The Absolute Safari Week 3: Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania

All up, week 3 was a bit more slow paced than the previous weeks, with the exception of the incredible Gorilla Trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park... we certainly had some celebratory drinks that night! The tour crossed into Rwanda for 2 short nights which was certainly not enough to see this fascinating country with such a rich history, before crossing the border into Tanzania: our home for the next 2 weeks to come!

Day 15: Kisoro

Uganda mountains

We woke for an early morning game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park, however after all of the excitement the day before I slept through almost the entire game drive. Not a first, and probably not the last time… you wouldn’t imagine it but we’ve all fallen asleep during a game drive at one point or another. I didn’t miss anything interesting, just a few impala and Ugandan kob. Onwards from the park, we hit the road and headed to Kisoro. Through the beautiful mountainside of Uganda, we wove through the most incredible green hills. For the next four nights we would be staying in a hostel, it was such a relief not to have to pitch tent and to have dinner provided for us! We stayed up playing celebrity heads and pictionary and stumbled off to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Day 16: Kisoro

Most of the group took part in walks to the Pygmy village or a coffee tour in Kisoro, however I stayed backed at the guest house to bum off the wifi while everybody was out and relax for what was due to be a long next day. The rest of the day was completely uneventful other than a walk into town for coffee and apple cake with some of the group. 

Day 17: Gorilla Trekking

The most glorious sunrise over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park 

The most glorious sunrise over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park 

We woke at 5am for the day I had most been looking forward to in this entire trip. Today we were going to come face to face with wild mountain gorillas! I smashed down a coffee and hit the road. We were picked up by two vehicles and split into two separate groups for the trek. The hour-long drive through the winding mountains to our starting point was spectacular. Buzzing on caffeine and my excitement of what was to come I stared out of the window, headphones blazing, watching the sun rise and beams of light dance over the rolling green hills. The night sky awoke like a watercolour painting of light pinks, purples and orange over thatched huts, livestock and the local people starting a new day. ‘High’ by The Lighthouse Family came up on my shuffle and I found myself getting emotional, thinking about my late father and how awesome he would’ve thought it was that his daughter was trekking gorillas in Uganda, something I’m sure he would’ve loved to do in his lifetime. It was the kind of scenic drive that got me reflecting a lot about how lucky I am to be able to be travel and have so many once-in-a-lifetime experiences in just 3 months, and what was still to come. 

Uganda
Gorilla trekking Kirstin ready to go

Gorilla trekking Kirstin ready to go

We arrived at the meeting point for a quick safety briefing and history about the gorillas in this area. Currently, wild mountain gorillas only exist in 2 different forests that span over the borders of 3 countries, and here a population of just 800 gorillas remain. We would be lucky enough to trek 2 separate families who had undergone habituation, in which local gorilla trekkers spend every day being in the gorilla’s presence for 2 years until they are accustomed to humans. Unfortunately for the gorillas, but fortunately for us tourists this process is now necessary for their survival as a species (although not all families have been habituated). After massive amounts of deforestation threatening their existence, at approx. $800 per person for this day encounter, ecotourism is the biggest form of revenue provided for conservation of these areas, and education to locals about the effect of imposing on the gorilla’s habitat for their agriculture. All of this information made the experience even more humbling, knowing very few lucky people will ever see wild gorillas. 

Spoiler: I saw Gorillas!

Spoiler: I saw Gorillas!

I thought the word 'trek' implied that it was going to be easy?

I thought the word 'trek' implied that it was going to be easy?

So eventually the groups split off, and the other group began their trek from where the briefing took place, however we drove for another half an hour to reach our starting point. Equipped with our sophisticated walking bush-sticks, and armed guards, the hike from the drop-off point to the edge of the forest along a dirt road was gruelling and set the pace for what was to come. It took us about 2.5 hours to manoeuvre our way through the hills, over streams, mounds of safari ants and elephant dung, along cliff edges, under tree branches, bee-hives and through thick vines and shrubbery to reach the gorilla family.

 

 

The suspense was consuming as we waited to see them and could hear them rustling in the bushes directly behind us. Our guide gave us instructions to drop our sticks as the gorillas often view them as a threat, leave our lunch behind in the bushes and make slow, quiet and deliberate movements once we rounded the bend, and to keep a 7 metre distance at all times. I had contemplated the excitement I would feel once I finally saw the gorillas, but it wasn’t until I got there that I realised how nervous I was to come face-to-face with such wild animals, especially a silverback.

Silverback in the tree

Silverback in the tree

Finally the time came, we rounded the rustling shrubbery and a pair of big, beautiful, brown eyes stared back at us through the leaves. I could only just make out a dark shadow, her eye and her giant fingers stripping a branch of it’s greens. We continued on to get a better view and stumbled across a juvenile male sitting out in the open, however by the time we got within our 7 metre reach, he took off into another nearby bush. It went on like this for the first 5 minutes until we retraced our steps and looked up to find the silverback chilling in the tree having a snack, another gorilla directly above our heads, and then another male laying out in the open. We sat and watched him for a good 10 minutes, and realising that we were only allocated one hour with the gorillas I asked the guide if there were any babies in the family.

Gorilla Uganda
Gorilla Uganda
Gorilla Uganda
Gorilla Uganda

So we moved on in search of the rest of the family, hesitantly passing under the tree that the Silverback sat in, and beneath us 3 cheeky youngsters were play-fighting and rolling around with surprising flexibility. We watched as the youngest ran up and hit the older of the 3 across the face, who had been sitting down comfortably… startled, the older opened his eyes and attacked the middle one, thinking it had been him, while the cheeky young one ran off in the other direction: it was like watching jungle slapstick. Oblivious to what was going on around us, other than these little cuties, suddenly a black-back (a juvenile male who isn’t quite yet a silver back) came in from the left and ran directly in front of us to jump down a hole and get some shade, and have a snack. 

Gorilla baby
Gorilla baby
Gorilla eyes

I had imagined that we would find the family out in an open plain, however the shrubbery was so dense we were standing on an incline of vines, constantly tripping over, while the guides cut down the bush infront of us to allow us a better view. To see the whole family, we were constantly on the move, keeping more of a 3 metre distance than 7 metres, which the guides were suddenly encouraging us to do, as it was so difficult to get good photos.

Gorilla feet

After the 3 youngsters ran off, we climbed down into the area they had been in so that we could get a better view of the black-back hiding in the hole to our right. The guide continued cutting away at the vines until we could get a view of him, when suddenly he charged forward at us, baring teeth and growling. We had been instructed to hold our ground if charged at, however everybody’s ‘flight or fight’ response kicked in and rushed to step backwards. Being at the back of the pack, I got knocked back and tripped over into the vines. The guides had kept their sticks on them, and brandished them in the gorilla’s face so that he would back off. After our thrilling ordeal, the guide remorsefully reminded us that we only had 5 minutes left with the gorillas. The countdown was awful, I still felt like I had barely seen anything as we hadn’t really had the chance to just sit and observe and were constantly walking around obstacles of the jungle to see the next gorilla. Soon 5 minutes, turned into 3, and then 1, and we were on our way. Rounding back to where we had left our belongings you would never have even known there was a group of wild gorillas behind us, it was incredibly surreal. 

blackback gorilla
Blackback Gorilla
Gorilla Uganda
Gorilla Uganda

We stopped for lunch on a log down the hill and then started the long trek back home. We had a nice cold beverage upon our arrival, were presented with a novelty ‘I trekked gorillas certificate’ and packed back into the vans to the hostel. And just like that our day of trekking gorillas was over in the blink of an eye. If I had $800 spare every day, I would do that every day, regardless of the long, laborious trek. The other group were already back at the hostel, it had only taken them an hour each way to find their family of gorillas and had returned long before we did. We exchanged stories before dinner and celebratory drinks of a successful Thursday trekking gorillas. 

Gorilla smile

Day 18: Kisoro to Red Rocks

Fancy Rwanda

Fancy Rwanda

The romantic dinner

The romantic dinner

After 4 days at the Rafiki Hostel in Kisoro, it was time to cross the border into our third country: Rwanda. We had to exit the truck and walk across the border to pay our visas and fill out all of the immigration forms. Locals trying to make their daily commute between the countries would push in-front of us to display their stamps to the official and try and get through in a hurry, which made it a very uncomfortable and frustrating experience. Happy to be back in the truck and moving on, the difference between the countries was instantly noticeable. We transitioned from a dirt road to a well maintained tarmac road, the buildings lining either side were much more developed, showing-off a fresh coat of paint. Rwanda does not allow plastic bags into their country, which was evident from the lack of litter along the side of the road. The children were in clean school clothes, although their manners weren’t so clean, flipping the bird at our passing by truck. Men were holding hands, walking along the street and embracing each other tightly, which we thought was quite odd for such a homophobic part of the world but apparently that’s just how they display friendship here (shrug?)! We drove about half an hour to the shops to pick up lunch, while 3 of us accompanied Kanyo to the market to buy some fresh fruits and vegetables (and not the stinky sardines they had piled up to the ceilings in some of the stalls). Red Rocks Campsite was just 5 minutes down the road and we enjoyed the whole afternoon playing games of cards, volleyball, table tennis and talking shit.  A buffet dinner was supplied by the campsite, which was delicious potato salad, coleslaw, grilled chicken and rice. It was a really cool area, with great ambience: The table, lit with candles and lanterns, rounded the edges of the room, with a fire pit burning out the back and a dance floor in-between the two. The DJ got the party started after dinner and we drunk and danced into the night.

Day 19: Kigali 

The failed early morning start at Red Rocks Campsite

The failed early morning start at Red Rocks Campsite

We were due for an early departure at 6am, however the churning of the engine indicated that we had a dead battery and wouldn’t be going anywhere. After 3 hours of Robert fixing the truck, and attempting to start the engine, while we all had a decent morning nap, we were finally on our way to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. We drove through the very modern city to the genocide memorial on the outskirts of the city. I had decided that I didn’t particularly wish to visit the sombre museum, however after realising the only alternative would be to sit in the stinking hot truck for 2 hours, I joined the group.

Rwanda Genocide Memorial

Rwanda Genocide Memorial

While I find such memorials and museums extremely interesting, learning about wars and genocides in a classroom is so different to being in the heart of history, and I didn’t want to have to face the stomach-turning reality of what I was about to see. I don’t regret going in at all though. The memorial was extremely well thought out and informative. We watched a 10 minute video of survivor stories before entering the museum, which was designed in a circular way so that you could walk around and read the history, before entering the centre of the building which contained photos, skulls and items of clothing of the victims. What I learned? People are assholes. Just 24 years ago, millions of people, 1/3 of an entire nation was wiped out by its own neighbours, friends and family because their ancestors 70 years before them had owned less than 10 cows and therefore they were forever identified as part of a different class. I felt sick the more the story unfolded of one of the largest genocides in history: entire families hiding in roofs for weeks, children walking to school past rotting bodies on the side of the road, teenagers being armed with machetes to kill at will, brothers betraying each other and watching their mothers being massacred before their eyes.

Beautiful Rwanda

Beautiful Rwanda

The most stomach-sinking room without a doubt though, even more-so than the skull room in which skulls that had been smashed in were barely recognisable as human, was the children’s room. Photos of just a few of the poor victims who had barely had a life were displayed on the wall, with their name, age, likes, dislikes and talents described below. 2 years old beaten against a wall, 5 year olds with their eyes gouged out until they bled to death, 3 year olds dying of starvation because they were now orphans. It was all way to overwhelming to believe that this happened in real life. I took a walk out the back in the gardens, by the mass graves, where bodies who had been found, dug up and moved to finally be put to rest. I picked up a frangipani from the ground and tucked it behind my ear while I strolled around. When I walked back to the truck, I realised that everybody came back one-by-one and that not one of us had stayed together in a group while experiencing the memorial. I placed the flower between two pages in my journal and we all sat in silence until the truck moved on. 

The only redeeming notion of such a tragic story is that Rwanda’s government and people have now been rebuilt a modern and functioning society with much better road and building conditions than any other African country we had visited thus far.We made a quick stop at a convenience store, and instinctively all bought a chocolate bar to perk ourselves up. At the campsite, once again we were provided with dinner, which I think we were all grateful for not having to cook, after having such an emotionally draining day.

An incredible sunset to end an emotional day

An incredible sunset to end an emotional day

Day 20: Ruhengeri

After 2 short nights in Rwanda, we were sad to be leaving the interesting and modern city that we hadn’t seen enough of, but excited to head into Tanzania for the next 2 weeks of some of our biggest activities to come! The border crossing took close to two hours while we sat in the steamy truck, sweating into our lunches. 

Our fans

Our fans

My new buddy - I could just eat her up!

My new buddy - I could just eat her up!

We drove on to a guest house in an obscure little town called Ruhengeri. We were stoked to be given a room, and not have to pitch tent, however the rooms were infested with mosquitoes and other bugs, their was no running water and the beds were as hard as rocks. The gated compound of the homestay had many tiny visitors poking their smiling faces through the gate that we decided to go for a walk around the village. As soon as we exited the gate we had a mob of 10…15… soon 20 kids tailing us as we walked to the market. If we stopped and turned around they would stop in their tracks and giggle until we continued on our way, and the little pitter patter of footsteps followed behind. After returning from our celebrity walk, I whipped out a spare Footys4All ball I still had in the truck, the Chilean girls grabbed their frisbee and we invited the kids in for some games. They were hesitant at first, but after they saw how much fun we were having playing ‘frisball’ they stampeded in for a game until the sun went down. We enjoyed another delectable local dinner provided by the homestay family, whose cutie-pie little 2-year old jumped onto my lap for a good hour while we sat and chatted after dinner. 

An intense game of Frisball

An intense game of Frisball

Kanyo

Day 21: Mwanza

The usual scenery

The usual scenery

The ferry crossing

The ferry crossing

Lake Victoria

Today was a mostly uneventful drive day through Tanzania, which was not particularly scenic - mostly village huts in dry grasslands and they occasional small-town. We stopped at the world’s worst supermarket to attempt to stock up for lunches, which was new and trying to be upscale, but we ended up stopping up the road again at a more sufficiently stocked supermarket. We took a ferry, crossing Lake Victoria and pulled into the campsite an hour later. It was by far the most superior campsite we had stayed at thus far! We were greeted by the incredible views of Lake Victoria, camping directly on the sands of the lake which appeared more like a beach. Hitting up the bar after a quick sunset dip in the ocean/lake, and the most amazing hot shower, we stayed up playing pool and treating ourselves to cocktails. 

Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria

The best campsite yet

The best campsite yet

Lake Victoria

Watch my 2 week adventure in the beautiful, lush countries of Uganda and Rwanda.

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