Watching us watching you
Monday 9
th October 2011

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4am came around too quickly! At least we had been sensible last night before going to sleep and had spent time getting our walking gear ready. Our boots, gaters, purpose made hiking clothes and raincoats were laid out ready for us. All we had to do was wake up, get dressed and have a cup of tea.

I think we were too bleary eyed to be excited about the Chimpanzee trek. Julie was also a little concerned about her fitness, she even thought about not going. She had read that whilst the treks may not involve scaling the steep slopes of a volcano they can be quite strenuous as the chimps can move quickly.

It was still dark as we both walked up to the main lodge. Eric was already there waiting for us. We collected a packed breakfast and set off at 5am. After only a few minutes we stopped at the National Park HQ to pick up our ranger guide. He brought with him eight long wooden poles. We then hung around for what felt like ages whilst we waited for others who were joining our group to sort themselves out. There were two other vehicles in the car park, a British registered Land Rover and an old Toyota Land Cruiser from the Czech Republic.

We then had a knock on the window and this young woman opened the door. She had a peculiar accent, slightly South African with a hint of Sloane Square. She asked Eric if she could catch a ride with us.

He politely turned her down and she went away. She must have been staying at the Gisakura Guesthouse next to the ORTPN headquarters. Eric turned to us and explained that the insurance would not cover unauthorised passengers. "Even if I would like to or if you would like me to, I can not" he explained.

She then came back, this time pleading for a lift but no amount of begging would make Eric change his mind. He had work for Primate Safaris for nine years and he wasn't going to do anything that would jeopardise his position. "I suppose I have to just stay here then!" she stropped as fiery as her ginger hair and slammed the door shut.

Finally we set off. Julie and I with Eric and David the ranger followed by the Land Rover filled with five fellow trekkers including as it happened the prima donna. We were running a bit late now as the start of the trail was an hour's drive away.

We turned off the tarmac/gravel road and onto a pot holed dirt track heading South towards Cyamudongo Forest a small protected patch of forest just outside the Nyungwe National Park.

Along the way we had some beautiful scenery soaked in the sunrise but we had not a moment to waste to appreciate the views.

It was a real boneshaker of a ride as Eric drove a little faster than he would normally to try and make up some time.

Every so often he would slow down when he couldn't see the Land Rover behind us. We must have made up good time however as we arrived at Cyamudongo forest precisely when we were meant to at 6am.

There were seven in our group, Julie and I, the stroppy South African, a young couple from Scotland who were driving the Land Rover (all the way from Cape Town to London!), a guy from the Czech Republic who didn't want to drive his Toyota here and a young American woman travelling solo.

We all stood and listened to a briefing by David. He explained that some chimps have been located not far from here only some 45 minutes away but we will have to get moving quickly as they are likely to stray.

He also explained the importance of good clothing and footwear "It can suddenly rain quite heavily" he said looking at the girls in their T-shirts

"The path can get slippery so you could do with good shoes" again looking at the girls in their sandals and shorts "and we could also come across biting ants so tuck your trousers into your socks".

It was gold stars and top of the class for Julie and I.

We felt like proper teacher's pets decked out in all the recommended clobber, well prepared for all eventualities.

David asked us all if anyone wanted the benefit of a porter to accompany them on the trek. Nobody did, not even us. We suddenly felt guilty as there was a group of eager local men waiting in the wings. "We'll have one." With our £10 going straight into the porter's pockets not only did it directly benefit the community but also encouraged the men from turning poachers.

So we handed our rucksack to our porter and set off into the forest down a well-trodden path.

We all jostled for position, the keen Czech guy in the front, (he even asked if he could go off on his own! what a knob!) the others following closely behind. Julie wanted to go at her own pace as much as possible and didn't want to hold anyone up so we settled for bringing up the rear.

The ground was quite slippery. One thing that Julie hates is a slippery surface, it renders her incapable of walking. Today she had no choice, we had to walk as fast as we could.

The group was moving quite rapidly through the jungle and to be fair we were keeping up quite well. Only once or twice did we fall behind a distance that David stopped to allow us to catch up. Julie just couldn't get the hang of using the long wooden poles to help keep her steady but the ever attentive porter was always there to hold her hand whenever she slipped.

After about half an hour of relentless marching downhill through the rainforest we heard a distinctive cry. (No, it wasn't Julie!) The porter cupped his hand around his ear, pointed in the direction of the sound and with a big grin he said "chimpanzee!". It was so exciting!

It was another fifteen minutes before we met up with trackers who had been following the chimps since daybreak. We all stood in line along the path looking intensely into the dense forest waiting to catch our first glimpse.

We could hear them calling out but there was no sign. There are no guarantees of seeing chimps on the trek. They are only semi-habituated and still shy away from people.

Then suddenly one of the trackers went "There, there, there!!" We all looked around trying to work out where the hell he was pointing towards. Then we saw him, our first chimp, climbing a tree in the distance.

We all gasped. Julie let out an "Oh my God" not quite believing that she was actually here, deep in the middle of an African jungle looking at a chimpanzee in the wild.

The chimp climbed to the top of the tree with such ease but didn't hang around. Reaching out for a connecting branch he quickly disappeared from our view.

Five long minutes followed without another sighting. Then our porter then spotted one! This chimpanzee was sitting high up in the canopy, on border patrol looking out across the jungle. His left leg casually dangling down as he scratched his arse and picked his nose (or was he sniffing his finger?) Either way it looked so human! (not that I scratch 'n sniff!)

All of a sudden there was a flurry of chest beats, tree rustling and plenty of wild shrieking. A flash of black came tearing up the path below us, hollering loudly. I didn't think a chimpanzee could move so fast propelling itself along on all fours . It then dived into the forest snapping branches and continuing to violently shake trees.

"Maybe we're in their way" said David "we should move back a little." We retreated slightly back up the path and waited for them to calm down. Whilst the trackers kept a close eye on the troop's movements David filled us in on all we needed to know about Chimpanzees.

They may look cute and cuddly and for the most part they are but they can be very aggressive animals. They once were believed to be vegetarian but Jane Goodall, a primatologist studying chimps in the sixties, discovered that they sometimes hunt in groups and eat smaller primates like the Dent's Mona monkeys (if I've identified them correctly!) that we could see in the trees above us.

There have even been horror stories of chimps killing human babies and a "pet" chimp attacking its keeper eating her face off!!

This wasn't exactly what Julie wanted to hear after just seeing an angry chimp.

"They are our closest relatives" David continued. "They share 98% DNA with humans." He also explained their sexual behaviour in that they do not pair off for life (like penguins) nor does the chief chimp have exclusive mating rights (like Gorillas). In fact they are very promiscuous.

"They sleep overnight in a nest high in the trees and they build a new one every day." He was now struggling to think of what more to say so he wandered off to find the trackers. He soon came back and we were on the move again. We returned up the path to a point above where the chimpanzees had settled.

We had to get closer however for a better view so we stepped off the path and made our way down a steep slope. The undergrowth was quite hazardous. The ground beneath our feet was giving way and roots/vines were a real trip hazard. Julie thought about staying where she was and told me to go one without her but encouraged by her porter who offered a strong arm to lean on she was soon following me down the hill.

All the effort was worth it.

We were stood leaning heavily on our wooden poles for some balance on the sharp incline.

From where we stood we were more or less level with the tree tops in front of us and then we had a sighting! We could clearly see a chimpanzee walking along a thick branch towards the trunk. It then swung up and began to climb out of sight. It was such a thrill to clearly see.

The next half an hour was spent scouring the wall of greenery in front of us for other sightings. The trackers would point them out and we'd all adjust our position a little to try and get a clear view for a photo.

We had an advantage with an extra pair of eyes on our side. Our porter was spotting more than the professionals!

"There, there" he said pointing and there they were. We saw this chimp descending at speed, stopping suddenly as if he could hear us.

"He is called Ki-bi-bi" said David "because he has a brown and black spotty face."

Kibibi leant outwards displaying his sturdy wide torso, listening and looking intently. He looked such a powerful animal, strong enough to tear you apart limb from limb.

Our hearts were suddenly in our mouths moments later as a chimpanzee ambled past not more than three metres away from us. We hadn't noticed it arriving and just caught the back of it as it wandered off.

Attacks on people are very rare. After a lot of huffing and puffing to try and scare you off they are more likely to run away. Nevertheless we were glad when this one continued on its way.

We had a few more sightings. "There!" the porter pointed "chief" he added. There he was, the alpha male, just sitting there watching us watching him.

"He is about 35 years old" said David.

The average life span of a chimpanzee in the wild is around 45 but in captivity they live considerably longer to around 60.

In fact one of the chimps who performed as Cheetah in the films Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is still alive in a Florida sanctuary aged 80!! (Sadly he died in Dec 2011)

After a good five minutes the chief got bored of looking at us and he moved on, hooting at the top of his voice as he left.

From the oldest swinger to one of the youngest. Our next sighting was of a cheeky little fella swinging acrobatically from tree to tree. The juvenile was showing off flying about randomly. He wasn't easy to capture on camera and I'm sure if he could pull tongues or blow raspberries at us he would have.

"It is time for us to go now" said David.

As not to outstay our welcome the permitted time to observe the chimpanzees is kept to only one hour. Our sixty minutes were over far too quickly.

It had been such an exhilarating unforgettable experience, one we were disappointed was coming to an end.

We all clambered back up the steep slope to the path and made our way uphill all the way back to the start. This was harder work than the descent, much harder on the lungs. Despite having no need to rush the group were still marching at a rapid pace.

David did stop at regular intervals to talk about the flora and fauna which was just enough time for us to catch our breath before moving on again. We stopped by a very twisted knobbly tree which David explained was used in making body lotions.

A massive millipede gave us the next reason to stop. He informed us that "In Rwanda we use them to check if a mushroom is poisonous or not. If it doesn't eat the mushroom then it's probably because it's not edible!"

We were only halfway back but Julie was now struggling. "Do you know what?" I said. "What?" she replied. "You're fucking amazing! Really amazing."
(I was quite emotional!)

With those words of encouragement ringing in her ears she pushed on. We both got a little concerned though when all the exertion took its toll on Julie and she developed a bad headache at the base of her head.

She tried to rehydrate with what little water we had left but it was too little to make any difference.

I was extremely relieved when we reached the car park without Julie collapsing. Not half as relieved as she was. Sitting safely in the back of the van gulping down a whole bottle of water in one breath she thankfully felt better.

Before we left we gave our porter 6000 RFr which we thought was the going rate for his service but he didn't look too pleased with his pay. Ah, well; never mind.

With David and his eight poles on board we set off on our return leg.

In the broad daylight it was clear that we were right on the edge of the park. To the East the Nyungwe forest stretched out as far as the eyes could see where in contrast to the West we had the rolling green hills of a tea plantation.

Eric and David were deep in conversation about the road condition from Gisakura to Kibuye. I only gathered this later because they spoke Kinyarwanda to each other. He was checking if he had heard if it was passable again. A bridge had collapsed and hadn't been rebuilt yet.

Eric then turned to us and asked if we were OK with bumpy roads.



"Tomorrow, when we travel to Gisenyi we could either drive to Kibuye along the tarmac road back the way we came yesterday or if you like, we could take the scenic road alongside Lake Kivu."

We agreed that if it was passable then we would take the road less travelled. We were up for an adventure!

Almost six hours after leaving this morning we arrived back at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge. We had nothing scheduled for this afternoon so we said goodbye to Eric and returned to our room.

We hadn't eaten much of our packed breakfast. I ate two boiled eggs in the jungle and Julie only had half a croissant and a small banana, so by now we very hungry. First however, we needed to get our dirty walking boots and sweaty clothes off.

Showered and changed we returned to the main lodge. It was in a beautiful location, set in the middle of all the tea shrubs and surrounded by forested hills.

We sat outside on the veranda sipping a cold beer whilst soaking up the lovely view.

It was nice to have a menu to choose from this time. As a starter I had a tomato & balsamic salad which looked impressive on the plate but failed to match in flavour. Conversely my cheese and tomato toastie looked awful but actually tasted much better.

Julie went for the Lake Kivu fish fingers which were little better than Captain Birdseye's. What we both enjoyed the most was our portion of chips. Once again they proved that Rwandans know how to make a decent chip! It was so peaceful eating our lunch out here.

A relaxing hour passed as we read about things we could be doing this afternoon.

There was a new "skywalk" near Uwinka where we could walk high up in the canopy. Or we could do a short Mangabey monkey trail near Banda. Or why not trek to find the source of the Nile!

The hotel could arrange anything for us.

After not much deliberation we decided against anything strenuous and booked a massage each for later! Following this morning's heroics Julie deserved a little pampering.

We had a couple of hours until then so we retired to our room for a siesta. Exhausted we both fell asleep almost immediately. Luckily we had set an alarm otherwise we would have slept through until tomorrow.

At 4pm we resurfaced and walked over to the resort's Spa which was located in what would have been two lodges.

Stepping inside the retreat was like entering a dream. Soothing ambient sounds and a warm fragrance filled the air. Softly spoken Naomi and Louise welcomed us to their spa, offering us a drink of orange blossom tea and a brief tour of the products they were going to use on us today.

We had booked their "Nyungwe Journey" treatment, a two hour ritual. With a $150 price tag it had a lot to live up too.

It began with a washing of the feet ceremony. I followed Naomi into one room and Julie went with Louise to another. I sat in a treatment chair out on the balcony where my feet were bathed in warm fragrant water. It felt wonderful.

I then undressed, put on these huge paper boxer shorts and wrapped myself in a robe. Julie then joined me robed but slightly alarmed by having to wear a tiny paper thong. Her face was a picture!

Up on the massage tables we de-robed and were then exfoliated, limb by limb, firstly with a rough mit and then with an orange lotion with fruit seeds. I asked for deep pressure and certainly got it. It was a strange painful pleasure. Even the face got it.

Once a layer of skin had been scrubbed off and all our impurities had been cast out we were asked to shower away the gritty lotion in preparation for the second leg of our journey, blissful hot stones sliding on warm oil up and down. They were in expert hands as they moved the pebbles by their palms applying delightful swooping strokes.

We were in heaven. It was difficult not to groan with pleasure.

It ended with a frenzied head massage that left us having an out of body experience as we floated around the room. It felt incredible. We were brought down gently and given a few minutes to return back to the real world. In a hotel that offers 5 star luxury accommodation you would expect nothing less than a 5 star massage and they definitely delivered. We thanked Naomi and Louise for a wonderful experience and making us feel so relaxed.

As we walked back through the main lodge we decided to have our evening meal early so that we could then retire to our room for the night. After being given an under seasoned carrot soup to start (which we didn't really want) we at least had a menu to choose from for our main course.

Although being a vegetarian I only had one option. I was fine with that however. I'm always grateful when I do at least have one choice. The pasta with pesto unfortunately didn't work for me.

The penne tubes were drowned in butter with a ridiculous amount of garlic and only a hint of basil. Now I do like my garlic but this was off the scale. I continued to remind myself to be grateful, we were in the middle of nowhere after all but I couldn't help feeling that the food at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge was just mediocre.

The first mouthful was good but it was just too rich. I tried my best but could only bring myself to eat half my bowl before giving in to a sickly feeling. Then Dessert arrived!

Julie turned it down but I foolishly accepted it, out of politeness. "Perhaps some sweetness might cut through the creaminess?" I thought. I was wrong. I just felt even sicker. To be fair though, the date and chocolate brownie (if I ignored the dollop of Magic Whip on the top and the fact that it was quite dry) was surprisingly the best course of the night.

At 9:00pm we struggled to stay awake so we headed for bed, the early start having caught up with us and with another early start tomorrow for our long drive to Gisenyi we needed to catch up with our sleep.

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