We woke early on the morning of the chimp trek because ideally one wants to be on the trail early, around 6am. Unlike Gorilla’s, whose sheer size and weight makes spending the night in a tree unlikely if not fatal (we heard of one Silverback who’d died falling out of a tree) the chimps build themselves nests high up in the branches and spend the afternoons in the tree tops sunning themselves, so the best time to see them closer to the ground is in the mornings when they come down to forage. We’d just got on the road when our guides Sam and Moses got a call to say the Chimp guide, a gent by the lofty name of Everest, was stuck. He’d been going to ride with another two tourists but he’d just discovered that their car had broken down the night before. We turned around immediately and about half a mile down the road we picked up Everest, Cyril and Yang. Everest was born and raised in Rwanda, Cyril was from the States now working for a few months in Rwanda and Yang is Chinese but studying and working in the States for the last couple of years.
So we set out, 3 couples in the group, following Everest who was talking to trackers ahead. We’d come to find chimp’s in the trees but, what we didn’t expect was the sheer colour and variety of the flora and fauna that nestled beneath the tree canopy. Brilliantly coloured fungi clung to rocks, beautiful orchids peeped between branches or nestled in valleys, butterflies flitted past while we stepped carefully around dark streams of giant ants…I felt like Alice through the looking glass, peering at one rather bold caterpillar I found myself looking for his pipe. Everest had to plead with us “come, we need to find the chimps. Pictures later.”
Finding the chimps was both easier and harder than finding our Gorilla’s. We didn’t have to walk as far and the path was, well a path, as opposed to thick hedges, bushes of stinging nettle and lush brush. Nor did they make us walk as far – maybe a kilometer or so. However perched high among the treetops, half hidden by branches and leaves, sun and shade providing great camouflage we would possibly have walked right by the first ones if not for our guides who drew our attention to them. Once we saw one though we began to spy others among the various branches. Mothers with babes clinging to them, youngsters balancing along branches and a big guy sitting way up high. Occasionally one would call out and suddenly the forest would fill with (rather scary) shrieks and hoots. They seemed unfazed by our presence though not inclined to get any closer for photo opportunities.
The monkeys would sometimes appear sitting just ahead or to the side on a tree stump, half hidden by foliage allowing us to look but darting off at any sudden movements. We got to see L’Hoest Monkeys at times referred to as Mountain Monkeys, Dent’s Mona Monkey and I could have sworn I saw a Owl faced monkey but it was gone swinging effortlessly away before I could be sure.
Then, as though he’d come to a decision, and with much hooting, grunting and posturing the alpha Chimp swung himself down and nearly right in front of us. He stood there awhile shaking branches and making it clear that if there was going to be any intimidation, he would be the one doing it. Then deliberately, with unhurried pace he swaggered down the path we had just come swinging what his daddy gave him! We followed like paparazzi until he disappeared from sight and then spent a little while longer in the forest watching the rest of the family.
Eventually we made our way back to the cars, driving back with our new mates Cyril and Yang we spent most of the journey chatting animatedly …about where we were from, what we did for a living, places we’d seen…Cyril fell asleep in the back of the jeep…quite a feat on these ‘maram’ or dirt roads, and I was enchanted by Yangs’ good spirits in what could be considered a challenging start to her holiday with Cyril. She’d been there two days and so far the car had broken down twice, the last time necessitated them sleeping in the car since it was so late. It was the morning after this we had met up and gone on the chimp trail. I wondered if we should invite them back to our hotel for a shower…but they still needed to get the car on the road and how would they get back…? So I left it and waved goodbye to the couple as we dropped them back at their car. Much later, having had a shower and snooze ourselves Pierre and I went to the lounge to have a drink…and overheard familiar voices…Yang and Cyril! What a pleasant surprise.
Their car was still being repaired and they’d taken a taxi bike up the road to the hotel in order to refresh themselves. We ended up having dinner together and chatting about everything from travels to food, autism to politics and everything in-between. Close to midnight their car was finally back on the road and we waved them off – I believe, since we got an email from them after we returned back to SA, that the rest of their holiday was relatively trouble free. Finally, the next morning we left the very luxurious and beautifully designed Nyungwe Lodge http://www.newmarkethotels.com/accommodation/lodges/nyungwe-forest-lodge and made our way back to Kigali which we reach a little after lunchtime. The previous night in one of our discussions over food, Cyril had mentioned a place…”um Sam..is there a place called Heaven in Kigali?” yes, yes I had got the name correct, and yes it was nearby and very good. Well very good turned out to be an understatement. We sat perched among the trees, the undulating hills a backdrop to the city of Kigali laid out before us. In front of us our waiter placed the most deliciously prepared food and refreshing cocktails. I can highly recommend this restaurant, in fact it is so much more than a restaurant, Heaven brought hope and healing to the people it employs. There is a beautiful and inspiring story which accompanies this relaxed eating place that serves high end food…please read it here: http://www.heavenrwanda.com/
When travelling one often has “must do’s and see’s” on your list. Sometimes the actual experience doesn’t live up to expectations – Sorry Mona Lisa. Other times the experiences surpass expectations – swimming with dolphins, climbing Larch Mountain, sitting with Gorilla’s, tracking chimps in their own environment…. even if some of these were for me simultaneously joyful and conflicted, simply because where humans and animals collide invariably animals pay the price..sometimes there is a fair exchange, in the case of the Gorilla’s preservation, other times less so.
But, I digress..back to the experiences one has when travelling; from the planned to the unplanned. Some unplanned experiences can test one’s character, car breakdowns; leaving malaria pills on the plane; getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in a strange country; unexpected (or un-communicated) itinerary changes. Other unplanned experiences are sublimely serendipitous. Serendipity, as coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 is defined as a pleasant surprise, something discovered by accident. Our last couple of days in Rwanda held a great deal of the latter. I count among them the sheer cornucopia of flora and fauna in the forest of Rwanda, meeting Yang and Cyril and our evening meal with them and most certainly our good fortune in having Moses and Sam as our guides. Moses, gentle, kind and determined to make a difference to his country and help uplift it’s people as he finishes his final year of social work administration and Sam, who’d worked as a translator for BBC during the genocide. Sam greatly added to our trip an absolute font of information on his own country he also has a keen interest in global politics. These two men added such unanticipated value to our trip. All in all I was sorry to leave, a bit tearful if truth be told. A few days really was too little time to experience Rwanda properly but the interactions and experiences I did have in that short time touched my heart…