“You’re going where?”
“To Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
“What on earth do you want to go there for? It’s dangerous; weren’t those British tourists kidnapped in the Congo earlier this year: and isn’t Ebola spreading?”
So, this is how our family greeted, with incredulity, the news we gave them when we knew the trip was confirmed. All we can now say to them was that if they had been with us, they would have experienced the most amazing two weeks.
Two weeks, needless to say, that aroused a plethora of emotions. From, on the one hand, the stark reminders of the 1994 genocide that devastated the area to, on the other, the once in a lifetime experience of spending around an hour virtually face to face with the Lowland Gorillas.
Rwanda is an amazing country. The progress made in the past 25 years to rebuild and reposition itself as one of Africa’s safest countries is nothing short of remarkable.
And, to its credit, the decision to ban plastic bags and to encourage every inhabitant to participate in ‘Umuganda days’, mornings of the last Saturday in each month, when shops and businesses are shut and the majority of the population take part in cleaning the environment, has made it a very clean country.
Visits to genocide memorial sites can be somewhat harrowing and stories emanating of the atrocities make you wonder how people can treat each other in such a manner. But the general impression is that the people are very friendly, are happy to talk to you and very helpful.
Our excursion into Burundi featured a sunrise voyage in a dugout canoe on Lake Rwihinda to experience the natural beauty and particularly the bird life in the National Reserve. A few solitary fishermen on their flimsy hand-crafted vessels added to the splendour of the occasion. But Burundi hadn’t finished enthralling us.
The famous Karyenda drummers put on a performance of sheer artistry – amazing high-octane drumming providing the backdrop for tribal dancing that would have graced any Olympic gymnastics programme!
Back into Rwanda – and the obligatory bag search for plastic bags – and a visit to part of Africa’s largest remaining rainforest, the Nyungwe National Park.
The brilliantly designed canopy walkway took us swaying, and perhaps with a little apprehension, high above the forest for some amazing views. Whilst the wildlife was a little shy of us on this occasion, it was easy to appreciate what, at other times, might be encountered.
The excitement was building as we crossed into the DR of Congo. The contrast between neat, clean and tidy Rwanda and the organised chaos of the Congo could not have been greater. Where the roads had hard surfaces in Rwanda, those in Bukavu were largely a test for any driver, the potholes testing the springs of our Toyotas to the limit.
People processed around town and country like ants, travelling to and from markets with goods to sell or with their heavy purchases balanced on their heads, or stacked high on bicycles that took two or three people to push it up the hills.
But the next day we were on our trek into the mountains and forests in search of the lowland gorillas. Two hours later and many muddied backsides from slipping and sliding, they were right in front, just a few metres away.
The silverback, Chimanuka, with his distinctive wart by his left eye, lay spread-eagled on his front whilst his family groomed him and fussed over him. Some young gorillas decided to play; Chimanuka sat up observing his new visitors, looking at us straight in the eyes – a photographer’s dream. It was impossible to take your eyes off these primates.
It was such a privilege to share these intimate moments with them, and when Chimanuka decided he had spent long enough with us and exited casually, the remainder of his group dutifully followed to bring to a conclusion one of the most amazing experiences ever.
The descent proved to be just as ‘interesting’ with much time spent negotiating slippery slopes and the narrow forest paths.
Our destination for the afternoon was the Pole Pole Foundation, created by John Kahekwa with the intention of protecting the gorillas, whose numbers had been drastically reduced in recent years, by educating the local community, replanting millions of trees and encouraging women to learn new skills.
Greeted by a women’s ‘choir’ and schoolchildren, it was obvious that the work of the Foundation was fully appreciated, and it is to be hoped that John’s efforts pay off in the long term to enable the gorillas to survive and build up their numbers once again.
Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu is home to Amani Global Works, which seeks to improve the lives and health of the Bambuti communities that live on the island. Dr Jacques Sebishao, the founder, first entertained us with an excellent lunch by the shoreline before taking us to visit his hospital that cares for young children – infant deaths have all but been eradicated – and provides proper maternity care for the women.
A stroll around the village proved fascinating with a warm welcome from the local community and sparkling eyes of young children gazing upon these ‘foreigners’.
It was time for our ascent of Mount Bisoke. The day dawned bright and clear with the faintest wisp of cloud sprinkled over the summit. A briefing by our porters and guides preceded the start of our challenging climb to the crater lake at the summit. Four of the group, with Jez our tour guide, were to tackle the challenging climb, whilst three others trekked to see the golden monkeys in the nearby bamboo forest.
The first two hours of the climb, although steep and muddy, went without incident, but gradually the clouds swept in and the rain began to fall. Soon it wasn’t just falling, it was hammering down.
Our narrow, muddy, footpath soon became a torrent of muddy liquid that provided anything but safe foot placements. Boots filled with liquid mud and clothes quickly became sodden. There remained around 200 metres left to climb, but for the two older members of the group, safety considerations had to overrule any desire to complete the summit attack.
So, reluctantly, two turned and started the descent, whilst the sprightly youngsters and Jez continued upwards. They arrived at the top some 50 minutes later, but such was the mist and rain all that was visible was a notice indicating their arrival – no amazing views or the crater lake!
Meanwhile, if it had not been for the care and attention of the porters, the descent would have been extremely challenging. Clinging tightly to the hands of the porters, all descended safely, tired, aching, but with a real sense of achievement.
The group trekking to find the Golden Monkeys returned having been enthralled by their experience. Deep in the bamboo forest, they encountered a large group who were scampering about, swinging on tree branches and feeding on the bamboo.
Their antics kept the group totally amused as the primates rushed around seemingly not caring that a party of humans were invading their territory. All in all, again a great day for the whole group.
Other worthwhile visits were made to a rehabilitation centre for orphaned or injured primates, a Women’s Centre in Kigali established to support women’s health and employment. Of particular interest was the shop selling a wide range of hand-made items from stuffed toy animals to metres of flamboyant material transformed into bags and an array of colourful clothing.
There were also the visits to craft stores that sold carved wooden masks and whilst two of our number invested heavily in some magnificent, and dare we say it, some pretty gruesome looking masks, they had purchased so many that the next stop was to buy an additional large travel bag to put them all in for the journey home!
And so, as we all packed our bags and prepared to leave this fabulous part of Africa we had time to reflect on our trip. There is no doubt that Wild Frontiers had delivered a tour that ranked among the most interesting and enjoyable of our previous nine tours with the company. Equally, it was a great group, very ably led by tour guide, Jez, in cooperation with our local guide, Jvan. Thanks to all!
“You’re back safely then?”
“Of course we are – we were never threatened, felt in danger or had any bad experiences. In fact, we would probably return tomorrow given the chance – or at least in a few days time when our filthy trekking clothes had been washed and ironed!”