The walls have ears

Those who know Peter well will recognise the pronouncement of “happy birthday” every time a glass is raised. It has become our accustomed joke… Explained to strangers in our midst as “well, it is someone’s birthday, somewhere”.

So when Peter said “happy birthday” as we raised our pre-dinner wine glasses on our first night at Nyungwe Lodge, I thought nothing of it. Thank you, I said, as I usually do!

But in a luxury lodge, walls have ears. And despite my protestations that I didn’t want dessert after dinner, our waiter arrived with two spoons, and a special request that we just try something small…. This!

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Well, I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t my birthday at all! Hope we didn’t look too embarrassed in this photo they insisted on taking of us on my faux birthday.

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I guess I should be pleased they didn’t sing as well!

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Our almost human cousins

Tuesday. Gorilla Day!

In 2013, 266 New Zealanders visited the gorillas in Rwanda. Today we get to be one of the few in 2014.

A civilised 6.30am pickup from our lodge. Closed shoes, check. Garden gloves, check. Raincoats, check. We arrive at ParkHQ… The car park is filled with dozens of 4wd vehicles. Each day, just 80 tourists get to see the gorillas – in groups of 8, visiting one of the 10 gorilla families that has been habituated to tourists, for just one hour (strictly enforced). There are another 8 groups of gorillas reserved for research purposes, never visited by tourists.

The gardens of ParkHQ are thronging with people. An African song and dance performance I’d in full swing, drivers are running around registering their tourists, guides are sussing us all out, a group of local primary school children arrive – they’re being taken to see the golden monkeys, to educate them early. Coffee with cremora… Memories! You can tell the Americans – they’re the ones in the designer trekking gear (though to be fair, that type is in the minority). Most are just like us – seasoned travellers. In fact, what really stands out about a Rwanda is that there are almost no novice travellers – we have never been in such experienced traveller company!

The guides and drivers gather. The negotiation has begun

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It’s like a third world trading floor down there on the lawn as the haggle about which tourists are going with which guides to which gorillas. The options range from short and easy (3hrs there and back, plus your hour with the gorillas), up to a major trek of 8 -10 hours round trip. Emmanuel looks pleased as punch… He has secured us a moderate walk, with the head of guides (Felix has been working with the gorillas for 28 years here and in Uganda), assisted by Francois, to whom he defers as the most experienced guide, with 37 years experience. He is honestly more monkey than man.

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A bone crunching 45 minute drive to the start of our 2 1/2 hour trek, porters eagerly awaiting our arrival. We are encouraged to take a porter, even if we don’t need one… And I must say our man Peter (coincidentally) was invaluable in not only carrying our backpack, but particularly in taking me by the hand on the difficult bits of the hike.

We hike first through village farmland on the edge of the park – mainly potatoes which love the rich volcanic soil, and pyrethrum daisies, a cash crop used as crop rotation. An hour in we are met by a trio of armed guards at the low stone wall that surrounds the remaining 120 sq km of National Park. The AK47s are, we’re told, coming with us in case we meet the buffaloes – and there’s certainly plenty of evidence of buffaloes on the trail, and even occasional elephant dung. Not that they actually shoot the buffalo, we’re told – they scare them off by shooting into the ground.

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The hike is challenging in parts – particularly the steep parts, fringed with stinging nettles. Then, suddenly, we’re there… A bunch of park trackers appear in the clearing. They’ve been tracking our gorilla group, and have led our guides to them. We dump the bags, the walking sticks, all food ande water… Taking only ourselves and our cameras, we head through the bush to find ourselves literally in the midst of the gorillas.

At this point, crazy French woman in our group, on her 10th visit to the gorillas, with her body covered in tattoos of those she’s seen before, discovers that the giant lens on her camera, that needs a full body harness for her to carry, is going to be completely useless unless she’s planning to take their fingerprints!

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We are standing less than 3m from the alpha male, the number one silverback in a family of 20 gorillas – Amohora – that has 5 silverbacks (mature males) amongst them. He is huge. He looks at me, rises slowly and starts walking towards me. Crouch down, stay calm, says Felix. Francois meanwhile is communicating with the group in “gorilla”. They talk back, they clearly know him.

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I crouch down. Stop clicking the camera. He brushes firmly past me, strong and soft. Almost past, a quick flick of his hip, and his back foot pushes me over. I am more amazed than afraid. Awed, really.  He settles in his new spot, head resting on hands, thinking….

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A pregnant female suns herself, resting in the clearing. She’s 8 months pregnant, one month to go. She looks uncomfortable.

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We wander further into their resting place… Gorillas everywhere, within reach. Juveniles playing the trees. A mother determined to hide her one month old baby from us, but every time she tucks him in, his little inquisitive head pops out, determined to see what’s going on.

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Our group is mostly focused on getting the perfect photo. Peter is just happy to sit and watch – though when I force him to sit so I can get him and a gorilla in the same shot, he ends up kneeling in a patch of stinging nettle! Sorry Peter!

Our time is almost up – how fast an hour flies. We are mesmerised by a family group.

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Young one being weaned is carried by daddy, mother following on behind. The care for his son is clearly visible on the father’s face, and in the way he gathers him up protectively to prevent him from straying too close to us.

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Behind him, another female picks her nose, and eats the pickings…

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They are part monkey, but very much part human. Visiting them is incredible. An experience beyond words – and to have done so under the tutelage of a guide who is so very much part of their family gave us even more insight into their habits and their lives.

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Each year, thousands of people gather for a naming ceremony, where they name all the babies born that year – the gorillas, of course, do not attend. But when a gorilla dies, the guides bury him in one of two gorilla cemeteries – those who knew Diana Fossey are buried with her, at her memorial, the others near to ParkHQ. These are people who care deeply about the gorillas, and from my viewpoint, that care was clearly reciprocated.

The roads of Rwanda… I take it all back!

Just like the little girl with the curl, it has to be said that when they are good, they are very very good, and when they are bad, they are horrid.

Clearly the Philippa rule about the heritage of colonialism needs an addendum – where the Chinese have been, the roads are sorted!  (See previous comments about the legacy of French vs British colonisation)

Monday started in Nyungwe Forest Lodge with a much more civilised pick up time of 8am, ready for our next long drive.

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At this point I’m feeling that I was probably a little ambitious about how much we could fit into 6 days in Rwanda (though we subsequently discover we are not alone in this!)

We set off to follow the Congo Nile trail, along Lake Kivu, up the western border of Rwanda. Billed as a 10 day hike, 5 day (mountain) bike ride or 2 day drive (but only for very patient 4WD drivers, the brochure says), it turns out that the actual road is one of the Republic of Rwanda’s major works in progress!

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It takes us 4 hours to do 93km, most through the most astonishingly massive roadworks and earth moving I have ever seen. There are patches not yet attacked – basically a badly rutted bumpy trail, and patches where the final product is tantalisingly showcased – a real road, perfect in every way. When this route is finished, the container trucks to Burundi will no longer need to go through Nyungwe Forest.

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I ask our driver how long this project has been going… thinking about how long it took to almost build a motorway from Auckland to Hamilton, a similar distance. And of course, beating in mind that this is not a simple road; this route winds around, up and down at least 50 or more of this thousand hills or which Rwanda is famous. Two years, he says. I am stunned, expecting maybe 5 or more given the scale we have seen.

No, he says, when the government tenders the project, the consider the resources that the company has available to finish the job quickly. China Roads won the tender, and has certainly brought their resources to bear, while also making full use of local labour. Amazing.

I think about the rebuild of Christchurch and how much more might have been achieved by now with a similar philosophy.

 

We get to the end of the trail – a town, a lunch stop at a truly African ‘restaurant’. I feign vegetarianism, choosing rice with curried banana, coleslaw and avocado, with a side of fries. That pot of boiled chicken just didn’t do it for me. But it  is was certainly good to have some respite from the “African massage” that is the bone jangling bumpiness of the ride so far.

The view from our authentic African lunch spot

The view from our authentic African lunch spot

Back on tarmac after lunch, we still have 5 hours to go!

We arrive at Gorilla Mountain View Lodge – in retrospect, probably not the best choice, only on account of its altitude – late afternoon, with one more (downhill) speeding ticket under our belt.  On closer examination, it’s not the the speedometer doesn’t have a needle, it’s just that the mileage counter has been disabled, and this clearly means the speedometer doesn’t work.  If you’re doing zero miles, you must be going at zero miles an hour!

Emmanuel says he’s going back down to the town to sleep – not enough air for sleeping up here.  But in every other way, this lodge is perfect.  None of the affluent luxury of Nyungwe, this lodge is straight out of old Africa, think Cathedral Peak, complete with a dinner gong, red polished concrete floors, and a giant room with its own fireplace.  The temperature at night falls below 20C, so we must need a fire in the bedroom (no thanks!) despite the not one but two heavy duvets, plus blanket on the bed.

Tomorrow – gorillas! The excitement is mounting…  We share a bottle of South African Merlot, and head off to bed.

i download photos from my camera – no internet.  I have dozens of bad, out of focus snaps of things that caught my eye out of the window of the Landcruiser as we zoomed by.  This is Africa, poor, but happy, vibrant and alive.

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This is Africa – impressions from Peter

Arrive Kenya. Old airport. None of the plumbing in the toilets work. The button to operate them has been ripped out.

Go through baggage check to the new airport. Smell the new paint. Power points in the restaurant do not work. A cleaner sees us trying to charge devices. She leads me to the disability toilet. The toilet works. As does the power point. Plug everything in. “I watch for you while you eat”. Wonderfully helpful.

New airport Kenya. Two staff for every passenger. Most staff staring into space.

Arrive Rwanda. (Background – plane delayed by three hours. Been traveling 30 hours by then). No tour guide to meet us. We are told “he was here. There is his vehicle”. Our cell phones do not work. 4 or 5 people offer to help. Lend us cellphones. Talk to hotel. Help arrange taxis. After 5 false starts with the Hotel – “our limousine is 30 minutes away. Take a taxi and if you do not have money tell me at reception, I will pay and add it to your room bill”. The number of people looking to help is amazing.

Arrive at the hotel. Armed guards at the gate. Taxi inspected for bombs underneath. Baggage has to go through a scanner. Oh shit – what sort of a country is this?

Those beautiful african smiles everywhere.

The next day traveling through town. Armed policemen everywhere. Driver “there is no crime problem here”. Travelling out of town. Armed policemen in pairs every 5 km or so. Scans before we can go into museums and cultural sites. It gradually dawns on us – the issue is not crime but one of “terrorism”. I use inverted commas as I know there has been a long history of overthrows of government etc. Who is the terrorist and who is not. They seem to swap sides regularly.

Our tour guide can give us detailed malaria statistics but will not acknowledge HIV.

We arrive at a flash hotel. Six staff to meet us. Wonderful.

I go to the gym. Extemely expensive equipment. It has not been calibrated. Eg the cycle tells me my power output is 145 kwh. I know it is about 250 kwh. The TV is carefully placed on the side wall where no one on the equipment can see it.

There is a swimming pool with 2 full time attendants. (Background – it has been raining at 5 minute intervals since lunch time). As I arrive it starts to rain. Chair cushions and towels are removed. Stops raining. Chairs dried and cushions put back on. Starts to rain again. Cushions and towels removed. Ah Africa.

Start the chimpanzee trek. 7 of us plus a guide. There are 15 men standing the looking to offer a porter service. It made me feel sad.

At lunch yesterday I was was approached by a young girl with a baby. (Background I always say no to beggars). I said no. Her look of desolation. I gave her USD 1.50. The look of joy, relief and excitement on her face. She was still dancing as we drove away. I felt both so good and so bad.

Red soil.

We could be in most any country in Africa.

Bureaucracy gone mad – airport faces all round

Getting into Rwanda is no mean feat. It’s hard enough to actually get here from anywhere meaningful, but then you have to deal with the paperwork.

Apply for your Visa online, we’re told – it’s easy! And sure enough a few days after filling in the online forms, two visas arrived by email, which were duly printed out and filed in the travel folder. Hmmmm … No mention of the fact that that piece of paper is just a confirmation that they WILL issue you a visa, on payment of course, of the visa fee (now that wasn’t mentioned anywhere). At least they accepted our VISA card!

And then the forms!

So on the plane, they announce that the Republic of Rwanda apologises for any inconvenience caused by the additional form we need to fill in on arrival as part of their Ebola control programme… No forms handed out on the plane. So arrive, fill in the Ebola forms, have our temperature taken, waved through to passport control, where we present our emailed visas, and our passports.

Must say, I did wonder what they would do if someone arrived with a temperature, despite having been nowhere near West Africa!

No forms, says the man. No, we left the form with the Ebola control people we say. No, another form, says he.

Go back go the forms desk – sure enough, an arrivals form, akin to a mini census! Fill them in, persuade the Ebola man he’s already got our Ebola forms, back at passport control… No visa, he says, need to pay!

So off to the visa payment desk – US$30 each – she hand our visas over to the passport control man sitting beside her, who stamps them so that she can issue another form which she gives us, which we then give him, along with out passports….

At this point I have been travelling for 32 hours, I definitely have my airport face on! Several minutes for each of us while he takes our photo, reads our passports from cover to cover, stamps and dates the visa into each passport, stamps and dates our entry into the country….

Aaaaah, the joys of international travel! In my head I can hear Peter saying “welcome to Africa”, but thankfully not out loud!

BUT WAIT, there’s more….
Departure day: Emmanuel right on time with the pick up at the hotel, who want to charge us for meals and drinks, when all except alcohol was included in the voucher. Need to see our guide to sort it out. Much arguing ensues – I send Peter back in to remind them that we have a plane to catch…

Arrive at airport 90 minutes before departure. Walk up path to airport – man needs to see passports and tickets before he will allow us to even approach the entry doors. Full scan of everything before we can enter the building… Shoes off, laptops out and all.

We walk across the small room – another man at a desk. Passport check again. What is our final destination? How long have we been in a Rwanda… Maybe he was just passing the time of day.

At the checkin desk, all goes well – a final glimpse of that helpful, smiling Rwandan charm. 50kg plus of luggage makes us thankful for the generous Etihad baggage allowance.

Up the escalators – one not working. Passport control… But first, of course, the paperwork. A departure form that rivals the arrivals one, collecting again the same information as before. Consider, peruse, read each passport, stamp, stamp, stamp and we’re through.

We stop in the duty free shop… Cute bangles and beads. How much, we ask? You must ask the other man, the unhelpful woman at the till pronounces. Our flight leaves in one hour… Airport staff come to tell us we must go to boarding, which is within sight. We ignore them.

How much, we ask the man? Bangle US$10, one string beads US$30. Together the combined monthly wage for a secondary school teacher. I laugh. Peter pulls out a US$10 note for the bangle, he really likes it. It’s purple, Izzy’s favourite colour. Man examines the note carefully – not good, he says, pushing it back to us. (They don’t like US notes printed 10 or more years ago, or showing any wear and tear – this one is 2004 and in pretty good nick). Oh well, says Peter, you don’t want my money, this place is a rip off anyway. We walk away. “How much you want to pay” comes the question trailing behind us. If I’d wanted to barter, I’d have gone to the bazaar!

We arrive at the departure gate. Another security screening machine. Shoes, belts, watches…. No check of liquids, aerosols & gels, mind you! My bag gets pulled aside. You have batteries. Yes, I say, camera… Pull out my camera, extract battery. No, he says, other batteries. Starts fishing around the three compartments.

Ah, yes. I pull out a two pack of Energiser AAA batteries – still in the original packaging. He tosses them into the rubbish bin? What??? No batteries, he says. More in bag. Well yes there are – that pack he’s just tossed were the spares for Peter’s noise cancelling headphones. My spares are in my headphone case. I unzip it, but this time hold tightly onto the new battery pack.

Wait I say, I need these. 30 hour flights – I point to the headphones. No, he says, no spares. At this point we are causing major traffic jam, but I don’t care. Okay, I say, you have the old ones. I make Peter unpack his headphones as well, and we put one new battery into each set. I hand the man the used ones. He looks disappointed.

At this stage I notice that the bin is full of brand new batteries, all still in their packaging. Yet another way tourism is contributing to the Rwandan economy I think. Peter’s airport face is thunderous. It’s hot, were sweating. But blow me down – passports please – before we can enter the holding pen.

I’ve lost them, says Peter. I’m exhorting him to stay calm, we’re nearly there. As he hands them over, he bursts forth. “This is fucking ridiculous. I know this is Africa, and they need to employ people, but this is fucking ridiculous”.

No more ridiculous, I think, than allowing me to take as many batteries as I like, so long as each one is already installed in its device… But no spares. I’m sorry, but that makes no rational sense at all!! And don’t tell me it’s for my own good, all in the name of security. You allowed me to (inadvertently, on my part) carry a tube of 80% DEET onto the plane – enough to make everyone feel pretty poorly – and not even in my little plastic baggie!

As we sit in the holding pen awaiting a bus to the plane. I pray that Peter isn’t listening to the conversation going on behind us – an American tourist complimenting the final passport man on their fantastic airport security.

Peter points out a poster of my gorilla, lying head rested on his hands, just like in my photos.

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The caption says “Rwandan experiences go with you”. Yes, indeed they do – the good and the bad!

As we sink into our seats on the plane, Kenya Airways is playing one of those TV shows about pranks played on unsuspecting people in a supermarket car park. We can’t help but laugh.

Whowhowhowhowhiwhowho… The sounds of chimps calling!

At 4.23am the phone rings! This is our 4am wake up call – clearly attention to detail does not extend to the night shift.

We have exactly 22 minutes to unpack, find and don our trekking gear, race along the path to the main block, down a cup of coffee and a pastry, pick up our brown paper bag – packed breakfast – and leap into our vehicle to meet our fellow Trekkers who depart the National Park headquarters, 15 minutes drive way, promptly at 5am.

Phew! A few things forgotten… Insect repellent, sunblock, hats, cash to tip our walking guide… Hmmmm. We do without the supplies, with no apparent ill effects, and Peter borrows cash from our driver, who is carrying around an even bigger wedge of local currency than we are (in part because he has somehow managed to acquire smaller RWF1,000 notes.

As an aside, I am becoming confused by all the zeroes on the money here! Completely failed to correctly calculate that we were paying the equivalent of USD80 for a bottle of nice but not spectacular South African red wine at the hotel in Kigali… At least here in the lodge the wine list is already converted, although USD70 for a bottle of Edelrood – the cheapest on the list – is pretty rich! Mind you, I guess one should consider the challenge of getting it here (see previous post about the long road trip)!

Anyway, back to our early morning start. Of course our convoy of 3 vehicles did not leave on time, despite being just seven guests…. us, an interesting slightly younger American couple from Ohio who have been in Madagascar to see the lemurs for her and are now in Rwanda to see the gorillas for him, and a trio of aloof (and much fitter than the rest of us) Belgian men of about our age. Just like the army, says Peter, hurry up to wait. I knew he would say that!

We depart in due course, in pitch darkness. Light comes quickly on the equator, and when it does (about an hour later) we are still driving.

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Going into the Park by a different way, we are told, long drive. Packed breakfast – not that flash, they clearly don’t do “padkos” in Rwanda – consumed on the way.

We disembark in a clearing in the forest – more like a jungle really, complete with Tarzan vines – for a briefing with our park ranger “my name is Hope”. He tells us the trackers have found our chimps but he can’t say how long it will take us to get to them because they are on the move. We walk. We walk up, we walk down… Never flat. Peter’s knee is not happy with the down, my general fitness is left wanting on the up.

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We stop… I have an idea, says Hope, let’s take a short cut. Obviously designed to get us closer to our quarry, so we agree… NOT a good idea!

Down down down the route plunges… Not a path, not a track, more like an erosion channel conveniently spotted by our guide as a potential way to get us down fast. I am terrified, and battling. Every second step I find myself slipping, the ground moving under my feet. Belgians stride on ahead. US couple going slowly but a little more competent. Peter very slow behind me – down is not good. Hope takes my hand – left me help you, he says. Put one foot here, then here, down we go, slipping and sliding. I can see where I’m going, sweat pouring into my eyes, glasses unable to keep hold on my nose… Just have to trust the guide.

We make it! Muddy, exhausted… Never has so much sweat been expended going downhill… And suddenly it’s all forgotten… Our first sighting, there they are, up up in the trees, easy to see, hard to photograph.

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The next hour is spent following them, looping round to get ahead and below their route through the jungle. Then as if to tease us, they seem to decide that walking along the path, our path, is actually the easy route for them too… Between us, we snap hundreds of pics of the butts of a troupe of chimpanzees!

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The trackers stay with us – just as I’m straggling behind, the tail end tracker taps me on the shoulder. Look behind, he says. Sitting there, not 3m away from me, is a big male chimp… He is literally staring straight into my eyes. So human – I entirely forget to even raise my camera. Sometimes it’s the picture you take away in your head that is the most powerful. Did you get him, asks Hope? Yes I say (but not on my camera).

Later he poses for us along the trail.

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Then just as we are almost at the pick up point – another clearing where our driver is waiting for us – the chimps turn off the path and head back down into the bush. I am exhausted, but elated.

I have been fortunate over the years to have many wildlife experiences, most all of them in vehicles of some sort. Tracking animals on foot is different, more frustrating and certainly more personally challenging. Perhaps that’s what makes it all the more rewarding, that you have literally sweated to find your prey.

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Or maybe it is just these animals – chimpanzees – so unmistakably human not just in their looks, but in their mannerisms, in the way they look at you, in the way they move together taking care of each other and looking out for the young ones. We watched a mother climb down from her tree to show a juvenile how to get up to the tree the rest of the family were in… Human cousins indeed.

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After the long flight, a long road trip!

Amazing what a good night’s sleep can do to improve your perspective!

Saturday morning dawned bright at beautiful in our 5 star hotel high up on the slopes overlooking Kigali, and with this view from our breakfast table, it wasn’t difficult to recant my statement the night before that no, I was not happy to be back in Africa!image

A quick repack meant all of Europe could be left in one big suitcase, along with Peter’s even bigger bicycle suitcase in safekeeping at the hotel, with just the hand luggage bags sufficient for our 5 days around Rwanda…. Literally, around Rwanda! Emmanuel, our guide, was eagerly awaiting us in reception, leading us proudly to the company vehicle that would be our transportation for the next 5 days.

Perhaps at this point, I should digress to explain that when I made this booking, I rejected all the big foreign owned tour companies and settled for a local outfit who support local tourism and social projects (and it must be said, were very highly reviewed on all the travel websites I could find). Hmmmm… The “company vehicle” is a 4×4 as promised, and to say it has seen better days would be an understatement.

Even as we sit here in Nyungwe, two days in, I am reassuring myself with reminders of Willy’s assertion that Toyota Landcruisers are indestructible, and the perfect vehicle from which to see Africa! Just hope you’re right, Willy, because tomorrow we have a 10 hour dive up the western border along the Congo Nile trail, and this road is actually described as “bad” in our notes (while the truly appalling ones to date have warranted no such mention).

It was only when I switched seats with Peter yesterday afternoon to sit up front with our driver that I realised how truly bad this car actually is. It has no clutch to speak of… If anything, the drivers clutch foot is getting a bigger workout than the accelerator / brake one! The wing mirror on my side is held in by some bent bits of flatiron. The front bonnet is held in place with rubber bands… Big ones, admittedly… And when we stopped to buy our park permits after driving through 2 hours of a road which can only be described as a massive work in progress, the driver had to open the bonnet to restart the car because the bumping had disconnected the battery!

And then when we were stopped on a steep downhill by policemen wielding a speed radar device -along with their AK47s – apparently for going 5km over the speed limit, I suddenly realised that it’s a bit hard to know how fast you’re going when there is no needle on the speedometer dial at all! Quickly checked out that there is one on the fuel gauge!

Our driver is Emmanuel – his name one of the many signs that this is a very predominantly Catholic country; all the way through to the rumblings about the wealth of the church and how much property they own, reinforced by his pointing it all out to us in every town and village! And of course, everything closed on Sunday, with even in the rural areas, roads and pathways thronging with people in their “smartwear” on their way, mostly on foot, to or from church services.

Which brings me to the roads! I am reminded of Pip’s assertion that you can tell the difference between African countries colonised by France and Britain by the fact that the ex French colonies have reliable electricity, and crap roads, and vice versa for the British. Admittedly Rwanda was ultimately Belgian, not French, but they left behind the French language, and apparently the french approach to both electricity (a plus) and to roads (not so much).

Well, despite it’s almost incomprehensible hilly terrain – there is no where flat in Rwanda, Emmanuel tells us, if you’re not going up, you’re going down – electricity certainly appears almost universal (in part thanks to significant hydro electric generation resources).  Lights on in every village…

The roads are another matter entirely… Populated by 4x4s carrying tourists, buses of every size and shape carrying locals, bicycles carrying both people and “freight” – fire wood, bananas, sacks of charcoal, large milk cans, cartons and crates, all piled so high you can barely see the bicycle beneath- and of course people, people, people, sometimes they too hidden by their copious loads.

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And then there are the container trucks and fuel tankers, carrying goods through Rwanda to Burundi (if not stopping here) from the ports of Tanzania and Kenya, a journey of a full month at an average speed of 8km an hour! Mind you, not that we are travelling much faster than that, except on the downhills of course, where according to the reliable police radar, we are reaching at least 54km an hour!

We notice two cyclists hitching a ride up one of the hills by holding onto the back of a container truck!  The mind boggles!

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It is worth noting that the roadside verges… and, indeed, the country in general, is noticeably free of litter. A combination of the total nationwide ban on plastic supermarket type bags, and a law that says every citizen must spend the 4th Saturday of every month out on the streets cleaning up… Even the President, Emmanuel proudly pronounces.

We leave Kigali just after 8am, the traffic light due to the weekend, we’re told, and with a brief stop at an ATM for local currency – in 5000 RWF notes, each about NZ$10, a real wad of money – we head southwest for Nyungwe National Park, via a couple of Museums intended to fill us in on the history of Rwanda according to the Rwandans, who seem very sensitive about foreign interpretations of their story. Probably most interesting was the visit to the noble ceremonial cows, with horns the size of large elephant tusks, who are kept only for show – their carer sang to them as we approached to keep them calm – no photos because I was slightly grumpy at the suggestion we pay double the museum entry fee if we wanted photos.

Long way still to go so we stopped at a “supermarket” at 1pm for lunch supplies… Hmmmm, pretty much dry bread and a bottle of water. Fortunately Peter had some One Square Meals left from his cycling adventures!

An hour later, we entered the National Park, and the road, which hadn’t been that flash to start with, basically disappeared! Roadworks of the most epic proportions, being worked on in no discernible order, with workmen at a different sit every few km, each with their own Chinese roading engineer and equipment. The task is difficult… It’s rainforest, it rains a lot. It’s also the only current route for said freight to Burundi! For two hours we travelled at snails pace, marvelling at the scale of it all, at the random stop-go arrangements, and the consistent red and yellow cable, the only common thread through all the work sites, carrying fibre to the regions, along with the Chinese road makers.

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Then just as suddenly as it started, it was over, the mud and rocks giving way to a perfectly formed smooth Tarmac road, with real road markings and all. They have finished up to here, our driver s tells us…. Oh ye of little faith, I mutter to myself. Heavens they are actually going to get this road built (eventually).

The prize at end of the journey? This ultra fabulous Ngungwe Forest Lodge – I am suddenly SO pleased I upgraded the originally suggested accommodation! No detail has been spare (or so it appears on first impression), right down to the sandblasted logo on every window pane – a monkey, of course. The warm welcome towels for hands and faces are followed by welcome cocktails and fruit kebabs while our driver briefs us on the fact we need to be at breakfast at 4.15am! I spare a fleeting thought for where he might be staying tonight as our lodge host whisks us off down the path in a golf cart to our home for 2 night…. Complete with a huge bath for wallowing in! Aaaaah, now this is the Africa I could become accustomed to!

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An “interesting” arrival in Rwanda

So, 36 hours after leaving Modena, or maybe even more, we finally arrive in Rwanda.

Only Ainsley will appreciate my extreme anxiety (shades of Zanzibar) at exiting the airport to find…. NO ONE … Though at least this time I did have the name of the hotel we were booked onto for the first night, which was a bonus.

I had terrible thought of having sent a vast amount of money for the tour into a black hole in Rwanda… But actually it was just a bit of miscommunication, a seriously delayed flight, and the fact that apparently 2degrees does not roam to either Kenya or Rwanda… BUGGER! A digital detox awaits….

On the plus side, the random strangers at Kigali airport witnessing our plight could not have been more helpful. Cell phones were offered to call the tour company, call the hotel… Another guide called all the other guides he knows to track down our guide… And eventually we found ourselves in a taxi to the hotel, at what turned out to be a reasonably good negotiated rate given the vastness of Kigali, which we hadn’t appreciated from our sleep deprived stupor!

Alarmingly – at least for me – the taxi was not allowed onto the hotel grounds before the security guard had checked the underside all round for explosives, and then even more alarmingly, both us and ALL out luggage was passed through a scanner on the way into the lobby. Peter’s bicycle bag caused some “mulling”… Clearly not your usual luggage in what turns out to be super duper luxury hotel, in which we appear to have been upgraded to a suite, sadly only for one night before we hit the road with our driver and jeep ( the former having appeared at the hotel approximately 10 minutes after our arrival, extremely contrite).

Well at last we know this will be a safe place to leave most of our luggage while we swan around Rwanda for the next five days, definitely sans cellphones, and probably sans any connectivity at all. Reports will follow, albeit probably in a belated fashion!