Rwanda and Uganda: Gorilla Trekking and safari

We found it a tough choice on where to go for our June trip away. Phil’s brother had given me the Lonely Planet book “Where to go when”, and this inspired my desire to see Gorilla in the wild and May/June was considered a good time to go. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realised the accompanying price tag. So after much “umming and ahhing”, and parting with an eye watering amount of cash, we took the plunge and booked our last minute tour of Rwanda and Uganda with Gorilla Trek Africa.

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We flew with Ethiopian airlines, which was cheap but comfortable and after a stop over in Addis Ababa we arrived in Kigali to start our adventure and what would become the trip of a lifetime. Our first morning was depressingly spent in the brilliant genocide museum – a sobering yet thoroughly worthwhile experience.

A summary of the Rwandan Genocide 

In Rwanda there are two main groups of people, the Hutu and the Tutsi. These groups were present prior to the colonial era, but these distinctions were institutionalised by the Belgians when they took over Rwanda in 1933. Identity cards were issued that categorised people according to their ethnic group (Hutu or Tutsi). Despite the Tutsi people being only a small part of the population, the Belgians gave them all the leadership roles, and this naturally led to animosity between the two ethnic groups. By the 1950s – 1960s, the Hutu people had demanded and won independence from Belgium, leading to violence towards the Tutsi and large scale refugee movements of the Tutsi people into neighbouring countries.

In 1988 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was founded in Uganda, with the aim of repatriating exiled Rwandans and reforming a government that would share power between the Hutu and Tutsi people. Attacks on Rwanda and rife propaganda ensued. In 1993, the Organisation of African Unity along with the governments in the region signed the Arusha peace agreement, which appeared to bring an end to the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people. However, with delays in implementation, human rights violations became widespread and the security situation again deteriorated. Extremist Hutus campaigned to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

In April 1994, the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash caused by a rocket attack, and this led to weeks of systematic massacres. Soldiers, police and militia executed prominent Tutsi and Hutu military to ensure they would not assume control of the country. Road blockades were set up and anyone with Tutsi on their identity cards were killed. These forces recruited Hutu civilians to arm themselves with machetes and make shift weapons and instructed them to rape, maim and kill their Tutsi neighbours. An estimated 250,000 women were raped, and 800,000 people were massacred. The RPF managed to seize control of the country and the genocide ended in July. The UN and western countries stood by during this horrific genocide and the French government were accused of allegedly supporting the Hutu government after the genocide had begun. The developed world have a lot of answer for.

Rwanda is a country in recovery after a horrific recent history – HIV spiked from the use of rape as a weapon of war, many children were orphaned, infrastructure was destroyed and depopulation crippled the economy. The RPF dominated government led to many Hutus fleeing the country and grouping in refugee camps along the Rwandan borders. This has led to military incursions led by the RPF government into neighbouring countries and the first and second Congo wars. Through international aid and strong leadership the economy is now booming, communities are building a liveable peace and there is hope for a better future.

After that somewhat depressing piece of history, the rest of the blog post is full of animal photos and spectacular views!

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Our guide and driver Arthur drove us from the capital Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park, where we stayed at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge and were welcomed with some local entertainment!

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The journey through the countryside was phenomenal, lush vegetation, mountainous landscapes and tarmaced roads (something which we would come to miss when we reached Uganda!). The French called Rwanda ” The land of a thousand Hills” and it is here in the Volcanoes National Park that golden monkeys and mountain gorilla reside.

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Unfortunately, due to Rwanda increasing the price of their Gorilla permits to a whopping $1500 per person just before we arrived, we amended our itinerary to see Gorilla in Uganda, so instead used our time at the Volcanoes National Park to trek the even more endangered golden monkeys. We were very fortunate to be placed in a small group of Yale students led by the eminent Amy Vedder, (an ecologist and primatologist whom helped to create Gorilla tourism in Rwanda). We all set off with a guide on our trek into a bamboo forest, dodging elephant dung and trying to ensure we didn’t get the infamous “monkey golden shower”! The golden monkey is on the ICUN Red List of endangered species, so it was a real privilege to get to watch and follow these cheeky monkeys eat their way across the forest!

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After our walk, our short time in Rwanda was already over, and we crossed the border into neighbouring Uganda and drove to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for our first night in the fantastic Bakiga eco lodge. In the morning,  we gathered at the park head quarters for our briefing – this was it, the main purpose of our trip, we were trekking to see the gorilla! Excitement does not even come close to describing how I felt that morning and the experience did not disappoint. We were at the park on the day the permit prices increased (from $450 to $600pp), which incredibly meant that we only had three of us in our trekking group! We paid for two porters who carried our back packs, which proved useful later as mine stopped me sliding halfway down a hill and helped me through the thorn bushes, but wasn’t strictly necessary. However, it is nice to know you are supporting the local community, so for this reason alone I would recommend paying for one. Our group consisted of a guide and an armed guard at the front and back of the group to scare away any wild elephant or gorilla. Prior to us leaving the headquarters, a tracking team had already set off to try to locate one of the habituated gorilla families for us to trek to.  The initial walk was on a well trodden path, but before long we were climbing through nettles and thorns down a steep hillside. Radio contact had ceased to be a useful means of identifying the trackers location and instead bird noises were used to and fro to try to help determine the right location to walk in. It wasn’t long before our guide excitedly whispered “there!”. Our first glimpse of a young blackback male gorilla strolling down the hill to the left of us. After following him to the valley below, we found the rest of the Bitukura group; silverbacks, females and babies all enjoying a spot of lunch.

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Words cannot describe the feeling of awe at being so close to these magnificent creatures. This habituated family were so at ease with our presence that they would stroll casually past us to get to a particularly tasty leaf and one of the babies even tumbled down the hill into Phil! We spent just over an hour watching and admiring these mesmerising creatures and learning their unique habits. Was the experience expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? It was truly a once in a lifetime, unforgettable experience and I will never forget the feeling of staring into the eyes of these amazing animals.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon being told about the local community projects; visiting a local orphanage (and getting serenaded for an uncomfortably long time by the children) and visiting a local Pygmy tribe who demonstrated their traditional way of life, (they have had to move from living in the forest to living in the village due to government conservation measures to preserve the gorilla habitat).

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The following day we set off to the Queen Elizabeth National Park and stopped en route at Ishasha to view tree climbing lions! After a disappointing start to the game drive we finally found a heavily pregnant female sleeping in a tree and posing beautifully for us!

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After lunch at our lodge, (Mweya Safari Lodge which had fantastic views), we took a boat cruise along the Kazinga channel where we saw herds of hippo, water buffalo, crocodiles and lots of different birds. In the evening we watched buffalo drinking from the river below and even had a water hog right outside our bedroom window!

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After breakfast the following day, we set off on an early morning game drive, managing to see lots of different types of antelope, wallowing hippo, warthog, a herd of elephant, monkeys and birds. We then transferred to Kibale and the Crater safari lodge which had stunning views and a lovely balcony!

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We awoke early the following day for chimpanzee trekking! We were placed in a group of six and begun our pleasant stroll through the forest, listening to the notorious chimpanzee screams and trying to follow the groups. Our guide seemed to be getting a little frustrated at one point, as we seemed to be passing between two groups and not getting close to either of them. However, Phil soon noticed that we had a straggler at the back of our line, and a rather handsome alpha male chimp had been following us! He quickly proceeded to pull some modelling poses – he clearly loved the camera! A nearby mother and baby were a little more shy and kept to the trees while the male continued to flaunt himself for us tourists!

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After a picnic lunch we went to a local wetland area for a beautiful guided walk, where we caught glimpses of lots of different birds and monkeys. It was scorching hot at this point, so most of the animals were hiding away, but we really enjoyed our afternoon stroll and learning about the different species.

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The following day we set off to our final National Park – Murchinson Falls, where we stayed at the Paraa Safari Lodge. Here we got to see even more elephant, hippo, antelope, water buffalo, warthogs, birds and monkey, stalk a male lion in our Safari jeep, see loads of giraffe and catch a glimpse of a leopard! We took a small boat to the base of the impressive waterfalls, where the Nile river is forced through a tiny gap in the rocks. Along the way there was plenty of wildlife, including a swimming male elephant!

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The final leg of our journey was to the Ugandan capital Kampala. En route we stopped at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where we took a short walk to find some rhino! We managed to see two different female rhinos with their calves and followed them until they escaped the sun by sleeping in the shade of the bushes. Uganda does not have any rhino in any of the major reserves, but the plan at the sanctuary is to release them into the larger reserves once they have sufficient numbers.

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We stayed at the lovely Le Petit Village in Kampala and enjoyed the delicious food at their restaurant on our last night. Our final day was spent on a city tour visiting the Namugongo Catholic shrine, the Uganda Museum and the Bahai temple before our final local lunch and trip to the airport.

Our time in Rwanda and Uganda was an absolute whirlwind and our itinerary was extremely action packed, but even the long drives were amazing with phenomenal views. This was a once in a lifetime holiday where I got to fulfil my dream of seeing gorilla in the wild and a whole host of other animals too. I’m so pleased we made the decision to splash out on the holiday of a lifetime.

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