Saturday, July 9, 2011

A visit to the cousins (Summer re-run)

Last Wednesday afternoon we left Kigali to go to Butare to teach the junior residents there. Kigali seemed hot, dusty, crowded and noisy and we were happy to get out the city for a while. Our driver Jean arrived promptly at 1400 and we piled into the car, Brady, Mary and I along with Brady's Dad Mike who had “dropped” in the night before. We left Kigali to the west travelling along a valley and sound ascended into the hills surrounding Kigali. When they call Rwanda the county of a thousand hills, they are perhaps understating things. There seem to be a lot more than one thousand. We went literally over hill and dale. The hills were terraced with crops, the valley bottoms heavily cultivated. Every 15 minutes or so we went through a small town, not even slowing down much. Everywhere along the road, we saw people walking, women carrying loads on their head and school children returning home in their uniforms. The vistas as we drove along the sides of the hills were incredible. We tried some drive by photos and we couldn't stop for a photo op. After 2 hours we entered Butare and checked into the Hotel Credo.

After freshening up, we decided to go out to what was described as the best restaurant in Butare by our guidebook. Guidebook....FAIL. I will probably post on this separately.

We were sleep deprived from the heat in Kigali and our noisy neighbours and in the cool quiet of Butare we slept like logs. 0500 the sound of what was for 0500 beautiful singing. It turns out there is a Mosque about 500 metres away complete with loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer. In case the faithful missed it, it was repeated at 0515. We got up, ate breakfast on the terrace; a bean soup which was quite good, a plate of fruit and toast plus coffee. Just after 0745 Dr. Theo arrived to pick and Brady and me to go to the hospital.

CHUB was a refreshing change from CHUK. We changed in Dr. Theo's office before going to the OR where we were met by Isaac and Adolphe two of the junior residents who greeted us dressed in clean white OR scrubs. We had a great day working with them, they were enthusiastic, asked a lot of questions and were open to suggestions. After our list finished I had the usual Rwandan buffet lunch with Adolphe before heading home. We all dined that night at the Hotel Ibis along with it seemed just about every other ex-patriot in Butare. I ate the special grilled rabbit. It really does taste like chicken.

After another sound sleep until 0500, we had breakfast and Brady and I walked to the hospital. Friday is a short day in Butare with only emergencies scheduled. Dr. Theo met us and asked us whether we wanted to attend their Friday morning case presentations or do the three emergencies. We decided on the case presentations. We all sat around in the store room. Dr. Theo quietly asked that we start the meeting with a prayer and everyone (except Brady and I) joined in, in a beautiful hymn followed by a short prayer. We certainly don't start our meetings in Canada that way although sometimes we could use a little prayer.

Butare lies in the southern part of the country as does the Nyumgwe National Forest, one of the must sees in Rwanda. Unfortunately tourism is not that well developed in Rwanda. We got very little information from the tourist office in Kigali and our Bradt travel guide wasn't that much help either. We had originally thought of just staying in Butare and commuting to the park on Saturday and Sunday until we learned the park is actually 3 hours from Butare. They looked so close on the map. We therefore booked rooms at the Gisakura guest house. We still figured that we could get there on the bus which Bradt said was possible. At the last minute we decided to ask our driver Jean how much he would charge to drive us there Friday and pick us up on Sunday and he quoted a very reasonable rate.

Therefore at 1300 on Friday we set out west from Butare. We first when up a broad valley which was heavily cultivated with some fish farms as well. We soon however got into hilly country. The hills were terraced with farming often up to the top of the hill. Some of the hills stuck out like sugar loafs circled with terracing. Again we passed people on the road and small towns. As we got farther west we started to see tea planted on the slopes. After an hour or so we reached Nyungwe National Park. The road very quickly got very rough even by Edmonton standards. Our driver tried as best he could to steer around the larger tank traps often going onto what shoulder there was or into the other lane. We were surrounded by hills covered by jungle with deep valleys off the side of the road. We could see the dense canopy. At one point we saw our first group of monkeys at the side of road, necessitating a photo stop.

Unfortunately at that time our driver noticed he was leaking brake fluid from his rear brakes. We check the fluid levels and he seemed to have sufficient fluids plus hey the front brakes work and we were out in the middle of nowhere so we pushed on.

After some time we passed the Gisakura Tea Plantation which is on the western side of the park and which was close to where we were supposed to stay. We saw no sign for our guest house and we figured that our driver knew where he was going so we pushed on for another 30 minutes. At that point our driver stopped to phone someone and it was at that point we realized he didn't know where he was going either. We consulted the guidebook, turned around and headed back. At every village our driver stopped to ask directions. As a man I could feel his pain. Eventually we arrived at the Gisakura Guest House.

Some travel guides have not been kind to the Gisakura Guest House and I was expecting some spartan and not particularly clean accommodation. I was surprised. The guest house is a series of brick buildings, surrounded by nicely manicured grounds with the jungle just past the fence. The staff welcomed as and showed us our rooms which were clean and comfortable. You do of course have to share a bathroom. We had an excellent buffet dinner with the small number of guests later that night.

National Parks in Rwanda are different from National Parks in Canada. Firstly as we found out, you really need a driver to get around. Uwinka were many of the good trails are is 20 km from where the hotels are. To see the chimps is a 30+ minute drive. Fortunately we ran into our driver Jean who had decided not to drive back and were able to negotiate his services for Saturday and Sunday.

We all decided we would like to see the chimps. This involved phoning a ranger to book the trip and it was already 1800 and the rangers had gone home from the Gisakura Ranger Station. Fortunately a guard was still there who knew the phone number and we called a ranger. We then had to each come with $90 US, give it to Jean who took it to the ranger who would sleep overnight at the Gisakura Ranger station. Oh by the way, we are leaving at 0430.

We went right to bed after dinner. Our alarm was set for 0400 but we woke around 0345 and got into the clothes we had put out the night before. The guesthouse had given us the key to kitchen and had put out small bananas, bread and most importantly coffee for us to eat. 0430 came and we met Ranger Robert in the pitch black night. We piled into the car and headed west down the bumpy road. In time we turned onto a dirt road that was strangely smoother than the “paved” road. In the headlights we frequently came across people out walking in the predawn. We passed small villages as we went up and up the winding road. The sun began to come up. We passed a large group of people out running in the dawn. Finally our truck pulled over. We got out. Another ranger and 4 trackers were awaiting us. They all wore green uniforms with their pants tucked into their gumboots. Below us we could hear the “cousins” whooping it up.

Ranger Robert handed us each a walking stick. We figured this was a nice touch for the tourist. We headed down a steep trail cut into the side of the hill. There was a wooden handrail which probably wouldn't have taken my weight. “The vegetation will stop me, “ I thought but I wasn't really confident. We walked mostly downhill with the occasion uphill. Periodically Ranger Robert would talk on the radio to the trackers. Eventually we stopped. The cousins were not coming to us, we were going to have to go to them. We backtracked and suddenly left the trail onto a narrower “trail”. Vegetation was dense and I had to crawl under obstacles. The camera I had at the ready for my chimp shot went into the backpack as did my hat. We were perched on the edge of a steep hill. The soil was very loamy and it was hard to get a foot hold. It was that when I realized what the walking sticks were for. After about 20 minutes of hard slogging we stopped. “Chimps” somebody whispered. High above over 20 metres in a tree we saw an adult male perched on a branch in a perfect pose. Too bad the camera was in my backpack. We saw a total of 5 chimps including 2 babies up in that tree. Around us we could hear the whoops of the tribe who we had disturbed.

The pack moved north and we decided to follow them. This involved about an hour of bushwhacking thru the underbrush, clambering up impossibly steep slopes and descending treacherous downhills. We gave up eventually but has some more bushwhacking to go to get back to the trail after which we could walk back to our truck where Jean was waiting for us.

Then came the decision of how much to tip. We huddled briefly and decided that 10,000 Rwf between the four of us would be appropriate and gave this to Ranger Robert. He looked a little displeased so we came up with another 10,000. I remember how one of his men had possibly saved my life when I started to fall backwards and came up with another 5000.

It was now 1000. We had been up for 6 hours already. We backtracked along the dirt road passing villages and tea plantations until we got to the main “road”. We passed multiple villages. Finally we stopped in a small village. Jean pointed to the gas gauge. Almost empty. We had agreed to pay for gas. There is of course no Esso station. Ranger Robert yelled out the window and in time someone appeared with a large Jerry can of diesel. There was a negotiation, and the proprietor inserted a hose into the Jerry can with one end inserted into the gas tank. He then blew over the opening of the Jerry can to force gas into the hose which was then syphoned into the gas tank. He had to repeat this several times. Meanwhile the whole village gathered around to watch. Later after Mary asked about corn, we stopped in another small village, Ranger Robert yelled out something and four cobs of roasted corn appeared which somebody paid for. They were delicious.

It was just after 1130 when we arrived back at the Gisakura guesthouse. After a hot shower(!) and a delicious lunch, it was time for a nap. Later Mary and I sat in the gazebo in the midst of a major thunderstorm and reflected on our day and what we were to do the next day.

Pictures to follow once I get a decently fast internet connection.

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