Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Primate Safaris
November 2, 2010

With school teachers on holiday for the week and my presence not required at the second installment of VSO in country training, which is only relevant for long-term volunteers, I have planned to make good use of some free time to explore a little more of Rwanda.

On Sunday afternoon I travelled up to Ruhengeri in Northern Province, gateway to the Volcanoes National Park, in preparation for a two-day primate safari in the Virunga Mountains.

The Volcanoes National Park is 91 km north-west of Kigali. On this occasion I opted for the comfort and extra expense of being chauffeur driven in a four-wheel drive booked through a local travel agency. My driver, Aloys, remained with me for two days making sure I arrived everywhere on time and with the requisite paperwork and permits.

It was an enjoyable two and a half hour drive through the beautifully terraced hills, which are so characteristic of rural Rwanda, to the town of Ruhengeri which like many has undergone a name change post genocide and was formerly called Musanze.

The Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, where I was staying, had good views across to the Virungas, which are not actually a mountain range but a chain of free-standing volcanic cones, three active, six inactive, straddling the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC and all exceeding 3,000m with the tallest Karisimbi at 4,507m.

Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virungas is one of the great wildlife experiences and indisputably one of Africa’s travel highlights. It was therefore with great anticipation that I left the hotel at 6.00 am on Monday morning.

Aloys drove me to the mountain gorilla centre, at nearby Kinigi, where I met up with 55 other lucky people. In order to minimize behavioural disturbances to the gorillas only 56 permits are issued  daily, eight for each of seven habituated groups in the Volcanoes Park, at a cost of US$500 each.  As a temporary Rwandan resident with a green card I was eligible for a half price permit, still expensive but bearable!

At Kinigi I was allocated ‘Group 13’, the second largest gorilla family, consisting of 25 members led by one silver back. Francis our guide gave us a briefing on how to behave in the presence of the gorillas. Once we had located them, with the help of trackers who go ahead and maintain radio contact with the guide, we would be in their presence for one hour at a minimum distance of seven metres.

I had feared dismal rainy conditions but the sun was shining  as we set out from the trail head. One and a half hours later, following a steady climb through semi deciduous woodlands and bamboo forest – having reached a height of around 2,700m, we made contact with our trackers. The gorillas were just a head!

Most people have seen David Attenborough’s wonderful BBC documentary Gorillas in the Mist and somebody actually asked me how I could expect to get a better view of them than that? In truth I had been ready for a big let down but needn’t have worried.

It is extremely difficult to do justice in print to the exhilaration of encountering these gentle giants at such close quarters, other than to say it was a once in a life time experience that exceeded expectations and was worth every last cent.

For an hour we watched the huge silver back munching stoically on bamboo (a gorilla’s daily intake is roughly 15% of is body weight so in his case about 30 kg) whilst keeping a watchful eye on his extended family. Young gorillas thumped their chests and frollicked around engaging in rough and tumble whilst the very small literally clung to their mothers.

Although we started off at the requisite 7m distance from the gorillas they carried on regardless moving around and about us. At one point we were encircled. The guides would occasionally ask us to stand still or step back as one of the gorillas passed through often within a metre or so of where we were standing!

The gorillas are obviously the stars of the show in this neck of the woods so this morning’s treck to see the much smaller and little known golden monkeys (an endangered species) might have been an anti-climax. It turned out to be another great spectacle.

There are around a hundred golden monkeys in the troop and a fair few of them showed up to  treat us to a display of acrobatics, flying through the tree tops and swinging from creepers. Once they had accepted our presence they came very close scampering around at ground level as well as performing their aeronautics while some of them were seemingly posing for the benefit of their visitors’ cameras!    

Our enjoyment was heightened by Francois, a guide who actually worked with the legendary Dian Fossey. He is extremely knowledgeable and a huge character, who is clearly very in tune with his primates, and treated us to some wonderful gorilla impersonations.







Five Go Wild In Akagera!
October 24, 2010

Once upon a time in Rwanda, five VSO volunteers, Abdel Illah, Cathy, Louise, Mark & Phil, had a spiffing idea. They thought it would be a great jape to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle and spend a day on safari in nearby Akagera National Park.

They were assisted with their plans by a local friend, Msafiri, who arranged for a large Toyoto Land Cruiser to pick them up at six o’clock on Saturday morning from Cathy and Louise’s house in Kibungo.

It meant an early start for the five intrepid volunteers but they were all so excited they could hardly sleep, especially Abdel and Mark who spent the night on sofa cushions in the living room. Everyone was ready and raring to go when Innocent, their driver for the day, arrived.

Cathy and Louise had prepared and packed a special Rwandan Safari picnic, fresh baguettes filled with cheese or honey, juicy red tomatoes, sweet ripe bananas, scrumptious green apples, chocolate and coconut biscuits, and bottles of water for everyone.

There were concerns about the weather because on Friday afternoon it had rained none stop for over four hours. Everyone wrapped up well and packed their waterproofs but by the time they reached the northern, Nyungwe, park gate the early morning mist had cleared and layers of warm clothing were being peeled off and replaced by safari hats and sunglasses.

Safaris aren’t cheap and the five travellers had been saving up their VSO pocket-money for the eagerly awaited wild day out at Akagera. Once the tickets had been paid for, their guide, James, showed them a large map of the national park and pointed out the route they would be taking as they drove south towards the Akagera Safari Lodge exit.

He also told them lots of interesting information about the park which covers 1,085 square kilometres and takes its name from the Akagera River that runs along its eastern boundary and forms the border with the country next door, Tanzania.

The four-wheeled drive had a special pop up roof which meant they were all able to stand up and look out for animals as they bumped their way along the narrow dirt tracks.

Mark, a keen ornithologist, had brought his binoculars and was soon displaying his expertise, excitedly identifying many brightly coloured birds from a checklist of 550 species! There were lilac breasted rollers, woodland kingfishers, hornbills, fluorescent blue starlings, tawny eagles and fish eagles perched up high, the grotesque marabou stork and the noisy bare-faced go-away bird, with its distinctive call, to name but a few.

James was a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, answering many questions from inquisitive Mark as well as helping Cathy with her homework by patiently spelling out the names of all the animals in Kinyarwanda so that she could write them in her exercise book.

Louise had come with her own I Spy Safari Animals  hit-list  in anticipation of ticking off those she  spotted. By the end of day there were big ticks for giraffes (her favourite), zebra, water buffalo, hippos, baboons, vervet monkeys and many different kinds of antelope including impala, topi, oribi and water buck.

She was rather disappointed that the elephants were hiding away (although there was the consolation of seeing some big piles of elephant pooh) and that the last remaining pair of lions in the park, who have not been seen for some time, had once again failed to put in an appearance.

Abdel Illah contributed his usual range of insightful observations displaying his Gallic charm as he happily munched his way through a box of biscuits. Phil contented himself by taking many photographs with his long lens camera. He was particularly happy when he got a shot of an adult and young hippo wallowing in the lake, mouths yawning wide open.

The zebra proved very popular with everyone and prompted a great debate as to whether they were white with black stripes or black with white stripes! Zebra were also the winner of the ongoing quest to find the fastest animal of the day.

There was an exciting moment when James shouted out, ‘Look!’ and Innocent braked hard as a black mamba snake slithered across the track, in front of us, and away into the grass. James told everyone that if they were bitten by this highly poisonous green snake (with a black mouth) they would be dead in fifteen minutes!

It had begun to rain by now and that seemed to be as good a point as any at which to end the safari. As the light began to fade Innocent headed back to Kibungo, dropping off the five weary and ravenous volunteers at St Joseph’s tea shoppe, where they were soon tucking into omelette, brochettes, salad and crinkle cut chips served with salt, vinegar and tomato sauce. And of course there were lashings of Mützig and Primus. A perfect end to a perfect day!

Seeds of Peace at Lake Muhazi
October 18, 2010

Lake Muhazi is 60 km long but nowhere is it wider than 5km. Its serpentine shape is broken by numerous spidery tendrils stretching along former tributaries. It is a pretty, if not beautiful, lake with abundant bird wildlife (or words to that effect so says the Bradt Guide).  

The eastern end of Lake Muhazi is just under two hours north-west of Nyakarambi by express  mini-bus and about  three  hours  normal service as Mark and I  found to our cost on the return journey.

Saturday morning dawned dull and threatening but we set off around 8.45 and headed for our appointed rendezvous, with four fellow volunteers, at Kayonza bus station, about 8km from our final destination.

The Bradt Guide is less than flattering in its description of Kayonza; “this small, rather scruffy settlement …situated 78km from Kigali” which “serves as a passable base for exploring Lake Muhazi and Akagera National Park.”     

I would agree that it falls into the unremarkable category but ‘scruffy’ is harsh. Rwanda is an incredibly clean and litter free country and I haven’t been anywhere that warrants that epithet.

Our weekend companions were running late (the ladies had problems with their packing!) so there was time to discover the small unprepossessing but clean Café Al Rahmaan, run by a very pleasant and welcoming Muslim gentleman.

We ordered a late breakfast of tea and amandazi. Amandazi approximate to doughnuts but without any sugar-coating or jam in the middle. Let us say they are substantial, suitable for dunkin’ and fill a hole. 

African tea is an acquired taste and not to my liking. It is made with hot milk, sugar and ginger served in a huge thermos, as do all hot drinks. Some flask manufacturer with an eye for the main chance made a killing out here.

It took me three attempts to get unadulterated tea made with hot water, no milk, sugar or ginger, but we got there in the end. When the bill arrived it was itemized as dry tea!   

As soon as our friends clambered off the bus from Kibungo we immediately hopped on board another for the ten minute drive to the lake and our accommodation at the Seeds of Peace Centre. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the centre had come well recommended and it didn’t disappoint.

It was situated directly on the lake shore. Mark and I shared a well maintained, recently decorated rondawel style chalet, with a large living area, separate bedrooms and a bathroom with a hot shower.  A veranda offered extensive views across the lake and was ideal for bird watching. One night with breakfast cost us the princely sum of 10,000 RWF (£10.00) each!

Lake Muhazi is a twitcher’s paradise and during the course of the weekend we saw kites, a grey crowned crane, pelicans, numerous pied kingfishers, and bright yellow weaver birds that make the most delicate of nests which hang from the branches like Christmas decorations.

We also spotted, spotted neck otters gliding and diving backwards and forwards from the reedy shoreline.

The ‘Seeds’ or ‘Pipes of Peace’ as we rechristened it, after a memorably dodgy number from the McCartney catalogue, is run by the Episcopal Church and the people were extremely friendly. Unfortunately it was dry.

However we had done our homework and a couple of hundred yards down the road was the Jambo Pleasure Beach where we were welcomed by two large wooden giraffes framing the gateway to a lakeside bar and restaurant with a penchant for country and western music. I lost count of how many times I heard Joline and Coward of the County!   

The weather could have been better. There were several downpours but Sunday morning was bright and sunny for a couple of hours. It was long enough for a leisurely walk around the fringes of lake, where the locals were fishing, doing their laundry, or following the strange muzungus and trying to engage them in conversation.   

Finally, there was just time for a Jambo special toasted cheese sandwich with chips coated in spicy tomato sauce and one last ice-cold Mützig before we made tracks back to Nyakarambi. It had been a very pleasant, and indeed peaceful, weekend, enjoyed by all.