Gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park

I remember one of the first thoughts I had when I found out I was coming to Rwanda for my fellowship – GORILLAS! Since the age of 10 I have been wanting to meet gorillas and orang-utans and this week I have made one of these dreams true by trekking in the Volcanoes National Park here in Rwanda.

It was an intense day that started with a 4 am wake up call and a 2 hour drive from Kigali to the park entrance in Musanze. We were greeted my local dancers and singers who tried to entertain and keep awake a nervous and tired set of tourists.

Once we had been entertained and served some coffee, the park ranger Felicien gave us a briefing about our hike – we were going to hike a medium trek to visit the Sabyinyo Gorilla Group, with the oldest silverback in the mountain range called Guhonda. We also learnt about how to behave:

  • No eye contact and pointing – it’s a sign of threat
  • No bags – the youngsters get too curious
  • If the silver back gives you a warning, kneel down and lower your head
  • NEVER RUN

And we were off… An hour and a half of trekking in the jungle – ankle deep in mud and buffalo poop, vicious ants and stingy nettle, slipping and sliding through the bamboo trails, hacking new trails with a machete… What an experience!

It was worth it though… as we walked into a clear area of the forest where the family had settled for the day, enjoying their brunch… I must admit, I did choke up a bit! They are the most magnificent beasts!

The silverback was a true old man – lying on the floor, napping, yawning, scratching and farting. Whenever he felt like we were getting too close to his babies, he got up, walked towards us and we slowly (with a lot of panic inside that we were all trying to hide!) backed away.

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The ladies all had young babies with them that they nursed, carried on their backs and presented to the silverback. Whenever he spoke to them, they spoke back and followed his guidance on where to go next.

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The kids of course were the cutest – playing with others, curiously staring at us, banging their chest, kissing each other. I could stare at them all day – their little feet, their big eyes – pure joy!

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This was truly a once in a life time experience… What a privilege!

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My Rwanda Top 5 so far!

It has been two months since I was crying my eyes out next to a puzzled old lady on an Ethiopian air flight, on my way to Kigali! There have been many highs since then and I wanted to share my top 5 so far

5. Dress up time

Meeting borrowers is a lot of fun. One of my highlights was visiting a couple in the country side. I asked if the wife would like to join her husband in the picture… She instantly perked up and rushed to the bedroom. Five minutes later and dressed to impress, she returned! Her husband started clapping with joy and we all laughed so hard

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4. Who needs an iPad anyway?

One of the most fun things about walking around remote Rwandan villages is discovering all the inventive kids games and toys. I’ve seen footballs made out of cloth and tied together with a piece of string, I’ve seen rags used to put together a makeshift doll, which is then tied to the girl’s back just like their mum carried them as a baby. The coolest however is the tire / stick combination – kids steering an old tire with a wooden stick or a bamboo branch, running around the village.

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3. Awkward gifts

Borrowers are often so happy you visit them, they want to give you a gift. My favourite so far has been three pairs of leopard print underpants! I mean… aren’t I the luckiest girl ever!

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2. YEGO

During one of my countryside borrower visits I heard the sound of singing coming towards me from the other side of the mountain – I quickly took out my camera and was lucky enough to capture these men, working hard and spurring each other on!

1.Impromptu toddler hugs

I have had many instances where I’m walking down the road and a local toddler runs to me and wraps their arms around my knees. My favourite toddler incident however happened at Kimironko market. I was minding my own business, choosing tomatoes when I felt that someone was touching my knee. Freaked out, I looked down, only to find a two year old girl had grabbed the skin on my knee in one had and was stroking it with her other hand!

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My first ever hike – 100km in three days down the Congo-Nile trail

I am a firm believer that ignorance is bliss at times! This is what I knew at the beginning of the hike… I am going to walk from Kibuye to Gisenyi along Lake Kivu with my two flatmates QinQin and Jakob and Ran, the Kiva fellow.

This is what I didn’t know – how long is the hike (100km), how many days it’ll take (3), where will I sleep (base camps dotted along the way), will I be able to flush a toilet (every single time), am I able to actually do this (HELLS YES!).

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The trail

The hike is rated as ‘easy to moderate’ – most of the time we were walking along a rough countyside road through little towns and villages . What made it harder were the constant ups and downs (Rwanda is known for its hills!) but that also meant breath taking views at each and every corner. We did go through a marshland for a portion of the trail and I doubt I’ll ever wash away the stench from my trainers…

The kids

Four mazungus are interesting enough in Kigali, but in the country side it’s a whole other ball game… The valleys carry sound very well, so the kids knew we were coming way before they even saw us. As we turned a corner of another mountain, we heard the familiar call ‘MAAAZUUUNGUUUUUU’ down from the valley, underneath the banana trees. And as clock work, all of the village kids would appear on the road – ‘Good morning!’ ‘How are you?’ ‘What is your name?’

‘AGA CHUPPA, AGA CHUPPA’ – the kids were after our empty water bottles as they use them to fetch water from the wells, so we ended up recycling all our bottles!

Meeting Florence

We found ourselves in a torrential rain situation within the first few hours of our hike, stranded in the middle of the road, completely soaked. As we weighed our options, a young barefoot woman ran up the valley and energetically encouraged us to follow her back down. We were saved!

We sat in Florence’s house with ten village kids and two baby goats, sharing our snacks as gratitude, waiting for the rain to pass. As the rain stopped and we were ready to hit the road again, Florence was keen to share some gifts with us. First, we got a two metre sugar cane branch! She helpfully cut it into manageable pieces for us and peeled it with her hardcore teeth, so the silly mazungus could actually eat it!

Second, she wanted us to have a whole banana branch… As we explained we are too weak to carry it, she pointed to a random kid and said ‘He will come with you and carry it for you!’ We got out of the poor boy trekking with us by promising Florence that we will make sure to come back some day!

We have been expecting you

As I mentioned, we didn’t really know where we were going to sleep throughout the trek. I had emailed the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) that we are doing this hike a few days before our departure, they said it was ok and that we will be ok. As we walked into Bumba town (which we were hoping was our Day 1 destination), a man in a leather jacket came up to us and said ‘I have been waiting for you!’.

So turns out a random email to RDB will get a random man to wait for you in the middle of the road, for god knows how long… Rwanda is the best!!!

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‘Give me your sunscreen!’ and other fun times

Besides intense staring competitions with kids (I won!), the local milk bars and the crazy village ladies that scare you as they’re taking their clothes off so you can put some of your sun screen on their skin… there’s plenty of other things to experience along the trek.

We visited a beautiful tea plantation trying to figure out how the locals manage to make their way through the thick hedges. We had a comfort break at a coffee washing station and were overwhelmed by the pungent smell of the rotting coffee bean shells. We took a cheeky boat ride to shorten our Day 3 hike by four hours (we were not up for another 11+ hour hike!) and enjoyed resting our feet for a while.

The base camps

The trail is divided up into different day treks (Day 1 – 27km, Day 2- 41km, Day 3 – 34km with a cheeky boat ride) and we successfully reached our base camps each day – Bumba, Kinunu and Gisenyi. The camps are wonderful – beds, mosquito nets, flushing toilets, some even have cold showers! Dinner and breakfast is also served at each camp – a great spread of rice, chips, beans, meat stew and fish!

We had a long chat with Earnest, the Bumba camp manager, around a camp fire about the Rwandan education system and how he is building a library for his community. We shared Jeaunice’s pride at Camp Kinunu as his daughter was the only girl in the village who attended a prestigious boarding school near Kigali. And we dove into Lake Kivu when we finally reached Gisenyi – the cool water soothing our weary blistery feet and sore muscles…

 

I wanted to say a special thanks to QinQin and Jakob for being such great leaders and navigators – me and Ran definitely would not have made it without you guys!

 

Last but not least, if you do end up doing this hike yourself, here are some tips…

Do

  • Carry granola bars and nuts – these are great to share with kids on the road and act as good emergency presents when you’re invited to someone’s house
  • Pack sunscreen, bug spray and a rain poncho – you will be hit by all elements! I swayed between soaking wet and burnt to a crisp for the most part…
  • Stash some chocolate in your bag – instant pick me up when you’re miserably wet in a random milk bar with locals laughing at you

Don’t

  • Think running shoes and cheap white H&M socks are appropriate for a hike – my feet were wet, my shoes are broken and every pair of socks I wore was left behind…
  • Plan ahead too much – things will work out… someone somewhere somehow will know where you should go… Just enjoy it!

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Singing and dancing with Rwandan kids at a local school!

As I’ve mentioned many times before – the best part of this fellowship is meeting the borrowers and Beatrice is one heck of a borrower! She won the ‘greatest impact’ award globally for the whole Hope International Group, which Urwego is a part of. So we paid her a visit to tell her the great news and to see all the amazing work she has been doing.

Rwandans know that education is key to their country’s success but reaching villages in the country side still remains a struggle. Beatrice recognised this and decided to do something about it – she founded a school!

She started small – building one house for a nursery school… The locals did not have enough money to pay tuition fees therefore Beatrice had the parents help out in the garden, in the kitchen, with repairs, with uniforms – anything to make sure the kids can come back the next day.

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Over the years her school has grown and she has received much praise and attention – even the Australian prime minister went to visit her!

It was fascinating to see the learning materials around the school – hand made posters of numbers, letters, sentences to recite, animals to learn. My favourite was ‘sources of light’ – of course this concept seems completely alien to us, folks with abundant electricity – but it is important to know as a kid in Rwandan countryside with 12 hours of pitch black darkness every night!

The kids of course were brilliant – extremely excited to meet us and show off their skills, so they sang a few songs for us, one of them being: “Clean my car again… oh oh again… oh oh again… oh oh again…” I must say, keeping a straight face throughout that was extremely hard – just check out their dance moves – these kids are the best!

Beatrice didn’t stop with the kids though… She saw that many of the parents had difficulty earning money and many of the female siblings of her students had dropped out of school and had little to look forward to in the future. So she decided to take action again – she began sowing and knitting classes for adults.

Seeing all the sketches and cut outs of clothes took me back to my mum’s work bench as a kid, with the hum of the Singer sowing machines in the background… I walked around and stopped at each lady so they could show me what they’re working on – mastering a new stitch technique, putting more yarn on the machine, unknotting a lump in the sweater… These women knew their stuff!

So not only does Beatrice provide a strong educational foundation for the kids in the community; she is also lifting young adults out of poverty through vocational training. We finished our visit with a long prayer, for Batrice, for the school, for strength to carry on, for a brighter future – she is a truly remarkable woman !

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My Easter break in Uganda, by the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi

This trip idea started when I was chatting to Sravya (Kiva fellow based in Uganda as well as ex EY) and we thought it would be fun to spend Easter together… Fast forward four weeks and I found myself on a bus with Harry (another ex EY…) on our way to the Ugandan border.

After some good old fashioned border control fun (waiting, sweating, paperwork filling, stamping) and currency exchange in the middle of the road, we got to Ugandan soil – it was actually surprisingly painless.

I was then introduced to the concept of rolleggs – basically a man in an alley with a frying pan making quick omelettes wrapped in chappati, popped in a plastic bag! Neither street food nor plastic bags are allowed in Rwanda, so already I was very excited!

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With my rolleggs bag in hand, we drove for another 30 min on the bus, avoided many questionable toilet options, got into a random man’s car to take us to the lake and boarded our hotel’s motor boat – we are alive and we made it… amazing!

Our home for the next three days was the Bushara Island camp – safari tents with lake views, open top showers and eco-toilets. The island had no electricity (other than a few battery powered bulbs), which meant fun candle lit dinners and plenty of flash light action. There was also limited running water – I ended up using the lake as my bath, others braved the cold shower.

 

So what do a bunch of mazungus do on a secluded Ugandan island in the middle of a lake, besides eat their body weight in crayfish?

1.Attempt to ride a canoe and fail… An experience dubbed as the mazungu cork screw… as all you do is spin, whilst the locals laugh at you. A five minute journey to a neighbouring island took us 30 minutes, a lot of embarrassment and heavy sunburn. Did I mention that we were beaten by a swimmer…

2.Coordinate your pontoon jumps… And generally wind down the clock and enjoy spending time reading, swimming and figuring out how effective DEET can be when you spray it on a flying bug….

3.Empty the wine shelves… When we arrived on the island they had an ok-ish selection of wine (ok-ish is used very sparingly in this context!). By the time we left, the shelves were pretty much empty. To make up for the wine shortage, the island did have a four deck UNO game, which had us occupied for hours…

4.Search for the most amazing views… At one point we all fancied a chance to actually flush a toilet, so we headed to the mainland. I took my first ever boda boda ride (two man moto with no helmets!) to the top of the hills, where we settled in Hotel Arcadia for the evening – more wine, more amazing views and a midnight pitch black boat ride back to the island!

5.Miss the sunrise… A 6.30am wake up call, a hike to the lake and nothing…  We all needed a caffeine fix after this fail!

Time has the tendency to stop for me in these parts of the world… There is nowhere to be and nothing particularly important to do… Absolute bliss!

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