Steppes Travel, Rwanda

It was a special moment. I stared at Ubumwe open mouthed with awe. He looked me in the eye, decided I was boring, and turned away to munch his fistful of nettles. I’ve bored a few people over the years, but I’d never had a 500lb mountain gorilla decide I was dull.

It’s all David Attenborough’s fault. When she was eleven years old, my wife saw him rolling in the grass with these wonderful animals and a dream was born. That inspiration, allied with a judicious tax rebate, got us to Rwanda after an amazing safari in Kenya. We viewed the trip as a once in a lifetime experience (to justify the expense of it) and booked with Steppes Travel who gave us a first class, hassle free experience.

After we landed in Kigali, we were immediately taken to the Genocide museum. I’ll spare you the history lesson, but the defining event in the country’s history was the genocide of 1994. Around one million people died, mostly murdered by their neighbours. The purpose of the museum is to remind people of what happened and stop it from happening again. There was a queue of Rwandans 100 metres long waiting to get in, sweating in the hot sunshine. We dutifully joined the back of it, only to be led straight to the front by our guide. I mumbled my apologies to people, foolishly assuming they understood English (I hate this ‘special treatment’ stuff). The Rwandans seemed fine, however, and smiled at my embarrassment. The museum was worth the visit. Through storyboards, pictures and artefacts it told the heart-rending tale of a dreadful event. More on this later.

I must address the fear issue; there’s no need to be afraid of visiting Rwanda. The genocide was over twenty five years ago, the same time as the Balkan war in Europe; would you fear going to Croatia? Rwanda is a developing country and Kigali is the ninth safest city in the world. Chances are you’re more likely to be a victim of crime in your hometown. In fact, I got robbed in Croatia!

Rwandan countryside

After the museum, we were driven to our hotel in the northern mountains. It was an interesting journey because Rwanda’s topography is dramatic. A lot of the countryside is basically shaped like an egg box. There’s barely a straight road in this verdant land of hills and valleys. Perched on a ‘shoulder’ of the rift valley, most of it is quite high up. It’s near the equator but gets excellent rainfall. There has never been a drought. Most of the land is meticulously farmed, and it needs to be because this tiny country is the most densely populated in Africa.

Virunga dawn

Our hotel was Mountain Gorilla View Lodge and the views of Parc National des Volcans were splendid. Next day we were taken to the parc entrance for coffee and a display of traditional dancing, and then to the edge of the forest to meet our guides. The trek up the mountain was easy, not steep, and the variety of plant life in the rain forest was stunning. It was only about an hour’s walk before we came across our target, the ‘Amahoro’ group. Trackers keep up to date on the whereabouts of the gorillas via walkie talkies, so you don’t miss out.

Sat at my feet

So, what was it like hanging out with the gorillas? Well, we got lucky. The group moved out of the bamboo thickets and on to an open slope. We just sat among them. You’re not supposed to get too near, but nobody tells the gorillas this and they approached us. I was lying among some ferns with a young male foraging nearby. He just got closer and closer. I couldn’t get out of his way. In the end, he was sitting at my feet and gave my ankle a little warning tap to make sure I didn’t spoil his lunch. It was a blissful hour (that’s all you are allowed). You stay quiet and take your photos. Also, and very importantly, you put your camera down and just soak up the moment. There’s footage of the gorillas in the video below.

It was a wonderful experience but, ultimately, one that defies words. I had a meaningful interaction with a silverback. OK, it was seemingly tedious for Ubumwe, but I consider it one of the highlights of my life.

A typical countryside home

After the experience, our guides left the five of us to sit alone in silence; that was their actual advice. Indeed, none of us could find words to express our feelings. We sat speechless, trying to engrave the memories of the last hour forever in our minds. As we descended the slope, the rangers and assistants helped us hop over ditches etc and, again, just hiking through the rain forest was a blast. The lower slopes were dotted with tiny farms, their little fields all carefully tended. That said, walking past the occasional house, you could not help but notice the poverty of the locals. The houses were mud shacks, and the children were dressed in dirty rags. As we neared the car park, my stomach gave a tumultuous gurgle. A thought crossed my mind; ‘That didn’t feel too good’.

And it was going to feel a lot worse. Two days earlier, in the Masaai Mara, I had been cleaning my teeth in water bottled from a nearby stream. It was clearly labelled ‘do not drink’, but I thought I’d be fine as I wasn’t going to swallow it. I ignored the label. I’m from Manchester, I’m tough! The stream fed the hippopotamus pool right next to my tent. These beasts get up to all sorts in that big pond; they make friends, they fight, they defecate, they urinate, and they make sweet, sweet lurve…

So, it’s not water for cleaning your teeth with. When we got back to our room, my digestion system responded to the hippopotamus juices and did a clear out via every orifice. I was sitting on the toilet, projectile vomiting into the bin tucked between my knees for six hours. I couldn’t keep even a sip of water down. My temperature soared as I lay shivering cold under extra blankets. It gets chilly in the evenings, so we rang for a hot water bottle and a maid soon arrived. She walked straight in, without knocking, flung back the covers and chucked the bottle into the bed. I should have said that I sleep ‘au naturel’.

Her eyes widened and, naturally, she let out a gasp of admiration. I gave her a knowing wink as she regained her composure and got her breath back. Consequently, when I went down to dinner the next day, the waitresses in the restaurant broke into a spontaneous swell of applause. I acknowledged it humbly, with a gracious wave of my hand.

The symptoms lasted 24 hours, and I was fine, but we had booked two trips to see the gorillas and I had to miss the second one. A few guests in the hotel commiserated with me, but I had no regrets. I didn’t feel I had any ‘right’ to see the gorillas. I consider myself blessed to have experienced them once. What I did not realise was that the highlight of my trip to Rwanda was yet to come.

Odette and Feza

Our last day was spent in Kigali waiting for an evening flight. However, I had made plans. At home, I had met a Rwandan lady named Odette Kayirere, she was giving a talk for the British charity CAFOD. I had hoped to hear her friend Feza Mediatrice speak too, but she had been denied a visa. This annoyed me. These women had survived the most dreadful experiences and gone on to work wonders for genocide widows. If you click on the links you can find out more about these two amazing women. Odette was the Guardian Newspaper’s International Development award winner in 2010. Despite her ordeal, Feza was a community development worker and a source of strength in her community. So, I wrote to Odette and asked if she could take me to meet Feza, and she set up a surprise trip.

You can’t visit a place like Rwanda and not be moved by the people you meet; the experience makes you take stock of life. When I came home, I joined a charity called the Rwanda Group Trust and was its chair for two years. I wanted to share what I had learned on my trip to Rwanda and consequently I wrote a novel, ‘The Luck of the Crane’. It’s available for the Amazon Kindle. All of this came from meeting Odette and Feza.

I went to Rwanda to see the gorillas. I did, and that was amazing. I did not expect that event to be upstaged on the last day of my holiday. That ‘travel broadens the mind’ is a cliché, but no travel broadened my mind like Rwanda did.

Should you go?

Of course you should, but there’s a problem. Time with the gorillas is limited to one small group, for one hour per day, to ensure they are as undisturbed as possible. A lot of people want to see them so they are a significant source of income for Rwanda. Consequently, they can charge what they want. It was about £250 when we went, in 2022 it is now £1200 for that one hour. Add in travel and accommodation and it’s hardly a bargain break! I returned to Rwanda with the charity to visit our partners there. Visiting the gorillas again wasn’t an option. There are other things to do: you can stay in Nyungwe Forest and trek chimpanzees, Akagera National Park has a range of animals including lions and rhinos, Lake Kivu has beautiful views (especially towards the Congo), my second visit confirmed that Rwanda is simply a beautiful country.

It must be said, if you can afford to go, it is likely that seeing mountain gorillas will be the wildlife highlight of your life.

Click on image for link

And here is the novel my visit to Rwanda inspired me to write. It is set in the genocide. Many of the events in the book are based on my conversations with survivors or my research into the events. Only £2.21 for the Kindle. Click on the image for the Amazon link.

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