My Holiday

Land of a Thousand Hills – or was it lakes

Drinking Tusker overlooking the valleys of Kigali City shrouded in wisps of dissipating cloud, the city appeared bottle green after flying across the brown plains of Africa.

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The Virunga Volcanoes

The Embraer to Kigali was early but nobody was quite sure where to find it, not helped by the long way-lik lik arm wave of the dispatcher on the apron. There was an airplane next to Gate 21. The departures board showed Kigali Gate 22. There weren’t any other planes so I got on that one and watched a fellow passenger wander off across the tarmac.

A tall imposing customs official stopped me and pointed to my whisky. I took the bottle out of the bag and started to hand it to him, not happy he pointed to the bag. They must have a serious shortage of bags in Rwanda.

First impressions, there’s no litter, the penny dropped. Second I needed a glasses shop. The very nice African stewardess on Kenya Airlines and half the other passengers joined me in a hunt for my bizarrely disappearing glasses. In Kigali central Osman, my taxi driver found me an optometrist with a pair of disconcertingly red glasses.

That afternoon we went to look at snakes, ‘they’re all deadly’. We learnt about calamite or whatever it is that makes tin (actually the tin or sn ore is cassiterite). Oscar our guide, told me how the modern Rwanda came to pass, and why Kigali is where it is, which was something to do with the Germans. The Belgians took over until the country became independent in 1962. Tarzan was involved, I watched the film.

The land of a thousand hills or was it lakes, they go together, Kigali is hilly even mountainous, 1400 from the city center to where we walked at 1800 meters this afternoon.

Osman took great pride in pointing out how litter free the streets are. He’s right it’s a remarkably clean city, which made it seem strange when he threw his paper bag, sandwich wrapper and milk carton into the forest.

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Muhbara Volcano @ 4100 meters Uganda

I had Nile perch for supper with tamarind or something that was sweet, spicy, delicious and expensive.

A man was lounging at the hotel reception counter. ‘You know me,’ he interrupted. I’d traveled all night, spent the day round the city and was not civil. ‘I don’t know you.’ I just wanted to go to bed. He pointed to his jacket, which had a small Volcano Safaris badge. ‘It would be a good idea if you introduced yourself,’ I said grumpily. ‘Come over here we will go through the itinerary,’ he told me. Also I wanted to shit. ‘Your picking me up at 8am I’ll see you then,’ and went to bed.

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A weathered shrunken volcano with a sunken caldera near the Gahinga Lodge in Uganda

The wake up call for 7am came at 6 dragging me back from a sleep so deep I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. A sunny hazy day bathed the city below the breakfast verandah, buoying me with a positivity born of 8 hours solid sleep.

Today Robert looked different and professional. He lead me to the appropriately battered but immaculate Land Rover to take me to Uganda.

All smiles but why were we being pulled over. ‘Its clean up Saturday,’ explained Robert. On the last Saturday of the month the whole nation picks up litter, plants flowers and if all else fails carries a broom with them from 8 until 11am. Robert, who went up in my estimation (but later back down) managed to get us through without even a scrub. It would have been fun to join in but we were stopped 6 times and while contributing to Rwandan aesthetics is a worthy cause, gorillas were my mission.

It was an interesting drive through beautiful scenery though every last inch of the country appeared farmed, even the near vertical slopes were terraced. Fast running silt laden streams flowed down the lush valley floors. The trees are all eucalypt, introduced, planted and coppiced but there are no dogs and no hunting so a lot of birds. ‘Not like the Congo where they eat everything,’ said Robert. I thought of Cambodia.

The Congo, where there are still pygmies who hunt and gather in the vast un-gazetted forests and where volcanoes glow ominously in the night.

Rain greeted us in Uganda and veiled the countryside as we left the tarmac and climbed the dirt road to the lodge. Single story simple shacks with crude brick walls dull in the drizzle. Electricity poles compromised by an absence of wires promised electricity to come. High up the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes but no where near the top was Gahinga Lodge. Umbrellas and wet welcomes, simple lodges, log fires and smiling Africans.

The food’s not good but the rest fantastic. I went for a walk. The view was primeval. That doesn’t make sense Man has shaped it but he hasn’t yet bulldozed the contours or filled in the lakes.

Rich volcanic soil supports cultivation up to the stonewall boundary of the national park. I saw the white markers from the track to the Irish potato Village (they’re all Irish). Cutting up the hillside along grassy strips between fields of potatoes as one would on dykes between paddy fields. I passed by simple houses surrounded by fences of woven vegetation to keep the chilly wind out.

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My first site

The children shouted hello I assumed then ‘give me money’, which I understood. An amazing panorama spread below me. A weathered volcano with a sunken caldera that was completely cultivated.

And the town that we’d passed through on the way to Gahinga, where John friend of God had a guesthouse and over the border to the indented Rwandan lakes where and the next Lodge is.

On one side of the wall is an undulating sea of green ringing with the sound of birds that kept singing even when I got close. The Malachite Sunbird had a gown of emerald green but in case you’d missed him bright yellow flashes under his wings. An Auger Buzzard kept watch on a field below. I’d been given a glimpse of Eden over the wall. A forest fur covered extinct volcano 4100 meters high.

A guttural grunt at the back of his throat, warned us that we’d got too close. The female had a baby and Mac the silverback was looking after her.

The day hadn’t started well with the whisky I’d bought as insurance compounding the wine that came with the lodge. Yet another time change resulted in a mental mix up so 6 was 5 or the other way round.

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Mac the silverback

The toast looked nice and there was honey but every time I tried to add butter it disintegrated into pieces like a paper napkin torn to shreds. The scrambled egg shot off the plate because the bacon was tough but at least the coffee was hot.

It started well enough until we got to the wild-west village down the hill. We’re not going back to Rwanda? I asked Robert. ‘No Muhbara in Uganda,’ ‘so I don’t need my passport?’ Half an hour later we were back where we started. I might have spent $600 on a park permit but I still had to prove who I was. ‘Not happy,’ I told Robert. A chill ensued.

A scramble along stone strewn alleyways between potato fields, past fences of drying vegetation that surround the local mud brick houses then we came to the park walls. The sign at the tracker station said 2400 meters. Robert bailed out, not that I’d noticed he was there, 2 trackers took over. A walky talky gabble and we were back outside the park walls traipsing over potato furrows.

A melodic hollow came from the forest and we were back over the wall crawling on our hands and knees between all things that pricked.

The prospect of spotting gorillas in these thickets seemed far fetched. A group of 3 trackers were waiting for us and pointed up to branches above that moved revealing a glimpse of black fur then a bit later a face with enormous nostrils and eyes framed by wrinkles. Well aware but not perturbed. We scratched and scraped our way round a dense patch of jungle to see different members of the 10 strong troop. Mac at 220 kg dominated the 2 other silverbacks but they were all enormous. 4 females, 2 youngsters and the 3 week old baby clinging to its mother.

Lemek, not a gorilla but part of the trekking team talked about their physiogamy. The trekkers recognized the different individuals, their characters, what they ate, where they nested and called the gorilla doctor when they were sick. ‘Doesn’t that compromise their ability to survive in the wild?’ I asked. ‘They increase but still so few they very important,’ answered Lemek. ‘What else, what other mammals live here?’ We’d seen civet, duiker and copious quantities of buffalo poo. ‘Elephants migrate between the parks around the Virunga Volcanoes in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo but there are no big cats.’

For $600 you get an hour and time was running out. A fantastic experience but the best was saved till last. A juvenile made faces from up a bush, his face framed by the green fronds he ate. Mac came into the clearing and helped himself to a smorgasbord of vegetation until it all became too much effort and he lay down stretching and rolling in the sun.

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The Batwa pretending to be wild

I got to know Be and Eddie at lunch and we got to know the Batwa that afternoon. The Batwa were nomadic forest pygmies moving around the volcanoes. An impossible life style for the 21st century but the nail in the coffin was the gazetting of the national park in 1992. They were evicted without land or recourse to make a living. The Batwa Experience was a couple explaining their former lives. The goat-skins were a little compromised by the tight black shorts with sequins that the lady was wearing.

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We chewed leaves, shot arrows and lit a fire with a few sticks or they did. ‘If you had the chance would you go back to the forest?’ Yes.

The embers of the fire in my room still glowed, 2 hot water bottles warmed my bed and a stream sounded faint in the background. It was a very nice lodge.

I worked out how to butter the toast this morning. Put the butter on. Leave it till it gets soft then if careful you can spread without a toastal disintegration.

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Mount Gahinga (3500 m) crater-lake

The gentle stroll up the road to the national park HQ gave a false sense of security. The 3500 meter volcano above was a slight hint of what was in store on my Gahinga Hike. Gruyere, that’s the closest to her name I could make out, explained to me everything that had been explained before apart from what we were going to do. She was very nice. Quite a big lady made bigger by her army fatigues. Felix joined us. Tall and tough with a large gun to protect me from buffalo G explained. Single males ostracized from the herd can get grumpy – tell me about it.

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Other worldly plants & Felix (below)

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Its green! This part of the world at least in the rainy season is green. An explosion of verdant vegetation populated by a lot of wild buffalo judging from the poo. About 20 minutes in G stopped to look at the view. There’s a lot of mountain left, I thought and pressed on.

Elderflower seemed strange, something to do with the British I expect, excepting which the flora appeared undisturbed and adapted to the increasing altitude. There were bark shredding trees near the HQ, bushes, bracken then great forests of bamboo.

Civet, serval, gennet and critically endangered golden monkeys dependent on the bamboo, sleeping up the stems holding on with their tails & prehensile fingers.

A duiker watched us for a while giving G the chance for a pause. Felix and I left her at a forest hut as the path tended towards the vertical. Slippery ladders took over from steps cut into the mud. The altitude diluted the intention and my legs became harder to work while my head hurt. Strange trees clad in beards of trailing lichen heralded the summit. The crater-lake covered in a floating carpet of virulent green made me wonder if we’d wandered onto another planet. It’s very deep and goes to the bottom of the mountain or so the legend goes. A pregnant lady was pushed in to punish her for adultery but because of God’s mercy she reappeared in another lake 2000 meters below. So now they don’t push in any more pregnant ladies.

G had nearly made it and offered pineapple for a pause, ‘we’ve had a pause,’ Felix and I kept going followed by G clutching her pineapple. A bushbuck aside we raced down the mountain chasing the prospect of a Nile Special (beer).

Eddy and Be worked for KLM. They are planning to open a lodge on the land they’d bought near Lake Victoria. Airlines like route directions are easy to talk about so we got on well.

Tonight’s beef tastes just like last night’s pork, it will be interesting to try the chicken.

Rwanda

Gorillas are what I came for not Australians, the happy clappy African guides tried to get us to introduce ourselves, it was like an NGO workshop.

At the Gahinga Park in Uganda by myself with the trackers finding the gorillas in the forest, was an experience, a discovery. Here on the Rwandan side in the Virunga National Park it felt like we were being processed. Our 2 guides were lovely as they told us now for the third time what we could and more particularly couldn’t do. After an age we set off through the potato fields to the edge of wilderness stopping every 200 meters to let the group catch up.

We might have been processed but the gorillas weren’t, their star quality transcended the touristy build up. Black shapes between bamboo poles. We circled round but with no clear sightings. A clearing later we found them having a break from replacing 15% of their body weight in edible vegetation every day. Pandas spring to mind but honestly gorillas have personality. The photos speak for themselves.

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Gorilla’s with attitude

So much is being thrown back in my face on this trip in particular the interaction with those looking after me, both professionally and personally. It doesn’t justify the cost, it’s a holiday and the gorillas and the travel have ticked that box but it was useful. Helping me to understand how our customers must feel with some of the interactions we give them.

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The Rwandan gorillas in The Virunga National Park

5 am it must be time to get up but no I had another half hour as the Golden Monkey bureaucracy is more efficient because the tourists come to see the gorillas and there’s not the $750 per person per hour involved.

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A couple of the many species from my verandah

On the way to the tourist station at Muzanze, young men with corded arms wearing green and yellow waistcoats sat astride simple bicycles with a back seat. Why became clear when we got to the top of the hill 5km on.

They pick up passengers at the top of the hill free wheel to town then peddle back. Team Rwanda, a cycling cooperative, up and down that 1000m hill all day. Team UK wouldn’t have stood a chance if they’d entered the Olympics.

The mountain rose above us obscured by cloud, green fields sloped down from the park walls. We walked along potato furrows to grazing pasture and there in front of us were a troop of russet mantled Golden Monkeys.

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A male Golden Monkey

A Glossy Ibis honked as it stabbed its bill into the soggy turf. Oliver our irrelevant guide pointed out the obvious monkeys plucking at the grass in front of us.

As with most things in this part of the world the females were more attractive than the males. Not exactly golden but russet compared to the grey boys. Golden Monkey society is a lot more liberal than Rwandan, as everyone seemed to be humping each other. We climbed over the wall into Eden and watched the monkeys using bamboo fronds to cross the swamps.

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Female

‘You haven’t eaten your cheese cake!’ The chef confronted me. ‘It wasn’t a cheesecake, it was melted ice cream.’ He started explaining to me about his cheesecake so in case he didn’t get the message, ‘it wasn’t very nice.’ I’ve not seen him again.

The world catches up with a computer so I tackled the emails I’d ignored then went for a walk with Emmanuel. There’s Lake Burrera below my banda on the East side and Lake Ruhondo down on the West side. Burrera is a deeper and higher by a couple of hundred meters and used to flow across an isthmus of land over a waterfall into Ruhondo. Simple logic that this potential energy could be converted into power so a hydroelectric plant was built between them in 1952. It now supplies the electricity for Kigali.

Next fact is that the government is relocating 60 families from Bushongo Island in Lake Burrera to live on the slopes of the volcanoes, maybe the island can be left alone, without people.

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Bushongo Island in Lake Burrera

Capture it in my memory banks and then replay as if it were there in front of me. I thought about what I’d seen while waiting for lunch in a corner of the balcony looking down to the islands in Lake Burrera.

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On a walk beside Lake Burrera with Emanuel

Emanuel gave me a more gentle and intelligent perspective of Rwanda than Robert’s aggressive party political broadcast such that I dared to ask the gay question. ‘We not say anything but we not respect. Its against God,’ said Emanuel.

Burrera came in and out of view as we walked beside green terraces of beans, sweet corn and cabbages. Every inch of land farmed or coppiced with eucalypt. Simple mud houses with corrugated roofs on red earth shelves cut out of the hillside. We reached the dam and made friends with the soldiers who told us we were welcome in a menacing sort of way.

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