Tuesday 20 November
Met the group at Gatwick, all bound for Rwanda. Well earned drink for me (The Adventure Connection) and the rest of the UK tour operators (Naturetrek, Far & Wild, KE Adventure and Rainbow Tours).
Wednesday 21 November
Just arrived in Rwanda. Kigali is spectacular from the air - you can see why it's called 'The Land of a Thousand Hills'. On the ground is a very clean, organised modern African capital. The weather is beautiful - not too hot, not too cold. Steve from Kingfisher Journeys was very excited to see us. We're very excited to be here. Alison is going hiking with Steve in the NE. We're heading to Akagera NP where we're hoping to spot big game on safari!
Every month there is a community day where everyone pitches in to clean up and take part in community projects. Hence it being so pristine. The theory is if you're going to have to pick up litter once a month then you're less likely to drop it. Plastic bags are banned here and there's a government initiative to ban single use plastics (e.g. water bottles) in 2019.
Thursday 22 November
The thing that is unique about Akagera is its miraculous recovery from the brink of extinction. The park was nearly decimated by millions of returning refugees who took over the land and poisoned the lions in order to preseve their cattle. Yesterday we went behind the scenes at park HQ who have successfully reintroduced lions and rhino here so it's now home once more to 'the big five' We met some of the highly organised armed anti poaching squad - their control room so top secret we had to hand over our cameras and phones.
The sophisticated surveillance systems were developed (and donated free of charge) by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. We were shown the piles of metal snares, bikes and motorbikes confiscated and then went to the kennels where the dogs are trained to track down poachers bite their arm and not let go no matter what. I wouldn't fancy my chances against them and they could easily kill if they weren't so well trained. Finally we went on a boat trip on Rwandas 2nd largest lake which was teeming with hippos and crocs. Glad we're not kayaking there! As the sun set it was like being in an aviary with the sight, sound and smell of thousands of birds flocking to the trees around us.
Today we had a full day in the park. Our expectations were low on what we'd see but no sooner than we'd set off we met a massive elephant coming at us down the road. We had to quickly reverse and we all held our breath whilst he crashed by us. The North of the park is typical African Savannah. Herds of giraffe, zebra, warthog, buffalo, impala and lots of other antelope roam the plains. We met up with the people building a 5 star Lodge there and were chatting to them on the road when suddenly a leopard dashed out of a bush and ran in the opposite direction to us. After laughing at the near miss we drove around the corner and watched it sitting calmly in the undergrowth!
Akagera's best selling point is that there is no one else there. And having that
vast silence all to yourself is attractive to anyone who has been stuck behind a queue of safari trucks jostling to get a glimpse of an animal with exhaust fumes and engines spoiling the experience. I'm writing this on our way back to Kigali - a 3 hour drive. We passed through remote rural villages with children shouting and waving at us as we passed by. So funny to see their sheer excitement when we waved back.
As the sun set on the dusty red roads, the colourfully dressed women walking home with everything balanced so perfectly on their heads and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it was one of 'those' travel moments that you can never capture on camera. Those moments are exactly why I love being in Africa so much.
Paul Kagame is a God here. We've talked about him non stop since we arrived and his influence is everywhere - from social projects, education, community rebuilding, business support and tourism. We said in passing he was like Mandela today and our Rwandan guide was bashful about it and said simply he's the only person who could come close to bring called that. He's our own Mandela. There's a film about tourism in Rwanda called The Royal Tour. Google it and watch the first 10 minutes. What that man has achieved will blow you away!
If you think of what Rwanda went through and where it is now it’s almost impossible to believe. Compare it to places like Somalia, in exactly the same state of conflict in 1994 as Rwanda, the time of the genocide. Look at them both now. Rwanda’s success is largely down to Kagame’s leadership.
Meanwhile in Wetherspoons, Gatwick...
Mark (The Adventure Connection) with the rest of the group (Wilderness Expertise, Travel Nation, Flash Pack and Pioneer Expeditions).
Friday 23 November
Very difficult to write about today as the overwhelming experience dominating my thoughts is the visit to the genocide memorial. Saying it was traumatic is trite given what those people went through. 250,000 people are buried in a space the size of a couple of tennis courts. Personal video testimonies, piles of skulls, photos of the dead and belongings dug up from mass graves are incomprehensible. But the room about the children affected tipped me over the edge. Hutu kids were forced to machete their classmates to death. The entire population must be haunted still by what went on yet the rebuilding process has been so comprehensive to forgive and heal those wounds that you almost forget that this happened. I guess that's the point of going. It's absolutely necessary for visitors to go there to understand the past marvel at the present and feel optimistic about the future.
On another note this morning must have been bonkers for those who arrived today. We had a walking tour through the community projects of Kigali we were mobbed by kids playing football in the streets, stopped for a glass of milk in a traditional milk bar and saw a few of the many amazing community projects that visitors can get involved in here. We ended the day having gin and tonics on the terrace of the high commissioners residence. Jo is a wonderfully inspirational woman helping British business thrive here (like tourism) which ultimately benefits the local people. We're now off to have our first dinner as one group on the amazing rooftop terrace of the Ubumwe Grande Hotel before we say goodbye to Kigali and move to the countryside tomorrow.
Sunday 25 November
Honestly the best day. Hiking through the jungle to see the chimps is an experience I'll never forget.
On our return singers from the village greeted us and we all joined in with the dancing. Then we drove the through amazing villages with kids all over the place running out to shout and wave hello at us until we reached beautiful Lake Kivu at sunset which was utterly jaw dropping. It was a day of sheer joy. My mouth hurts from smiling and laughing so much.
Tuesday 26 November
Lunch at Virunga Lodge.
Probably the happiest, smiliest people I've ever come across! And they have plenty to be happy about.
Wednesday 28 November
So this just happened... I'm trying hard not to cry actually, it's amazing.
Thursday 29 November
Sadly heading home with the rest of the group while Mark heads to Uganda to visit Crystal Safaris.
Visit Rwanda. You will not be disappointed by the beauty of its people or its nature.