each in different buildings. Fees were $50 each for visas and $20 for road tax.

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