Wednesday 8 August: Sylvia
We had an early start this morning with a 6am pick up for our transfer to Kigali airport. The security is impressive. At one point we had to exit the car and go through screening while Bridge drove the car through some bomb-proof area that must somehow scan the vehicle. After two more thorough screenings we boarded the plane for our one-hour flight to Entebbe. I hadn’t realised that Entebbe is on the shores of Lake Victoria so the views as we descended were impressive.
On arrival in Entebbe we processed through immigration, collected our bags and were escorted almost immediately to a Cessna Caravan for our next hour-long flight, this time to Kisase airstrip, a dusty strip with a couple of dilapidated looking buildings beside it. Here we were met by a new guide, Wilson, who drove us the hour or so to Kyumbura Lodge. When we got in the vehicle he pointed out that as an ex-British colony they drove on the left, but most of the drive we were on the right, or even off the road altogether in our attempt to avoid the potholes. At one point we passed some traffic police conducting random stops; a little further on several people were walking along the road to town having been dropped off by their taxi drivers before the checkpoint as their vehicles were obviously not up to standard. Apparently a well-accepted practice here.
We drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park, which was inaugurated by the Queen in 1954, with great views over Lake George. It is strange to be on a sealed (albeit pretty shoddy) road and find yourself among buffaloes, defassa waterbuck, baboons, vervet monkeys and even the odd elephant. We also saw several Ugandan kob, which look like large impala but with dark forelegs, and are endemic to this area.
After being greeted by some local dancers we checked into the lodge, enjoyed a late lunch and then headed out for a short walk to a nearby coffee plantation. As in many developing countries motorcycles rule the road and many passed us as we walked, often with three people on board – and unlike in Kigali, none wearing helmets. Several young men gathered at the river to wash their motorbikes.
The Volcanoes Lodge teams under the guise of Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust (VSPT) run a number of community-based initiatives aimed at supporting the people who live near their lodges and also supporting conservation. In this area they have seven different initiatives, one of which is a coffee plantation where disadvantaged local women are able to grow, harvest and prepare coffee, all manually, for sale to the local hotels, lodges and to tourists. The VSPT buy the green coffee from the women for about $2/kg (which is above the going rate), then finish processing, roasting and in some cases grinding it, before packaging it for sale at about $35/kg. I wish we could make that sort of profit in our businesses. The profits all go back into their social enterprises. It was very interesting to see how the coffee is grown, harvested and prepared.
There were several rock python skins hanging in one of the sheds on the property. One of them would have been more than 5m long so the snake would have been even longer! Apparently the locals had killed them after they had eaten their goats. The VSPT have put in place a change to the grazing process to stop this happening again and to date no more dead pythons.
As we were sampling the product a blue-headed agama basked on a tree next to us.
Thursday 9 August: Roger
Unfortunately Sylvia had come down with a stomach bug last night and was bed bound for the morning. Last night she had headed off to bead early while we were given a talk by Alex Braczkowski. He is here studying the tree climbing lions, which are almost unique to this area. He has, with National Geographic Wild, made a film on them. The lion population, according to Wilson, is about 30 percent less than it was 16 years ago. Alex has fitted tracking collars to ten of them and spent weeks studying and identifying individuals by the markings around their whiskers, a very time consuming process. He is driven by a strong passion and was concerned as one of the collared lions has gone missing. Only a few days ago 12 lions had been poisoned by some locals. As the park is not fenced there is an ongoing conflict with the locals when they lose stock to lions.
Wilson picked me up at 0630 and we drove a short distance to the Kyambura Gorge. With a viewing deck at the head of the track and a few huts there is a great view down the steep gorge and over the savannah. We lined up to fill out another line in yet another book. Someone is making a fortune out of hard covered A4 note books around here as at every place we stopped passport number, age, country of origin and other details had to be entered.
￼Eventually the park guide jumped in the back with his AK, complete with folding bayonet, carried to fend off attacking animals. I had a vision of how it would turn out with him emptying his 32 rounds of tiny bullets into a large elephant then, as a last stand, folding out the bayonet as the beast, now super pissed off, grabbed him and beat him to death. In all fairness, chatting to him later, the three or four times he has used it in the last nine years a few shots in the air have been enough.
Leading a convoy of four vehicles we headed off down the track alongside the gorge. About 500m along the way a large bull elephant stood side on across the track. We stopped and observed for a while then we edged closer, stopping again until the beast turned front on giving an almighty challenge. Shaking his head with large clouds of dust coming from his ears and a loud trumpet he stood his ground, the morning sun glistening on his large tusks.
Eventually Wilson revved the land cruiser and lurched forward a few feet. Jumbo stood his ground, seconds passed slowly then Wilson made another charge. Jumbo conceded and with another loud trumpet turned and ran off. As we drove on Wilson explained that one must always confront these beasts front on as a side on attack will only end in disaster. A good tip for any trainee elephant bulls out there.
Soon we stopped and dismounted. With nine in the group we were briefed by the tracker about not running and standing one’s ground when we come into contact with the chimps. We had just descended the track into the gorge when a bunch of hippos sparked up, then a large beast running full tit (about 20kms an hour) charged out of the creek and through the bush about ten meters away, fortunately running parallel to us as it answered the call of its mates in the pond nearby.
We had only gone a few more meters when the chimps sparked up with loud screams coming from high in the trees all around us, a lucky and early find. We hurried on, crossing a rickety bridge. Not far down the track a chimp confronted us on the track ahead then hurried off into the bush, mounting a tree and heading off out on to a branch overhanging the track. He sat there feeding on ironwood seeds, opening each leaf to pick out the seed almost ignoring the excited group below as cameras clicked away.
￼After about 20 minutes we moved on to let another group in. Only a few meters down the track another chimp sat high in a tree then decided to pay us a visit. There was nothing graceful about his descent as he basically fell the 20-odd meters, grabbing the odd branch on the way as the guide instructed us to run, not because of the chimp, but to get away from the falling branches he had dislodged along the way. Finally he landed on a branch three meters from the ground sitting long enough for us to race back and take photos before he jumped to the ground and raced up a track with us in pursuit.
￼He disappeared off into the bush as we carried along the hillside. As we came back down to the stream we spotted him crossing on a fallen tree. We followed with some of the group somewhat apprehensive of the crossing. An American woman from Minnesota became a bit upset saying to her husband “this is not for me”.
￼We continued up stream spotting large pods of hippos lazing about in the water, blowing bubbles and snorting loudly.
￼￼The chimps having gone silent we headed back up the hill to the vehicles then back to the Lodge for lunch.
Sylvia had recovered somewhat and was able to join us when Wilson appeared again early afternoon to drive us to the Mweya Lodge, where we again filled out the book and passed through two security check points before looking around. We then headed down to the local boat ramp, boarding a boat for a look around the lower end of the Kazinga Channel, which is a large waterway that runs from Lake George to Lake Edward. Over the next two hours we observed a huge number of cape buffalo, some with a reddish coat meaning they were a cross with the forest buffalo. Hippos by the hundreds basked in the water among small crocodiles. There are a great variety of both game and birds around the shores of this area. Fisherman from the local village were preparing for their night’s fishing as we ended our tour. The hippos head ashore at night making it safe to fish.
Back at the lodge we had a great chat over dinner with Blain and Paul from San Francisco and Eric and Jessica from Washington DC. Blain and Paul we had met the night before and were great company. Eric and Jessica were just here for the day having being in Africa doing some work for their respective employees and managed to tack on a few days holiday.
Friday 10 August: Sylvia
It was another early start today with Alexis, our fantastic butler, bringing us coffee and cookies at 5:15am so we could have breakfast before our 6:30 departure with Wilson back to Kasese airstrip for our flight to Kisoro, near the border with Rwanda. On the way we spotted a small clan of hyenas heading back to their dens. We also saw many people working their fields in the community land opposite the national park. Here they plant cotton in about September for harvest in January/February. It looks like back-breaking work hoeing the soil in preparation. The farmers live further up the mountains and prepare temporary accommodation on their land here for the cotton season.
The flight to Kisoro was very smooth over increasingly mountainous terrain, some of which is obviously national park and well forested, the remainder being terraced farm plots. I cannot imagine how challenging it must be to manage the crops up on these mountainsides.
We made the first of three land border crossings we will do between Uganda and Rwanda. It was all pretty painless – register in Uganda, then hand your passport over for stamping in Rwanda, pass through a few barricades and you are done. Several locals were in transit, many carrying large loads. I am constantly amazed at how much weight the women here can carry on their heads – and balance too – even large piles of wood seem to be carried this way. The other primary form of transport here seems to be bicycle and we saw several of these laden down with sacks of what looked like potatoes.
We arrived and checked into Virunga Lodge, a beautiful lodge with fantastic views over two crater lakes towards the five volcanoes this area is famous for. it was a great place to chill for the afternoon, enjoying the views.
Saturday 11 August: Roger
We set off from Virunga Lodge just after 6am heading through the local village, which was well alive with people, mainly on foot, heading in both directions, many with loads on their heads. Several women were busy sweeping the dirt outside their houses. As the town got bigger taxi push-bikes appeared with a flat seat for the passenger where the carrier would normally go.
It seemed we were at the gorilla assembly point in no time at all. Forms etc. were completed as around a hundred people milled around drinking the coffee supplied and watching the intro movie. After about 40 minutes we were put into a group, by chance with 6 people traveling together who we had dined with last night, pretty much all family members some from the UK and some South Africa. They had yesterday enjoyed a close encounter with a gorilla family within 15 minutes from the start of their trek with Hannah actually being kicked by a young one as it ran past. We were taken to a little alcove for a briefing by Carlie and Patrick, our guides. Such things as do not go within seven meters, crouch down if the silverback approaches, and a few hygiene things such as not sneezing in their direction. We then got back in our vehicle and headed of to the start point.
At the start point we were met by our guides and 8 porters to carry our small packs, unnecessary but it provides employment for the locals. These young men, all dressed in clean blue overalls and wearing gumboots, were really helpful, friendly and polite. The gorilla tracking is really well managed with $100 from each trekker going back into the community. There are about 1000 gorilla in the extended national park, which is partly in Rwanda, part in Uganda and part in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Rwanda there are 12 families habituated for trekking and another 10 habituated for studying. When one group has a sick family member or looks like they need a break they are swapped out with a study family.
Soon we were heading through local potato and daisy paddocks (the daisies used for making insect repellent). At the end of the farmland we were met by an AK man and climbed over a wall into a bamboo forest, strolling along at a leisurely pace, stopping for a rest from time to time. Meanwhile, up in the jungle, a bunch of four trackers were hard at work locating the family and making phone calls to Carli to give us directions to the group. Not only do they track the gorillas but they also check for snares that may have been set by poachers and keep an eye on the health and well-being of the family. Soon we spotted some some silverback poo and the porters cut a track through the undergrowth around the side of a hill to a thicket of bamboo. We were close so backpacks and walking sticks were held by the porters as the rest of us closed in on the family.
The first sighting was a bit of a surprise as right beside our cut track in the undergrowth (about a metre away) was a female munching away, not bothered in the least by the intrusion (somebody forgot to tell the gorillas the 7m rule).
From here it was all on an amazing experience that is hard to describe. We rounded a bamboo thicket and there to our right sat Gorhonda the 47 year old silverback, the oldest guy in the park having passed the normal lifespan of 40-45 years. He has his eldest son waiting to take over when he dies, who fights off challenging males, now and again with a bit of back up from his father when the going gets too tough.
To our left two boys play-fought in the branches, the trackers cutting branches away so we could get a better view. They were totally unperturbed by the chopping. They climbed up branches, play-fighting with each other then dropping into the undergrowth only to repeat the performance.
Gorhonda suddenly stood up and only 4m away headed for us. “Down” was the command from Carli, then “don’t worry” as the boss headed down the steep hill. We followed to experience all sorts of close encounters as the family headed down hill through the undergrowth. I stepped aside at one point as a mum came past then lay down a meter away and stripped leaves off a branch looking at me and I am sure smiling. We ended up at the bottom of a little gully where the boss had laid down behind some bush while the kids continued their play in front of us. 2IC silverback lay up on a mound relaxing by a tree. The guide suggested I move closer to him. I obeyed, watching him for some time, taking numerous pics and some video. He eventually got up coming straight at me. I crouched as he moved past, almost brushing me, not in the least bothered by my presence. He lay down in the bottom of the gully for a rest while the kids climbed up and down a nearby tree still play-fighting, just like kids do, beating their chests from time to time.
All of a sudden our time was up and we withdrew back up the hill, the family oblivious to the life time experience they had created for all of us. We stopped some distance away and ate our lunch gathered in the shade of some bamboo. Pictured from the left our partners in this fantastic experience Hanna, Hebert, Patrícia, Andrew, Lauren and Duncan.
We tipped the four trackers who then melted back into the jungle. The rest of us headed back to the vehicles, which had been brought into the farmland to shorten our journey. We tipped the porters and guides, said our goodbyes to our new found friends and headed to the new Wilderness Safaris Lodge not far away to be met by Ingrid and her singing staff for a tour of our facilities for our night’s stay after an amazing day out.
Sunday 12 August: Sylvia
We left Bisate at 6:30am, heading back to the main gorilla trekking assembly point, passing many well-dressed people from the local villages walking to church. Arriving at the assembly point we sat and waited for Innocent to get us registered and for the headquarters people to assign our group. Today we were assigned to the Agashaya group, one of the largest groups in the forest with twenty three members. Our guides, Patience and Bosco, conducted the usual briefing and we headed off in convoy with the other two vehicles in our group to the starting point of our trek, some 25 minutes over very rough road.
There were still many people out working their fields. The main crop here is potatoes. The rich volcanic soil creates ideal conditions and this area supplies almost all the potatoes in Rwanda. They rotate the potato crops with pyrethrum, which looks like a large white daisy, is dried and then made into insect repellent, and at the same time replenishes the nitrogen in the soil. Both potatoes and pyrethrum are grown in raised mounds. All these fields are cultivated by hand with grubbers.
Our trekking companions today were a lovely couple from South Carolina and a group of four from California, one of whom was really struggling with the altitude. Porters assigned, we headed off on our trek, initially making our way up the hillside between mounds of potatoes before eventually entering the forest. It was easier going than yesterday, mostly up hill but the path was clearer with way fewer stinging nettles. We walked very slowly (always at the pace of the slowest person) but it still seemed a very short time before we met with the trackers.
Our hour with the gorillas passed quickly. They seem completely oblivious to us most of the time although one mother with a very young baby watched us closely, the guides making soothing noises regularly to reassure her. Other young ones played and tumbled about, an adult female sat on top of a bush feeding and a teenage male played a game of hide and seek with us as he ate: the guides tried to pull away some of the leaves in front of him but every time they did he pulled them back – it was a hilarious tug of war to watch.
At one stage one of the two trainee silverbacks walked along the path right beside us, even stepping on Roger’s foot as he passed. Just before our time was up the big silverback, who had been asleep the rest of the time, woke up and headed towards us. He sat down not far away and was joined by one of the females with her baby. She proceeded to groom him, picking off the lice and eating them while he sat looking very pleased with himself and the baby cuddled in between them both. A fitting end to our gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
We strolled back down to where Innocent was waiting with the car and then headed back to Bisate for another restful afternoon. Bisate is a fantastic Lodge, as I had expected given my previous experiences with Wilderness Safaris. It has only been open for about a year and the rooms are lovely and extremely comfortable. The service is outstanding. Ingrid and Rob, the managers have done a great job training the staff. The massages were the best I have had in Africa and they even made me a hot chocolate as good as anything I have had in New Zealand. A great place to end our time in Rwanda, a country and people I have developed a huge admiration and affection for.
Monday 13 August: Roger
After a relaxed start to the day and saying goodbye to Ingrid and Rob, who do an outstanding job of running this magnificent place, Innocent picked us up and we headed towards Uganda. Everyone was busy going about their day. The fields were full of people grubbing and planting, bikes carried huge loads; at one point some 20 people were walking along the roadside each with a 30kg bag of cement on their heads. Women swept the streets and people queued for water. Very few of the houses here have running water. Everywhere is clean and tidy. Bikes are a big deal here often used to carry huge loads.
On arriving at the Uganda border we crossed over, went to a guard house and filled the book in before then going to immigration to have our passports stamped. We had stopped on the other side to get some Rwanda francs out as Innocent said the money machines in Uganda often have no money and he knew someone here who could change the money for us. After we had done immigration Innocent turns up with the best dressed guy in town. I handed him 150k in francs, he then reached down, lifted his trouser leg and pulled a 100mil plus bundle of money out of his sock. He sorted me 500k of Ugandan shillings and job was done, no paperwork required. We headed to Kisoro, where the streets were crammed with people and the markets in full swing. The difference between the two countries is immediately evident, both in regulations and the standards of buildings. There is no way you would see 20 people in a pick up in Rwanda.
We turned up a rough dirt road and soon were at Mt Gahinga Lodge. After lunch we joined a bunch of Kiwis from Auckland who were staying at the Lodge while on a road trip around Uganda. Heading just up the road we were treated by Jane the local Batwa (Pygmy)tribe leader for a tour of their heritage trail, where through a translater they explained how they used to live in the forest until the government forced them out with no compensation to create the park in 1992.
From their we took a stroll to their village. Land has been bought by the Volcano Trust, houses built and 105 of them live in this village, the women mainly cultivating the land and raising sheep and goats while the men work around the local area. They walk 2km every day each way to fetch water. About 100 people turned up to welcome us, some from another village alerted by the drum beat of a plastic water can. They put on a long dance to welcome us, the kids really getting stuck in to show us their best. We then went to the meeting house for a welcome and introduced ourselves before wandering back to the Lodge for drinks and dinner.
Tuesday 14 August: Sylvia
Mt Gahinga Lodge is only about 200m from the park headquarters so it was a very short transfer with Innocent at 8am (7am Rwanda time – we lost an hour when we crossed the border yesterday). In the Uganda part of the Virunga Massive Park (Mgahinga Gorilla Notional Park) there is only one group of habituated gorillas so the registration process was much simpler than in Rwanda with only eight trekkers each day. After a fairly standard briefing we were on our way. This is the second trek we have done where the guide has taken one look at Roger and started referring to him as “our silverback”. Our companions today were a group of six young people who are travelling around in a large yellow truck in a group of about 28. They can join and leave at different points to suit their schedules. The six with us this morning were two kiwis on their way back home after working in London for two years, an Australian, three from the UK and one American, who is currently studying in Rotterdam and who had injured her ankle a few days ago in a kayaking accident.
Porters assigned (here they wear grey rather than blue overalls) we set off very slowly with our guide Laurina. We had heard the gorillas were fairly close and were able to leave directly from park headquarters. Along the way we saw a giant earthworm – this one was only about a foot long but they can grow to one metre – and a side-striped chameleon. We also passed the National Park board Batwa Heritage Trail. This seems a similar set up to what we did with Gahinga Lodge yesterday, although at a charge. Whilst they say they give back to the local communities when we spoke with Herbert, who is the VSPT liaison with the Batwa he was less than positive about the actual amount going back to the Batwa.
After about 90 minutes or so we met up with the trackers, dropped our sticks off and headed into the bush. The group we were tracking has nine members, three silverbacks, two adult females and four juveniles. Over the course of our hour with them we saw all nine members and were well-entertained by the young ones chasing each other, play-fighting and carrying on as per the last few days. About 10 minutes before our time was up we decided to go back and spend time with the silverbacks, who had been sleeping the whole time. The youngest of the three decided it was time to entertain us. After rolling around and stretching he stood up and walked right through the middle of our group, passing within centimetres of me, then proceeded to sit down in front of us and show off his back. Then he walked back through the middle of us again and proceeded to haul his 250+kg bulk up into a tree that looked far too spindly to hold him. Sure enough as we moved off down the track back towards the headquarters we heard an almighty crack behind us – it seems the branch eventually gave out.
Arriving back at the base we were surprised with “graduation” certificates to commemorate the trip. And you guessed it, first to receive their certificate was the dominant silverback of the group (Roger).
Then we hooked up with Innocent again for the marathon 200m drive back to the lodge for lunch and an afternoon’s rest. I feel quite bad for poor Innocent: he is staying about an hour away over very rough roads in Kisoro, had to drive up to pick us up this morning, manage the registration process, then wait for 3-4 hours while we were trekking and drive us back to the lodge, before driving all the way back to Kisoro. He will be back again to pick us up in the morning. We could easily have walked, done the registration ourselves and saved him the journey, but he seems nonplussed, always greeting us with a cheery smile and going out of his way to make sure we are well looked after.
In the evening we had another pleasant catch up with the other kiwis and their UK-based daughters. All in all a very good day!