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Roaming about Rwanda

sunny 31 °C

After initially postponing my Rwandan escapade in favour of the white waters of the Nile, I finally boarded the bus for the long, winding journey to Kigali - again booked into seat 13.

So after a cracking start in the morning (the taxi driver was early, which is rather odd in East Africa), I jumped aboard the "Executive" coach. Now, normally I'd think of an executive coach being full of stiff suits lapping up the air-conditioned comfort of the reclining chair filled luxury coach whilst listening to acid jazz. But this was Uganda, so the only luxury was the bottled water provided to the passengers and the in-flight (for we were very nearly flying for much of the journey) entertainment - an eclectic blend of East African mega-hits, Kung Fu movies and quality Nigerian soapies, blaring loudly as if proof of the soundsystem's virility.

Still it was a rather pleasant journey; ridiculously speedy (even with the speed governor monitoring the speedometer), but pleasant. My seatmate was a precocious 6 yr old with Michelin-man folds. He gawked at the pictures of gorillas in my book, and took great delight in peeling patches of sunburnt skin from my legs, before deciding to use my shoulder as a pillow and drifting off into cloud-cuckoo land.

So I bid Uganda farewell (sniffles) as the bus wound and rose up into the verdant green terrace-lined hills of the Rwandan countryside, with the misty volcanic Virungas lingering in the distance. Rwanda is one of Africa's most densely populated nations (something like 300/square km), and 90% of its economy relies on (largely subsistence) agriculture, so it is unsurprising that every measly little piece of land seems to be cultivated (mostly tea), and the rivers are chocolate brown from siltation. The snaking road into Rwanda was spectacularly beautiful nonetheless.

Suddenly, there were scores of children running alongside of the bus, with stretched-out arms waving furiously at us. Apparently, these kids run after the bus, in the hope that well-intended passengers will throw them food/water/money etc. from the windows...but of course, many accidents occur as children frantically run close to passing vehicles...so as our vehicle pulled to a grinding halt on a hair-pin curve, I feared that one such child had been killed. Suddenly, the road was teeming with people who had scrambled up from the nearby village....a young man had been killed as he tandemed down the hill on his friend's bicycle...hit by a passing vehicle...he couldn't have been more than 19...

The rest of the journey to Kigali, Rwanda's capital, was fairly solemn and thankfully uneventful.

Upon arrival in Kigali, I headed straight for the Rwandan Tourist Office to try my luck at getting a permit to track the mountain gorillas in Parc Nacional des Vulcans, on the border with the Democratic (?!) Republic of Congo. Thankfully, they still had 2 permits remaining for 2 days later, so I coughed up the small fee of $US375 (!!!!!!!) to nab my permit to track them. Now for that money, you get to track to (hopefully) see the gorillas, and upon coming into contact with them, you only get to spend an hour with them! Seems crazy no? But it is one of those "once in a lifetime
experiences"....and you can't really put a price on that (still it is
OUTRAGEOUS, especially considering the local community only see like 25% of that).

So after a quick wander about Kigali (not the most interesting of capitals, I have to say), I boarded a share taxi out to Ruhengiri, the launch town for trips to visit the gorillas. I'd been warned by some fellow backpackers in Kampala, that to actually get up to the national park was going to cost me a nasty whack of $50-60 for the taxi ride (no public transport, so the taxi drivers charge through the roof), so I roamed about Ruhengiri in search of other mzungus who may want to share the cost...but alas, there were none to be found. It seemed I was the only lone traveller without a
ride :(

And so it was, I was up at the crack of dawn to board my ludicrously overpriced taxi up to National Park HQ. Since it was so proposterously expensive, I figured I'd be the first one there to nab my place in tracking the Susa group, the largest family group trackable. So after getting there, showing my permit, bagging my place to see the Susa group, and being briefed about gorilla tracking etiquette ("If you need to sneeze, please turn away" etc.) I got back in the taxi, drove BACK to the town of Ruhengiri (!!k*?p!x!!), and then upwards to the village closest to the Susa group. After a quick wander through the village, we began the 2 hour ascent into the forest - firstly through potato fields, then into a thick bamboo forest, and finally a dense forest carpeted with thistles, stinging nettles and tortuous vines.

Suddenly we were hit by a pungent smell.... a manky melange of body odour and faecal material .....and then the glimpse of a huge brown hairy mass ambling through the nearby scrub. And then after heading 20metres or so downhill, we came into a large clearing, to see the whole family! 40 gorillas together -some lazily reclining on the nettle carpeted floor of the forest, others gnawing on straws of bush celery, others pondering the new age of digital technology, and the younger ones enjoying a bit of rough-and-tumble whilst their elders looked on. Occasionally the gorillas looked over at us, but mostly they seemed rather nonchalant about our presence - I guess it's boring when you see humans every day!! At one point, when we got a little close to one of the newborns, the head silverback (patriach) charged at us - a little scary, considering how ginormous the mountain gorillas are, but most of the time we spent captivated and amused by their antics - fighting, dancing around the vines (like a maypole), and a lot of showing off!

After gorilla tracking, and being chased by screaming children in the village, I headed back to Kigali, and took a boda boda (moto taxi) out to the genocide museum...this museum acts as both a memorial to those who were killed (1/10 of the total population) during the genocide, and an educational centre for people wanting to try and understand a little of what happened... not that it is ever possible for one to fathom why seemingly ordinary people of all ages/gender/background end up slaughtering people they have happily co-existed with for hundreds/thousands of years with machetes....

To give a bit of the history (and I must apologize as this is much truncated)... Rwanda was a Belgian colony...the Belgians favoured the Tutsi minority (firstly, as a minority they were perceived as being easier to control; secondly, they were considered to be more European due to their paler skin and thinner noses) and the country was largely run by a Tutsi government...when independence came about in 1962, a Hutu majority came into power...lots of ensuing probs between Hutus and Tutsis occurred (by the way, Hutus and Tutsis look essentially the same and speak the same language - and in most cases, they are completely indistinguishable)...mass slaughterings of Hutus occurred in the neighbouring Tutsi governed nation of Burundi....massive influxes of refugees from Burundi followed...the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Force (the RPF) invaded from Uganda (led by the current Rwandan President Kagame and fellow refugees who had fled in a previous pogrom)...anti Tutsi sentiment became rife and the government run Radio Television Libre began espousing ethnic cleansing of the Tutsis...the RPF made inroads in Rwanda and eventually the Hutu led government agreed to a multi-party constitution....this pissed a lot of people off...more senseless violence...UN peacekeepers came into the country...both the presidents of Rwanda (Hutu) and Burundi (Tutsi) were killed in the same plane crash on the way back from talks in Tanzania, presumably shot down by Hutu rebels, and then everything just went haywire...the UN fled from Rwanda as things heated up...1/10 of the population were killed...2 million refugees fled into neighbouring countries. Whilst many of the genocidaire (leaders of the genocide) have been tried and imprisoned, many more remain in hiding abroad, whilst others remain in Rwanda...walking down the street, driving taxis, working in shops/hotels/schools.... just like everyday ordinary people.....which is exactly what they were......

After my short time in Rwanda, I bussed back to Kampala for the weekend, and was all set to go back to Kenya, when I met some Canadians at the bar at Backpackers. Mike, Matt and Cathy had gotten a jeep specially kitted out in South Africa, and were half way through their Cape to Cairo journey...turned out they were to be driving west the next day to Kibale National Park... and so I joined them to spend a soggy night in the beautiful rainforest of Kibale National Park (apparently with the greatest primate concentration in East Africa?), before stopping off for a few days on the splendid crater lakes of Western Uganda. Here I paddled a dugout canoe about Lake Nyabikere, chatted with the friendly staff at CVK Resort (I was the only guest there!!!!), listened to the noisy frogs (Nyabikere = lake of frogs), watched the antics of the vervet monkeys by the lakeside, and hiked between Nyabikere and Nkuruba through villages filled with goats, tea plantations, and children asking for pens!

From here it was a post bus (yes, a bus delivering the post about the country) back to Kampala, one last weekend in Kampala, a long journey back to Nairobi (for the tyre started to fall off and what should have been an 11 hour journey on the posh Scandinavian bus service, turned into a shaky 16 hour nightmare!), a day shopping in downtown Nairobi with some (whining) Pommies, an overnight train to Mombasa, and a few days on beautiful, beautiful Tiwi beach (topping up thetan!).... before flying back to the UK...

Which is where I am now...in London...saving up for my next holiday!

Bel xox

Posted by Backpasher 16:05 Archived in Rwanda Tagged backpacking

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