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Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas in the Land of a Thousand Hills

Map of Rwanda

Without doubt, if you are visiting East Africa, don't miss Rwanda! I say this in respect of two reasons, firstly you have the opportunity to visit one of most amazing endangered species on the planet, the Mountain Gorilla. Secondly you get to learn about one of the most tragic instances of human attrocity ever, the genocide of 1994. My decision to visit Rwanda became something of a major ambition, more so than ever after watching the travel series The Long Way Down, starring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. These two entertaining characters rode on motorbikes from the UK all the way down to South Africa back in 2007. They stopped in Rwanda to visit the magnificent mountain gorillas. Plus they even got to talk to the Prime Minister, Paul Kagame about the most chilling of human episodes, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Up to 1 million people were murdered by Hutu militia in the space of just 100 days. In terms of numbers, timescale and brutality, this goes almost unprecedented. What's more chilling is, the world stood back and failed to intervene.

My curiosity for visiting Rwanda got the better of me months before booking my East Africa trip. When the opportunity to visit this small country arose, I grasped it with both hands. After 2 weeks in Kenya and Uganda, our overland truck drove over the border into the Land of a Thousand Hills. We switched from left hand driving to the right as Rwanda was a former Belgian colony, which in itself sewed some of the seeds for more recent conflict. (More of that later). We entered the town of Musanze, (formerly known as Ruhengeri) and I was once again intrigued at how the locals carefully balanced their weighty loads of baggage and goods on their heads.

We spent our first afternoon down at the local market, and despite warnings to watch over our gear from would be pick pockets, I felt comparatively safe wandering around there, but common sense must prevail at all times as you are vulnerable in the more crowded areas. I like how developing world markets are often set out logically with stalls of similar products all near one another, so for example, the bucket stalls are all together in one place, which makes your browsing for buckets easier! My abiding memory was of a young man giving a few coins over to a blind woman sat on a street corner. He may not have been so well off himself, but it was good to see his generosity to a woman in need of some help.

The morning of our trek to see the almighty Mountain Gorillas started early. We drove through mysterious mists to the Volcanoes National Park, where we were treated to a cultural show of music and dance known as an 'Intore', by a local tribe known as the 'Batwe'. The energy of the occasion certainly got us in the mood for the next phase, which would be a gentle uphill walk to see the gorillas.

It needs pointing out at this stage, that seeing the Mountain Gorillas is a privileged occasion and you have to pay top dollar in order to do it. You pay a total of $500USD, but you do so in the knowledge that the money goes directly towards the preservation of a species that number only around 700 in the entire world! When I explain this to school children that I now teach, I point out there are more students in their high school than mountain gorillas, which puts it in perspective.Rwanda has around 300 gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, which neighbouring DR Congo and Uganda have around 200 gorillas each also. The fact that there even 700 mountain gorillas left at all, is miraculous in itself given the level of poaching that has gone on during the last few decades.

One woman's name you may have heard of in relation to gorillas is that of Dian Fossey. This courageous American woman was a Primatologist and conservationist who spent years actually out there in the wilds looking after the Mountain Gorillas. Sadly she was murdered in 1985 and the suspects we most likely to have been poachers who she fought to hard to combat against. If you want to know more about her plight then I highly recommend you watch the film Gorillas in the Mist starring Sigourny Weaver. It is a fairly accurate portrayal of her life and follows the title of a book by the same name, which she herself wrote back in 1983.

Our group of 15 or so adventurers joined a few dozen others in the National Park centre and we were divided up into small groups of 6. Each group would be taken by a couple of National Park Rangers who are trained in tracking the gorillas and also have weapons in order to fend off would-be poachers, which still exist to this day. We trekked uphill through a series of farm fields and small holdings. Our excitement really began to mount once we crossed a stone perimeter wall and into dense forest. My heart was actually racing in anticipation of coming across these big gentle creatures of rarity.

After negotiating a muddy path through thick undergrowth, our ranger stopped our group as we had entered the location of the Bwenge group of mountain gorillas, whom we'd spend the next couple of hours with. We crouched in some bushes and watched as some baby gorillas chewed on some nettles, then climb some trees. We had to stay pretty much silent the whole time so as not to disturb the young. Our ranger occasionally made similar grunting noises to the gorillas themselves, as by mimicking them, it puts them all at ease that we are not a threat. I must admit my heart was racing with excitement the whole time!

One young gorilla managed to climb 10 feet up a tree and tumbled to the ground which made us gasp in shock, but it was quite normal apparently. Low and behold he just stood up unphased by the fall and simply started all over again! The biggest buzz of all came when the Silverback of the Bwenge tribe arrived on the scene. This big daddy of the tribe was in excess of 2.5 metres in height and weighed well over 200 kilos. He would be in charge of 4 or 5 females and had 10 offspring, so the tribe numbered around 15. I froze to the spot when at one stage, the Silverback crawled towards me on all fours and literally passed within 3 feet (1 metre) of me. My heart was in my mouth! The ranger told me to just to stay still and not panic. The Silverback's head alone was bigger than my entire body! What an experience!

As we descended down off the side of the volcano and back to the National Park headquarters, our voices raised once more after two hours of having to contain our excitement. We all spoke about the moment that the Silverback walked slowly by us, and thankfully ignoring us too! Back at the hotel, we enjoyed flicking through all our photos and videos of the days action, with a beer in hand to celebrate a wondrous day of wildlife.

The next morning, we drove from Musanze in the north of Rwanda to the very centre of the country and the nations capital city of Kigali. Along the way we crossed through a plethora of mountain ranges. You can see quite easily why the Belgians nicknamed the country - Pays des Mille Collines which translates to Land of a Thousand Hills. The country now has a population of over 12 million which is quite a lot considering the size of the place, which ironically makes it roughly the same size as it's former ruler, Belgium. The views on the journey to Kigali were pretty spectacular with rolling fertile fields climbing up the many hillsides.

Following yesterday's excitement of the meeting the Mountain Gorillas, today was a rather sobering affair, visiting the Genocide Museum in Kigali. I make no apology for my fairly indepth explanation of this tragic event in this blog. Whilst Rwandans move into a new era, 25 years on from the genocide which took place, like many similar genocides of the past, this event should be remembered and if at all possible, lessons should be learnt from it.

Back in 1994 I was studying my for my final exams when new broke out on 7th April that people were being hacked to death all over the little known country of Rwanda. For 3 whole months, news stories filtered through weekly of the events which unfolded. The shorter explanation was that a group of Hutu militia took to arms, mainly machetes, against the smaller, but former ruling tribe known as the Tutsis. In 100 days, up to 1 million Tutsis and some Hutus who assisted them were murdered. Bodies and blood literally covered the streets of the former Belgian colony. I went in the museum with an open mind and came out emotionally exhausted with sadness at the stories I learnt that afternoon. You put on a set of headphones and walk around the graves, gardens and inside museum to learn how the grim events unfolded. You see real photos and skulls of the victims.

There are heaps of websites that can teach you the very ins and outs of the genocide. However, the key points I learned that day was that the Belgian colonists instigated an ID scheme back in the 1950s which deepened divisions between the two main rival tribes of the Hutus and Tutsis. The Belgians favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus which deepened resentment between them both for decades. Eventually civil war broke in the 1990s. A peace accord was in place up until April 1994, but when the President's plane was shot down, it was the trigger for a call to arms by the Interhamwe militia. This brutal regime took to the radiowaves to call ordinary Hutus onto the streets and carry out the genocide against the minority Tutsi people.

Whilst at the museum I stood and wept at the sight of mass grave which contained up to 250,000 corpses, victims of the massacre. Next to this grave was a black marble wall containing thousands of victims names, though many people just went missing and unaccounted for.

If you wish to have a greater insight into the Rwanda genocide I can highly recommend three films to watch, which quite accurately portray the tragedy from three different perspectives. The most widely known film is Hotel Rwanda - which features the Hotel des Mille Colline in the centre of Kigali which housed 1200 Tutsi refugees thanks to the manager Paul Rusabagina. Whilst in Kigali my group and I entered this hotel for a lunch snack. The movie did not feature the real hotel, but when you see the real hotel itself, you get a chilling reminder of how awful it must have been at the time, being surrounded by gangs who held machetes. A small number of UN soldiers and the hotel staff prevented a massacre of the people in the hotel grounds.

Another significant film I can recommend to see regarding the genocide is called Shooting Dogs (aka Beyond the Gates). I personally rate this film more highly than Hotel Rwanda, in terms of its realism, but it has a more sad outcome. They used relatives of genocide victims in the movie, which must have been so hard for them. The British made production was actually made on the site of school which suffered greatly in the genocide, called Ecole Technique Officielle. I took a moto taxi ride out to see 'ETO' in the district of Kucikuro. It felt quite eerie and chilling to actually visit the site of such brutality. 2500 school children and their families died here.

One final film I also recommend is called Shake Hands with the Devil. This Canadian made film gives the story from the perspective of the poor United Nations army general who was caught up in the middle of the whole tragedy as events unfolded on the ground, Romeo Dallaire. I think what disturbs me most about the genocide in Rwanda is that it could have been prevented if the UN had stepped in. The former US President Bill Clinton said not acting to help the people of Rwanda was his indeed his biggest ever regret.

Today, Rwanda has done much to try and get back to a more harmonious existence. No longer can you refer to Rwandans by their tribal names of Hutu and Tutsi. Paul Kagame as Prime Minister has been at times slightly controversial in his conduct, but most people agree he has acted positively to move the country forward into a new era of peace. Many of the Hutus which were the perpetrators of the barbarity fled to neighbouring Uganda, DR Congo and Burundi. Sadly, the tribal rivalries still continue to this day in Burundi, but little is made of it in the world's media.

Meanwhile, Rwanda has rebuilt and has been a fairly successful economy. The city of Kigali had clean and well managed streets, with a lot of new building development going on too. I had one unfortunate incident in the afternoon when taking photos of the skyscraper which you see in the photo below. The local police thought I was from the CIA and arrested me for around half an hour, taking away my passport. It took the best French I could muster up to explain that I was simply a school teacher and no threat whatsoever to them. Having a gun pointed in your face is a little scary but I was eventually let go! A story for my friends and family on my return!

Finishing up in Kigali in Rwanda was a sobering experience, learning all about the genocide. However, it was also the place in which I said goodbye to a number of new found travel friends that I had spent 16 days travelling across 3 different countries. When travelling in close proximity to people day in, day out, you form a close bond with them. I am pleased to say I have stayed in contact with the majority of these, and we recount many fond memories of our African adventures when chatting on social media.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog, even though it's a little on the 'long' side! I felt that Rwanda was a fascinating and rewarding country to visit from the point of view of visiting the Mountain Gorillas, and also learning a bit about the genocide of 1994.

If you wish to read and see more of my Africa travels then please take a look at my book -

Eight Weeks in Africa which is on sale already and can be previewed on Amazon.

Also if you liked my photographs then please check out my other website for a more extensive view of my photos of Rwanda.

Next week I will be reviewing my solo journey through Tanzania where I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, enjoyed more safari and finished up at the paradise island of Zanzibar.

#VolcanoesNationalPark #Gorilla #MountainGorilla #Kigali #Hutu #Tutsi #Rwandagenocide #HotelRwanda #LandofaThousandHills

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