Rwanda. For my generation, the name still conjures horrific images of a ferocious civil war and the genocide of what many estimate a million people. After a military victory ended the brutality, Rwanda seemed to drop out of the media and fade from attention. Unsurprisingly, this small, central African country has never come up on my travel radar until living in Nigeria, where a few intrepid teachers and expats have returned with wondrous stories of mountainous landscapes and exciting creature encounters. The weeks of school since winter vacation were monotonous enough to be devoid of blog fodder, and we were desperate for a commercial break from Lagos. Our travel agent this trip was our friend Darlene, who researched a number of tours until she landed one that would fit our group of five adults and four kids. Soon we were flying east over the rainforests of Africa, which began as a vast ocean forest of green, then wrinkled into the central African mountains, spread below our plane like a disheveled emerald blanket. I swear Adrian and I had every intention of looking through the itinerary before we left, but the frowns of disapproval from Darlene and Sarah when we didn’t know what we were doing day to day were worth it.
We landed in the capital city Kigali, draped across Rwandan hills and valleys. After the genocide and a governmental shuffle, reforms were put in place to dilute ethnic conflict and recover the country’s development, one of which prohibited the use of disposable plastics and initiate monthly community cleaning days. Kigali’s streets were spotless and well maintained. Drivers politely followed street rules and car horn yelling was minimal; shockingly refreshing from the chaos and dilapidation of Lagos. We were met by Yesin, our guide for the week and driver of our awesome, pimped-out-for-safaris, extended Toyota Land Cruiser with enough room for all of us and a top that lifts for game viewing. Our first night was spent at the Hotel des Mille Collines, notoriously famous as the Hotel Rwanda. Although its history simmered in the back of our minds, the hotel was beautiful and we sat on the patio for beers and dinner in the comfortably cooler montane air.
Our first destination was Akagera National Park in the east, where the Kagera River acts as the boundary between Rwanda and Tanzania. This is the only savanna region of mountainous Rwanda, and hosts sweeping vistas and an introductory sampling of African safari animals. The park is currently going through substantial improvements after years of neglect and a loss of almost a third of its land area to refugees returning after the genocide. Lion were reintroduced recently and plans are in place to establish a small colony of the endangered black rhino. After a quick drive through the breathtaking Rwandan countryside, we visited the welcome center, then popped up the roof of the truck to search for African wildlife. Even the dirt roads were in good shape, and they gave us views of zebra, giraffe, baboons, a variety of antelope, and monkeys. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the northern end of the park and enjoyed Akagera’s famous majestic views. It was a perfect first safari for the kids and these adults are easily entertained.
We spent the night in Ruzizi Tented Lodge just inside the park along the lake. Prepared to rough it a bit, the “tents” were actually luxurious cabins with canvas walls on the front half. A boardwalk led from the rustic lobby out to a large deck overlooking the water for our meals and then meandered through the bush to the tents, cleverly isolated from each other by walls of vegetation, yet each facing the water. Once settled in, we lazed around on the deck watching Africa go by as the sun set and dinner was prepared. The kids even roasted marshmallows in the deck’s fire pit before bed. The night was filled with a mosaic of African nocturnal wildlife, so similar to my home in Liwonde National Park, I awoke at dawn not quite sure whether I was in Rwanda or Malawi. I watched the sun rise gently over the lake as the crepuscular sounds of birds and hippos filled the air. After the rest of the troops were roused and a quick breakfast, we went on a boat tour along the lake to see a variety of birds and a few hippos.
We returned to Kigali before heading north to our next Rwandan destination, the Virunga Mountains in Volcanoes National Park, situated along the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the northwest corner. Although just a few degrees south of the equator, the elevation was high enough to keep the days comfortable and the nights cool enough for long sleeves and pants. The ride was beautiful once again, and with blond Sarah sitting in the front accompanying the occasionally carsick Cian, we were a spectacle for the locals, and we waved out the window for most of the ride like a perpetual royal parade. The primary reason for our trip- mountain gorillas. Due to poaching and political instability, the last mountain gorilla census counted 900 individuals. This national park is only one of two locations in the world where this critically endangered species can be encountered safely. After their life changing experience with the orangutangs of Sumatra, the girls were determined to see another group of great apes. Our stay for the next few nights was the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, nestled within the five volcanoes of the region.
Gorillas are gentle creatures in general, yet still wild, strong and unpredictable, so the minimum age to enter the park is fifteen. We planned on tag-teaming gorilla treks with watching the kids at the mountain lodge. But first, Darlene and Sarah pilgrimaged up the mountain to visit Dian Fossey’s grave. Here’s special guest writer Sarah:
My whole life I have admired activists. Maybe because I get anxious at the mere thought of confrontation, I was particularly attracted to Dian Fossey, a woman whom was anything but demure at a time when others were following 1950’s women’s roles: aspiring to marriage and children and cultivating Marilyn Monroe’s wavy curls and pleated dresses. Fossey was shocking. She openly stated she liked animals more than people, she had an abortion since “you can’t be a cover girl for National Geographic and be pregnant” and she personally removed poaching traps in the mountains of Rwanda. After watching Gorillas in the Mist, I had fantasies of traveling to remote places, fighting for those who had no voice, and doing SOMETHING to turn things around in a world spiraling towards environmental dire straits.
I was so thankful that one of my travel companions to Rwanda was Darlene. She is a strong woman who has taught me so much about life, and who shares my love of animals and my passion for environmental causes. When planning our trip to see the last of the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, we knew immediately that we wanted to take on the trek to Dian Fossey’s grave in Karisoke (meaning “two volcanoes”) and that we wanted to do it alone. Luckily, the boys agreed to take the kids caving, silently understanding this journey was important to us.
Before our journey, we met our guide, Francis, who sized us up. He started our trek by stating matter-of-factly, “Rule number one is there is no complaining. Please don’t complain. It’s going to be a very hard trek. And it’s going to rain. And it’s going to be muddy.” Okay, Mr. Personality. Don’t underestimate this mom.
It WAS a hard trek (did Fossey really do this in her 50’s on a regular basis?), but Darlene and I kept a good attitude as our jeep headed towards the cloud forest. We were hiking to Fossey’s camp, where two volcanoes meet. I first refused a walking stick, but Francis said I would need it. No arguing with this guy. And he was right.
After 30 minutes of scampering up steep rocks slick with mud on a narrow, dark path, we emerged covered with stinging nettles to a view of tall trees, smokey with mist, as far as the eye could see. With the base of our hike at already 10,000 feet above sea level, I was happy to take a brief rest and catch my breath when we suddenly noticed a movement to our right. A silverback had come down from the trees to watch us and make sure we were not a threat to his family. We caught a glimpse of him through the trees. No words can describe how amazing it is to lock eyes with a mountain gorilla. I will never forget it. You should do it yourself.
After a few minutes, we were told by Francis to move on. We had not paid the $750 park fee to see the gorillas that day (that would come tomorrow), and Rwanda is very strict about these rules. Gorillas can get our illnesses and contact is closely supervised. 10 gorilla families are for tourists to visit 1 hour a day (only 70 visitors are allowed in the park a day), but the silverback who came to see us was part of a group saved for research, the Dian Fossey Research Center in Rwanda is very protective of these other gorillas families. “Not for tourists,” Francis said.
Darlene and I laughed our way through the knee-deep mud and climbed up slippery rocks. We welcomed the rain, since we were drenched in sweat anyway. Francis kept a steady pace. When we got to Karisoke, after 2 ½ hours, the ground began to level. It was so quiet. After living in Lagos for the past 8 months, I relished the peacefulness. Only a soft breeze. I got the same feeling that I get in cemeteries. Like I have to keep my voice down. Like others are listening that I can’t see. It felt like a holy place.
We visited the remains of the different campsites, ending at her house where she was murdered. Each one now just a leveled, rectangular area covered with young green vegetation. We made our way to the gravesite. Dian Fossey had made a grave for the gorillas in her family who died during her time in Rwanda. She included on the stones the years they were alive. Francis was more talkative now. He told us how many died from poachers. How a few babies were buried here that Fossey fought to keep from going to zoos, and when they inevitably died at the zoos (mountain gorillas never live long in zoos, no one knows exactly why, but I can guess) they were shipped back to her for research. Some were buried here who had died more recently. Out of respect, the park still buries gorillas from Fossey’s “family” here.
Then, we came to Digit and Fossey’s graves. They are right next to each other. Darlene cried. I stood there just staring, remembering the movie and all the facts I know about these two deaths. I stood over Fossey’s grave. I thought, “Just below me is the body of the woman I admired so much as a child. What happened to her that night? Did she recognize the men who entered her house? What were her final thoughts? How would our world be different without her?” Darlene and I couldn’t get ourselves to smile for the photos we took there. We were both moved greatly by the enormity of what we were experiencing, of our surroundings.
We were much quieter on our way down the mountain. Much more thoughtful. Although, we did laugh a few times as we bumped into each other when sliding down the rocks and when I fell right into the mud. I kept seeing Fossey behind the trees, playing with the gorillas, being part of their family. I kept imagining dead gorillas on the ground, killed for their hands to be made into ashtrays and heads to be kept as trophies. Baby gorillas being carried away in burlap bags. Both the joy and the sadness in this forest’s past.
As our jeep bumped and rolled down the path back towards base, I ironically felt a sense of peace. It was a lifelong dream to make that trek. I had paid homage to a woman who, many researchers believe, is solely responsible for insuring that any mountain gorillas exist today. I thought back to the words on Fossey’s grave:
No One Loved Gorillas More
Rest in Peace Dear Friend
In This Sacred Ground
For You Are Home
Where You Belong
Meanwhile, the boys had planned (read: It had been planned that the boys were…) to take the kids to Musanze Caves, a series of lava tunnels nearby the park, until Yesin discovered you had to be twelve years old to enter. They didn’t have the necessary safety equipment and weren’t prepared to guide children. Yesin suggested we talk to the game warden directly, and with a few Jedi mind tricks and lots of disgusting sugary charm, I persuaded him to guinea pig our kids and see if children could navigate the caverns without dying. To be honest, the bat caves in Sumatra were far more treacherous and unattended than the Musanze Caves, so we boy adults weren’t concerned, even when I created and signed a liability form. (Notice there are no moms involved). Before entering the caves, we donned hardhats, headlamps, gloves, and kneepads, all gargantuan on the kids, then descended into the Earth. Caving has always been a favorite of mine when traveling and this one, with a floor and some walls reinforced with chiseled volcanic stone, soaring ceilings and forest plants dripping into sinkholes gave a Dungeons and Dragons ambiance to the caverns. The kids enjoyed themselves and were proud to be the first children to enter Musanze Caves.
Sarah, Adrian, and I set off early the next morning, past the farms and and huts to the edge of the forest. Our Rwandan guide, wielding his machete, carved a trail for us through the jungle, moving higher and higher up Sabyinyo volcano. The air was cool, fresh and humid at first but quickly warmed with the rising sun. After about an hour climb, we met with three local trackers, who took our packs and led us further into the mountain- we were only allowed to carry cameras at this point. It wasn’t much longer before the vegetation around us began to rustle and move on its own. We were suddenly surrounded by mountain gorillas, who seemed to fade in from the jungle. Lucky, the large silverback, ruled over the Hirwa group, which included females, young males and a number of youngsters of various ages. They ate, rolled, tumbled, climbed, and investigated around us as if we were invisible. The intimate encounter was one that you might see in a nature documentary. It wasn’t until our trek back down the mountain that we were able to really begin to absorb the experience.
That afternoon, Yesin took us up to view the twin lakes Ruhondo and Burera from a cliffside where a stone lodge and gardens reside. Although difficult to fully appreciate while contemplating gorillas, the leisurely stroll through the grounds was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. The two lakes are separated by a narrow strip of hills and the people living on the shores and islands still ply the waters in dugouts and fish with traditional nets.
Our next morning was lazy and calm, leaning back for awhile at the hotel’s breakfast buffet before adjourning to the deck overlooking the sprawling hotel grounds. The kids entertained themselves in the gardens, while Darlene and David took their turn to meet gorillas. Most days had been pretty active, so it was nice to have some quiet vacation time. The girls had purchased a number of bottles of wine in Kigali, but they had remained relatively untouched (the hotel’s beer stocks, however, were very touched). As it was David’s birthday, their return from the jungle for lunchtime proved to be the perfect opportunity to celebrate. After more wine bottles than we had anticipated, Yesin came around to remind us we were to visit Iby’iwacu, a traditional village in the area. Oops.
Quickly we corralled the kids, dumped them in the truck and headed to the village. From the comfort of the lodge’s deck we were abruptly greeted at the village gate by Rwandan warriors holding spears and dressed in indigenous clothing, chanting and dancing to African drums. We joined a procession through the warriors arched spears to the king’s hut, where David and Darlene were dressed as a queen and king, and we heard about the ways of the former Rwandan royals. We learned traditional healing from the village medicine man, saw the village bellows and witnessed a Rwandan wedding. Prior to arriving, we had bought goats for donation to some of the village’s more underprivileged families (a customary courtesy), and Yesin made sure to have them ready. It was a powerful moment watching our kids walk the goats to a villager clearly overwhelmed with appreciation. The afternoon was lively and fun, a perfect end activity in Rwanda and birthday for David.
On our way to the airport, we stopped at a traditional crafts co-op for a very unique souvenir. After the genocide, Rwandan women from the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa tribes came together and wove agaseke, what are now called peace baskets. They sat side by side, sharing the same materials and weaving in a tradition that is common to all three Rwandan tribes, seeking reconciliation. Today, women still use agaseke to carry goods on their heads, and their presence is ubiquitous. These baskets are a symbol of contemporary Rwanda, a country looking to move forward and it is clear they have already made progress. The country has much to offer and I hope it continues to stay authentically African as development strengthens its conservation efforts and infrastructure. Rwanda has a history desperate to be heard and a culture and biodiversity that deserves to be seen.