May 13th, 2018 ♥♥♥
One of the top things Dave and I had on our adventure list in Africa was to do a Gorilla Trek in the jungle. To do this entails traveling to either Uganda or Rwanda and then hiking up mountains with experienced guides who educate you and keep you safe. It’s truly a once in a life time experience. And after doing it, I can wholeheartedly and firmly say this was the best experience of our life. OK, maybe just my life. Dave says its “up there.” Here is our journey!
DAY 1: Rain, Mud and Chaos in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Stay: The Getfam Hotel
Traveling within Africa is quite challenging. There aren’t many airlines to choose from so roundabout routes and inconvenient layovers are all part of the “adventure” when getting anywhere. Enter Addis Ababa; Africa’s fastest growing city. A city that is even more chaotic than Bangalore, India. Our experience here was brief annnnd….we were okay with that.
A taxi driver showed us around the city, providing us some rich history to the chaos that we were seeing. (See video above). Given its civil wars and somewhat recent famine it was clear the country had come a long way, but it was still a long way out from seeming like a place somebody would go out of their way to visit. Dave and I did some research ahead of time (“24 hours in Ethiopia”) to try and find things to do but options were limited. We attempted to visit a large popular crafts market but rain, and time constraints didn’t allow us to leave the car. Again, it was a brief stop. One that we would probably recommend you all can skip.
DAY 2: A Night Stay in “Hotel Rwanda”
Stay: Hotel Des Mille Collines
After Addis Ababa, Rwanda’s capital city Kigali took us quite a bit by surprise. Kigali is the most cleanly and green city we have ever encountered. Justified or not, when traveling to a new African city, you can’t help but expect a certain level of grittiness. Something to look past or even appreciate as part its “charm.” The case was no different for us when landing in Kigali but the moment we stepped out of the airport it was clear this city was different.
From airport to hotel to the Ugandan border you can’t find a piece of garbage anywhere! After a good amount of questioning locals it turns out that cleaning is something of a national past time in Rwanda. Every Sunday Rwandans cross their own thresholds to sweep sidewalks, rake leaves, trim bushes, and generally tidy up the entire country. This blew Dave’s mind, who now likes to describe Rwanda as the only African country suffering from a collective case of OCD. We could relate!
Our one night in Kigali was spent at Hotel Des Mille Collines, the hotel where events that transpired during the 1994 genocide inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
While I was getting ready for dinner, Dave headed down to the bar and stuck up a conversation with a young Rwandan guy. As I headed down to meet him, I wandered around the hotel admiring the beautiful pieces of art everywhere. Turns out, the artist was the guy Dave was chatting to. His name is Pacifique Niyonsenga, or as he would say, “Pacific, like the ocean”.
Pacific is charismatic and so much fun to talk with. Over drinks, he explained to us that he was 2 years old when the tragic genocide, where nearly one million Rwandans were brutally murdered, occurred. He and his mother managed to escape and then were left to fend for themselves on the street. The entire country at this point was in shambles and Pacific’s life on the streets was not an unusual tale of post-genocide Rwanda. Unable to afford school Pacific went door to door in wealthier neighborhoods in search of work in exchange for food.
One day, while assisting a gardener at the home of a Canadian expat couple, the owners took an interest in Pacific. They asked him for his story and after hearing it asked to meet his family. Then the Canadian did something remarkable; they adopted the entire family. They provided education, food, and a place to feel safe. Through this support and kindness, Pacific found his passion for painting, and then became a prolific artist.
He has travelled all over the world doing art shows and learning about different cultures. All because one couple decided to help. It’s incredible how one couple doing good can have so many positive affects. Now, one wouldn’t be surprised if Pacific chose to start a new life in a more advanced country after what he’s been through. Especially because the Canadians were offering their complete support to do so. But no…Pacific remained loyal and passionate about his home country. He decided to form an NGO called “Niyo Cultural Centre” that is funded from proceeds from his art gallery, and donations from all over the world. Among other things, the organization teaches impoverished Rwandan children drumming and dance lessons, which then gives them confidence and support so they can have better skills to get jobs.
This guy is a gem. We are so fortunate to have chosen the right hotel, the right bar, and sat down at the right time to meet him. Check out the link and if you’re looking to donate to a good cause, it doesn’t get any better than this. Pacific is so wonderful he even offered to take us out that night! Instead Dave and I took him to dinner and we had a lovely night making a new friend.
DAY 3: The Road to Uganda
Stay: Silverback Lodge
At first, a 7 hour a drive sounded rough to me. Especially given Africa’s roads can often be quite bumpy and shall I say “care-free” of all laws. We were picked up by our guide for the next few days and shared a car with a fellow American expat, who was living in Germany and traveling in Rwanda for some work/pleasure. As we drove we enjoyed the scenery rolling by (women carrying baskets on their head, kids running off to school, green rolling hills) and we couldn’t help be in AWE of how clean and beautiful the country was. The Rwandan people are amazing. They have such a sense of pride of who they are and where they came from. And we were soon about to find out – so do the Ugandan people- and with quite a fervor!
VIDEO BELOW: Car views from Rwanda to Uganda.
DAY 4: Touched by Gorillas
After an early morning breakfast at the lodge watching the sun rise, we packed up our bags and headed out. The first stop before you trek is the Ranger center where you get a brief lecture on rules and guidelines of being in the forest with these wild animals. They tell you things like don’t touch them (Dave clearly missed that one) and if they charge at you or come up to you, just stand still and DON’T RUN. There really wasn’t much more to it. We got grouped up and met with our ranger and excitedly set off. We drove about 45 minutes into the forest before we got out and parked. We began walking into the forest for about 20 minutes before our ranger stopped us again to tell us this is where the “real” forest began and gave us a few more guidelines. Stick together, yell out if you see something, etc etc…oh and by the way, wild elephants can be quite dangerous and they roam around here so watch out. Um, ok.
VIDEO BELOW: The beginning before the beginning.
The initial trek was quite easy. Couple ups and downs, nothing too steep, it was more just really wet and slippery, and obviously since it’s not an official walking path, you have to just watch where you step. Otherwise, pretty easy. Along the way the ranger is communicating via walkie talkie to the trackers who have slept in the forest overnight. They are the ones who keep an eye out for the gorillas so the rangers know where to take us. Our ranger also explained to us how these gorillas get habituated to humans. This is amazing stuff. It’s a 2 year process where these trackers sleep out in the forest and follow various families of gorillas. At first, the gorillas respond with aggression and pound their chest. Then slowly over time, they get used to the humans. They understand that we aren’t here to hurt them (besides disgusting maniac poachers who all deserve to be in prison rotting for the rest of their lives). They see that we are insignificant to them. Sort of like how Zebras and Giraffes can just co-exist, drinking the same water and not being threatened by each other. About 45 minutes of walking, we paused. The rangers asked us to take off our bags and make sure our flashes and sounds are off on our cameras, and to follow them carefully. And before you know it, we were surrounded by these amazing, beautiful and fascinating animals.
VIDEO BELOW: The Silverback daddy Gorilla grooming his baby son.
VIDEO BELOW: Family Nap Time!
VIDEO BELOW: This baby stole my heart. He saw Dave and thought “This guy looks nice. My family won’t play with me so maybe he will!”. I made that up, but I am almost positive he was thinking that. Then he just cutely walked over to Dave, and Dave says he looked him straight in the eye and SMILED. Can you just DIE?!! I can’t even deal with it.
VIDEO BELOW: Baby Gorilla living his best life.
VIDEO BELOW: And then he saw me! He’s so darn cute I filmed the worst video because I was in awe staring at him. He just kept tapping me on the leg asking me to play. I wish so much I could’ve bent down to play with him but the ranger was like DONT DO IT. Apparently the parents were in my direct eye view and if I bent down and engaged, they would see me as a threat. But still!!! I love him!!
In awe and still reeling from the magic of it all, we got back in our car with our guide, drenched with rain and mud, and very slowly made our way down the mountain and towards Lake Bunyoni, our next stop.
Day 5 &6 : Uganda To Rwanda To Ethiopia To South Africa….oh my.
We left Lake Bunyoni, Uganda waving to our new friend Justice who promised to be in touch (and he didn’t forget by the way…we get so many texts from him still!). We got ready for a 4 hour drive to Rwanda, more crossing the border MANIA, then a 2 hour flight from Rwanda to Ethiopia, then another layover (12 hours) in glorious Addis Ababa (insert major sarcasm) and then a 6 hour flight the next day back to Cape Town. Holy. Cow. I explain this not to bore you with the details, but to show you the real deal of traveling within Africa. To bypass these challenges, it’s quite simple. Have more time to travel! We are squeezing in so much on Dave’s public holiday weekends that it makes travel time quite intense. If any of you want to do this trip plus a safari, it can be done quite leisurely over a 2 week trip, and we highly recommend it.
Until next time!