Any visit to Rwanda of course requires a visit to see the Mountain Gorillas. This requires the purchase of a permit at $500 per permit non-refundable. And no they don't take Visa or any other credit card for that matter. The only payment is by bank draft and hope they don't lose it. Buying one once you arrive in Rwanda is risky as a permit may not be available. Therefore to simplify matters we got a local tour company to buy one for us. I did this back in January and had of course completely forgotten what I had booked and really only had a voucher and the local phone number and email for the tour company.
There are at least two ways to travel in developing countries. One method is to use your travel guide, read everything you can about the area, chose a hotel, hope the travel guide writer actually visited this hotel, book the hotel and use local public transport to get to where you are going. Then there is the way we went.
Our day started out in Butare where we were teaching. Butare is two hours away from Kigali where our pick up was and we were supposed to teach all morning. We were finished around 1130 and our favourite (actually our only) driver Jean was ready to leave around 1200. Jean has an interesting approach to driving. Any vehicle in front of him must be passed, no matter how much traffic, how narrow the road or how steep the hill. Also his SUV is right hand drive which meant I was sitting on the left side. After about the 20th time pulling out into traffic, I figured out that some special force must be protecting Jean and stopped worrying.
We arrived in Kigali around 1400 and repacked for our Gorilla trip. Our driver was supposed to come at 1600 but we were ready early and he was able to come early so around 1530 he pulled up in front of our apartment in a huge Toyota Land Cruiser FWD. Surely a little overkill, I thought, for such a well travelled tourist route? We piled in and our driver Shema, explained that the trip was going to take 3 hours. We also learned that he was our personal driver for the weekend. We had had visions of being crammed into a bus with a bunch of other tourists so were very happy.
We left Kigali and headed west and then northwest, climbing a huge winding hill out of Kigali. We were going thru a forest of Eucalyptus and other trees. Soon we reached the top and were driving along a ridge with spectacular vistas on either side of us. We descended another winding hill into a broad valley which we followed for a while before ascending yet another long and winding hill. After about 2 hours we drove through Musanze which is the gateway town to Gorilla trekking. We were heading towards Virunga Lodge. “Do you know anything about the hotel?” Mary asked. “Not the slightest” I replied. We continued onwards and after about 2.5 hours we turned off the main road. Shema pointed towards lights that he but not I could see and said that is your hotel. The road meanwhile got rougher and steeper. It was getting darker but we could see lakes on either side at least 1000 feet down a steep hill. Finally we pulled up to the Lodge.
Staff came out to welcome us and we were directed to two couches to be oriented to the lodge. Virunga Lodge is an Eco-lodge which is entirely off grid and solar powered. After further instructions two staff headed quickly up a moderately steep hill to our cottage carrying our bags. We opened the door to discover what is probably the nicest hotel room we have ever stayed in. There was a huge bed, hardwood floors in the bedroom and a stone floored bathroom that was about the same size as the bedroom. The staff explained that the shower was solar powered as well. It was now about 1840 and we grabbed a quick solar powered shower which was hot enough that we had to add cold water.
No bed bugs here!
Then it was up the hill to the main lodge for dinner at 1900. Dinner it was explained was served family style to allow guests to share their trekking experiences. It was cocktail hour when we arrived and a waiter quickly approached us and took our drink order. There were about 10 other guests seemed to know each other although one or two came over and introduced themselves to us. We were then summoned to the common table in another room. Our co-guests were a collection of fairly wealthy Americans and one Swedish banker. We had ordered our entrees on checking in and they were delicious accompanied by an excellent red wine with which our servers kept our glasses full. After dessert we were asked what time we wanted our wake up call, whether we preferred tea or coffee to be brought to our rooms and what would we like for breakfast.
After a sound sleep we arose at 0500 and sure enough someone was outside our door with a pot of coffee which we drank quickly which getting dressed and packing. At 0530 we were in the dining room where our breakfast arrived quickly accompanied by more coffee. A large packed lunch also appeared still warm.
At 0600 we were down at reception where Shema was waiting. We headed down the hill, in the morning light we could now see the incredible vistas on either side of us. All along the road, people were walking starting their day. Today was the “Naming of the Baby Gorillas” ceremony to be attended by the President as we drove towards the staging area, the road was lined with people. I felt regal as we drove by.
The staging area was a mass of activity. A group of about 10 dancers were dancing traditional dances lead by a small Kwa man. There was also a traditional medicine man and a lady grinding sorghum. All the gorilla trekkers were milling around. We had aspirations of the Susa group, the largest but also most inaccessible group but our driver had judged me as not Susa worthy and we were assigned to a group with an older couple, 3 teenagers and a New Zealander.
We took off again in our Landcruiser and turned off onto a dirt road which rapidly deteriorated into what was more of a creek bed with 20 cm round volcanic stones. The truck ahead of us spun its tires and lurched around and I wondered whether we would have to get out and walk. We soon came the parking area however. We elected to hire porters to carry our packs and with the group set off through potato fields heading gently up the hill. We had to cross a medium size creek and the guides and porters arranged stepping stones for us. After about 15 minutes we crossed a crude stone wall that was the boundary of the park.
One of the trackers carried an submachine gun which our guide explained was to scare off buffaloes and elephants that we might meet and we saw fecal evidence of both. As the brush got denser and the trail narrower I felt like I was in Apocalypse Now what with the machine gunner walking point in front of us. After an hour or so our guide stopped us. We were according to him now 100 metres from the gorilla troop. We had to leave our packs, walking sticks and proceeded on with only cameras. Soon we could see in the distance a gorilla in a tree. I tried to point this out to Mary in front of me but she had already come almost face to face with an almost fully grown gorilla at the side of the trail. As he got up and ambled towards us, our guide shooed him off with a low pitched growl. He passed us and lay on his back shovelling food into his mouth.
We moved on single file and soon we were in the middle of the troop. As our guide had explained to us, we are supposed to stay 7 metres away but gorillas do not know what 7 metres is. The next hour was incredible as we saw all the gorillas in the troop. There was a mother with a small baby who we watched for a long time, two young gorillas fought each other, one scratched his manly bits, the Silverback alpha male casually ambled through the group, and a gorilla high in a tree let out a stream of urine which just missed us. Everywhere you looked there was a gorilla!!! They are such docile, fun loving creatures who happen to be built like “brick shit houses”...After shooting terabytes of pictures it was time to leave.
We left two of the trackers, submachine guns at ready to guard the group. The walk back was anti-climatic and we soon arrived at the parking lot. After paying our porters and tipping our guide we headed off down the bumpy road.