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Gorillas, George Michael and Fingers Crossed -- No Trek Untaken

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amybatt

Where: Rwanda for 5 nights (followed by 6 nights in Kenya, a separate trip report)

 

When: Feb 2017

 

Who: Amy (me) and Kim. We did our China Panda Volunteer trip together and our first safari in Tanzania together. We only see each other on these sorts of trips but we both agree that it's rare to find someone that we travel this well with. Honestly, I've never had an easier, no-friction travel relationship with anyone. It was a no-brainer to ask her to go with me.

 

How: We booked the Rwanda portion of the trip with Treks2Rwanda, the sister company of Access2Tanzania, with whom we went to Tanzania in 2013. Having worked with Karen at A2T before and after hearing from @@Zubbie15 how well his gorilla trek went with them, it seemed the obvious choice. I did shop around a bit and this felt like the best value for the money. It was a ridiculously easy process to get the itinerary nailed down and get this booked. Karen is organized and knowledgeable unlike any other planner I've worked with.

 

Guides: T2R assigned us to Tim, who was a dear, sweet young guy. He came to understand our warped sense of humor and allowed us to ask difficult questions. He seemed as interested in us and our country as we were in him and his country. We also had a driver, Cyrus, who was extremely quiet but very kind to us. Tim was very positive and hopeful about our experience and we felt he had a vested interest in us enjoying the experience. He knew most everyone at the gorilla trekking station in the morning, so we felt that he negotiated our assignments for the treks well. He even knew a US celebrity who was hanging about and introduced us when I acted like a major fan-girl! (Suspense!)

 

Accommodations: arrival night and night before departure from Rwanda at Lemigo Hotel in Kigali. We had two completely different experiences here. The first night the room was large, comfortable, properly cooled and excellent for sleeping. The last night was the polar opposite: overly hot, small and crowded room with the tiniest bathroom I've ever seen, with loud neighbors who stood outside our door smoking most of the night, which did not make for a pleasant Amy at our 3:45 a.m. wakeup call (for 7 a.m. flight to Nairobi).

 

Three nights in Volcanoes National Park area were meant to be at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, but they overbooked and booted us to Da Vinci Lodge around the corner for the first night; it was such a pain to unpack, trek the next day, repack and move locations. Unnecessary if you ask me. This was unfortunate for them and us, as Da Vinci set the bar very high and we missed it just about every minute we were at Mountain Gorilla View. Da Vinci has only been open for 7 months and we were the only guests, but the service was exceptional, the room was clean, new-feeling and the overall experience was very positive. If I had the choice when I return, I'd return to Da Vinci. The meals were a choice off a set menu, but they accommodated my vegetarian diet very well and on short notice! We also were given a free bottle of wine with dinner. The boot cleaning service included a foot and lower leg massage, which was a nice surprise (and not something we got elsewhere!) Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, on the other hand, was large and impersonal. Our room had definitely seen better days: my foot went through the floorboard in the bathroom, we had a host of mushrooms growing in the shower (they'd disappear after the room was cleaned but would grow back overnight!) and there was a leak in the roof that we couldn't find other than the remaining puddle in the middle of the floor. I returned to the cabin to get something I left behind after we'd checked out and found the maid there stripping the beds and my mattress was moldy. The food was always buffet style and it was serviceable. However for vegetarians, there was not much in the way of protein on offer. Lots of vegetables very well done and extremely fresh. I'll write more extensive lodge reports once I'm done with the TRs.

 

Camera: for those who suffered listening to me whine about the Nikon that was failing me, fear not, I invested in the Sony RX10 iii and LOVE IT. I knew I couldn't buy my way to better photos, but could buy a more reliable camera. So I figured that if I’m investing in the camera, I better know how to use it. I took classes, shot a lot of animals at zoos and got up on weekends for sunrises more than I wanted to. But I think in the end, it paid off. I’m beyond thrilled with the results. I took 7 16-gig memory cards which I almost filled (5880 photos and 65 videos) and 7 fully charged batteries and only used 4. The Sony has excellent battery life.

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amybatt

Day One – the getting there. A big blur until we hit Kigali. Having my eVisa didn't seem to matter as there was no mad scene on arrival at Kigali Airport. I think maybe 10-20 of us were in the visa line? Not sure how that happened.

 

Day Two – after a very good night's sleep, we woke up and had a wonderful breakfast in the hotel. Tim and Cyrus picked us up for our Kigali city tour. We drove around what is "new Kigali" (built after the genocide in 1994) and old Kigali, which existed then. The contrast is ridiculous. The newer section is more modern and richer feeling. It's obviously built with new money for new money. When I asked, I found out that it's mostly foreigners who either work here or want to retire here that are buying up the new properties. The older sections have seen much better days but really aren't too much different than other urban parts of Africa I have seen, like Nairobi and Arusha. A lot of open storefronts, a lot of roadworks with mostly manual labor.

Rwanda is looking to the future and it seems as if there are a lot of initiatives to replace "old Rwanda" with "newer Rwanda". There is a lot of hope and expectation that that will happen in the next 10 years or so.

One thing I can say is Kigali, the capital city, and everywhere else we drove today, is insanely clean. As we deplaned last night, we were warned by the airline staff that plastic bags are forbidden here, so get rid of them before you leave the airport. That is pretty representative of the country's approach to litter generally. There just isn't any. The sidewalks and roads are immaculate, to the point where you could almost eat off them. Much of newer Kigali is exceptionally manicured with lush green grass and palm trees that drought-ravaged Beverly Hills would envy. Everyone is compelled by law to spend three hours on one Saturday a month cleaning up the country. Everyone does it, including the prime minister and/or his wife. That forced service in turn means that people take ownership of how the city/country looks and thus won't litter if they know that one of them is going to have to clean it up. Tim told us that it wasn't an easy transition to learn to do the service, but now that they've been doing it, it's old habit now. I think it's a fascinating idea.

Our first stop was at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. I knew this would be on the itinerary and I had studied up before I came so that I wouldn't be a total ignoramus. I don't consider myself easily rocked, but one point here really got to me. I knew there was a genocide here in 1994 between opposing tribes (Hutu and Tutsi) but I didn't know that it had been brewing since the 50s and that there'd been a "first" genocide in the 60s. In between genocides, friction between the tribes just grew. Tutsi were required to register as such with the government, and jobs were limited to a certain number for them, based on their representation in society (sound familiar?). In 1994, an order to kill Tutsis came from the top (day after the president was killed in a plane crash) and Hutus took it seriously, killing any Tutsi they could find. Neighbors were turning in neighbors, friends were turning in friend. Worse still, they were killing them too. It was incomprehensible.

So I stomached the personal commentaries, the graphic photos, the tools of the trade (machete was the weapon of choice). I saw photos of the mass graves and the decomposing bodies. But nothing, absolutely nothing, got to me like the Children's Room. Here, they honored about 15 children who were victims of the genocide. They listed their names, favorite food, favorite play thing, who was their best friend and how they died. Most were by machete or by hand grenade. But one little girl, one beautiful little girl with the biggest, brightest smile, loved her chocolate sweets and playing with her big sister. She died by being "slammed against a wall." Slammed against a wall. Are you kidding me? Who does that? I honestly don't think I'll ever be able to wipe her face out of my head. Or how horribly she died. Or what level of coercion, or bad judgment or mental incapacity someone had to have to do that to her. All over being a different ethnicity, having a bigger nose or a narrower face. Sick.

After that we visited the mass graves in the garden. All of these are unknown bodies. 2 million people died in the three month genocide, and not all were found and/or identified. The bodies that were recovered were buried in mass graves here. There are a few cement slabs that could be just about anything under them, but as Tim said, to convince the non-believers, they left one open with a glass covering, so that you can see coffins and flags with crosses on them over them. Yes, that's a mass grave. Apparently as with other genocides, there are a fair number of non-believers here.

We passed by Hotel des Milles Collines which was the location where Paul Rusesabagina harbored many Tutsis who were looking for protection as the genocide happened. I was struck by how big the hotel was. I'd watched the movie (Hotel Rwanda) recently and remembered it being smaller there, but this was good sized, yet still not big enough to harbor 1268 who would have otherwise been killed. There is a pretty fountain outside the hotel that honors the 10 hotel employees who were killed in the genocide.

Our last stop before lunch was the Belgian Genocide Memorial, which remembers the 12 Belgians who died in the genocide. Ten were Belgian soldiers protecting the First Lady of Rwanda as the genocide began. 12 were aid workers who were there. All of this is unbelievable, more so when I consider it was just over 20 years ago. I'm dumbstruck.

Tim told us that many people served time for their role in the genocide and some got early release if they admitted their wrong doing. He said that two things came out of the early release: first, the wrong-doers had trouble reintegrating into the society where they had killed (no, really?!?) and second, a LOT of killers ended up marrying victims' family members. That is just incredulous. Throughout the memorials we saw and through Tim, I've learned that this country has a very high capacity for forgiveness and moving on, whether it's so they themselves can survive and carry on with life, or for the betterment of the country. It's admirable, but makes me wonder if I'm capable of the same. Some of these people lost their entire family at a very young age. How do they not harbor intense distrust and bitterness?

Lightning the mood, Tim and Cyrus took us to the Heaven Restaurant for lunch. Tim had done his research to find one with good vegetarian options for me, and this was delicious. We ate outside on a beautiful, quiet deck and I had a mojito and a beet risotto which was wonderful. We got a chance to chat with Tim and learn more about him and about Rwanda. He is a delightful host.

Over lunch, Norbert, the local director for Treks2Rwanda showed up and chatted with us. Turns out that our originally booked accommodation for gorilla trekking was overbooked and we were moved to the Da Vinci Lodge for one night.

 

From there, the drive to where the gorilla trekking is was about 2 1/2 hours. Most of it uphill. The roads are well paved but only one lane in each direction and most of it pretty slow. Cyrus is a great driver and he's ably dodging people walking in the streets and the many motor bikes that dodge through traffic. The drive reminded me of a combination of the Mohawk Trail out in western MA and Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with lots of twisty turns and a lot climbing and fence-less edges.

 

On the drive:

 

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I will note that as my compatriots in Boston dealt with another foot of snow, it was 91 when we left Kigali, and as we climbed up the mountains toward the gorillas, it dropped to low 60s.

Dinner tonight at Da Vinci Lodge was a pumpkin soup and spaghetti pomodoro. It was tasty. We did get a free bottle of Merlot though, which is good!

Edited by amybatt

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amybatt

Day Three

 

Trekking Day One, or, Redefining "Easy"

 

Looking back I'm glad we did the golden monkey trekking first, before two days of gorilla trekking. It was a day to learn what to do, what not to do and what to do right on our next days' treks.

First wish for a do-over, better sleep. The portable heater in our room annoyed me. Even in my Ambien-enduced sleep, I felt like I was waking every time the heat shifted on or off. The 5:15 wake up call came way too early for me.

We ate a good breakfast with omelet, toast, fruit (mango, pineapple, apple) and freshly blended pineapple juice. We were still the only guests here, so we had a staff looking after just us. Tim came for us at 6:30 and off we went to the rangers' station to get our assignment for the day. When we arrived, there was a local music and dance troop performing for all the folks who would be trekking today. They entertained us while the guides got everyone registered and assigned.

 

We had talked with Tim about the possibility of rain and how we hoped that it wouldn't interfere with our treks. He always flashed a big smile and held up crossed fingers on each hand and said "and toes too" and said we'd just have to take it one day at a time.

There wasn't much question as to what we'd be assigned to, as there is only one group going out to golden monkeys. Golden monkeys are endemic to this area so it's truly a once in a lifetime thing (unless I'm foolish enough to do this again!). There are 125 members in this troop of monkeys. The trackers had found where they were and we were headed off. The group formed a caravan and drove about 20 minutes to the start of a trailhead. There were a few storefronts at the stop and a bunch of porters there for hiring. That was mistake number two. Despite ALL the trip reports that said "even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter," I didn't. Tim said "it is very flat and very easy, you will not be tired." Tim lied. Well, Tim didn't lie, he just undersold the hike.

So off we went, with me carrying my own backpack (which wasn't very heavy anyway) and with my borrowed walking stick. It started out flat enough in wide open fields. In fact, it stayed pretty flat most of the time. What got difficult were the pockets of mud, uneven ground, waist high grass, stinging nettles and bamboo stands that had to be navigated. I'll be honest, if we were trekking just to trek, with no animal at the other end of this, I would have bailed. I'm not an outdoorsy girl. If I find a worm in my garden, I abandon the gardening. I don't like to be dirty, sweaty or touched by nature. The sun was peeking out and even though it was 60 degrees when I got out of the car, it was warming up and I had the raincoat on, which, as my mother says, "draws" and the rain pants on, which do much the same. I was percolating inside myself. Mistake number three was I didn't shed the raincoat early enough. Tomorrow, I'm heading out with just the long sleeved shirt on, unless it's raining. I overheated sooner than I needed to.

 

A volcano along the way:

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Callixte, our guide for the golden monkeys and first gorilla trek:

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Along the way:

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I'm a gym rat anyway, but I changed my training with this in mind four months ago. I ran hills, did the step mill, worked on lower body strength and core balance work. I think it all served me well today, but what I couldn't train for was altitude and such uneven, unstable muddy ground. I was a bit frustrated by the hassle and annoyance of it all, but stuck with it. I'm not an outdoorsy type but I wanted to see what is at the end of this trek. Soon enough the ranger told us to stop and drop our things. We left backpacks and walking sticks with our porters and followed the trackers into thicker bamboo. There overhead were a bunch of monkeys, lots of them, hard to follow, harder still to photography in the dark, backlit canopy of bamboo overhead. Five minutes in and I was a bit discouraged with the photography. We were still navigating up and over very uneven, muddy, moss covered terrain. There was always the risk of stumbling, stepping in a hole or sliding off rocks. A nice photographer from Zimbabwe was finding it hard to take photos too, so he told me to follow him and he angled us right under a good looking big male right overhead, the sun behind us. It was at this point, finally after about 10 minutes, I found my groove. I was able to plant myself in a spot, focus on a monkey or two and just shoot some photos. And they were looking good.

 

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The monkeys didn't give any thought to us whatsoever. It was really as if we weren't there at all. To be able to just sit or kneel or walk amongst them as they played and wrestled and ate was pretty cool. The monkeys came down from the trees soon enough and were playing and eating on the ground right in front of us. At one point, two were wrestling just a couple feet in front of me. It was really no different than watching the cats at home, who can ignore me equally well as they go about their business. I couldn't count how many were around, above and near us, but I'd say I saw maybe 50 or so on this trek. There may have been many more I couldn't see through the canopy or thick bamboo around us. It was pretty crazy.

Finally the ranger said our time was about up. We were only allotted an hour and it went by so fast. He let us take a few more photos and we turned around and went back the way we came. It seemed shorter heading back, but I think it was all mental.

 

Rain forming on our way back:

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Along our route both ways were some little villages with kids playing outside their homes. The little ones would wave exaggeratedly and shout "how are yooooou?" It made me smile. They are so cute and outgoing and not afraid to smile or say hi. I supposed they aren't as conditioned against strangers as kids are at home.

Once we met up with Tim again, he took us back to Da Vinci Lodge, where we were to pick up our bags and move to Gorilla Mountain View Lodge where we'd been booted due to overbooking last night. Two staff members got us to sit on a bench, where they proceeded to remove our muddy boots, socks and gaiters off, then they gave us a foot massage! Oh my, I was not expecting that at all! It was welcomed but a bit awkward too, with 9 staff members standing around watching us.

So we moved off to our originally scheduled lodge and got inside just as the heavens opened up and it poured and thundered heavily for about 20 minutes. We took advantage of the wifi in the lobby (when the power was on) and then had lunch around 1 with the very kind and friendly @@GBE and his wife Terese. It was so cool!! I enjoyed getting to meet them and share lunch with them. Kim was impressed that my "internet friends" were so nice.

After lunch (buffet, with lots of veggie salad and a sort of pomodoro pizza with eggplant on it) we both had a shower and decided to rest the rest of the day. We have two big early morning trekking days ahead, and if today was any indication, we'll need all our energy for that.

We napped, read, dozed, chatted until about 7. There was always a fire going in our room, and we spent our first afternoon in front of it chatting, catching up and listening to George Michael on my iPhone. I’m unsure how he got chosen but he ended up providing the theme music of this leg of our journey. I almost felt human again after being hot, sweaty, gross and tired after the trek. Dinner was buffet style again, dishes of note were fabulous sliced avocado with tomato, onion rings (yes, you read that right) and really good veggie-stuffed tomatoes.

Edited by amybatt

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pomkiwi

@@amybatt Loving the first posts. I really appreciate the organisational background and the narrative. The photos are suberb - I can see why you are pleased with the Sony.

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amybatt

Day Four

 

The Muddy Trek: Or, Appollonaire's My Hero

 

As comfortable as it was in front of the fire last night with Kim and George, I made it a point to be in bed early. So by 9:30 we had packed it in and called it a day. The 5:15 wake up call would come soon enough.

We had a nice buffet breakfast at the lodge. I ordered an omelet and had a piece of whole wheat bread with jam and a couple of small slices of french toast. The orange juice was good and I loved, but didn't finish, the coffee, for fear of having to go the bathroom a million times today.

We drove out to the same rangers' station again today and Tim went off to do our bidding for a group. I was a bit nervous because I told him we could definitely not do an advanced hike and maybe not even a sort-of-advanced hike. I was worried about Kim generally (who warned me when we booked this "I'm not fit, and I have no intention of getting fit for this") and myself after yesterday's "easy" trek. I don't think he picked up the message, because he ended up getting us an intermediate hike. We were trekking to the Amahoro family. We had wifi at the rangers' station so I quickly looked up this group to see what the scoop is. They are a family of 17, with two silverbacks. The gorilla research website said that "getting to this group is a hassle, but most travelers are rewarded by a fulfilling encounter." Hmmmm. While it seemed promising, I had in my mind that it'd be some work to get there. I wasn't wrong.

The musicians/dancers who are at the rangers station every day:

 

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I purposefully went into the day with a better attitude, that all this mud, sweat and cursing is a means to an end. That seemed to help me muddle through. Well, that and my porter Appollonaire. We met the porters about 20 minutes from the rangers' station at the start of the trailhead (Gisha Trail) where we hired as many as we thought we'd need. There were 8 travelers in our group, plus our guide. Kim and I were the only ones who hired porters. I'd read that even if you don't think you'll need a porter, hire a porter. Many of them are former poachers (killing gorillas and selling the body or body parts for money) and this is a safe, legal way for them to make a living that results in a better future for the gorillas. So that's how Appollonaire and I got acquainted. He spoke no English, I spoke nothing he could understand, but somehow he managed to get my butt up and down the volcano and thanks to him, I'm alive to tell about it.

Tim left us with his crossed fingers (and toes) and a big smile and off we went. It was about a 10 minute walk through flat farmland to the famed cobbled wall surrounding the national park and the start of the trail up. It seemed to go well enough for a bit and then we hit the muddy bits. And when I say muddy, I mean, step quick or my shoe will get stuck. Or I'd keep hearing that sucking noise I'd expect to hear just before I'm vacuumed down into quicksand. It was tiring to trudge through this. I'd trained on clear cement pavement, even treadmill and level steps, this was nothing like any of that. And that's where Appollonaire came in. He'd pull me up steps, be there to help me step down, navigate me around the worst of the muck and yank me up by the arm when I'd start to go down. I only officially fell once, and not into mud, but without him I'd have spent a good part of the day on my ass.

Callixte would stop every 15-20 minutes to let the group catch its breath and have some water. We hiked for about 90 minutes before we caught up with the trackers. The trackers are yet another part of this team. They stay with the gorilla families until they start to build nests for the night. They remember the location and return there early the next morning to see if the family is still nearby. If it is, they radio that location to our guide and we head in that direction. If the family has moved, the trackers need to find the family before we get too far into the hike, or we end up chasing after them. Even a half hour before we ultimately got there, our guide still didn't know where our family was. That made my stomach sink because I'd heard of cases where the trekkers are chasing the families all day. Callixte told us that one day last week he was out until after 5 p.m. on a trek because the family kept moving. Gulp.

Early on we stopped and I decided to take a drink and put my jacket in the backpack (on Appollonaire's back). I was now at the back of the line of hikers and Kim was just ahead. I heard the guide saying something up towards the front but I wasn't really paying attention. Kim told me to look up and there the guide is, holding a stick overhead with this massive floppy flesh colored worm. It looked like a 12" floppy, uncooked hotdog. I squealed like a girl and looked away. Callixte said to the others "hurry and take a picture so she doesn't have to look." It was funny but gross and downright appalling if you ask me. Who needs worms that big??? And even less funny was the second one I almost stepped on on the trail right after that. Gross.

At a later stop, Callixte said "we are close now, we know where they are." I asked how close. He pointed downhill and said "see that bush? Behind there." We were surrounded by bushes and shrubs and small trees. That question would be akin to my asking folks at home "see that snowbank?" And just pointing out the window. Sometimes it's better not to know.

 

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Pretending to enjoy this:

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Finally we reached the trackers. We left everything with our porters about 25 yards away from where the gorillas were. We went with a couple of trackers and our guide deeper into the undergrowth. If you'd told me I'd be weaving and dodging through god only knows what kind of foliage this is, I'd have told you you're crazy. This isn't me. I'm not outdoorsy and I don't enjoy being THIS close to nature.

Callixte reminded us of the rules. He will tell us when and where to move. We're not to touch or reach out to the gorillas. If approached by a baby or juvenile, we're to step aside. If the silverback approaches lean away and look down. Keep together in a straight line as a group. Seemed simple enough. You'd think.

We were stepping over foliage that had been trodden down or cut down by machete by the trackers just before we arrived. Earlier that day, all of that was still standing. I had no idea what to expect. In my head I'd hoped for a nice little clearing with the gorillas all gathered around in a nice family portrait-like setting but of course it's not that easy. This is how they live, in and amongst thick brush. I was anxiously scanning the bushes until I finally saw the face of a silverback. It was a face and shoulders, but enough to tell me I'm here, I'm among them, I'm in there world. Finally.

 

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And then that moment that I've had before crept back in. As we got closer (and it was a hell of a lot closer than 7 meters or 21 feet) the silverback acted out. He hollered some and rose to his full height. The tracker and the guide both made guttural noises like we clear our throats and he settled back down. But we don't belong here. We've cut this path up the hill to them, we've flattened the foliage around them for better views and better photos. And this guy is making it known he's uncomfortable. The guides settled him down, but still.

 

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That's not to say that I would trade the next hour for anything in the world. It was incredible. We kept working our way around the larger bushes and followed the silverback, a blackback, a juvenile female and a couple of babies around. And we were so damn close. It was just so intense to see their eyes, their hands and their expressions and realize there's no cage there, no glass there, nothing at all between us. It was incredible. I am a very fortunate person to have the privilege to be this close to such amazing creatures.

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This guy could eat stinging nettles by wrapping the nettles inside the rolled up leaves:

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Kim's here in the purple...reference shot for how close:

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Yes, he was picking his nose...

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I took a fair amount of photos, which was a challenge given we were not under cover, and the sun went from full-on sun to total overcast to partly cloudy. I did cheat for a while and shoot in Program mode with some white balance, but still. I think I did well. I took 462 photos today, which is pretty extreme given that all we did was the trek and an hour with the gorillas.

Finally the guide said our hour was up and we needed to head back down. I started to hear thunder in the distance and was somewhat anxious that we'd end up in the deluge that we saw yesterday. But we were blessed by the weather gods, and made it down the same steep, muddy climb that we came up. It was just over four hours all told and it did sort of go by in snap. A few times though, I crept up behind Kim and sang "c-c-c-c-c-c-come on" from George Michael's "I Want Your Sex". I'm a spinning instructor as a hobby and was trying to motivate her (or at least get her to crack a smile) because I could see she was seriously flagging. All I got in return was a glare.

Callixte asked if any of us would be back tomorrow. I jumped at it, but Kim expressed some serious doubts (along the lines of "Hell no"). Callixte was concerned and he took us aside and said that trekkers on their third consecutive day get priority and he'd be able to get us an easier trek on our third day. I think that started to sway Kim back. Here's hoping he sticks to that!

We returned to the lodge for lunch, which was another buffet of some tasty food. I had the vegetable lasagna and some french fries with caramelized bananas for dessert. I figured I earned all the carbs. Generally I'm eating healthy except for the desserts.

As I was standing in the lobby posting to my blog after dinner, I said "hi" to Jack Hanna! If you don't know him, it won't matter, but I watch his wildlife show every Saturday morning at the gym!

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offshorebirder

Wow @@amybatt! Great photos - you did very well choosing the camera and learning how to use it.

 

And your turnaround time on this TR makes us all look bad! Incredible.

 

You're an exemplary Safaritalker.

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amybatt

@@offshorebirder, I'm fending off post-safari depression. Once I've bored all my coworkers with photos and stories, I feel like I have no one left to tell. But I have you all!

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Towlersonsafari

It is great fun reading your report of such a magical experience @@amybatt and the photos are excellent

Edited by Towlersonsafari

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Zubbie15

@@amybatt, I'm happy to see this report. Your descriptions really bring back memories from my trip last year. I also had trouble with the children's room at the genocide museum. It seems you had much more rain than we did, as we were lucky not to have too much mud on our treks. But in the end you got rewarded with such a great experience. And you got to meet Jack Hanna, very cool. Looking forward to the next installment.

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amybatt

Day Five

 

Trekking does not necessarily get easier, just sayin'

 

A few things I forgot about yesterday...

At one point during our first trek, one of the other guests showed me her GPS on her phone and it seemed that we had somehow wandered into the Congo! As Volcanoes National Park is on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo, it's always a possibility that the gorillas can wander between the countries, but a little less likely that we would. I do not have the passport stamp to prove this, but Kim’s photos on her phone also show Congo as the location on the photos.

Surprisingly, the roads around the Volcanoes National Park are enviously smooth and well paved. This is a result of the tourism that the gorillas bring and the exorbitant cost of the licenses to trek there. It's also good to see how much employment the gorilla business brings to the region too, better to keep poachers out of the mountains.

Anyway, back to our story...

 

It took a fair amount of convincing (and some wine) last night, but I had convinced Kim that Callixte wouldn’t let us down and she had to do the second gorilla trek. She agreed, so we had a short respite by the fire with George again, and then it was an early night.

Morning came quickly. I didn't take Ambien, figuring the trek and fresh air would knock me out, which it did, but I had a bunch of very strange dreams that I kept waking from, I think the result of the anti-malarial.

Same breakfast as yesterday, only a few more pieces of french toast. I convinced myself that I needed the carbs. And no coffee so I wouldn't have to use the bush toilet during the trek.

 

We decided to do two gorilla treks mainly in case one was a bust due to non-participatory gorillas or the weather or what have you. I’m glad now we did, because we had two completely different experiences.

We headed out to the rangers' station yet again. We met Callixte, our guide from the last two days and he and Tim went off to negotiate our assignment for today. We stood and watched the tribal performers again and waited for the news of our assignment. Finally Tim and Callixte came back and, true to his word, Callixte said that we were assigned to the Sabinyo group, which is among the easiest to trek to. Phew! So off we went for our briefing with our new guide, Fidele. He explained that the family is 16 strong, with two silverbacks, one of whom is the oldest gorilla in the region, at 46 years old. There are also two young babies in this group.

 

Callixte and us, after he delivered on his "easy hike" promise:

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During the briefing, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Jack Hanna! He was here with his zoo's tour group and he was in a briefing with them. But no time for dallying, or so I thought. We used the toilet quickly and were heading off with Tim and Cyrus to the start of the trailhead when I mentioned that Jack Hanna was here. Tim showed me a photo on his phone, he knew Jack Hanna! I acted jealous, and he offered to introduce me. So off we went.

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Jack was gracious and kind and I was actually coherent. I explained that I watch his show every Saturday morning on the treadmill at the gym (an awful fan-girl comment in retrospect) and that I appreciate his work. He asked how Kim and I met and found it curious that we met in China working with pandas. He told us how much we would love Rwanda, as he does, and that he's seen so much positive change since he was first here before the genocide. I asked Jack how many times he'd trekked to the gorillas and he said he thinks "somewhere between 45 and 60" and he was going twice this week. At 70 years of age. Tim took our picture and that was how my day started. Very cool! I was walking on air!

Once more, Tim and Cyrus drove us to the start of the hike and Tim sent us off once more with crossed-fingers for no rain. Hey, it was working to this point!

To clarify, the "easy" hike wasn't necessarily much shorter but it was flatter and less muddy. I'd say we reached the gorillas in just over an hour but there were some harrowing spots. Today I hired Innocent as my porter and he was pretty good. I think he knew when my spirit started to flag a bit because he'd squeeze my hand or give me a thumbs up and a smile to keep me going.

The terrain today was quite different from yesterday. After we crossed the buffalo wall (a cobbled wall meant to keep animals from wandering out of the park into the village) it became a bamboo forest, with large tall stands of bamboo that were in spots quite thick and dense and a lot less of the stinging nettle type of foliage.

I learned a lot from Innocent. He showed us white daisy-like flowers that are dried and ground down to make Permethrin, the insect repellant. He explained that a vast open space we were passing through was a dried up lake. The large round gourds we saw on the ground were elephant squash. It was all pretty interesting.

Finally we came across the trackers. They'd been out for 3 hours, starting from where this family had gone to sleep last night and followed them to where we caught up with them. It was dark and very damp. It was tightly packed bamboo. Curiously the middle of this area had a huge structure that I suspect was just naturally built, but it looked like a massive big-top jungle gym type contraption. We'd heard bamboo creaking and snapping all over the place, whether from us walking on it or the gorillas climbing on it. So it wasn't the sturdiest thing going, but our first sighting was of a mother and baby up on the top of part of it, just hanging out eating the leaves off it.

 

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As we dodged and weaved through the bamboo and wet leaves, we were jockeying for position for photos and struggling with some pretty low light. While I'd hoped for an overcast day for “good” light, I really wasn't prepared for it being so dark, so I put the camera in Program mode for the most part and hoped for the best, adjusting the white balance as I needed to.

Today the family was much more active, especially the young babies who were climbing and moving non-stop. One little guy kept playing drums on one tree trunk, which was really cute. At another point, a little one climbed up a bamboo tree and traversed across others right over our heads, coming down right in front of me and walking over to his father, the silverback. It was just incredible how fearless he was.

 

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A couple of times we'd be moving from one gorilla to another, as they were spread out a little ways, and one gorilla would start moving right towards us, not in a threatening way but just to get to where it wanted to go. All we were asked to do was step out of its way and it would pass right by us, hardly a bother, as if we weren’t even there.

 

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Family unit:

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The oldest male on the mountain, toothless by this age!

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The old man is watching the little one. Looks like he's thinking "where does he get all that energy?"

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Two females were grooming the old guy

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The expressions were priceless. Like father like son:

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At one point we were taking photos of the baby and Fidele shouted us to come over to him as two adults were mating. He was astounded that this was happening so I'm pretty psyched we got to see it. The story is that the male in this pair was "just" a blackback, and he was bald at that. He shouldn't have been mating with any of the females since he wasn't a silverback. So these two were doing it on the sly. The look on the female's face looked like she was formulating her grocery list, she certainly wasn't too into it. But as 6 pairs of eyes gathered around within a few yards, they both lost interest and she disappeared, as if doing a walk of shame. Not more than a few minutes later though, the silverback showed up, as if he he'd heard that something was going on he needed to see. He marched right up near us and stopped to look around, like an old man on his front porch trying to see whose ball broke his window. In my head can still see his massive forearms and biceps as he leaned forward on his knuckles standing there. He missed all the action though. Very cool to see this play out.

 

The almost-caught bald guy:

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Once we were standing under the big top structure and the second silverback decided he was going to climb to the top of it. Fidele said he'd been sitting there evaluating the bamboo from the ground for a few minutes, as if trying to determine whether it would hold him up or not. He decided to go for it. The bamboo started to creak and the whole structure shook. We were right under his path and Fidele told us to move toward him and out from under the silverback. I had visions of this bamboo creaking and a 500 pound gorilla landing on us. Not the way I would want to go!

 

She was looking up when we were looking up!

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A much younger baby:

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With this family we got to see a lot more activity like eating, grooming, nose picking, climbing and one gorilla was even cleaning a wound on its arm. It was a very active sighting.

 

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One thing that was more obvious with this family than it was yesterday was the amount of gas they were passing, and quite liberally. No one was immune to it and it was really quite funny to witness. Fidele joked that that sound was "number 3, giving the warning that number 2 is coming."

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This is likely my favorite shot of all of them:

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Finally our time with the gorillas was up. We got a little bit extra I think because we were having such a good sighting. I am glad I followed advice and did two treks, because they were two entirely different experiences in terms of family interaction, terrain, lighting and activity. If I had a few more days here, I'd likely do another but I really need a rest day after three consecutive days of trekking. But I was about to go sit in a safari vehicle for 6 days, so my reward was coming!

 

Bye, little man, grow up safe and strong!

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Our trek down was pretty harmless, although I think we both just wanted it over. Once we hit terra firma again and thanked and tipped our guide and porter, Cyrus and Tim returned us to the lodge with late checkout so that we could shower and clean up before lunch. We hit the road around 3 for Kigali and arrived back at the hotel around 6. We were to leave for the airport at 4:30 this next morning so for sure it’d be an early night.

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amybatt

A few things before I leave Rwanda...

 

No matter how much I read to prepare, how many of you I talked to, how much I dreamt of this, nothing at all could have possibly prepared me for how awesome (as in "full of awe") the gorillas are. It will be a highlight of my life, I'm sure.

 

I was incredibly struck by how unique each gorilla's face was. I think when you see so many of them in such a short period of time, it becomes more obvious. Even looking back at the photos now, I see it more.

 

How on earth the lodges get the boots clean may remain one of the world's greatest mysteries. Tim was somewhat taken aback when I said that "if these were my boots at home, I'd just throw them out." I just would never have gotten them clean and dry, and especially not in the few hours that they did.

 

If you do this, wear good boots and gaiters and heavy high socks to tuck your pants into. Stinging nettles (which will get you anyway) and red ants (which will if you don't tuck your pants in) are very real things. I was also glad to have gloves too, when it came to grabbing on to plant-type things for balance.

 

Day Six

 

The Wrap Up

 

Tim and Cyrus delivered us to Kigali Airport with 2 hours to kill. We were the only ones in the terminal and there was no staff at check-in at 5 a.m. so we had to round someone up to check us in and take our bags. Nothing was open in the gate area for food or drink. Our Rwandair flight to Nairobi at 7 a.m. had a grand total of 18 people on it, and some of them stayed on at Nairobi for the next stop which was Entebbe.

 

We thanked our Treks2Rwanda friends for a wonderful time and for an experience that delivered beyond all expectations. We were both sad to say goodbye to them. Tim acted relieved that he could uncross his fingers and toes now that we'd survived the treks with no rain. "But, would you like me to keep them crossed while you are in the Mara?" he asked. "No thanks, Tim, I think we'll be fine. It just doesn't rain like that there this time of year," I said. <Cue foreboding music>

 

To be continued in the Kenya trip report...

Edited by amybatt

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dlo

Wow what a fast turnaround on your return, I'm seriously impressed! I still think about that genocide memorial and that children's room...

 

Okay Jack Hanna, really! My wife loves him and will be soooooo jealous, nice sighting!

 

You're cracking me up with not wanting to be to close to nature or getting to dirty, but if you ever decide you don't mind it go back and see the chimps, its amazing.

 

Great pictures of the gorillas but the golden monkeys are great as well.

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pault

Good stuff. Very energetic start to your trip.wth three treks in a row. but they were all very successful so good choice!

 

Great that your camera choice worked out and you can actually see and feel the difference. More important, you caught some great expressions.

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optig

@@amybatt I'm of course delighted that your 3 gorilla treks were the highlight of your life. I've only been on one in Uganda, but since every gorilla trek or even game drive, night drive or walk

is completely different I'll undoubtedly go gorilla trekking again not in Uganda, but Rwanda,the DRC and and even the Central African Republic where the gorillas aren't only Lowland but also are unhabituated . I also feel that your photos of the golden monkeys are just fantastic. I really wish that I had your dedication to the gym. I love exercise when I do it and of course I feel far better after it. My problem is forcing myself to do it.

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amybatt

@@dlo yes, I've heard from many that the chimps are great. A Canadian couple on our last gorilla trek had just been and loved it. And yes, Jack Hanna was an unexpected surprise!!

 

@@pault yes we are glad we survived the Rwanda portion, I think Kim had serious doubts there for a night.

 

@@optig, you're right, anything on safari can change one day to the next. That's what is neat about it, each time you head out of your tent, you never know what you'll encounter. I think I'd like to trek in Uganda or DRC to see the difference, but for now I'm satisfied with what we accomplished and it certainly was an amazing experience.. Interestingly, I returned to work to learn that an elephant researcher who is cousin of someone I work with just evacuated CAR because of violence. She'd been there for 20+ years before violence broke out a couple years ago and she just returned late last year but it is not meant to be. She's back at Cornell University now trying to decide what is next. Much of her written research was destroyed. (Google "Andrea Turkalo" to learn more about her work with forest elephants)

 

@@Zubbie15 glad I could bring back the memories. Your TA thread and your trip report really helped me prepare. So I'm indebted to you!

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plambers

Amy, I have been searching the boards knowing your safari was over. I am thrilled that this did not disappoint. Love the photos of the gorillas - their eyes are so expressive! I also love GM-I'm your man is my favorite!!

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ld1

@@amybatt great report and photos. I loved, loved, loved Rwanda and the Gorillas. Everytime I see a report it transports me back there which is such a treat. There are no words for the genocide memorial really. I was very apprehensive, but it has left an indelible mark and one which in its own way was as remarkable as the Gorillas. To know that humanity can inflict such horrific and unnecessary sectarian violence is one thing, to be faced with it front and centre as the memorial does is a stark reminder of how easily humanity can fail and how remarkably it can survive and even heal. It was a profound moment for me personally.

Edited by ld1

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pomkiwi

@@amybatt I am really enjoying your storytelling style and the photos just keep getting better!

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Towlersonsafari

wonderful photo's @@amybatt although the one of the balding gorilla must be the saddest gorilla photo I have ever seen! We saw the Sabinyo group in 2005 so it was lovely to see your pictures. And having 2 treks is certainly a good idea and does give 2 different experiences. Thank you

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amybatt

@@Towlersonsafari well bald guy did almost just get caught in the act, so maybe that's a look of shame? ;-). Thank you for reading along!

 

@@pomkiwi thank you! I think I hit my stride with the camera and really started to feel good about it. I"m equally pleased with the Kenya shots, which are coming soon!

 

@@ld1 you hit the nail on the head, we can't understand it. It's that simple. But you're also right about the amazing resilience of these people. I have no words for that.

 

@@plambers, put gorillas on the list for your safari #2! ;-)

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lmonmm

@amybatt I just have to laugh...those were the exact same two groups I trekked when I went...just checked my "diplomas" to make sure. I have such incredible fond memories of that trip and love reading your report which brings it all back to me. I clearly remember sitting on the deck of my banda where I stayed thinking to myself..."I am the luckiest person on the planet right now". And I truly believed that and still do to this day. Gorilla trekking and in particular in Rwanda, is truly a soul changing experience. Anyway- enjoyed the report and all the emotions it churned up.

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Alexander33

@@amybatt

 

Oh, wow, I had no idea you'd already started your trip report, or I wouldn't have bugged you about my visa questions in that other thread.

 

For someone who says she's not outdoorsy, you certainly had a pretty magnificent outdoors experience. All of your photos are just great. You did really well with those Golden Monkeys, and the light for the gorillas both times seems to have been ideal.

 

So, what kind of boots did you have? I wasn't planning on taking, say, rubber waterproof boots for when we go, but rather hiking boots with ankle support. Did they clean boots at Gorilla Mountain View Lodge as well? (I just figured I'd have to hose them down at the end of the day myself and hope they'd be halfway dry the next day).

 

You've got me worried that I'm not training sufficiently -- maybe that's because I'm kind of not training at all. We've got the Golden Monkey trek our first day, like you, and then 3 gorilla treks in a row after that. Yikes! And I'm in Texas, so no way to prepare for the altitude even if I do get myself down to the gym like I know I should be doing. ?

 

Interesting comments about the da Vinci vs. Gorilla Mountain View Lodge. We're booked at the latter, but, hmmmm.....Did the da Vinci have very extensive grounds where you could walk around during down time?

 

Really enjoying your easy-flowing and humorous narrative, in addition to your wonderful photos -- and I definitely concur with your use of the word "privilege" to describe the experience. We truly are privileged to see the things we do. Looking forward to the Kenya segment.

Edited by Alexander33

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amybatt

@imonmm what a coincidence!! Was the terrain similar or I'm assuming they've moved a bit since you trekked?

 

@@Alexander33, I think my friend Kim would be the first to tell you don't worry about the training. When I asked her if she'd go with me she warned me that she's not a gym fanatic like me, in fact, her exact words were "I'm not fit, I will never be fit and I have no intention of getting fit for this." And she stayed true to her word, and she did three treks in a row! The thing to keep in mind for your case is that our guide Callixte said that the more consecutive days you're there you get "priority" so make sure whomever is doing your bidding to get the assignments stresses that. By your fourth day, they ought to be delivering gorillas directly to you!

 

I wore Merrill hiking boots (not high tops) for this. I usually wear my Brooks trail running sneakers on safari and I would have preferred those, I think they'd be better for me comfort-wise but for the mud. They just wouldn't have stood up to the mud. Yes, Gorilla Mountain View Lodge did clean the boots too. At first I thought it was a nice luxury, then I realized it's selfishly motivated on their part because they likely do not want 60+ guests traipsing through their lodge and grounds with mud!

 

I really only saw da Vinci at night, so can't speak to how large the grounds are. There are only 6 or 7 cabins so I don't think it's as big as GMVL, but they did have a really nice upstairs open-air lounge space that I would have loved to spent an afternoon in.

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xelas

The experience of a life? Sounds so tempting! Great report, and excellent photos, @@amybatt .

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lmonmm

@amybatt Ironically, no. The terrain was almost identical. In particular, the second group which, for me, started out completely ensconced in bamboo. They did end up moving to a more wide open space which was wonderful for watching them do their thing. And the first group? Again, terrain looks almost identical. Kind of bizarre :) And I went....trying to remember....6 or so years ago? I also trekked in Uganda which wasn't nearly as rewarding so I've always told anyone who asks, Rwanda is the place to go. You also did much better with the golden monkeys. I did that in Uganda and very difficult to see where I went- your photos are a billion times better than mine for them. No matter what though, it really is a truly incredible experience and despite the difficulty with the hiking, it was more than worth it. I look forward to your Kenya portion of the trip report!!

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