A Primate and Migrate Adventure, Part 1: Rwanda and Uganda

Kate Waite

31 Oct 2018

After decades of travel, NWS Kate FINALLY embarks on her first ever African safari

I can’t recall when I first wanted to travel, but I do remember where. Africa. The whole continent. As a teenager I collected travel brochures for African overland trips, furtively hidden under my bed while I dreamt of adventures that would take me from Cairo to Cape Town (I still had these brochures when I moved in with my now husband, many of them at least 10 years old). It wasn’t until after university I finally got to scratch the travel itch and the easy well-trodden backpacker routes through Asia and Oceania beckoned, while an enduring interest in and growing home library of the Polar Regions blossomed. Dreams of Africa fell by the wayside, forgotten.

Having visited around 60-70 countries, I’ve never been on safari. My only foray into the enigmatic continent of Africa was a trip around Morocco. It wasn’t until I saw my flights were booked that I felt a bubble of excitement and recalled that initial draw of wanderlust that started with Africa and ultimately led me to a career in travel. My itinerary will take me to the jungles of Rwanda and Uganda, to the plains of Tanzania and alluring winelands of South Africa. This trip may well be 25 years overdue; now I’m on my way, I can’t wait.

RWANDA

I couldn’t decide if it was fitting or annoying to be woken from my sleep as the man behind me loudly cheered, announcing to all, “we are now over Africa”. I peered out the window to see the Mediterranean coastline snaking 37,000 feet below, falling away as sea became land. Yes, annoying to be woken I thought, but I was also quite pleased the occasion had been marked for me. My arrival in Kigali itself was uneventful; it’s a nice luxury to be met at the door of the plane, whisked through the fast immigration channel and delivered to your hotel when arriving on an evening flight.

To understand Rwanda a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is important. It provides an emotional account of when Rwanda turned into a nation of brutal, sadistic killers overnight and gives a real sense of the journey its citizens have been on over the last 30 years. 

A strong scent of lilies filled the air from flowers left on the site of the mass graves, as I started listening to the audio account of the 1994 genocide which saw the deaths of a million Rwandans. It’s a terrifying account of the atrocities that occurred. Not even the tiniest toddler was spared in the brutal killing frenzy. I can’t conceive of a greater horror in this world. For me the most powerful room, a dark silent hexagon, the walls filled with images of those killed. I stood looking at photos of happy families, mothers proudly holding their babies, the same sort of pictures I have of me and my children at home. It was poignant and emotional; I felt silent tears roll down my cheeks as I looked into the faces of people whose lives were so abruptly halted. It's sobering to realise the events that unfolded in 1994 are still in such recent memory for those who lived through it, and continue to live with the events every day.

The visit was powerful, the underlying message of forgiveness and hope for a better future. However hard to face, it’s part of the narrative of modern-day Rwanda and in my opinion a must for anyone who wants to really understand the complex emotions of this destination.

Continuing our journey I was struck by how clean and sophisticated Rwanda is. Kigali is a modern city; there is no litter, new buildings are springing up and there is a real feeling of pride in how things have changed since the genocide.

As we continued through more rural areas the countryside remained immaculate; there are no plastic bags in Rwanda and it’s illegal to bring them in (before disembarking we were asked to leave any on the plane). Smartly dressed school children waved at us; women walked along the road carrying shopping bags on their heads and the scenic backdrop of green mountains was beautiful; no wonder Rwanda is known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills". I can’t wait to explore them more next week, but first Uganda beckoned.


UGANDA

Like my arrival into Rwanda, my crossing into Uganda was uneventful. A smiling woman took my temperature at an Ebola checkpoint, my visa was checked and passport stamped and then I was in Uganda. There was a noticeable difference with litter and plastic scattered along the roadside, but the scenery remained breathtakingly spectacular.

We turned off the road and headed down a rough track. “Enjoy your African massage,” shouted out Dennis, our very capable driver, as we shook and shuddered along, testing the capabilities of our 4x4 Defender to the max. Children ran out shouting at us in large numbers and we passed through a busy market, the road a heaving mass of people surrounding the vehicle, curious and welcoming.

 

Finally we reached Mount Gahinga Lodge, where we were greeted by hot towels, fresh watermelon juice and an incredible view. The mountain air was cold but our rooms warm, a log fire crackling and hot water bottle warming the bed as the darkening sky turned indigo, the mountain peaks hidden by nightfall.

After a restful first night, we headed off early the next morning to track the golden monkeys.

Walking through the bamboo forest, dappled light filtered through the tall poles, knocking together in the breeze. The forest floor was pale with fallen leaves as we trekked upwards in search of some of Africa’s rarest primates. The hike was steep and at a much higher altitude than I am used to at 2,800m, but the terrain was easy. It was around 6km to the monkeys; as we reached them we were beckoned to leave our walking poles and bags before heading into the bamboo thicket to spend our hour with them.

I wasn’t expecting them to be so close; I was looking into the trees before realising I was being watched by a monkey just a few metres away, casually eating a banana. They are endearing with a bright orange-gold body in contrast with their black limbs. Often we’d see just a blur as they leaped lively all around us, jumping to the forest floor one minute and up in the tree canopy the next, their faces full of character as they went about their day, paying no attention to our intrusion. The hour was over quickly and we left them to their antics as we headed back out of the park.

Our walk back wasn’t uneventful; our head guide, Lorien, raised an arm telling us to stop. A green mountain viper lay across the path.

“Very rare, very poisonous,” he told us in a hushed tone. “If it bites your upper body, you maybe have 30 minutes to live. This one, it was ready to attack.”
“Isn’t there any antivenom?” somebody asked slightly nervously.
“Yes,” he quickly reassured us.
“Do you have any?”
“No, sorry,” he shrugged.

The guides stamped their feet to scare the snake away and we gave the undergrowth it disappeared into a wide berth. Lorien assures us they aren’t common; in eight years he has only seen one on three occasions. We were either very lucky or unlucky to encounter one.

The following morning was a cultural visit to the Batwa pygmies. These indigenous forest-dwellers were displaced from their homes when the forest was gazetted for conservation. From being traditional hunter-gatherers they were left homeless.

The programme is commendable, although I personally always find cultural engagement activities like this slightly forced and uncomfortable. Them dressing up, putting on a show for tourists, with money being exchanged at the end as we peer into their homes feels awkward. Yet I recognise the need for them as a community to see a positive and fiscal return from the conservation and tourism that left them landless.

The true pleasure of the morning came from the walk to and from their community centre, when streams of children appeared from every direction to accompany us, exchanging names and skipping along. They were engaging and their interactions with each other a delight to watch.

How best to help local communities benefit from tourism without either party feeling exploited is always a difficult tightrope to walk. Praveem Mornam, the man who helped open up gorilla tourism after the Rwandan genocide through the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, has balanced empowering the community while preserving their heritage in as sensitive a way as can perhaps be managed under the circumstances, although whether their cultural traditions can be continued remains to be seen as they adapt to a new way of life.

RWANDA

As we turned up the road leading to Virunga Lodge I stared out of the window, spellbound. The Virunga Volcanoes must surely be one of the Earth’s most spectacular landscapes. The lodge is beautifully finished with exceptional standards of service. Our lunch, served on the terrace overlooking a lake, was fantastic. As the temperature dropped we retreated inside, sinking into comfortable chairs around the fire, hot chocolate containing Amarula shots placed in our hands. If it wasn’t for the lure of the gorillas tomorrow I might never leave.

Our dinner was in the beautifully finished Dian Fossey map room, plaques on the wall informing us of the explorers and conservationists who shaped the discovery of, and conservation efforts within, Rwanda. The location was fitting, as we were joined by two veterinarians from Gorilla Doctors.

Noheli, so named because he was born on Christmas Day, has been a Gorilla Doctor for 10 years now. It was fascinating to hear first-hand about the challenges they face on a daily basis and to get an insight into their work. He was accompanied by Adrian, who has been with the organisation for two years.

They work in difficult conditions under pressure; if they have to anaesthetise, the procedure needs to be finished within an hour or the family will move away and reject the gorilla they were assisting. The job is also a dangerous one and Adrian recounts a recent encounter that saw a blackback he was trying to assist leaping onto him and pinning him down.

They share the human elements of gorillas too; particularly moving is a discussion about how gorillas mourn, and the female who refused to let go of her deceased baby until it had decomposed. Our food gets cold, uneaten, as we grill them far later into the evening than we had intended, given that tomorrow’s wake-up call is set for 5am as we head into the mountains for our own gorilla encounter.

I felt like a kid at Christmas, and today was the big day. We were off to track the gorillas, a spectacular sunrise setting a golden promise for the day ahead.

After meeting our guide for the day and being assigned a gorilla family to track, it was a further hour’s drive to our starting point, before we set off on foot accompanied by our guides and four porters. After a brief walk through farmland we reached the forest, tall bamboo poles reaching above us, gently knocking in the breeze.

Our guide was on the radio to the trackers who had forged ahead; they were having trouble locating the gorilla family. We continued to their nesting ground the previous night, about an hour’s hike. The area they had been in was open, thick matted foliage revealing to our trackers where they had lain. They had moved up the mountain, and so did we. At this point the terrain became hard, and with no sign of a track we had to create our own.

Climbing over fallen boughs and tracking up the steep hillside, our guides cut us a pathway. Impossibly, the jungle closed in around us. The vegetation curling around us, heavy with the scent of crushed mint, while nettles wrapped around our legs, viciously stinging through our trousers.

“Time to go on hands and knees,” was called out and we dropped to the forest floor and continued on, ducking and climbing through tunnels of vines. Gorilla tracking can vary in difficulty; we thought we had an easy family, but they had made it hard for us. And they were still moving, faster than us. Giant red ants crawled up our legs, sweat gathered on our faces. We had no idea how long it would take to reach them, or if we even would.

Finally, we reached our trackers and our hour with the gorillas started. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise when these great apes, so genetically close to us, lock eyes with you. Our group were still on the move; a mother cradling her baby, the large silverback pausing to mate with one of his females before leading his family off, to be swallowed by the green of the jungle once again. We followed, snatching glimpses as they made their way through the foliage with far less effort than us. Too soon our time was up and we retreated.

The opportunity to trek and spend time with endangered mountain gorillas in the headily beautiful Virunga Mountains is truly one of the most privileged wildlife experiences on the planet; one even David Attenborough rated as “one of the most exciting encounters of my life”. I'm extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to come face to face with these incredible creatures.

Our route back down the mountain was easier; we emerged back into the carefully cultivated fields of potato plants tired, thirsty and reflective of the adventure we had just had. As we drove back to Kigali heavy rain bounced off the road around us, cloud and nightfall hiding the thousand hills of Rwanda from view as our time here came to an end.

Tomorrow morning we would be taking a short hop across Lake Victoria to Tanzania and the Serengeti for the ‘migrate’ part of this adventure. To be continued...

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