A to Z of Adventure Travel: R is for Rwanda

15 05 2009

Gorilla 4a mwIn April 1994, the aircraft on which Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were travelling was shot down by a missile while landing at Kigali airport. The two leaders were returning to the country from peace talks in Tanzania implemented to put an end to the Hutu-Tutsi fighting that had long plagued both countries. Sadly, the assassination of both leaders instead lead to a genocide in Rwanda that resulted in the slaughter of as many as one million people in just 100 days – or more than 15% of the entire population.

Rwanda is a small country that sits just below the equator in east Africa and is bordered by Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although picturesque, Rwanda would likely have been overlooked by mass tourism except for one attraction: the mountain gorillas.

One of only three countries that is home to the mountain gorilla, Rwanda has always been a popular place for those travellers willing to trek their way through thick jungle to see these magnificent creatures. As the entire Great Lakes Area has always been unsettled and troubled, travellers have invariably had to alternate between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to get their glimpse of these endangered great apes. After the genocide, Rwanda was off-limits to all but the most intrepid of travellers for several years. Today, tourism has recovered sufficiently to now account for more than USD$200 million a year in revenue.

Gorilla visits are strictly controlled by national parks authorities and every trekker must obtain a permit. These permits are snapped up many months ahead of time, although it can sometimes be possible to obtain one on site if there are cancellations. If permits have not been pre-purchased, it is advisable to be able to spend several days in the area awaiting an opportunity. Alternatively, many tour operators offer packages that include permits. All trekkers are accompanied by a guide and trackers and although there is never a guarantee of being able to see one of our closest genetic relatives, the chances of success are generally quite good. The forests of Rwanda are also a good place to see chimpanzees.

Although the gorillas are still the main draw for visitors to the country, ironically the genocide has attracted some travellers of its own. There are several sites around the country that mark the massacre and remember the victims, the most moving arguably being the Murambi Technical School, now known as the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre. It was in the school that some 60-70,000 Tutsi took refuge at the height of the slaughter. It is estimated that at least 45,000 were murdered there by Hutu Interhamwe. The museum offers a background to the genocide and memorials to those who died there. It is a sombre place that puts faces and names to the statistics and brings the horror of mass murder to life.

Rwanda can be reached by international flights into its capital city, Kigali, or overland from its neighbouring countries. Many companies offer tours just to see the gorillas or that include other sights. A number of overland companies include visits to Rwanda on trips to Uganda and or Tanzania.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Holidays in the Danger Zone

11 05 2009

 Virunga Rangers mw

                 (Trekking for gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo)

Afghanistan and Iraq don’t feature on many lists of Top Vacation Destinations for 2009. While both countries genuinely have a lot to offer visitors from archeological and historical sites to natural beauty, even if peace burst forth tomorrow and rainbows and doves shot from the ground, it would likely be quite a few years before ‘The Amazing Race’ played an over of cricket in Kabul on a Fast Forward or we saw “Survivor: Euphrates.” However, it wouldn’t be long at all before adventure travellers started to flock to the two newly ‘re-opened’ countries.


Real travellers tend to have fairly short memories of major conflicts and problems – or perhaps that recent infamy makes such destinations all that much more appealing. One minute we’re looking at disturbing photographs and reading horrific accounts of brutality and the next we’re packing our Lonely Planet guides and boarding flights to go there on holiday.


It wasn’t so long ago that the last places in the world anyone would ever visit on holiday were Northern Ireland, El Salvador and Rwanda, yet all do a pretty healthy trade in tourism now. Croatia has been one of Europe’s hottest destinations for several years, quite unimaginable just 20 years ago when some of its most beautiful and historic sites were being destroyed by shelling. Cambodia was famed for Pol Pot and the Killing Fields, Uganda for Idi Amin and mass slaughter and Nicaragua for the Sandinistas and Contras, yet now the first two are amongst the most popular adventure destinations and the latter offers all-inclusive beach resorts for those seeking somewhere new and different.


Algeria and Sudan are re-appearing in some overland and specialist itineraries and companies are already sending small groups into Angola as a precursor to re-opening the southern African country to tourism for the first time in many decades.


Some travellers seek out these until-recently hot-spots because of a life-long interest or a family connection, because they’ve been everywhere else or due to the cache that comes with being the first person on the block to have been there. But of all the reasons to be amongst the first travellers back is the reception you get visiting a country after a bleak period.


What these intrepid travellers sacrifice in comfort, t-shirts, postcards or basic infrastructure they more than make up for in the friendliness, warmth – and even gratitude – of the local people. The welcome is genuine and the cynicism and frustration that mass tourism so often creates is still years away. Entire generations have grown up without ever meeting a traveller who’s not wearing fatigues, a blue helmet or handing out food. Although it may take them only a few years to tire of the camera-wielding, polyester sporting masses, the reappearance of the traveller is a sign of normality and success. It’s proof positive of the country’s re-emergence from its darkness and its re-entrance into the real world.


So, although I’m not sure I’ll be jumping the queue to join the next Mosul Mosaic or Colourful Kandahar tours, Angola 4X4 sounds pretty good to me!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Gorillas In My Midst…Part II

17 04 2008

Gorilla 3

“Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s gardening gloves” is not one of the Ten Commandments, but as the pack of envious and covetous souls closed around me, I would have taken any help I could get. 


It was still dark when we awoke and stepped from our hut into the brisk, cool air of the Virunga Mountains. We divided into groups and set off through the wet grass towards the forest edge, arriving just as the sun began to warm the mists that hugged the plains and valleys below.


Threatened by war, poaching, deforestation and disease, there are barely 600 mountain gorillas left in the world. Thanks to the tireless work of local rangers and international wildlife and conservation groups, they have valiantly struggled to survive in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo against the odds. Not only do those who see the gorillas in person have the experience of a lifetime, but they also make a concrete contribution to their survival as much of the USD$500 permit fee is used to help protect the critically endangered species.


On the edge of the trees our ranger drew us to a halt. We were accompanied by two more rangers armed with automatic rifles, and a tracker with a machete whose job it was to lead us to the gorillas. He explained that we would head directly for the spot at which the gorillas had last been seen and then pick up their trail from there. Gorillas tend to stop and eat quite regularly, so with luck we would gain on them quickly, he had added.


The forest was thick, dark and already very humid. We took the most direct route to the last nesting site, our feet soon sinking ankle-deep in cloying mud. We clambered through bamboo thickets, over fallen trees and under low-hanging branches, periodically stopping to extricate ourselves from the razor grip of thorns. Sun streamed through the canopy, dappling the forest floor and highlighting the occasional flower.


Before leaving, the tour operator had provided a list of items necessary for the trip. These ranged from sleeping bag and hiking boots, to water bottle and rain jacket. What was not on the list but had been recommended by a friend, were gardening gloves, which he said were great for scrambling through the undergrowth. We stopped in a clearing to catch our breath and with my companions’ hands scratched by thorns and red from nettles, I felt like the squirrel with the last nut. As the group closed in on me, I distracted them by pointing at a butterfly and hurriedly moved on.


After almost four hours of trekking, we came to a halt. In hushed tones, the ranger told us that the gorillas were just ahead. He whispered to us to be quiet and to move slowly. We ducked through one last curtain of vines and there, scattered amongst the thick foliage was a group of perhaps six or seven gorillas. They regarded us with complete disinterest and continued to eat while gradually and effortlessly drifting through the woods.


Gorilla 2

There is something utterly indescribable about sitting mere feet from a wild mountain gorilla, separated by nothing more than shafts of sunlight. We could hear their every breath, grunt, sigh and tummy rumble; see the deep warmth of their eyes; the blue-ish black of their thick fur and feel their immense power yet great gentleness. Any initial fear I may have had melted into a healthy respect and a tremendous awe.


While most acted as though we were of no interest, one young male charged through the grass and bounded onto a low branch just in front of us. He raised his arms and pounded his chest in defiance. The rangers hissed for us to remain still – which was considerably easier said than done! He continued his display, screaming and shouting, then jumped down and charged away. The rangers laughed and smiled at their quaking mob.


All too soon, our hour with the gorillas had ended. They slowly moved deeper into the forest, dissolving into the vegetation for the last time. We sat in silence, beaming smiles at one another and feeling distinctly privileged to have been admitted to their domain. We headed back down the mountain and out of the forest just as the heavens opened again.


It had taken me a lifetime of dreaming and three years of waiting to see the gorillas. Normally, when you anticipate something for that long, it fails to live up to expectations. This had surpassed mine. Perhaps the uncertainty, determination and effort that had taken me to Zaire had increased my appreciation.


Or perhaps the experience really was just that great.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Gorillas I Had Missed

14 04 2008

Gorilla 4

For some strange reason, whenever I mention that I appeared as an extra in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”, people ask which gorilla I was. Professional help has assured me that this is in no way related to my posture or my hairy shoulders, but rather an attempt at humour. At which point they generally hand me their bill and a banana and ask that I not drag my knuckles as I leave their office.


The fact remains that the opening scene of the movie on the life of primate researcher Dian Fossey was filmed not too far from where I lived. In this scene, Fossey attends a lecture by paleontologist Louis Leakey and approaches him afterwards seeking his support to conduct field research in Africa. The movie was critically acclaimed and received a number of Oscar nominations, not least because of the sterling performance of my head bobbing in the background when Fossey and Leakey have their conversation.


When I was young, I had been given Fossey’s book and others by chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall and dreamed of one day heading to the jungles and mountains of central Africa to see it all first-hand. At that time, it really was nothing more than a dream as I had assumed it was too expensive, too difficult and simply not possible. When, many years later, I finally did look into such a trip, I discovered it was not only not particularly difficult, but in fact eminently possible, and shortly afterwards I began to make plans for the following year.


The few remaining mountain gorillas in the world are located in one of the most unsettled regions of Africa, spread throughout a chain of mist-shrouded, jungle-covered, volcanic mountains that form the border between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In my research I learned that it was possible to have a short trip that included 5-star hotels and luxury tented bush camps complete with butlers who did your laundry everyday, sommeliers who served fine wine, and chefs who prepared gourmet food. Transport was by light aircraft and private four-wheel drive vehicles and accompanied by expert guides. Alternatively, you could opt for a longer overland trip in a truck with a group of like-minded international travellers of all ages. Accommodation was in small two-person tents and everyone lent a hand with food preparation, dishwashing, camp duties and grocery shopping in local markets. I opted for the latter and started making plans.


The trip I selected started in Bujumbura, Burundi and spent three weeks travelling throughout the tiny country then known as the Switzerland of Africa. It continued across the border into the then-Zaire and trekked for Eastern lowland gorillas, before returning to Burundi. It was as much a cultural experience as a wildlife expedition and I began reading more and more about the places I would be visiting and their history and peoples in order to benefit the most from my trip.


Several months before I was due to depart, the aircraft carrying the presidents of Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda was shot down as it came in to land in Kigali when returning from a peace summit in Arusha, Tanzania. Both men died and the subsequent violence and unrest that swept the two countries also claimed the lives of perhaps a million people. Having developed an affinity for the people of Africa’s Great Lakes through my new interest in that part of the world, these events were particularly shocking and saddening for me.


The awful events not only put my own trivial cares and concerns into perspective, but obviously also put my travel plans on hold. My life-long ambition of seeing the gorillas once more seemed to recede into nothing more than a dream. My interest and desire to visit the area was stronger than ever, but I knew I would have to be patient and await my opportunity.


A couple of years later that second chance came and I headed to Uganda.


To be continued.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008