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.







Fred, Frank and the quest for a green card!
October 2, 2010

I was issued with a Rwandan visa during the VSO in country training, in Kigali, but a green card is also required. Applications have to be made in person and the green card is issued by the immigration office in the district in which you are working; in my case Kirehe.  

You might think this would be a fairly straight forward exercise, particularly as the immigration officer is based just a couple of hundred yards up the road at the District Office. However this is Africa and the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow.

Firstly we spent two weeks, on and off, trying to meet the immigration officer (Fred!) but every visit drew a blank with his door firmly locked and a note posted that he was out on business. Eventually contact was made by phone and he informed us that the application process was a three-part exercise.

Part one involved a two-hour round trip, on Thursday morning, to the town of Kibungo and a visit to the Fina Bank to make a 5000 RWF green card payment. In return I received a receipt which had to be taken up the hill to the RRA (Rwandan Revenue Authority). Here the first receipt was exchanged for another receipt, in duplicate and officially stamped, which I was told had to be passed to the immigration officer with my application; so far so good.

On returning to Nyakarambi, surprise, surprise, the immigration office was closed and I was informed nobody would be there until the next morning. I dutifully returned at 07.30 on Friday morning to find Fred was still not there so I called his mobile. Surprisingly he answered and informed me that he was on leave but someone would be taking his place later in the day. They were currently tied up on business in Kibungu and would not be there for about an hour.

I returned an hour and a half later to find that the relief immigration officer had still not arrived but someone ‘helpfully’ suggested I could short-circuit the operation by catching a bus down to the Rwanda/Tanzania border at Rusomo, 20 km away, where the immigration officer on duty there could issue the card.

I waited an hour for the next bus to Rusomo and after a 45 minute journey presented myself at the immigration office. I was asked to take a seat whilst they kindly explained that unfortunately I had been misinformed and green cards could not be issued at the border.

However, they did phone the office at Nyakarambi and assured me that the relief immigration officer had now arrived and was waiting for me! I hopped back on the bus and an hour later found, to my relief, that he was indeed in his office.

Relief immigration officer Frank (not Fred!) sat at his desk wading through a mighty pile of immigration applications. The waiting room was crammed with people waiting for their documents.

I was invited to take a seat but Frank could not interrupt what he was doing and ‘mix the work’, he would deal with me as soon as he was finished.

I waited for over an hour while Frank shuffled the same pile of papers backwards and forwards, each time adding a different rubber stamp or signature, about five in all!

At last he was finished but there was one final heart stopping moment when he could not find the green cards or the ledger in which they had to be recorded. Following a phone call, presumably to Fred, he found them and we were under way.

Half an hour, and four rubber stamps later I emerged triumphant with my green card.

For me the main benefit of a green card  is that it allows a reduction in the permit fees for visiting the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park and the wild life in the Akagera National Park, both of which I’m  hoping to visit during the coming weeks.

September 25, 2010

Today is Umuganda (Public Cleaning) Day!

On the last Saturday of every month between 08.00 and midday the whole country embarks on communal work for the public good. This can be anything from street cleaning, road repairs, land clearance, planting trees to building homes for genocide survivors.

There is a countrywide ban on road traffic during this period – hence this morning Kigali is unusually free from the sound of buzzing motos and chugging mini busses.

Although visitors to Rwanda are not expected to take part, residents (which as a VSO volunteer I am, at least in the short-term) are expected to make themselves available for work. Technically, if I were to be out and about on the streets this morning I could be asked to show my ID card, which has to be carried at all times, and challenged as to why I’m not taking part in Umuganda.   

Although I will probably get involved next time around, back in Nyakarambi, this morning I’m adopting a self-imposed curfew in my hotel room, catching up with the blog and preparing myself for next week’s school visits.  

It was bliss, this morning, to be able to shave and shower in hot water for the first time in two weeks, although due to the lack of anything as sophisticated as a shower curtain the latter was taken crouched in the bath so as to avoid flooding the bathroom.

Back in Nyakarambi the availability of mains water in the house, which is a cold supply only, continues to be unpredictable due to ongoing construction work nearby. Claude keeps us supplied with a large jerry-can of water, which he fetches from a communal water point,  and which we have on standby. Most mornings it’s a matter of standing in the shower tray and waking myself up by pouring jugs of cold water over my head!   

Later today I’m hoping to book myself a guided tour to the Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas in a few weeks time.     

I’m desperate for a coffee and something to eat, no breakfast included here, and I’ve just heard a couple of vehicles rumbling by so I’m heading off to the Cafe Bourbon. It’s fast approaching 11.00 am and hopefully I won’t get rounded up for duty on the way!