Monday, January 25, 2010

Come to Rwanda, Swim in an African Lake, See Gorillas

It is time for you to stop reading this blog and book a flight to Rwanda!
The more time I spend here, the better I like the country.
On Saturday we wer picked up by a car and driver (A Toyota Land Cruiser in fact) at 9am.
We drove through stunning countryside - a mix of the look of Nepal, the Amalfi Coast of Italy and the Coastal Highway between SF and LA. Huge hills divided up into fields of banana, corn, surghum, coffee and 'Irish" potatoes (not sweet potatoes). We stopped at a brewery for samosas (delicious) and banana beer (revolting, but 14% alcohol and cheap. Some people like it but I could not take more than a few sips). We stopped at a waterfall and I climbed down, accompanied by some local kids. They watch you and talk a little in English or French. They sometimes ask for money but our driver kept on asking them 'What for? You cannot just ask for money, You have to have something to sell, or provide a service'. They were satisfied to find out things like our names and ages and how many children we had.

We stopped for sugar cane bythe roadside. Greg got into peeling the cane with a machete, then dividing it into four lengthwise and chewing. It' s amazingly sweet, like pure sugar.
We drove through Ruhengeri, getting views of the volcanoes, past some dire looking refugee camps, and down to Gisenyi. We stopped for a late lunch at the beautiful Serena Hotel. It was a bit over-priced - $9 for a grilled vegetable baguette with fries and salsad, $2 for a Fanta - but once you had eaten you could use their change facilities and swim on the beach. The weather was grey with bits of rain, but the water was warm, the beach sandy, and the water dead calm.

Greg negotiated with the operators of a 15 ft power boat to take us across the bay to the Congo border for about $8 fopr a 20 min ride. The city over the border, Goma, seemned very prosperous from what we could see from the lake.
Our driver piucked us back up for a spectacular drive around the bay past the brewery to the hot springs where locals wer bathing and cooking corn in the bubbling water which felt to be about 70 degrees centigrade.

We drove back to the Kirigi lodge north of Ruhengeri as the night fell. We had a room booked, then had an excellent steak for lunch. Huddled round a wood fire in the lounge (it was cold and pouring with rain!) drinking tea and talking to other travellers, a mix of tourists and other people doing varous volunteer work in Africa.

In the morning we were up at 6 for breakfast (cold omlette with decent tea, bananas and toast). We admired the views of the volcanoes as we waited for a ride to the park headquarters. By seven we were at there, and joined a group of 6 people who were assigned a specific family of gorillas. Our family was 16 animals, including two mature male silverbacks and several babies. We then drove over the most horrible dirt track you could imagine -so bad that on the way back I insisted on getting out and walking - to a smalll parking area. We wer loaned walking sticks and set off across a potato field to the forest. The views of the volcanoes were spectacular, It was a dry bright cool sunny day. After a few minutes we were in the forest, climbing over fallen branches and vines, pushing our way between dense vegatation only partly cleared by our guides with machetes. Eventaully the guides got in radio contact with the trackers. When we were close we had to abandon everything except our cameras. Ten minutes later we saw the first gorilla, lying in the sun, doing nothing, which was a it of an anti-climax. Then we heard rustling in the bamboo as other gorillas appeared. We saw a couple more up in trees. A baby started to walk towards us, followed by its mother. The guides were freaking out, as we are suppossed to stay 7 meters from the gorillas so we do not give them any diseases. But there was no-where to get away from them, so they walked past us, brushing against Greg's jeans, and wandered off. We saw a little baby try to climb on a dead branch which broke and it fell a couple of feet into dense vegetation. Then it tried to climb a tree and fell off again. Later we saw a baby play-fighting with a larger juvenile. They both stood up and bashed each other with their paws, or rolled over on top of each other.

Just as the guide said our hour was up we came across one of the silverbacks. It was sitting on a branch facing us, looking just like a man in a gorilla suit! It chewed bamboo nonchalently as we watched. We got back just as it began to rain very heavily. We felt sorry for a couple who had insisted on doing the long walk to see the Sousa group. They must have got soaked!

We drove into Ruhengeri and went to the Murahbo Hotel for Goat Brochettes for lunch, then headed back to Kigali, again stopping for photos, climbing up to see some coffee trees, and buying Greg some more sugar cane.

Its a very privileged existence, being driven in a Toyota Landcruiser with Congolese easy-listening CDs on the stereo past people living in houses not much better than mud huts.

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