June 2010

In Search of Gorillas in Rwanda

By David Cogswell

Gorilla tracking has been on the top of my list of aspirational travel for years so when I found out that Karin Jones, managing director of Anastasia’s Africa, had an opening on a trip to Rwanda to go gorilla tracking that would coincide nicely with my trip to Indaba, I jumped at the chance to join.

Karin, a longtime veteran of the African travel business, was putting together a trip to fulfill some of her own aspirations that she had not yet gotten around to in decades of frequent travel to Africa. She did some travel in Zambia on her own before Indaba, and then after the trade show joined with a small group of friends to go gorilla tracking. Because a couple of her friends had not yet been to Africa, she included some game tracking in Kenya, so they could get a taste of the essential African safari experience, and an encounter with the Big Five.

The trip was put together through David Sugden, a ground operator based in Nairobi, who ran Abercrombie & Kent’s Nairobi office for 17 years and now has his own company, East African Operations. Sugden is Anastasia’s main man in East Africa.

When Indaba wrapped up, I flew from Durban to Johannesburg, then caught a South African Airways flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flight was between three and four hours long and crossed a time zone, so I spent most of that day traveling from Durban to Nairobi. I met Karin at the airport and we joined David Sugden at the Ngong House in a wilderness area near metropolitan Nairobi. We had dinner in a sort of adobe hut, elegantly lit with candles in little carved out places in the clay walls, and then I turned in for the night in a tree house.

The tree house was literally up a tree, like a fantasy out of a Tarzan movie or “Swiss Family Robinson.” The stairs made it as easy to climb as any room one flight up. The building itself was a construction of rustic elements, including rough hewn lumber and unfinished wood, all very artistically and inventively put together to create a pleasing aesthetic. The tree house was a two-level structure with the bed in an upstairs loft. There was no heat, and despite the fact that it was pouring rain and quite cool, there was no need of any. There was, however, a brassy overhead shower nozzle that delivered scalding hot water in great abundance, and that was greatly appreciated in the morning when we had to rise about 4 a.m. to catch our flight to Rwanda.

Once boarded on the flight to Rwanda I dug into some deep sleep and then suddenly woke to see that the plane had landed and people were gathering their baggage in preparation of exiting. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and joined them, filing out of the plane. I waited for a few minutes on the tarmac and didn’t see my compatriots, so turned to walk into the tiny airport terminal. The aircraft cut such a striking silhouette against the big, bright African sky, with its turbulent cloudscape, I decided to snap a picture with my point-and-shoot.

Long story short, I soon found out I had gotten out at the wrong airport – I didn’t realize there was a stop in Burundi on the way to Rwanda. Furthermore, I found out that the officials at the Burundi airport do not like people taking pictures at the airport. The security man told me I would have to erase the photos and he stood and watched to make sure I did it. After some time and a few “Wait here I’ll be back” periods, I was finally assigned to a friendly older gentleman, who accompanied me back to my plane. I guess I can cross Burundi off my list of countries visited now. I came very close to being stuck there.

When we arrived in Rwanda we were met by the smiling, reassuring face of Kirenga, the representative of Volcanoes Safaris who would be taking care of us for the next few days. We headed out right away on a three-hour drive to our new home in the mountains, Virunga Lodge, in Volcanoes National Park overlooking the gorgeous twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo on the Uganda border. The landscape, with its green rolling hills and rich growth of vegetation in the fertile volcanic soil, poured over us soothingly.

The Virunga Safari Lodge, operated by Volcanoes Safaris, is perched at the top of a towering hill at an altitude of 7,000 feet. It has eight bandas, or cottages, and a central lodge at the top of the hill. The bandas are private, rustic in construction and cozy. Mine had a porch looking out over the twin lakes and up at a star-filled sky. The chain of volcanoes that defines the Virunga Massif, a giant natural reserve that is shared by Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was our horizon on the other side of the lakes.

The altitude made exertion more difficult than at sea level. Even walking from the bandas to the main lodge on top of the hill was challenging. It became clear quickly that trekking for gorillas was going to be a more serious endeavor than I may have given it credit for. Our guide Kirenga, gave us a briefing of what we would need to do to prepare for trekking. We would need good boots, he said, an extra pair of socks in case our feet got wet; gloves to protect our hands as we grab on to vines, branches and rocks while climbing. We should tuck our pants into our socks, he said, so as not to get ants in our pants. We should wear colors that blend with the outdoors, khakis and greens, not shouting colors, like reds and yellows. We should hire a porter for $10, Kirenga said. He would carry our bags, help us when we needed a hand up, and it would help the local economy.

After our briefing, we had an early dinner and returned to our rooms to get some sleep before our 4:45 a.m. wake up call in preparation for the main event.

To be continued…

-- David Cogswell

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