Friday, October 22, 2010

From Machete madness to spotless streets - a complex land...

I look up from my typing every so often to enjoy the most amazing views. The little Toyota Coaster bus swerves from side to side as it hurtles round hairpin bends, with enough g-force to rotate the screen and keyboard on my iPad. A good reminder if I needed one to stop typing and enjoy the view over this land of a thousand hills. I'm looking out on a green valley surrounded by mountain peaks of massive scale, all impossibly lush. It's hard to believe that only 16 years ago the friendly folk farming the terraces of these steep hillsides were busy chopping each other up with panga's and axes. Reconciliation seems genuine here and they are all getting on with life but the scars must run deep. The war crimes tribunal is still running across the border in Tanzania and many of the perpetrators have fled to other surrounding nations yet I can't help but reflect that many of the people I meet, buy my meals from, or just pass in the street are probably guilty of murder or worse. I struggle to understand how people can behave like that, especially en masse. Frankly I don't want to know, but somehow we need to know and understand such things if we are to be able to act before propaganda, fear and power-mongering repeat such acts in the future.

The Rwandan folk are incredibly friendly, which is not so unique in Africa but what is remarkable is how well the whole country seems to run. Unusually for this part of the world, the place is really well organized. The gorilla trekking, guides and management of Volcanoes National Park were truly world class and that seems to be a reflection of the whole country. In Rwanda, streets are clean. Corruption is low to non-existent. Busses run on time. Infrastructure is in good shape. It's an amazing contrast after 6 months in Tanzania. One of the really cool things that I love about the place is probably summed up in why the streets are so noticeably spotless. The leadership decided early on that even if they had no money for infrastructure, one of the things they could achieve at zero cost was to keep the place clean. So, one Sunday of every month, the people from the President on down, including mayors, farmers, business people and kids all get out and pick up rubbish. What a great thing to do!  So simple yet it makes a huge difference to not only the appearance of the place but I'm sure also the culture.

It's been great to have a chance to visit Rwanda, not to mention to enjoy the fresh food and great cafes of Kigali but more adventures await. We're back on a plane again tomorrow back to Tanzania for a bit of a hike to the 'roof of Africa'. Kilimanjaro here we come...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In the hall of the mountain king...

My pulse is racing, I'm sweating profusely, oblivious to the hitherto lung busting altitude and in an altered state of complete euphoria. My face muscles will ache later from the huge fixed grin that has been there virtually nonstop for the past 30 minutes. No, I'm not stoned in the Himalayas. I'm...

Right now I'm sitting on a bus in Rwanda catching up on emails and doing a spot of reading (did I mention how great the iPad is for traveling with?) and I still have that huge smile but now it's from my memories of yesterday. We're on the bus back to Kigali after visiting the Susa family in northern Rwanda. The Susa family are no ordinary Rwandan family. They are the largest clan of mountain gorillas in the region a visit with them is quite an experience. Its difficult to describe how emotional an experience it is. I mean, really, they are just big apes right and we've all seen them on television many times. But somehow being in the wild alongside these massive (really massive) but gentle and friendly primates is a very moving experience. It's a rare treat to see them at all, let alone see 20 in as many metres and get within arms length of them. Between the three of us we rattled off 1,000 photos and short videos in an all too short 60 minutes.

If you'd like to see a few of those 1,000+ photos then here is the place to go.

It's been a day to remember and one where we were definitely 'living in the flow'. Everything fell into place far better than we could have planned it. Even the torrential tropical thunderstorm held off until we were back in our hotel. The day started at dawn when our hired car picked us up from the hotel to take us up the mountain to check in at the ranger station at 0630 for a well organized briefing and cuppa before the trek. We'd been told by friends to ask to visit the Susa family because they are the biggest, most active and interesting, hence are the best experience for the hour that you get. The Susa group however live the highest up the mountain - often around the 4,000m mark which puts them 4 solid hours trek through the jungle. There is no formal mechanism for applying to get into this group and the guides just pick the people who look fittest and most experienced for the long hike. We figured out that our worn hiking boots and an air of prepared quiet confidence would help us get into that group but in the absence of any other guidance we were sweating on getting picked for this group. Really, really wanted to visit this family. I'm sure we would have had a great time with any family but everyone raves about Mr Susa and his clan. Unbeknownst to us until later that morning, it's the drivers who recommend people to the park guides. The selection had been made 30 minutes before we had agonized over cup re how to wangle a way into the Susa group. So while we were looking around at the many unfit, ill prepared, overweight or jeans with muffin top youngsters and eyeing off our competition amongst the the fit and well equipped, the drivers were in a huddle with the head ranger round the back. Now, we hadn't told our driver that we wanted to see the Susa family so when Fabian grabbed us quietly by the arms and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I believe you would like to see the Susa family" we were gobsmacked but wasted no time with our equally conspiratorial and barely restrained nods. He then lead us away to where we joined a Canadian/Aussie couple and waited for three people to make up the eight. We still don't know how Fabian knew we wanted to see the Susa's but never felt the need to ask him. Needless to say we did later feel the need to tip him generously.

By this point we had all the proof we cared for that we were in the flow but just in case we were in any doubt, we found out at the pre-trek briefing that once a year the gorillas come down the mountain to eat the fresh bamboo shoots. Apparently the shoots are alcoholic so not only is it their happy, active time of year but they are only an hours hike from the nearest vehicle parking area. We came prepared for 8 hours of hard hiking above 3,000m but in the end after a 40 minute drive and 60 minutes rapid climb from 2,500m to 3,200m that left us gasping in the thin air, we were in the jungle and gasping with joy at the sheer magnificence of these 300kg mammals. Stuart was the first to see a gorilla hidden in the dense undergrowth and Lynne snapped a great shot of his face with an expression that clearly said "WOW" and then it was my turn to walk past this dark hairy mass in the lush undergrowth. We could have watched transfixed for ages as the gorilla just 2m away ignored us and continued eating but Dee, our guide was in radio contact with the trackers and had other ideas. With another minute hiking under the trees, scrambling between vines and bamboo, brushing past stinging nettles and slipping on leaf covered lichen, we emerged into a clearing where 20 gorillas were playing, feeding, grooming, lazing, picking their nose, scratching and generally just doing their thing. They seemed barely interested in us and certainly unfazed. Fromtheir perspective I guess we were just another daily visit and an event that the young ones have never known life without. The big Silverback kept a lazy eye on us to make sure we weren't overstepping our welcome but he was clearly king of the roost and not at all concerned by us. This park borders Uganda and the Congo and where we visit is in the area where Diane Fossey did her research and conservation until she was murdered but her work has gone on with only a couple of years break during the genocide. Its a slick well oiled machine now and a credit to the Rwandan people not to mention a life saver for the last of the mountain gorillas.

We were treated to all sorts of antics as he gorillas went about their day, largely ignoring our presence other than our quiet conversation and regular "wow"s the main noise was from the guide who has a few words of gorilla which he calls out to them to let them know we are coming or to reassure them. You are supposed to stay at least 7m away but it is ok if they come to you. Most of the time we were only 2 or 3m from the nearest and when one of the young males did a mock charge to within a meter it was very cool. Behind us we watched a male build a nest by progressively breaking branches in a cluster of small trees until he had a platform about 3 meters in the air. His raw strength was amazing, as was his casual air as he effortlessly knitted them together. After about 20 minutes of lying in it and posing for the cameras he either got bored and rolled to the edge or decided to come down. I'm still not sure which but with a mighty crash he rolled off and somersaulted backwards, landing with q thud on the grass where we had been standing two minutes earlier. A bit of a shake of his head and he was off into the midst of the grooming, sleeping, playing, scratching clan to feed on the young shoots. We could have watched them for days.

All in all, yesterday was one of my top ten lifetime experiences and a contender for number one (if i could ever pick a number one :-).