Friday, 29 November 2013

Lost in the highlands of Rwanda

On leaving Ruhengeri we almost immediately took the wrong road, and headed into some of the most picturesque scenery on the planet.  No wonder Rwanda is know as the land of a thousand hills.  The "thousand" part being a gross under-estimate of the real number.

I like to think of myself as a good navigator but.......We followed a huge swollen river which I have yet to identify on a map, and managed to get on a road that I have also yet to identify on a map despite hours of searching of the satellite images on Google Earth.  We must have crossed a bridge that doesn't exist, because again this river was big (think Danube) yet we ended up in a village called Nyabikenke which just should not have been possible.  My head still spins when I try to work out which roads we took - and I haven't solved the riddle yet.

Anyhoo - at Nyabinkenke we bribed a gaggle of schoolkids with some stale biscuits and they pointed out the road to Giterama - also known as Muhanga.  But yet again our the geography of Rwanda beat us up and we ended up in another hilltop town called Rutobwe.  This time we asked a smartly dressed man for the right road and he smiled and told us we were already on it.  Well there's first time for everything I suppose.

It was a beautiful day, the roads were appalling, the views were spectacular so we were reasonably happy to be lost but a least roughly heading in the right direction.

Hire Car Problems

When we returned to our guest house after making baskets and beer, I checked our car for the long journey tomorrow.

Bugger, another puncture.  So I got out the jack and the guest house manager called the Amahoro office to get someone to help.  Poor Saleem re-appeared after thinking he had logged off for the day.  Upon removing the punctured tyre, and then finding that the spare was also flat I did what I should have done when picking the car up - checked the state of all the tyres.

Oh oh.  Not good - 3 very much illegal, one of which had had a tread cut into the already worn surface.

Ok this should not have happened, and I am annoyed at the hire company for giving us a vehicle in this state, but I am also annoyed at myself for not realising the problem sooner.

Saleem helpfully took me off to the local tyre fixing place - he suggested it best if he organise it as if I tried going on my own I would just get ripped off.  So I stood awkwardly on the sidelines while the tyre guys tried their best to fix the two flats.

We had no mobile reception in Rwanda - Orange doesn't cover here, so we didn't have any way of contacting Kizito at the car hire co.

After a while of being the centre of polite, but curious attention from the boda boda guys the two tyres were fixed and back on the Levante

So we now face a long journey, without mobile, with at least 3 dodgy tyres and the other 2 you wouldn't have on your own car at home.  Not altogether happy.

Making banana beer at the Red Rocks Intercultural Exchange Centre

We left the gorillas to their munching and wandered back down the track to our vehicles.

You get taken to a tourist shopping complex before you are allowed to go free - we didn't know if this was an officially sanctioned place, but they had some nice arty things to go along with the "muzungus in the mist" t-shirts.  Nice prices too!!

We witnessed a massive thunderstorm while in the shops and thanked our lucky stars that it had been sunny and dry for our morning trek.

Saleem then drove us back into Ruhengeri/Musanze for some lunch.  We invited him to join us, so he took us to a more traditional African style place.  It didn't look like too many tourists visited the place, but the food was good, cheap and plentiful.

We then drove out to the Red Rocks Intercultural Exchange Centre; this is a community based enterprise with accommodation, a campsite (not many of them in Rwanda), a bar all on a working farm.

We were introduced into the art of banana beer making - a bit like a mix of scrumpy and real ale, and basket weaving.  The people are very friendly - the women seem to do all the work whereas the men take the money and hang around in the bamboo bar.  They are all really keen to make the venture work, and with the help of a bit of publicity they think they can grab some of the tourist market.  We wish them well.

Making banana beer
Drinking danana geer

Making banana fibre baskets

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

Rwanda is not an Islamic country, so it was a mystified couple of travellers who were woken at 5.00 by the call to prayer from the Muezzin. Fortunately our alarm was set for 5.30 anyway, so we only lost half an hours sleep.

The Amahoro guest house provided us with rolls, pea nut butter, bananas and some lovely coffee, which we were happily enjoying when our driver, Saleem, turned up and informed us we were late and needed to get a move on.

We headed for the Volcanoes NP headquarters at Kinigi, which took about 45 minutes on some really bad roads.  I'm glad we hadn't tried to find the place ourself at this time of the morning - we wouldn't have got there.

The headquarters seemed very busy - we had thought that only a handful of people would be heading out to see the gorillas, but it seems that there are 80 permits per day - with 10 groups of 8 heading to visit different gorilla families.

The NP headquarters at Kinigi

Having arrived so early at the headquarters it took long time for everyone to get organised, but were entertained by a group of local dancers/singers while Saleem sorted out the paperwork.

Our appointed guide, Augustus, then introduced himself and we introduced ourselves to our fellow group members.  We had been put together with a couple from Australia and 3 elderly ladies from the US.  I quickly deduced that we would heading for the easiest to reach family group as at least one of the elderly ladies didn't look up to much of a climb.

We then headed back to our own cars for the trip to the trail head - about 30 minutes from the headquarters on even worse roads than we were on before.  We parked up in a small village below the volcano Bisoke and were greeted by a group of men offering themselves as porters.  At first I didn't really want a porter as I am perfectly capable of carrying my own rucksack for a gentle walk, but I was persuaded by our fellow tour members to at least shell out for one for Karen.  The going rate seems to be $10US for the porter - having taken Karen's bag our porter spent the whole trek helping out the elderly Americans, which was probably just as well.

We walked up a steady incline, through intensively farmed terraces of potatoes and pyrethrum, a type of chrysanthemum that is grown for use as an insecticide.  There were plenty of people about, tending the crops and looking after the odd cow or goat.  We started to get some nice views out over the surrounding farms and villages and began to realise just how precarious the lives of the gorillas are.  There are so many people here the pressure on the land is just intense.

Our guide was very good at stopping to let our elderly group members catch their breath, and the porters were also adept at keeping Audrey (aged 77) going.  We just enjoyed the lovely wander through the fields - it certainly does not feel intrepid in any way.

After an hour or so we reached the very noticeable park boundary - a low rock built wall where the land changes from intensive farming to cloud forest.  The photo above shows the start of the park.  At the wall we were asked to leave our bags and get ready for the scramble to meet our gorilla family.

Well what do you know - the family were all of ten yards inside the park.  A great relief to Audrey and her friends, and absolutely fine by us.

It's hard to describe your first view of a gorilla; plenty of people will do it a lot better than I ever could.  Quite simply it is lovely - the first two we bumped into were very playful youngsters who checked us out and then carried on with lazing about in the shrubbery.

Then we were introduced to a mother and infant - well they were just delightful with the youngster annoying his mother by clambering about on her head.

At our briefing we had been told to keep at least 10 ft from the gorillas, to avoid the possibility of passing on infectious diseases.  Unfortunately the gorillas don't abide by this rule, as when we found the silver back he did a good job of scaring Karen half to death by wandering up to her and brushing past.  The boisterous youngsters also seemed to take great delight in sneaking up behind you and then sitting on your feet.
Don't look them in the eye!

Gorilla lazing in the sun

Our silver back, named Rano (one of the famous Titus's sons) seemed a little grumpy, and gave one of our guides a good shove out the way when he got a little too close.  The guide spent the rest of the time well out of his way.

I reckons somewhere north of a million photographs were taken by our tour group, and I kind of wish that there could be a little time during the visit with the family that cameras are put down and everyone just realises where they are and what they are witnessing.  Especially when most people don't know how to switch of the little beeps their cameras make.

Our hour seemed to fly by - and will live long in the memory. The gorillas looked quite content - just sitting around eating, how they ever got a reputation for fierceness I will never know.    

Monday, 4 November 2013

Welcome to Rwanda

It's amazing when you cross a border and immediately everything is different.  For some reason you expect a gradual change from one place to another, but there is a huge change from Uganda into Rwanda.

Luckily it was still not quite dark because the first major difference is that you drive on the wrong side of the road, which was not as dramatic as I had feared.  It just seemed to happen somewhere between the two sets of customs houses, and we basically didn't notice.

It was pretty important for me to stay vigilant though, as not only are we on the wrong side of the road for our RH drive car, but the road is absolutely hoaching with people.  There are literally thousands of pedestrians on both sides of the road, forcing the cars out towards the central line and into head on collision territory.  The reason all the people are on the road and not in the verges, is that the verges are densely forested - completely different again from just over the border in Uganada.

The fourth big difference is that the roads, in the main, are well maintained, and covered in nice smooth tarmac.

Our luck on this very long day eventually gave out, as we arrived in the town of Musanze/Ruhengeri.  Rwanda had an irritating habit of changing the names of many of its towns just to piss off map makers, sign writers and self guiding tourists.

We had only a very rough idea of where we were going in the town, and for it to suddenly get very dark with the arrival of a very large thunderstorm coupled with a power cut made our search for our guest house rather tricky.  We had booked to stay at the Amahoro tours guest house which at the time we left for Africa did not have a tab on google maps (it does now).

So we did what seemed like a good idea - we drove around the teeming streets in the pissing rain and dark and generally drove into massive pot holes, off the sides of unseen cliffs until eventually sanity regained itself and told us to stop fooling around and ask for directions.  We parked in a puddle and I jumped out and asked the nice lady at the Urumuli hotel if she knew where the Amahoro guest house was.  Amazingly she said yes it was behind the big warehouse immediately across the street.

So we drove across the street and down the dark alley which she had pointed out.  The alley got narrower and narrower and darker and darker until we just couldn't go any further.  Is this it I asked Karen - don't ask me came the reply.  Ok so what now???

I got out the car and could dimly see an open doorway in one of the walls facing us - so I wandered in to find myself inside the very dark interior of someone's house.  Hello, I called out and a smiling face of a teenage girl appeared.  She didn't seem at all upset with the Muzungu dripping all over her floor so I asked if this was the Amahoro - oh no she replied that is down that even smaller darker alleyway.

When we looked down this alley, we agreed that we could not possibly drive down it - but only after wedging the jeep between a wall and a deep chasm on the other side of the street.  So we elected to walk the remainder of the journey abandoning the vehicle in the process.

We wandered through a garden gate, up some steps to a darkened door and knocked loudly.  The door was opened by a lovely lady who said "are you Struan?" We had found the right place.  Well sort of  - this was the Amahoro offices which we then proceeded to drip all over until one of the office workers handed us some hankies to try and dry ourselves off.

The lady, Anne, said she would show us the right way to the guest house, and was only a little surprised to see our abandoned/crashed jeep when we all walked back down the alley.  "did you really try to drive down here?" was her only question.  As if we were completely off our trolleys.

The guest  house turned out to be on the other side of town, but it's a small town, and we were soon welcomed in by another lovely smiling Rwandan.  The guest house is enclosed behind high walls and doesn't have a sign to let you know what it is, so even if we had driven past it we would never have found it.

That said it is very comfortable, with a nice bedroom with en-suite bathroom and a big lounge for guests to sit in.  Our hosts were cooking something that smelt great, but they apologised profusely saying that they only had enough for themselves.  Muhoozi however said he would show us a nice restaurant when we were ready.  So half an hour late we were enjoying a cold beer and tasty meal in La Paillotte, before finding our own way back to the guest house and banging loudly on the metal security gate with a stone to be let in.

What a day.

Crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda at Gatuna

We headed South from Kisoro towards the border with Rwanda at Gatuna.  At this point in the day we were really begining to worry that we may either have to go through the border in the dark, or at least do some driving on the Rwandan side in the dark - neither of which had any kind of appeal.

One big tip for crossing the border from my wife - don't do it in a short skirt.  Woops.

This is a busy border crossing, but luckily cars and tourist buses don't have to wait in line with all the massive trucks.  However, that said, it is still a little confusing and intimidating.  There are a lot of "dodgy" looking folk around, and it seems the border is pretty porous with a steady stream of people moving from one side to the other with little or no control other than a few francs/dollars here and there.

We tried to follow the instructions - visiting the police, then the customs, then the immigration, then the customs again, then the police again and then through the gate to do it all again on the other side.  We presented the wrong lot of paper work for our hire car (using the stuff from whoever had hired it the last time which had been left in the glove compartment) and it took a wee while to sort out all the confusion.  Basically we just followed orders until we had the right stamps and enough hand written tickets to allow us through.  Lots of smiling and thank yous and we seemed to be ok.

Of the few borders I've travelled through in the developing world this was certainly the most stressful, but this was maybe just because we were very tired following a long day's driving.  Karen wasn't too happy when she was told to go through the border on foot, as only the driver was allowed to stay with the vehicle.  Thankfully it is not too far to go, and I could keep an eye on her.  As were all the others who were enjoying her short skirt.

Heading towards Rwanda

We left Mweya campsite fairly early after a breakfast where we were joined by approximately 50 million mongeese.  They were followed by a tracker with a radio receiver, these are the most studied mongeese on the planet.  They are a joy to watch - hunting out insects in the undergrowth and the toilet blocks.

It's a long road South, heading through Mbarara and Ntungamo, rather than taking the more direct route.  We did this because we had heard that the straight road had suffered a lot during the rains and the main road was blacktop all the way.

However not long out of Mbarara saw the start of the most monstrous set of road works we have ever encountered.  There must have been 100 km of works as a UN funded project to improve the links to the DRC was in full swing.

What this means is that the road is considerable widened, to allow traffic to keep flowing while bits are blocked off to allow the workmen to get on with their job.  The temporary road surface is a bumpy mix of gravel, rocks and dust; and of course because this is Africa the rules of the road are a little more relaxed than elsewhere.

There's nothing quite as scary as meeting a speeding bus coming out of the dust as you try to over take a petrol tanker that looks like its burning industrial waste for fuel.

To compound the misery of the road works, there are more of the lovely Ugandan speed bumps - every couple of hundred metres.  For a hundred Kms!!  A real African massage, without any of the relaxation that a normal massage might induce.  Luckily I had made Karen drive this bit.

Eventually she tired of the stress (especially being followed by the Kampala Express "luxury" coach) and passed the driving duties back to me at Kabale.  And suddenly we were on the bit of the new road that had been completed - OMG it was beautiful, unlike the looks I was getting from my co-driver.

The road rises and rises up towards the highlands of the Volcanoes NP.  The scenery is spectacular and the views at times are just delightful.  Unfortunately, again we are trying to drive too far in one day, and have to try to reach the border before it closes.