Well I must say it seems a little strange to tell you all of a trip where everything went very much according to plan. Maybe it went that way because I didn’t organise it myself! Friends from far away created the itinerary and mailed it to me. All I had to do was meet them there. Emirates were surely too scared this time to stuff up any of my meals (I was a little irate last time – as irate as a pacifist vegan can be) so even my flight went well.
Now my trips in the past have had little purpose other than to satiate my itchy feet. This trip by contrast had the much grander purpose of celebrating Donna’s 40th birthday in Kenya preceded by a short trip to Rwanda and Uganda for a primate fix. Days and weeks before the trip I was worried about the Rwandan leg of the journey as the Australian government had issued travel warnings advising Australians to defer all non essential travel to Rwanda. In particular they advised against all travel to the area we were heading to visit. Hmmm … my logic was that our government was just being overly cautious as they don’t have an embassy there in case anything went wrong. Fair call in a way but Rwanda did seem quite safe to travel in (better than Nairobi or horrible buffalo’s in the Masai Mara) plus I had a British Passport with me as well so if all else failed I would happily be a British Citizen to safe my behind!
I wont confuse you by starting with the birthday tales because that happened at the end. I will do as I must and start at the start. Not the start in Melbourne, or the start in Nairobi because that’s just transit stuff which was uneventful. The real start was meeting Penny and Donna (not Birthday Donna) at the airport in Nairobi and then flying out to Kigali (Rwanda). I hadn’t seen Penny since my trip to Kenya the previous year so it was definitely nice to have a familiar face around to share my travels with … and of course Penny was largely responsible (completely responsible) for booking the Gorilla and Chimpanzee portion of the holiday so I am hugely indebted to her.
On the first day in Rwanda I can’t say I remember much other than our driver getting lost in Kigali. Kigali doesn’t really seem like much more than one street that goes around and around. It’s only when you want to be somewhere other than the circular street that you will have problems. We stopped at “Hotel Rwanda” Hotel des Mille Collines for lunch as that was where our gorilla tour operator had their office. Rwanda for me definitely had an eerie feeling about it. It’s difficult to describe as the Rwandan people seem quite silent and calm about the genocide that took place around 1994 but based on the number of people who were murdered and the number of people who were touched by the genocide, it made me wonder what was behind their faces in a way that I haven’t wondered before. More on that later.
Our accommodation for the three nights of our gorilla stay was great. I can’t find a link to the place but I’ll post some photos so you can see how gorgeous the view is. The only thing better than the accommodation, the view and the food were the gorilla’s themselves.
On our second day in Rwanda we headed off Gorilla tracking in Parc National des Volcans. Nice to briefly see my friend (and boss from home) at the Park office. Seems a brush with the Congo border had done little to dampen her enthusiasm for the Gorilla trek. There are five gorilla groups that are habituated for tourism in Parc National des Volcans: Susa (the most famous and largest), Sabyinyo, Amahoro, Umubano and Group 13.
The selection process of what group you’re trekking to is pretty random apart from if you’re old and feeble or old or feeble they might not send you off to see Susa group as they’re often the furthest away (up to 8 hours of hiking at altitude). On our first day of trekking we were picked to hike to Umubano group. I didn’t think much of it as I didn’t really have a preference. I was just so damn excited to see the Gorilla’s again it didn’t matter which group. It turns out that the hike was pretty easy. 1.5 hours of walking, sometimes a little uphill but nothing too damaging. We had plenty of rest breaks as the Belgium group we were trekking with were always out of breath because they talked so much (which didn’t stop even when we were with the Gorillas). Our trackers had found the gorillas so we had to leave behind our bags and I just grabbed my camera, spare memory cards, batteries, video camera and I was ready for the final metres. The stinging nettles and safari ants were no fun but completely irrelevant as the gorillas can pretty easily take your mind off such things (and some medication in the evening). Our first gorilla sighting from close range was the silverback “Charles”. Unfortunately, Charles wasn’t too happy about us being there. He’s not a very confident silverback is the story I am told so he is a little more aggressive, skittish and unpredictable. So Charles was a few metres ahead of us but then he decided to turn around because he wanted to be where we were instead. A quick grunt to warn us and then he charged right past myself and a Belgium guy. At this point I am not feeling very confident and I’m not liking Charles an awful lot. Our guide tells us this wasn’t a charge. Charles was just changing direction very quickly or something to that effect. Hmmm. More stinging nettles and safari ants which make it difficult to stay still for the gorillas as well as for taking photos and video but I was doing my best. We wandered around a small area with plenty of opportunity to see the eight or so gorilla’s including babies. There were lots of oooh’s and aaah’s I’d like to think mostly from the excitement of seeing the gorillas but potentially a few of these sounds were from the stinging nettles and the safari ants yet again. The final aaah was much less pleasant. As we were watching a female gorilla in a small clearing, Charles decides to come charging through again. Scares off the female gorilla and scares us. He’s so close it’s not funny but worse than that, there’s a young gorilla not more than one metre away from us and it was coming closer. I was petrified that Charles would get even grumpier but luckily our time was up and our guide led us cautiously away without further incident.
Our time with the Gorillas is limited to one hour, which seemed to go quite fast and slow if such a thing can be said. At the end of the hour I felt quite pleased that we had found them when they were resting and eating so that we could relax as we watched them rather than continually following them as they moved along from one spot to another. I also knew that we would be visiting the gorilla’s again the next day so I wasn’t too disappointed that our time was over.
The following day we went back to see the gorillas again. Our hope was not to be picked to see Susa group as we didn’t fancy the long trek to see them. The previous day one of the trekkers got altitude sickness and couldn’t complete the trek. I started to sweet talk the guides and the Tourism Director telling them that Penny had seen Susa group the previous year (a blatant lie that we all started believing) and that we had seen Umubano yesterday. Lucky we told this untruth because my sweet talking achieved nothing and they tried to put us with the Susa trekking group before we were finally allocated to trek to Group 13 … supposedly a very friendly group.
The trek to Group 13 took less than an hour. That’s an indication of how close the villages and farming is getting to the gorilla groups and how threatened their habitat is as well as their lives! We walked through some bamboo forest and I was worried that if we found them there we wouldn’t really see anything. As luck would have it, we actually found the gorillas (well, the trackers found them not us intrepid tourists) in a grassy clearing. Not a stinging nettle or safari ant in sight, just beautiful lush grass! The gorilla’s were beautiful to watch. The silverback was completely at ease with our presence and I’m not making that up because he was trying to make babies while we were there. The little babies were playing in the open and walking around us without any concerns. They were all busy eating and playing and resting. It’s difficult to make a call but I think this was my favourite gorilla trek ever.
The gorilla trekking was phenomenal and I hope to repeat it again hopefully sometime in the next few years.
Before leaving Rwanda there was one more place to visit. Rather than going to a market, handicraft shops, looking at pottery or quilts, we chose to visit the Kigali Memorial Centre. It’s an incredibly devastating place but the very best memorial of its sort that I have seen around the world. It doesn’t only focus on the genocide in Rwanda but also documents genocide around the world and is an incredible educational experience if I can call it that and very very humbling as a human to see what we have done and what we have the power to stop. If you’re ever in Kigale I highly recommend a visit here if you have a couple of hours to spare.
From Rwanda we flew to Uganda and after a plane, car and boat across Lake Victoria, eventually arrived on Ngamba Island. Here you have the choice of feeding the chimpanzees (which was more literally translated as watching the Island staff feed them), swimming on the equator (highly unlikely for me with the risk of Bilhazia and/or hippos seeming very unappealing) or birdwatching (zzz). I quite happily watched the chimps throughout the day. I may have rested a little bit in my nice tent and later in the evening when the big chimps had returned to their enclosures I went out for a forest walk with the baby chimps. At US$150, these chimp walks aren’t cheap or easy but it was a sensational experience. Prepare yourself for a large number of inoculations, fax it to the island and await confirmation that you’re allowed to visit to avoid disappointment! With one guide, myself and a german lady, we took a group of approximately 10 chimps out into the 40 hectare island. Four of these chimps seriously like to be carried which is hard work but such a sweet experience. They like piggy back rides and shoulder rides and holding your hand and everything. Like the Gorilla treks, time with the chimps is limited to one hour and again like the gorilla’s, I repeated the experience again the next day. All I can say is getting so close to chimpanzees is one of lifes wonders and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity. This opportunity is only available whilst the resident chimps are young enough to be “managed”. Once the chimps are older and larger the experience will no longer be available.
At the moment there are 39 chimps on the island. There are two groups. An older group who live in the larger area of the island and the younger group (of 19 I think) live in a smaller fenced enclosed of a few acres. The older chimp group will not accept the introduction of the younger group so they will remain separate with the hope that eventually another island can be purchased, any villagers who live on the island would hopefully happily relocate and the island could be left for the chimps. Ngamba Island is not large enough to sustain these two groups. That’s why the chimp feeding has to occur as the island can only sustain two chimps. New chimps cannot be taken to the island but poaching continues so there are still orphan chimps and confiscated chimps who need to be raised and have somewhere to live. The Congo is one option but not a very safe one at the moment so an island the goal.
The chimp population on the island is managed by contraceptive implants in the female chimps again because there is not enough room on the island for more chimps. Chimps however are clever and one chimp removed her implant, the proof of which is her baby aptly named “Surprise”.
The third and final part of my trip was celebrating Donna’s birthday in the Masai Mara with a bunch of friends old and new. Julius my friend and savour (assuming you have heard the buffalo story) was there as well as two Donna’s, one Penny, Ruby, Audrey, Emma, Kate and Alison all of whom I had previously travelled with at least once.
We were all back at Kicheche which is always wonderful and couldn’t wait to get out on safari but I will admit to being quite nervous about being back there.
Our days were spent on safari spotting lions (my favourite cat), cheetahs, leopards (difficult) as well as numerous topi’s, thompsons gazelles, wildebeest, baboons, giraffe, zebra, elephants and so on. I would have been completely happy to not see any buffalo, bees or hippos but unfortunately there was no such luck on my side.
Donna’s birthday was obviously the highlight where the Mara put on a fantastic show of wildlife. The look on Donna’s face to see 13 of her friends and the guides strip down to t-shirts all with various pictures and quotes of her on them was worth the many thousand kilometre journey to get there. In the evening we celebrated with a traditional elephant dung cake. Fortunately Donna noticed what it was before eating any, then the real cake was brought out.
So ended my third trip to Africa.
Since then Xmas has come and gone and my good intentions of getting more photos online hasn’t amounted to anything. Nor have I managed to send any Xmas cards or Xmas emails, all of which I apologise for.
I hope that you have all had a wonderful year and Xmas and I send my best wishes to everyone for a healthy and wonderful 2006.
My year has been busy with great and happy change but that’s another post altogether.
I look forward to hearing tales of your own adventures soon.