Honeymoon, hills and a magical experience

Trip Start Sep 26, 2005
Trip End Oct 01, 2005

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Friday, September 30, 2005

The Honeymoon Tour 2005. The new Mr and Mrs McGrath, not particularly fresh from a truly perfect wedding, embark on their three country trip to celebrate the union. And as if the weekend wasn't hard enough, it's straight into a 24 hour journey to land under African skies.

Rwanda to be precise. After stumbling across a novel/biography a couple of years ago (A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, which along with the incredible Shake Hands With The Devil rank high up in my must-read book list), I've become fascinated with the story of a country that endured one of the twentieth century's worst genocides, just over ten years ago. It's one thing to read about the terrible events of history, but it somehow feels much more raw when it happens during your own remembered lifetime. Since the "war" - genocide to you and me - in 1994, the place has been pretty much no-go for anyone outside travelling and heavily armed forces, but in the last few years it's started to open up its doors again, based principally around its main attraction, the mountain gorillas living in the north west volcanic regions.

The gorillas first came to fame thanks to the tireless work of Dian Fossey in ensuring their survival, immortalised in the book (and film) Gorillas in the Mist. She, however, was slightly more mortal, being killed, probably by the poachers she worked so hard to fight against, in 1985. Her legacy is the last remaining 700-odd mountain gorillas left in the world, living in several familial groups in the forests surrounding the volcanic mountains that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Thanks also to her work, the gorillas have become to a greater and lesser extent habituated - still entirely wild but at least used to having humans in some sort of proximity. The chance to observe these beatiful creatures in their natural habitat was just too good to miss...

So, after a brief sojourn in the capital Kigali (of which more later) we headed north, away from the big town and into the countryside. The scenery is stunning, and really not what we expected. The country is often nicknamed the land of a thousand hills, but that's an understatement. It's one of the most densely populated countires in the world, and among it's lush and tropical appearance, every inch of its often vertical land is being used for either living or farming. We landed in our home for the week, a beautiful and remote lodge with some amazing views over the six volcanoes that comprise the Parc National des Volcans (as its known in Rwanda), and which are the gorillas' home.

No rest and all that, so after some much needed sleep we were up at five the next morning to begin the trek into the forest/jungle. On the Rwandan side there are four main family groups, and as this was to be our one and only chance, we went for the biggest, but also what is well-known as the hardest to reach - the Susa group. This contains the last remaining gorilla from Dian Fossey's time (Poppy), but we'd heard tales of six hours trekking through leg-and lung-bustingly steep terrain and dense jungle, just to reach them. As it turned out, we were delighted to hear our trekkers (who, along with armed guards to deter the poachers, buffaloes and elephants that also live in the park, did a fabulous job) tell us that the group had moved well the day before, and it was soon after just a hard two hours that we were brought to a standstill by the chest-beating of one of the four silverbacks in the group.

Now I won't do the experience justice as I write this in a slightly iffy cider-cafe in Kigali - I will attempt a better account later - but the next hour counts as one of the most magical and memorable of my life. As the gorillas went about their natural feeding and resting habits, our trekkers and guides, by vocalising the soothing noises made by the gorillas themselves, we were able to sit within two metres or so of these beautiful creatures. It was incredible. Huge silverbacks eyed us warily, young adults gave us shows of aggression to keep us at a respectable distance, young mothers kept their young in sight and the kids just played relentlessly. Given the choice I'd still be there watching now, but the treks are carefully managed - no more than 30 people in total a day can go into the forests, and humans can stay no more than one hour.

As I say, this scribbling can do it no justice, but the three days spent in the mountains of Ruhengeri and the surrounding countryside will be a special memory forever.

Rwanda itself is a country recovering from the self-inflicted wounds of 1994. Particularly poignant were the open-air court sessions we saw as we travelled around the country: with the prisons bursting under the weight of 120,000 genocide suspects, the country has adapted its traditional gachacha system of trying people by the local village elders, so everywhere the wounds are still trying to be healed. The capital, Kigali, embodies this sense of rebuilding, with building work everywhere repairing the damage of a war that almost completely destroyed it (the pictures in the recently opened Genocide Memorial are truly moving), and capturing the sense of moving on. Rwandans are by no means over it yet, but they're on the road.

Another fascinating country. Let down badly by the international community (through the inactive and ineffective UN, despite the best efforts of the head of the UN mission in Rwanda Lt Gen Dallaire) in 1994, I'd say that as long as the poachers can be controlled, the gorillas will continue to bring the country to the attention of the world, and it can start to get on with life. As it stands, white faces are few and far between (our presence anywhere brings everything to a standstill) so it's been interesting to say the least... Oh and if anyone's seen Hotel Rwanda, we're staying at THAT hotel while in Kigali, the Milles Collines.

Beer Watch: It's seems to come down to a simple choice: Primus or Mutzig, both brewed locally. Both pleasingly served in 75cl bottles, at a price around 80p in local hostelries, there isn't much to choose between them, though I'm disappointed to say that, if pushed, the very un-Rwandan surrounding Mutzig ("Mitzig") might get the nod. By all accounts I'd be incapable of anything approaching as coherent as a nod if I tried the local hooch - banana beer - but can I get my hands on any...??
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