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Chapter 31 - Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda, plus Uganda & Kenya

By Neil and Nikki

sunny 26 °C

Introduction

Trekking up to see the highly endangered gorillas of northern Rwanda has been an absolute highlight of our trip. We spent an incredible 1 hour sitting with the Amhora family, that included one huge silverback, about eight female gorillas (that we saw) and the most adorable and playful baby. To see a family of Gorillas from a distance of a few metres (when they weren’t rolling over the ground toward you!) is to have an ancient connection with our humanity. And, yes, that bundle of curly black fuzz was the star of the visit! She was so playful and full of energy. So cute!

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The beautiful baby gorilla, about 5 months old, stole the show jumping on this elders, rollicking around and putting on a show for the tourists.

After a fantastic time with Jacob and Anne in Cameroon, we jumped onto a 16 day truck trip run by Intrepid to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.

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A map of our overland trip from Nairobi to the National Parque de Volcanes in northern Rwanda.

Intrepid, and various other companies, run overland trips around various parts of the world using vehicles like this:

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That’ll be Reah with the truck then! Twenty’ish seats, internal lockers for backpacks and external compartments for tents, cooking equipment, tables, chairs, food, etc.

The group can be up to 22 people but fortunately in our case it was only 15, which was the perfect number, and a great group of people.

We booked two overland trips in Africa before we left home. One through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda to visit the mountain gorillas and the other from Nairobi to Cape Town via Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The tours ended up being compromise between myself and Nik. I originally wanted to do an overland camping trip all the way to Cape Town. Nik gave me a look. The look said we will have been on the road for 10.5 months by that stage, we will be quite tired, and you want me to put up a tent for 57 nights. The look promised death. So, the compromise was to do a 16 day camping trip to Rwanda and then an accommodated tour (i.e. budget lodges and rooms in camp grounds) to Cape Town. We would camp at the beginning and have some luxury at the end….

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The Intrepid travellers on our Rwanda gorillas trip, including our cook, OT (middle front), guide Edwin (middle back) and driver Ben (sitting in the truck!)

The first thing that got me when we started the Intrepid tour was the high elevation of East Africa. Having come from Douala which is at sea level, I didn’t understand that East Africa is on a massively high plain. This means cooler weather and less humidity, which made the whole trip much more bearable, particularly when we had to camp in tents. Take a look at this elevation map of East Africa.

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An elevation map of Africa. As you can see East Africa is quite high and therefore, thankfully, cooler than we anticipated.

The next thing is that we noticed was the lack of humidity which had a huge impact on the appearance of buildings and infrastructure in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. The entire time we were in these countries we didn’t go below 1000m in elevation. What we saw in Cameroon, also on the equator where land was at sea level, was a losing battle against mould and damp. After only 12 months all of the buildings would start turn black, even where they had been painted. It is amazing the difference that the lack of humidity made to the presentation of the buildings in these countries. They just looked better maintained and hence there was certainly the appearance of greater wealth.

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Kenya

How’s your geology knowledge then? Seldom is geology as stark as it is when you look down at the Great Rift Valley just north of Nairobi.

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Our second view of the Great Rift Valley, about an hour north east of Nairobi. Our first view was of course from Palestine looking over the Dead Sea.

What happened? Well, I’m glad you asked! It started about 22 – 25 million years ago when the Somali and Nubian plates started to move apart. It is estimated that in another 100 million years, the African continent will split apart completely! For now, it is a truly stunning natural wonder of the world.
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A diagram showing the extent of the Rift Valley within Africa. It actually extends all the way up to Syria. We are following it from Nairobi to the Okavango Delta.

After the Rift Valley we headed off to Lake Nakuru National Park. It’s Kenya’s second most visited National Park and for good reason. Take a look…

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Looking out onto Lake Nakuru. If you have x-ray eyes you be able to see three blobs to the right of the lake. They are two adult White Rhinos and a baby Rhino.

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No, honestly! There are White Rhinos in this photo!

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And a mother and juvenile zebra!

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And giraffes!

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And Antelopey things!

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And other wildlife!

After a rather fabulous game drive we reached our first camp site of the trip. We knew it was going to be basic, but that night the generator and water didn’t work, so things were a little more basic than we expected, especially the whole needing to go to the loo in the middle of the night! The up side of staying in a game park is that you are surrounded by wild animals such a buffalo, baboons, hyenas, lions and rhino who will come and explore your camp during the night. The downside is that you are surrounded by wild animals who will come and explore your camp during the night when you wish to go to the toilet. We held on…..

I also rediscovered the joy of camping again, a thin mattress, cold tent, no shower. Yup, we lasted one night before I snapped and went for the upgrade. Out of the 16 nights on tour, we camped two. It turns out we are not such intrepid travellers….

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The next stop was the Kalinzu Forest Reserve to have a look for some chimpanzees.

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We got up at 5.30am to do a walking tour in the forest to find some of the families of chimps that live there. It turns out that they find the chimps on most tours. What they didn’t tell us beforehand was that you would wander in circles in the hot and humid forest for 3 hours in order to find them and that they would then be at the very top of some high trees. You know we like to play spot the animal in our photos, but these were not even worth the effort. So here is a chimp hand print instead….

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That’s a chimpanzee hand print. Its about as good as it got. Moving right along…

We then had a bit of a drive for a couple of days to the Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda, via overnight stops in Eldoret in Kenya and Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Political situation in Kenya

Last time I was in Kenya with my sons Alex and Michael, the election process resulted in bloody conflict between the two major tribes in Kenya.

Once again with my superb timing we managed to arrive in the country again at election time. However, while the process was once again contested and for the first time in African history a Supreme Court annulled an election result, the second election came out with a clear decision that Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent, had been re-elected President. The process was to a large extent peaceful (there were riots leading up to the first election in which some people were killed, but not after the second) and certainly we saw no conflict during our stay in Kenya.

How is life for the average Kenyan?

- HIV/ AIDS infection rate is 6.3%
- Life Expectancy = 55 years
- Literacy Rate = 61%
- Doctors/ 5,000 people = 0.8 (Cameroon = 1 doctor/ 5,000 people)
- GDP = US$75 billion (Cameroon = US$29 billion, Australia = US$1,260 billion)
- GDP/ person = US$1,610/ person/ year (Cameroon = US$1,240, Australia = US$51,000).
- Corruption rating = 144th out of 176 countries (Cameroon = 144th, Australia = 12th)

Uganda

Uganda wins the prize for having had probably the loopiest, most violent, most xenophobic of African dictators (I know there is a line up for this, but bear with me). This psychopath:

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Psychopath Idi Amin or, to refer to him as he preferred people to refer to him:

“His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa and in Uganda in Particular”.

Those of you who’ve read or seen the fictionalised work “The Last King of Scotland” will know what I mean. He led the first of Uganda’s reigns of terror. An estimated 300,000 people were murdered over between 1971 and 1979, often in really terrible ways. In 1972 the 70,000 citizens of Indian ancestry were given 90 days to leave the country. Inflation ran at 1000%. People left he country in droves. Animals in the wildlife parks were slaughtered. Eventually he attacked Tanzania and that was his downfall. The Tanzanians invaded Uganda and deposed Idi Amin who retired to Saudi Arabia until his death in 2003.

HOWEVER! After a decade of hideousness Yoweni Musuveni got into power and Uganda has been going from strength to strength ever since, notwithstanding that his rule can best be described as a “benevolent dictatorship”. Looking at the important statistics, here they are:

- HIV/ AIDS infection rate is 6.8% (down from 30% in the 1980’s)
- Life Expectancy = 53 years
- Literacy Rate = 67%
- Doctors/ 5,000 people = 0.4 (Cameroon = 1 doctor/ 5,000 people)
- GDP = US$26 billion (Cameroon = US$29 billion, Australia = US$1,260 billion)
- GDP/ person = US$640/ person/ year (Cameroon = US$1,240, Australia = US$51,000).
- Corruption rating = 151st out of 176 countries (Cameroon = 144th, Australia = 12th)

Once again, and extraordinarily disappointingly, there is vast amount of money going into the pockets of corrupt people.

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Our first tourist stop in Uganda was the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

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Looking over Queen Elizabeth National Park, Western Uganda

QE National Park is located in the south-west of Uganda, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC - formerly Zaire). The conflict in the DRC makes the conflict in the Central African Republic look like a minor disagreement in a kindergarten.

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Here is a map of Uganda showing QENP, bottom left, the capital Kampala, as well as Mbarara and Jinja that we visited on our return trip.

The wildlife in Queen Elizabeth NP was wonderful and startling up close and personal:

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Elephant crossing! We sat in awe watching him wander across the road, stopping for a munch and drink from the puddles.

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And this beautiful guy (the male bulls tend to live a solitary life) who sat next to our truck and had lunch for 10 minutes before moving on.

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A cheeky black baboon who had stolen some watermelon and was hiding from his friends. Every time we vacated a camp site families of baboons would turn up and start to scavenge anything that had been left behind. We were very careful!

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And hippos in Lake Edward….

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But the weather looked to be closing in and is that a tornado?

How about a spot of lunch?

What about food I hear you ask? Generally, we’d stop somewhere on the roadside to have lunch involving sandwiches or salad. We were on a roster and each day you would help cook, wash the utensils, wash the pots and pans or clean the truck. It was a great way for everyone to contribute and make our lunch and dinner stops much quicker. Here we are at a random road stop:

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With our big white truck, we were quite the spectacle and the kids could see us coming from miles away…

Sometimes the guitar would come out when we stopped, which would encourage the local kids to come for a sing and a dance.

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I think we might have created a new category of crimes against humanity as we have only one kids song with actions and we have now indoctrinated children across Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda with the Wiggles!

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Although looking a little shy here, the kids came up afterwards to each have a turn on the guitar. They also sang a little song for us too.

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And wanted to pose for the camera. They loved to see themselves on the screen. We had lots of school children in uniforms wander passed when we were with this group in their mismatched clothing. It made us wonder why they were not in school but we had problems communicating with them in order to ask. They were beautiful and friendly though.

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Rwanda

This country is beautiful. The laws around safety and littering are the most stringent in Africa and it has repeatedly won the cleanest country in Africa award for the last few years. Everyone leaves whatever they are doing every Thursday morning, whether they are at work or home or school, and cleans their local area. There is no litter. It is cleaner than Australia.

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However, it is the events of the 100 days after 7th April 1994 that are at the front of everyone’s mind when Rwanda is mentioned. It is very sad that such a beautiful country is synonymous with such appalling events. Our first visit after we arrived in the country was to the genocide museum in the capital Kigali.

Rwandan Genocide – A Million Tutsis and moderate Hutus murdered in 100 days.

I mentioned in Chapter 23 of this Blog “Riga to Berlin” that, despite the genocidal murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War, there have been between 1956 and 2016 Forty-three, yes 43 further genocides resulting in the murder 50 million people! One of these is the Rwandan genocide where in the 100 days after 7th April 1994 one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Interahamwe militias – gangs of youths armed with machetes, guns and other weapons.

The Rwanda Genocide was extraordinarily brutal; churches full of people – men, women, and children burnt to death, men, women and children hacked apart with machetes by rampaging mobs. Rape, torture, humiliation.

It was beyond my comprehension.

What was so sad about watching the testimonials from survivors and the hope they had about heling prevent this happening again was the fact that the front of the newspapers is currently covered with the genocide currently happening in Myanmar.

Here is a view of one of the mass graves at the Rwandan Genocide Museum where TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND – 250,000 people who were murdered in the genocide were buried. Most are unidentified

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The gardens of the Rwanda Genocide Museum. A sobering experience…

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The Gorillas!

However, as I said, Rwanda is a beautiful country and much has been done to rehabilitate both the community and country since 1994. The biggest drawcard for tourists into the country is by far the mountain gorillas. First discovered in 1906, and later made famous by Dian Fossey, the mountain gorillas extend across the highland mountains of the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. You can visit the gorillas in both Uganda and Rwanda, although the latter has a reputation of a greater experience, probably due to the ongoing research and facilities enabled by Fossey’s legacy.

Visiting with our gorilla family was absolutely the highlight of the trip. There are less than 400 mountain gorillas living in the Parc National des Volcans, and only 800 remaining in the wild. Each day up to 10 groups of 8 people are allowed into the park to visit with a one family of gorillas each. There are 22 gorilla families, with the remaining 12 only kept under remote surveillance, with no interaction with tourists or guides.

Each trekking group has two guides, a group of optional porters for those with heavy bags and a team of 2 - 4 of trackers. The trackers are permanent trackers for each of the gorilla families and each day they track their movements from afar and record their observations. As the gorillas do not move at night, the trackers follow the gorillas to their sleeping point each day and then go back and find them in the morning to keep an eye on their movements. When there are tourist groups assigned to their gorilla family, the trackers phone through the location to the guides.

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This elevation map shows the mountainous highlands in the west of Rwanda. The gorillas live in the mountains at the very north of the country where it intersects with Uganda and the DRC.

There is the option of doing a short, medium or long walk in order to visit with the gorillas. We chose the medium walk which was supposed to be about 3 to 4 hours long. As there had been rain every afternoon, we thought this would be the best chance for us to see the gorillas and get back before the daily inundation. The short group expected a walk of 1 – 2 hours and the long group 5 -6 hours.

For us it was a 45 minute drive from the guide headquarters to the trek start point. We started the hike from about 2500m elevation and then walked for about 2 hour walk up through the forest. It was a muddy and slippery hike up. We were looking for a group called:

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We were looking for the Amahoro group of Gorillas

It was a good hike and at times a bit challenging due to the mud and the stinging nettles. We had been warned about the nettles but nothing quite prepares you for the first sting, which can make it through trousers, shoes and shirts! Long trousers were definitely necessary and I would have worn thicker ones had I known.

However, it was completely worth it as the first sight of the gorillas was wonderful.

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The silverback of the Amohoro group watching over the female and baby gorillas in his family.

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This little one completely stole the show!

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They were happy to simply lounge and roll around with each other for about half an hour before they decided to move off to eat.

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We were meant to stay about 7 meters away from the family although at times this was not possible as they moved and there was little room in among the bamboo. But one look from the silverback and you would quietly move back as far as possible to give them space!

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The guides communicated our presence to the gorillas using grunts and other noises. They seemed very comfortable with us being there as we huddled at one end of the clearing to simply watch and take photos. I have to say the videos were the best, as they capture the movement and fun of the group. We will try post some up soon!

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This was our tracker that sat with us while we watched the family. He communicated our peaceful intent to the silverback and, as you can see, was rather relaxed about the whole situation….

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And our guides who led us up to have this great experience...

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I don’t know how these clowns made it into the group!

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And Nik and me after we came down the mountain. You can probably see from the look on our faces what an amazing experience it was…

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Rwanda – The Statistics

And just in case you were wondering, here are those statistics for Rwanda….

- HIV/ AIDS infection rate is unknown.
- Life Expectancy = 60 years
- Literacy Rate = 71%
- Doctors/ 5,000 people = 1.3 (Cameroon = 1 doctor/ 5,000 people)
- GDP = US$8.4 billion (Cameroon = US$29 billion, Australia = US$1,260 billion)
- GDP/ person = US$730/ person/ year (Cameroon = US$1,240, Australia = US$51,000).
- Corruption rating = 55th out of 176 countries (Cameroon = 144th, Australia = 12th) - HOOORRRAHHH!!!

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The Intrepid trip and the way back.

Nik and I have both been on overland truck trips run by Intrepid before and there is no question they run a tight ship.

The truck is as comfortable as it can be and spacious. There was a locker for our backpack and, importantly nowadays, lots of power points for computers, phones, etc. The hygiene procedures; hand washing before eating, as you get on the bus, before food preparation, washing food in sterilising water before preparation, washing of dishes in soapy water, rinsing, then rinsing in boiling water and “flapping dry”, is excellent.

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The crew making lunch at one of our many pitstops along the way. On such a long overland trip, these breaks from the truck were a blessing.

We were lucky on our trip to have a particularly good group of people. A mix of Aussies, an American, some POMs, and a Kiwi. As you’d expect there were some of the group that you “click” with. For us the first day was a crack up. I’d been working in Queensland with a great bloke called Stu. He and his wife Kylie had come down to Melbourne for a weekend and we’d had a great time.

Day one and we’re sat next to a couple from Brisbane. It took about two hours of chatting away before Justine says to us “Are you ‘Cape to cape’?!?!” It turns out they are best mates with Stu and Kylie and had heard about this crazy couple traveling from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope! What were the chances we would be on the same tour?!

The rest of the group were great too! On these trips you meet so many interesting people. Knowledgeable. Intelligent. Fun. And my advice is, if there is someone you don’t get on with you just focus on the people with whom you get on with better!

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Our intrepid group of travellers enjoying a well earned beverage at the end of a long driving day in the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Of course, with all the driving we were doing, we saw a lot of road action. In fact, we saw countless trucks which had rolled off the roads, nearly all of them petroleum tankers! Which of the 6 accidents we saw should I write about? The one where a car tried to overtake us and had a head on collision with a truck right next to us?! That really was a shock and all of us had our seatbelts on after that one.

Our driver Ben was really good. Careful. Not too fast, not too slow. Plus it also helps being in a truck. If you do hit something, or something hits you, the truck is rather big! In all it wasn’t nerve wracking but we would never drive there ourselves!

We crossed the equator 4 times on the trip, as well as making 4 border crossings! Uganda was country 41 and Rwanda country 42!

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Hamming it up on the second equator crossing in Uganda.

On the way back we had a full days stop in a place called Jinja, famous for white water rafting and bungee jumping. We decided to take this as a down day.

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The obligatory toe shot….

However Jinja is also located on the Nile and there was a cruise and walk that you could do to the source of the Nile. We were going to go on a sunset cruise but the heavens opened and it absolutely TIPPED down with rain!

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Down there is the Nile!

So we decided it was best to stick with the Gin & Tonic and the Guinness and leave the source of the Nile till next time…

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A bonfire, cheese, olives and a little bit of guitar for our last night together.

Safe and sound back in Nairobi, we had a day off before starting our LAST HURRAHH! After 323 days it was time to head down to Cape Town! 41 days on a truck! Cant wait…..

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Posted by capetocape2017 10:02 Archived in Rwanda Tagged kenya rwanda gorillas uganda amin idi Comments (1)

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