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Spontaneous Random Adventures "Wherever you go, go with all your heart" -Confucius

Land of a Thousand Hills - Kigali to the Virunga Mountains

RWANDA | Monday, 7 October 2013 | Views [4410]

As the plane descended into Kigali I expected the black night to be lit up by a soft orange haze, a mix of dust and exhaust fumes illuminated by street light pollution just like I've seen in most developing country cities that I've visited. I expected a humid warm atmosphere, a chaotic airport, dusty traffic jams, street children, garbage filled gutters, and dangerous streets patrolled by armed soldiers. Kigali turned out to be very different to my preconceptions and I was really pleasantly surprised, but why would I willingly want to go somewhere that I thought would be so rough anyway? I wanted to see for myself what drove Dian Fossey to dedicate her life to saving the mountain gorillas from poaching and almost certain extinction. The expedition organised by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) and guided by Volcanoes Safaris included a behind the scenes look at the ongoing conservation work and a meeting with the researchers who are continuing her legacy, as well as actually trekking to the gorilla groups that live in the mountains and seeing the projects that the organisation supports. The second part of the adventure was a journey south to go on a chimpanzee trek in Nyungwe National Park, which is apparently Africas' largest protected mountain rainforest. Here is my journal of those adventures. My aim is to change the widely held perceptions of Rwanda that I also had before I came here in the hope that more people will visit and embrace this incredibly beautiful country and its’ wonderfully hospitable people. I begin with my first full day in Rwanda.

Day 1

Hotel Des Mille Collines

I woke up this morning to peace and tranquility. Going by previous travels, peace and tranquility were the last things I expected to experience in an African city.

I'd arrived the night before in Kigali, the capital, on an A330 from Amsterdam that dropped a small number of us in Rwanda before taking the majority of the passengers to Uganda. I wondered if the other passengers knew something I didn't but I was quite happy to know that there weren't masses of tourists disembarking with me. Amon, my guide for the trip approached me in the arrivals hall just as I was trying to figure out if another man from my hotel was the one I was supposed to meet. As we drove to the hotel with the windows down it felt good to suck in the fresh cool breeze after the long journey. Amon seemed really friendly, laid back and well educated. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived so I was pleased that he was going to be my guide for the trip. I had a hunch we were going to get along well.

My hotel turned out to be Hotel des Mille Collines made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, based on the true story set in 1994 during the genocide when 1268 people took refuge in the hotel. The hotel is well kept, clean and has a stunning garden with a pool. On weekends you can listen to live music in the gardens by the pool bar.

I pulled back the curtains to see the city for the first time in daylight and it was hard to believe such a horrific episode in history took place here. The city is green, beautifully hilly, exceptionally clean and very peaceful. It feels more like a large village than a big city. 

After breakfast on the terrace in the immaculately kept hotel gardens Amon met me in the lobby right on time with a familiar beaming smile and a firm handshake. With him was a couple from the U.S., Fran and Lynn, who were also travelling on the same itinerary with me for the first part of my adventure. Our first stop before heading to the mountains was the genocide memorial in Kigali. Amon thought it best to start with this so we didn't end on a sad note. I've read about what happened in Rwanda during the genocide but the reality of it really hits hard walking around the exhibitions, watching videos of survivors’ stories, seeing sickening pictures of the massacred bodies and viewing exhibits of hand weapons that were used to torture and kill such as machetes and clubs. These were used in most cases as they were cheaper than bullets. Most gut wrenching of all was an image of a small boy with a fresh deep gash in his head that looked like he had been struck with a machete. Thankfully he was alive but the image was incredibly strong and really heartbreaking. In 1994 the Rwandan population was composed of the Hutu (85% majority), Tutsi (14%) and Twa or Batwa (1%) ethnic groups. Tensions between Hutu and Tutsi date back to 1916 when Belgian colonists gave out ID cards. The Belgians considered the Tutsi to be superior as they were taller and had more European like features so they enjoyed 20 years of having better jobs and a better education than the Hutu. Tensions built up and riots in 1959 resulted in over 20,000 Tutsi deaths. When Belgium gave Rwanda independence in 1962 the Hutu took over. In subsequent years tensions remained with the Tutsi being blamed for the problems of the country. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down. This sparked the violence that began the genocide that is well known by the world today. What I didn’t know was that there had been multiple genocides prior to this. Hutu extremists planned a mass killing of the Tutsi in 1994 and any Hutu politicians who may have tried to stop it were killed. Tutsi, suspected Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu were killed in homes, at roadblocks and even in places such as churches and schools that were thought of as safe havens. Women were brutally raped. In a culture where a child takes on the ethnicity of the father it's thought that around 20,000 Hutu babies were born as a result. In 100 days 800,000 people were killed. That's like filling Wembley Stadium seating and standing 8 times. The scale of the horror is unimaginable. It's unknown whether the Tutsi were responsible for the shooting down of the plane or if the Hutu extremists did it to carry out genocide under the disguise of a war. Many children were orphaned and it was not uncommon for distant relatives and even strangers to take in large numbers and care for them.

It’s good to see the new generations being educated to prevent the same mistakes from happening again and nowadays people have ID cards identifying themselves only as Rwandan even though their looks may give them away. Marriages across former ethnic groups is now common and to look at Rwanda today there is no evidence to an outsider of what went on back in 1994 other than in the Kigali memorial site where mass graves are located and at other memorials around the country. Thousands of unidentified corpses were being discovered with no families to conduct dignified burials so Kigali City Council decided to create a single place of burial where victims could be laid to rest with dignity. It was a sobering place but deserved a visit to learn about the history and to pay respect to the hundreds of thousands who were massacred. Mass graves in the Genocide Memorial Centre.

Outside the museum lay the mass graves mostly covered with concrete. One part was covered with glass through which I could see three coffins draped in grey cloth with white crosses sewn in to them. Beside this lay flowers with a ribbon saying “We Will Never Forget You”. 

Moving on from the museum we headed north out of the hilly green city to hilly green farmland and forest. I was beginning to understand why this country is called Land of a Thousand Hills. Where forest once stood farmland had been cultivated and markets were scattered along the road. Amon stopped to buy us some sweet little bananas. Corn, maize, banana, pineapple, cassava, green vegetables, potatoes and sugar cane grew in the valleys and on steep terraced slopes. Goats grazed in grassy meadows and by the roadside outside homes. In one area, small rectangular man-made bodies of water housed farmed tilapia fish. Apparently fish farming has been successful here.

Amon buying some road trip snacks for us.

During the few hours it took to drive to Volcanoes National Park it seemed that every group of children we passed would smile and wave at us. “Hello, how are you?” could be heard and big smiles could be seen as we drove by. The road was windy and gradually climbed up towards the mountains. Overloaded trucks struggled up the hills, motorbike taxis weaved in and out of traffic and in the towns bicycle taxis were used not only to transport people on flat upholstered seats above the back wheels but also to transport huge bags of potatoes, piles of wood and yellow plastic jerry cans of water.Along the way we stopped at a market to use the toilet. When I came out Amon was standing at a stall munching on a goat meat skewer. He ordered one for me and I have to say it was really tasty, even more so with the oily hot pepper sauce akabanga on it.


Local children greeting us to the area.

Onwards and upwards we travelled through the farmland until finally in the distance volcanoes could be seen through the haze. The saddle between Sabinyo and Visoke volcanoes in the national park were home to the mountain gorillas I was going to encounter. It was a beautiful site. Along a dirt road, near the base of the Muhavura volcano, we passed farmhouses made of red mud bricks. The cutest little children ran out of their gardens to stand at the side of the road and wave or run after the car frantically calling out “hello” and waving with both hands in the air. Muhavura volcano is an extinct volcano at the eastern end of the Virunga Mountains. It lies on the border between Uganda and Rwanda and climbs more than 13,500ft high.

Volcanoes from Virunga Lodge.

As the road climbed upwards Lake Bulera came into view below. It was a stunning site. Small islands inhabited by farmers who travelled across the water on dugout canoes could be seen in the lake. It looked so serene. We were greeted at Virunga Lodge with a glass of fresh passion fruit juice by a number of smiling and welcoming staff. From the reception area I could see Lake Ruhondo which looked even more beautiful than Bulera. The plan for the evening was discussed and I was shown to my room. My room turned out to be a small and beautiful detached cottage or banda with a stunning view of the lake and the sunrise in the morning! I was speechless. It was the most amazing place I’ve ever stayed in. Bushes and flowers full of birdlife separated the bandas and this with the lake view could be viewed from my terrace.

 View from my terrace.

Ten guests were staying at the lodge that night and the diversity was pretty fascinating but I won’t go into the people as I’m here to tell a story about Rwanda. The food was fantastic and all the guests sat at the same table so the conversation was as diverse as the people which made for some really interesting chat. The wakeup call in the morning however was 05:00 so I headed back to the cottage at 21:00. The night was clear, the air was cool and stars covered the sky. When I got back I found the bug net hanging over the bed, the duvet folded down at the top, the bedside light on and two hot water bottles in my bed. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

Day 2

I remembered as I fell asleep what sounded like a bird hopping over the roof. The next thing I knew the alarm went off and it was time to get ready. It was 04:30 and still dark outside. I washed and got dressed by which time I heard a knock on the door. It was my morning pot of tea that was delivered every day at whatever time I requested it. The service here was exceptional. We had to be on the road by 06:00 so I chose to have a pot of tea at 05:00 and breakfast at 05:30. As we ate breakfast the window in the dining room gave us a perfect view of the sun rising over the mountains. I wondered if the architect had designed it that way. A couple from Nairobi told us that unfortunately the architect had actually been killed in the terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi the week before. As the sun rose and filled the room it seemed to energise the tired faces around the table and it was time to go.

At 06:00 many Rwandans had already started their day. People walked along the road with purpose carrying water, firewood, farming implements, books and bags of food. The bicycle taxis were already out doing business and I noticed that there were no private cars on the road the whole way there, other than the Land Rovers carrying tourists to the national park. Everyone seemed to walk or use bicycle and motorbike taxis. We arrived at the national park station where Amon had to show our passports and get our tracking permits. Sabinyo volcano stood imposingly above. As one of the oldest volcanoes in the area, it had been weathered more which gave it a much rougher and jagged look than neighbouring Gahinga volcano. 

Sabinyo Volcano from the National Park office.

The top of Sabinyo lay on the borders between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. On a perfectly kept lawn stood a ring of park guides in green military style uniforms getting their briefing. Once they finished, our trip guides did their best to get us into the most popular groups with the best park guides. Today I was going to meet the Golden Monkeys. The trackers were already out in the forest picking up from where the monkey group had settled the night before so the guides talked to them by radio and knew which area they should take us to. Only one group was going to see the monkeys so there was no need for Amon to get us into the best group he could today. The other tourists were going to view the Mountain Gorilla groups. Tomorrow was my day for that adventure. After a briefing from our two guides, Felix and Bernice, Amon drove us to the starting point of the trek. We walked between fields of potatoes, pyrethrum (used for insecticide) and other crops to get to the edge of the national park which is marked by a volcanic stone wall. In some cases the wall is double in thickness to prevent buffalo from getting out of the park and into the fields where they would destroy the crops. In certain sections the inside of the wall on the park side has a big trench next to it in order to stop buffalo jumping over the wall. Small tree trunks provided a bridge for people to cross the trench.

As we approached the park wall Bernice announced that she was in contact with the trackers and we may have to walk 2 hours which was expected. It turned out she was a joker and the monkeys were actually in the bamboo forest 5 minutes away! We met the trackers and at this point we had to leave our backpacks and walking sticks. Apparently the sticks may be seen as a sign of aggression and bags were left so the monkeys wouldn’t be attracted to food or other belongings. A couple of trackers stayed with our bags and the rest of us followed the guides and other trackers into the dark bushy bamboo forest. Rustling could be heard as the monkeys moved from tree to tree. New bamboo shoots stood about 15 to 30cm tall from the forest floor. This was what the monkeys were feeding on. They would come down from the trees, pull a shoot from the earth, peel it and chew on the softer inside. It actually tasted pretty good, a bit like water chestnut with a similar texture but with a bitter after taste. I’m told that the bamboo shoots have the same effect on monkeys as beer does on humans. It would account for their playfulness and the comical way that some would fall backwards as they tried to pull the shoots out of the ground. One tracker waved me over and pointed to a tree branch. He whispered “the boss”. It was the dominant male. As my eyes adjusted I could see monkeys all around in the trees, on the forest floor and sliding down the older bamboo to get to the new shoots below. All ages surrounded us. Some were pulling shoots from the ground, some played, some sat in quiet contemplation on the branches, but the majority was on the branches munching on the bamboo. 

Golden Monkey in Volcanoes National Park

Now and again some of my fellow travelers would get bits of bamboo landing on their head as the monkeys peeled the shoots or spat out bits they didn’t want and a couple of really unfortunate ones got a “hot shower” from above. I couldn’t believe how close the monkeys got. Some would stop on one side of the path, look around and at me and then sprint across the path as if we were playing catch. Babies swung from branches and chased each other around. Juveniles would play fight, rolling on the ground and run after each other up the trees. All this happened under the watchful eyes of the older monkeys. These are stunning animals with copper coloured backs, golden faces with pale grey muzzles, piercing copper coloured eyes and little black hands. An hour is the maximum allowed to stay with the monkeys and it passed by so quickly but it’s an hour of my life that I will never forget and I hope I get to see these beautiful animals again in the wild.

As the monkeys were so close to the park boundary it wasn’t even lunchtime when we got back to the car, so we decided to visit the cultural village before heading back to the lodge for lunch. The village is a cultural exhibition including traditional huts with a tour of the kings’ hut and a lesson in etiquette for getting an audience with the king and queen, spectacular dancing (be prepared to join in if you’re lucky enough to be chosen), a demonstration by the medicine man, metalwork, grinding seed to flour with stones and crafts such as basket weaving. Even a mock wedding is played out and you can try your arm at some bow practice. It was definitely worth a visit. The best thing was that some of the men were ex poachers so in creating the cultural village and giving them an alternative income, gorillas were being saved from snares and traps. We were met at the gate by a group of young men dressed in traditional tribal clothing that included bells around their ankles and long blonde wigs. With them was a very short older man. He held a spear in one hand and a small painted shield in the other as he danced around shouting what was probably a greeting but sounded quite fierce while the other men danced and sang in the background. The short older man was of Batwa descent, an ethnic group that used to live in the forests. Most people would recognize their ethnicity by the name pygmy. To see the dancing alone is worth going to the cultural village for. The performers are so full of enthusiasm and energy.   

Dancers in the cultural village.

After lunch I took a short walk around the Crater View Loop just outside Virunga Lodge. It was a short walk with a stunning view of both lakes and the terraced fields that led to them. Just where the loop turns I met with 2 young village boys, Fabrice and Gilbert, who were eager to talk to me in English. They told me they were in P6 at primary school which made them around 12 years old. It was interesting to hear about their lives in the village, their parents’ farms, their school and their love of football. One of the boys was the captain of the football team. I had seen many children around with homemade balls constructed of grasses and vines so asked if they had a real football to play with. When they replied that they didn’t I decided to find them one and get it to them somehow. That was as important to me as finding the gorillas the next day.

Meeting Fabrice and Gilbert from the village below Virunga Lodge.

Day 3

When I woke at 04:30 I was ¾ excited and ¼ nervous to remember that today I was going to meet my first mountain gorilla. No mountain gorillas are kept in zoos. The ones seen in zoos are all Western Lowland Gorillas. I imagined a silverback would be about the size of a large black bear but even more powerful. I heard about the encounters other people had and it sounded like they got close. Nothing anyone could have told me could have prepared me for how amazing it was going to be standing next to a group of gorillas and observing their behavior.

Amon managed to get us in one of the best groups that had all age ranges of gorillas and was the largest group with 22 members. This was the Agashya group. The Agashya group was named after it's Silverback, who took over the group over by first studying the former leader, Nyakarima and then challenging him. Agashya group is known to spend most of its time on the forested saddle between Mount Sabyinyo and Mount Gahinga. We travelled past the area where we saw the Golden Monkeys and along rough farmland tracks until we reached our start point. The guide told us that the gorillas were at the top of a hill in the dense forest and that we could hire a porter to carry our backpack and help us to negotiate the slippery terrain. I figured that $10 was a good deal to help a porter have some work for a day. Many of them were ex poachers so to support them make an alternative living was worth it. A young man named Tio stepped up to the job and introduced himself with a smile. We hiked up the hill and eventually came to the trackers. It seemed to take just over an hour which was quick in terms of finding gorillas. As with the Golden Monkeys we took our cameras, left the bags behind in a clearing and followed the main guide through the bush. The guide began to make soft grunting noises as we heard the bushes above rustle. This was apparently to let the gorillas know that we were no threat to them. All of a sudden I saw a big furry black face above the bushes and I stood in absolute awe of this incredibly powerful looking gorilla. The guides moved closer. Two then five gorillas came into view. A mum with an 8 month old baby sat about 4 metres from my feet. The baby came towards me staring and began to rock back and forth on all fours as if it was about to pounce. My first close encounter was with an 8 month old gorilla.

It had a cheeky face with the gentlest looking features and my heart melted when it looked right at me. Just to show who was boss the baby stood up and beat on its chest while looking up at me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it and couldn't help but smile. It was so beautiful. Meanwhile mum just sat looking on, scratching her shoulder and looking very relaxed about the whole encounter. No words can describe that first encounter and connection.

Another guide indicated for me to move up to where he was. As I moved up the muddy red path I looked on the bushy slope to see a mother with a tiny baby in her arms, a couple of juveniles play fighting and 2 other adults relaxing near the top of the slope. Just out of view over the brow of the hill lay the huge resting silverback.

Agashya Group of Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

Agashya juveniles grooming.

The mother held the baby for a while but it was feeling playful and soon broke free. It climbed on to a bamboo stalk that was lying horizontally over the slope, clung on with one arm and spun around in circles as far as its’ arm would let it. The baby then flung its’ feet around the stalk and hung upside down with the most comical of grimaces.

 Baby gorilla hanging out.

Baby gorilla playing.

It tried to join in the play fighting with the two juveniles but when it got rough the mother reached down and pulled the baby away. At one point she broke up the two juveniles and one jumped onto the side of the slope as if it had just had a telling off. It plonked itself down on the ground, folded its arms and sat with a sulky look for a few minutes then the playing started all over. Two by two we got to move up the slope to where the silverback lay. When it was my turn he was sitting upright and observing us as much as we were observing him but he didn’t seem to mind at all. He kept a close eye on the other members of his group all the while. Meanwhile another adult lay in total relaxation, feet in the air, one hand on its chest and the other scratching under its chin. Another lay face down with its head in its hand watching the youngsters play. It was so human. For the fastest hour of my life I observed, photographed and took video of this amazing group. It was fascinating to watch. Just as were getting ready to leave the silverback stood up and walked down the slope and straight for me. My heart felt like it jumped out of my chest. His forearms were enormous and as he walked down the slope the huge muscles of his chest became apparent.

Agashya Group silverback.

Agashya resting.

I don’t mind admitting I was part excited and part terrified, but the guides were observing his body language and knew that he was just moving to a different location and was not getting aggressive. I moved out of his way and he walked past me down the path. I couldn’t believe I had got so close to such a wild powerful animal. Later I heard a story of a man in a similar situation who hadn’t moved and the silverback just pushed him out of the way. That would have been an amazing story to tell but I’m not sure my heart would have survived to let me tell that tale! The gorillas were amazing, comical, and very human in their behavior and watching them has to be the most incredible experience of my life. 

I don’t think I stopped smiling all day. On the way back Amon took me to town to see if we could find a football for the boys I’d met the previous day. I really wasn’t sure how I was going to find them again but I was determined to keep my promise to them. We stopped at a store, Amon talked to the man behind the desk and we followed him across the street to another shop. They had them in a box high up on a shelf. I was so happy! I walked to the same spot on the Crater Loop trail when we returned to the lodge in the hope they’d return, but unfortunately I didn’t see them. The rain was heavy that afternoon so it wasn’t surprising. I had their names and Amon said they wouldn’t be hard to find in the village so I was going to walk down the next day. I did meet another young boy called Vincent who'd climbed up the hill just to have a talk with me. He lived with his mother and sisters in the village below the lodge.

Day 4

After the previous afternoon and evening thunder showers the air was clear and the sun shone the next morning. We drove to the national park office as usual but there seemed to be much less people. It was the start of the rainy season so it wasn’t at its busiest. We’d had good luck with dry mornings for the trekking. Today Amon managed to score the best possible guide to visit the Sabinyo group of gorillas. Francois had been a porter for Dian Fossey which I was really excited about, but he was also a real showman when it came to guiding. He not only showed us what gorillas ate but he would actually eat it too. He taught us “gorilla talk” and made us repeat it as if we were in a language class and he’d run around beating his chest and grunting. He was such a huge personality and so likeable. I would love one day to have time to sit and talk with him about his life. His ability to read the body language and grunts of the gorillas was incredible.

The Sabinyo Group inhabits the same saddle of land between 2 volcanoes that the Agashya Group inhabit. The group is led by Guhonda, the largest silverback.

Francois the legendary guide.

The hike was slightly harder than the day before and more bushwhacking with machetes by the guides was required to get to the gorillas but it was just as special as the day before. My porter today was Innocence who was a huge help to me. He carried my bag and at every muddy slope he would hold my hand in case I slipped. We were met by a shy adult gorilla who sat with its back to us in a clearing full of stinging nettles. I felt a burn through my trousers and on one finger from the nettles but I didn’t care. It was worth it to see these magnificent animals again. We moved up the slope and through some trees. Below us lay the huge silverback on his front with his head in his hand, just like I used to sit watching TV as a child. Above him a couple of adults and a baby were more active. One of the males was bald. The baby was hilarious to watch as it swung in circles from a vine and clambered around, frequently falling over. Francois on a few occasions would grunt at them as a signal to stay back from us and it worked. It was amazing. At one point the bald gorilla stretched out his arm and touched the leg of the woman next to me. This was apparently a signal that he didn’t want us to take photographs. We stopped for a few minutes until Francois told us that it was ok to take photographs again. We moved around with the gorillas observing the silverback, the adults, the juveniles and the babies. The silverback came close and sat in a small clearing. One of the guides with Francois nearby signaled for me to sit in front of the silverback. I could hear grunting behind me as he took a photograph but I had no idea the silverback was so close and looking right at me until I saw the photograph afterwards, but I had every faith in the guides’ ability to know what was safe.

Silverback of the Sabinyo Group.

The hour finished with observing the baby being nursed by the mother then playing around on the vines as if it was showing off to us. It would swing around on the vine and then stand still in a pose looking at us.

Mother and baby.

Baby posing for a photo.

I was so sad to have to leave them but it’s good that they only allow one group per day for a maximum of one hour to observe them so as not to disturb them too much and it also minimises the risk of them catching any diseases from us and vice versa. A minimum distance to keep between us and the gorillas is recommended and we can respect it but the gorillas don't so if anyone feels like they're going to cough or sneeze they're asked to move away to prevent respiratory infections in the gorillas. The trackers continue to monitor their movements until they settle for the night not only to observe but also to protect them from poachers. Poaching has decreased over the years but snares are still found. The snares are set for other animals but gorillas do get caught in them. I was really impressed by the whole conservation effort and the running of the national park and hope that the government will continue with their support.

On the way back from the national park we stopped at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund headquarters in Musanze. Veronica Vecellio who supervises mountain gorilla data collection and Rwanda National University students, and manages the long-term gorilla research databases met us and gave us a presentation of the work being done in Rwanda. She also told us about the efforts being made to set up research in the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC is still very dangerous and the young man setting up the research is putting his life at risk. His philosophy is that someone must do it and he is willing to take that risk. Much like Dian Fossey was, he is at risk from poachers and rebel groups and doesn’t have the government support that the organization in Rwanda has. It was a fascinating tour of the centre where they’re working to set up an exhibition to educate schoolchildren and the general public. Pieces of furniture from Dian Fosseys’ cabin were on display along with photos taken by the National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell who visited her research area and with whom she ended up in a relationship with.

Furniture from Dian Fosseys' cabin with photos taken by Bob Campbell.

We also saw the basic laboratories where the scientific research went on. Veronica introduced us to the researcher who had just come back from DRC and together they just oozed enthusiasm and passion about their work and I have to say it was really contagious. I felt really privileged to have met them both.

On the way back to the lodge I spotted a familiar young boy on the road. I thought it was one of the boys I’d promised the football to but after Amon quizzed him it turned out to be the boy I’d met the day before called Vincent. Vincent did however know the two boys I wanted to find so he went to fetch them. By the time I had a bite to eat all three boys were outside the lodge waiting for me. I’d said hello to so many children over the days I didn’t recognize them at first but then I realised it was the ones I wanted to gift the football to. I was ecstatic. I handed over the ball and they played around in front of the lodge. The lodge staff looked on with big smiles and it made my day to see the boys playing. I explained before they left that it was for the whole team that they’d told me about and they all smiled and thanked me.

Gilbert, Francois and Vincent with their new football.

It was a perfect end to the day and to my last evening in Virunga Lodge. I was so grateful to Amon and Vincent for making it happen.

Day 5

Our final day in the area was a visit to Bisate where many of the trackers live with their families. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) supports the school and the medical clinic in the village. A large rectangular grass playing field was surrounded by single level primary school buildings. The deputy headmaster came to greet us and I could see some children peering out of their classrooms to catch a glimpse of our unfamiliar faces. I was glad to hear that the government provides free education to primary and secondary school age children but further education still requires to be funded either privately or by scholarships. We walked over to the grass area in front of the primary school to talk. The classrooms looked basic but just as good if not better than I had seen in a private school in Nepal. A representative of the DFGFI accompanied us on the tour. He was in charge of the support given to the medical clinic but also had some knowledge of the education support. The DFGFI supports the school by building classes and providing some of the provisions such as extra books. Computers for the library are also something that is planned for the near future. A man called Joseph from the DFGFI visits regularly and teaches the children about conservation. This is something extra that these children get that is not in taught in regular government schools. Field excursions are also provided. I heard a whistle blow and this signaled break time. Within minutes we were surrounded by smiling little faces looking at us curiously.

Primary school children in Bisate.

When the children began to push each other to get closer a teacher with a cane began to walk towards them and they scattered towards all corners of the field. Any time a camera was about to take a picture they ran to get in the photo and cheered when they heard the shutter click. I noticed one beautiful little girl with hair cut as short as the boys wearing a yellow skirt and wine coloured velvet top staring at me. I smiled at her and she shyly looked away at the ground. Over the next 5 minutes she got closer to me until eventually she was on my left side looking up at me with the most beautiful big eyes. I put my arm around her shoulder to give her a little hug, she smiled and then the whistle went to signal the end of break time. Two minutes later the field was empty again.

We visited a primary 2 class (age 7) and I could hardly swallow the lump in my throat as I walked in the class. The children sat 3 to a bench. The room was 3 benches wide and 5 deep. I’d never seen a room of such adorable and innocent faces. The deputy headmaster explained that we were friends of the DFGFI and that we’d come to visit them. They were learning math. The children don’t get taught English until later in primary school so he asked them to sing a song in Kinyarwanda, one of the main languages of Rwanda.

One of the P2 classes in Bisate.

One little boy sang a short song by himself then the whole class sang their national anthem. Behind the lens of my camera as I took a picture my eyes were welling up. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. We applauded them and thanked them in Kinyarwanda before moving on to the see the secondary school.

The secondary school was an L shaped single storey building situated on a small hill above the primary school. Outside on the grass pupils of S5, the oldest year, sat spread out on the grass taking a test. They did their test like this to prevent cheating which was more likely in the classroom where they sat close together. I couldn’t imagine a better place to concentrate. The area was peaceful and sunny and looking down on them was the volcano Visoke. Not far from here was where Dian Fossey set up the Karisoke™ Research Centre on September 24, 1967 between Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke. Thankfully our presence didn’t disturb the class doing their test.

We went into the class S4 where we found students of languages. The class was noticeably smaller than the primary school class with around 25 students. We introduced ourselves and talked with the students. Most of them were too shy to speak up so two boys at the front of the class did most of the talking for everyone else. They explained what they were studying and told us about their hopes for future jobs. Girls also attended classes with the boys and I was told there are actually more girls than boys in Rwanda so there’s a strong focus on their education. After some chat, exchanging of emails and photos we moved on to see the clinic.

The Ecosystem Health Programme of the DFGFI aims to create a healthy environment for people and gorillas by working with local communities to develop health care, food and clean water, and providing education about disease prevention. This has included a programme to reduce the cases of intestinal parasites that can affect humans and gorillas. The DFGFI recognized that in keeping the trackers and their families healthier this would result in less risk of the gorillas contracting diseases. However, the clinic is still extremely basic but has improved a lot since the DFGFI became involved. I was told that previously mothers would give birth in the clinic and rats would come up through the floor and eat the placenta. Men, women and children who were admitted would all be kept in the same room but now thanks to the DFGFI they have separate rooms and clean water to take medications with. Unfortunately the solar power wiring was knocked out by lightning recently and needs fixed and a kitchen is required for families to make food for their relatives who have been admitted. The “kitchen” right now is a stone shed with 2 wooden benches inside and a place in the corner to build a fire. It really makes you appreciate what we in the west have come to expect from our healthcare system.

I thanked the tiny nurse that had showed us around the clinic in Kinyarwanda which she seemed to appreciate as she looked surprised that I’d spoken in her language then gave me a big hug, smiled widely and asked my name.

We left Bisate and headed back on the road to Kigali with the familiar sound of children shouting behind us and I gave them a big wave out of the window. I really hope to return again.

We pulled up to the Serena Hotel in Kigali. I was sad to have left the Virunga Mountains and the gorillas behind. I also thought I was going to be saying goodbye to Amon at this point. We checked in and he told Lynn and Fran that someone would come for them tomorrow to take them to the airport. I was waiting for him to tell me who my guide was going to be for my next adventure. Fran asked if he would be joining us for dinner. I was disappointed to hear him say that he couldn’t but my disappointment soon turned to happiness when he said he had to organize my trip south and that he would be guiding me for the next 4 days. I had a farewell dinner with Lynn and Fran that evening and got some rest before the next leg of the journey. 

Part 2 and more photos and video from Volcanoes National Park coming soon. :)

Tags: africa, community, conservation, forest, golden monkey, gorilla, lodge, volcano


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Close encounter with the number 1 silverback of the Sabinyo Group.

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