Silver

The wrong side of the fence
Wednesday 12
th October 2011

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Once again our body clock was determined to wake us up at stupid o'clock. There was no need for an early start today but there we were wide awake at 6am. We tried closing our eyes in the hope we'd fall back to sleep but it didn't work. Although the time spent lounging about flew by and it was gone 10am when we remembered to go for breakfast.

The choice was disappointingly lacking those delicious "hash brown" potato cakes so I opted for a nice fresh omelette cooked to order for me this morning which was strangely very satisfying for breakfast. I'd never dream of having an omelette for breakfast at home.

It was followed by some fruit which was made more intriguing by having a few Tree Tomatoes. I had some of its juice yesterday but I hadn't seen the fruit before. It turned out to be a weird hybrid of passion fruit and tomato and tasted as bitter as its juice.

Back in the room as we returned to our favourite pastime of lounging about we had a phone call asking us to vacate the room.

"Check out is 11am." he reminded me. I reminded him that we had arranged a late checkout with the hotel manager but he seemed a little confused. "Sorry but we have UNICEF arriving today" he argued. I was about to say "I don't care if you've got Desmond bloody Tutu arriving today, we're not moving until we're ready" but I managed to swallow the words before they came out of my mouth! We decided not to kick up a fuss and started packing, although in protest we did it so very slowly.

With our luggage safely stowed behind the reception desk we sat at the beach front sipping a fruit smoothie complete with dayglo cocktail umberella watching this heron stare intently across the lake before gulping hard and launching itself towards the Congo.

We also saw a couple of aeroplanes coming in to land at Goma's airport. It was probably UNICEF on their way for their lakeside jolly.

Eric was due to pick us up at 2pm, so with an hour to go we had lunch.

Neither of us were particularly hungry but as we didn't know when our next meal was coming we shared a veggie burger.

It was also included in our "inclusive" price so it would have been a waste not too. When I say "we shared" I had more like three quarters of the pattie, which I sprayed liberally with Akabanga. I was begining to get a taste for the explosive liquid chilli sensation.

When Eric arrived he joined us for lunch. He also doused his brochettes in Akabanga. I asked him if he knew where I could by some.

"Yes, you can buy it everywhere" he said.

"What about the Rwandan flag; do you know where I could by one?"

He didn't know. "Maybe in Kigali" he thought. It seemed as if it was the first time in his nine years of being a driver/guide that anyone had asked him about buying a flag. He did say he would phone the office to see if anyone could find out for us.

I don't know if it was the stress of not knowing the answer to my question or if it was the chilli kick back from all the Akabanga he had soaked his food with but he was begining to sweat a lot!

We left the hotel in our sparkling clean Toyota 4x4 but before we left Gisenyi Eric took us up to the border with the Congo.

I would have loved to have crossed into Goma if only to get that Democratic Republic of Congo stamp in my passport but I had read that an entry visa was an extortionate $285. I don't know how true that was.

When we asked Eric about it all he had to say was "Why would you want to?" He couldn't believe that anyone in their right mind would possibly want to step foot in the Congo.

We reached a checkpoint and continued beyond the barrier into the immigration sector. He was keen to show us the difference between the neighbouring countries, how Rwanda invested wisely the funding they received with complete transparency.

Even how the Rwandan people respected their country by keeping it clean and tidy.

Where as in contrast he pointed to the squalor of the shanty town that was just the opposite side of the fence as evidence on how the Congo squander their resources through corruption.

It was heartbreaking to see the conditions in which the people lived. It brought Julie to tears. It was quite emotional. Eric said "The only difference between us is a good government."

It may have been a cheap trick to contrast the worst side of Goma with the shiny new imigration buildings of Gisneyi but even so he was making a good case for the strong leadership of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Although I'm sure it's not as simple as all that. Whilst Rwanda has had it's fair share of tragedy the North Kivu region has suffered continuously over the last two decades plagued with civil war and rebel fighting.

Fearing for their lives people from all over the area have often sought refuge in the relative safety of Goma, and whenever there's too much people for the infrastructure to sustain then it won't be a pretty sight!

It was surprisingly busy with people returning to Goma loaded up with supplies they couldn't get in the Congo.

Not all were just doing their weekly shop. Many were traders stocking up to sell on. Some loads were ridicuously large for one person to carry on foot but it didn't stop them. One woman must have had a dozen trays of 48 eggs on her back!

Eric drove us up to within 50m of the border crossing for a closer look before turning around and we headed back into Gisenyi.

Ahead of us was a relatively short drive along good tarmac roads towards Ruhengeri, the gateway to all the gorilla trekking in the (Rwandan) Virunga Volcano National Park.

It may sound like an odd thing to say but the smoothness of the road actually made for a less enjoyable drive.

Despite being bumpy and difficult we preferred the pot holed dirt track we travelled along Lake Kivu because today we sped through the villages too quickly to have any interaction with the people, escpecially the children.

By the time they spotted us and waved we had already passed.

All the towns and villages we drove through were teeming with people going about their daily chores, busy working the land either individually or as part of a large community workforce.

If they weren't digging they were carrying large loads of produce from the fields.

You couldn't help but respect the Rwandan people for their hard graft.

The most unusual sight were large columns of carrots cleverly stacked, rising to the height of the average man and held together by twigs and twine.

I tried to take a photo of these incredible towers but this one guy wasn't too pleased at his face being captured on camera. I raised my hand in apology and thanked the Lord I was in the car as we drove off before he could get hold of me. He was not happy.

Another crop in abundance was potato. There were tonnes and tonnes on the side of road, sacks filled to the top ready to be picked up.

It wasn't all hard work and no play though.

When we drove through the hilariously named Rwankeri there was a football game taking place.

Football is very popular in Rwanda, especially watching the English Premier League. The international team are ranked a lowly 112th in the world but it doesn't dampen their enthusiasm for the game. Although the Rwankers hadn't drawn much of a crowd for this match!

After about an hour of leaving Gisenyi it began to rain quite heavily.

Our spirits weren't dampened however as we were as excited as little children on our first school trip when we caught our first glimpse of the Virunga volcanoes.

Somewhere between the towns of Nkuli and Mukingo we could see the dramatic peak of Sabyinyo where our lodge was located, with the smaller Muside alongside it, then to the East was Gahinga and Muhabura, with Karisimbi and Visoke to the West.

On those slopes were the family of mountain gorillas we were going to meet tomorrow.

The anticipation (and anxiety) was building!

We didn't know which group we were to be allocated but Julie had asked (almost begged) Eric to try his utmost best to get us the easiest trek.

Obviously as the gorillas are free to roam there's no guarantee of where they'll be. It's not unheard of for treks to become eight hours of torturous hikes up seriously steep slopes.

Julie had everything crossed for the group nearest the National Park boundary!

We soon reached Ruhengeri or to give it it's new name Musanze as it's the regional "capital".

It's Rwanda's fourth largest and was clearly a thriving tourist town. There were several colourful hotels and bars along the main street and the sidewalk bussled with people.

At times it did have the feel of the wild west about it.

Not that there were any brawls spilling out onto the streets with people being thrown out of saloon bar windows and spontaeneous gunfights erupting but the architecture certainly owed much to Spaghetti Westerns.

A stedston wouldn't have looked out of place.

At the centre of town we turned off the main road and headed North towards Kinigi in the direction of the National Park headquarters, still on perfectly smooth well maintained tarmac.

We continued through Kinigi and onwards towards the rising Sabyinyo volcano, passing along the way a sign for the Iby'Iwacu Cultural Village, a canned slice of Rwanda's history with traditional huts and Intore dance performances.

You could receive tuition in shooting a bow and arrow from a local Batwa pygmy, the "village medicine man" could even prepare you a herbal remedy or you could learn to mash up your own banana beer. We didn't really have the time to visit today but decided that it would perhaps be an interesting place to visit on Friday afternoon.

We followed a sign for the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge turning off the tarmac onto a dirt track. As off-road goes it was well maintained, in fact there was a group of people busy working on improving a section.

Eric explained that a share of the lodge profits go to a community trust which in turn fund local projects. Knowing this slightly softened the blow of the very high rates you pay to stay at the Sabyinyo Lodge!

At the end of the road we came to a car park where we said goodbye to Eric and arranged to see him early tomorrow for the gorilla trek.

He didn't follow us to the reception, he said that all the formalities had been already been done but it was probably the steep climb up to the lodge that put him off!

Two porters carried our suitcases and strolled up with ease. Julie and I struggled to keep up with them as they disappeared ahead. The path was well paved with only a few steps here and there but we kept on having to stop to catch our breath.

The altitude of over 8000ft probably played its part and our thoughts turned to the physical challenge facing us on tomorrow's trek.

"I don't think I'll be able to do it." worried Julie.

We huffed and puffed our way up eventually reaching the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, all breathless, flushed and rather sweaty.

We were warmly and most sincerely welcomed by Tracey and Nelis the hotel managers. I misheared at first, easily done with their broad South African accents and thought he was called Dennis! Nelis is quite an unusual name.

We sat down outside sipping our welcome drink with views across to Visoke and Ngezi volcanoes listening to Flora the receptionist explain how it all worked here at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

They had eight lodges dotted around the site, each one in it's own private setting. There weren't any phones but instead we had a walkie talkie to contact the main reception. We would be escorted to and from our lodge in case we got lost, especially in the dark. "How remote are these lodges?" we both thought.

Electricity was produced by a generator that ran for only seven hours a day (5am-8am and 6pm - 10pm) although it stored the power in large batteries enough to cover 24 hours. It did mean restrictions on using hair dryers and kettles outside of the active generator hours. Also the hot water was heated by a wood-fired boiler so having a shower would be best left for the afternoon.

We were invited to join everyone for a cocktail hour at 6.30pm before dinner was served.

We weren't the only guests arriving. A mother and daughter couple joined us on the verandah sipping the warm welcome dirnk. The mother was loud and brash cast from the Joan Rivers mould and the daughter in extreme contast was meek and mute. She looked like she was about to snap. It wouldn't have surprised my if we woke up tomorrow to hear she smothered her mother with a pillow in her sleep!

With our sweet fruity cocktail finished we were shown to our lodge.

Our home in the woods for the next three nights was lodge S2 and called Mikeno. It wasn't far at all from the main reception just up a few steps and then a short distance down a gradual slope.

It looked so idylic as we walked towards it.

It was set in it's own clearing in the woods. There were no views of volcanoes on account of all the trees that wrapped around us but that just added to it's wonderful sense of seclusion.

A roaring fire greeted us as the porter opened the door and we steped inside a cosy L shaped room. He gave us the grand tour of our lodge.

The walls were painted a warm ochre and the floors were wooden parque tiles throughout. The living space had two armchairs which disappointed us slightly. A two seater sofa would have been a far better choice for snuggling up together in front of the fire!

There was no television which we actually preferred. If our stay at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge was anything to go by we'll be too tired to bother with watching TV.

He demonstrated how to use the walkie talkie (although he couldn't get an answer from the reception) and he explained to us what a kettle looked like.

Around the corner of the open plan room was the king sized bed. It looked so inviting.

Two little carved gorillas had been placed at the foot of the bed. "Our grandchildren will like them" Julie said to the porter.

Gone are the days when that was guaranteed to draw a reaction from people, usually in the form of "grandchildren?! you look too young!".

Now you can tell that those who say it are only being polite and not in genuine shock!

We followed the porter through to the other half of the lodge and into a large luxurious bathroom. With a bath in the middle of the room, his and hers basin, a huge walk in shower it was well lush.

Before our porter left he topped up the fire with a few extra logs from the basket outside and said "That should keep going for a few more hours"

The first thing we did after he left was draw the curtains, making it all cosy and sat in front of the fire holding hands perched on our individual armchairs. It didn't last long, it wasn't that comfortable.

With cocktail hour fast approaching we were faced with the choice getting washed, changed and walk all the way back to the main lodge or just batten down the hatches and lock ourselves away in our jungle pad for the night with only the contents of a fruit bowl and some left over tolberone for sustenance.

In the end the draw of a three course meal and not wanting to seem anti-social was enough to get us up and out.

It was by now pitch dark outside so I brought my torch with me but I needn't have bothered. The moment we stepped outside a flashlight came to life in the distance as a member of staff came walking down the slope towards us. He literally lit up our every footstep as we made our way across to reception.

As we entered the lodge the dining room was to the right and to the left after walking through a "Gorillas Information" room and past a small shop (which was closed) we came to this stunning lounge.

It was decorated in a similar style and colour to our rooms and featured a a grand fireplace. It's best feature however were the sumptuous sofas into which you sunk in total comfort.

We got chatting to a frightfully posh couple from Surrey who were leaving tomorrow for the Mafia Islands a small archipelago just South of Zanzibar.

It's surprising how easy it is to slip into a game of destination top trumps as we traded holiday destinations. I'd like to say we won this one!

We brought our iPad with us. There wasn't any internet access in the rooms but there was free Wi-fi in the main lodge. It had sufficient bandwidth to Skype, so we sat out on the veranda in the cool mountain air watching mesmerised moths flutter around the light whilst speaking to Hannah thousands of miles away. With only a two hour time difference it made it a lot easier to judge when to phone home.

Dinner was now being served so we moved through into the dining room and sat down for supper.

Arranging a cocktail hour before dinner was a stroke of genius as it encouraged us all to arrive early. There was a good atmosphere in the dining room, it was full of the hotel guests busy chatting about their day, some having just met the mountain gorillas today, others like us excited at the prospect. It all made for interesting eavesdropping!

For starters I had a leek and potato soup with lemon infused bread. Then for our mains I had a simple but delicious spaghetti in tomato sauce and Julie had a grilled Tilapia fish with potatoes. The quality of the food was by far the best we had on this trip.

After a cheese course we retired to the lounge to watch a documentary called Titus - The Gorilla King. We were getting very excited now. Well I was; Julie was going through the full spectrum of emotion from excitement to excrement! I suppose that would make it the rectum of emotion! Anyway, one thing for sure though, by this time tomorrow we ourselves will be full of our own tales of meeting the mountain gorillas.

At 10pm we left for our lodge and were escorted by torchlight all the way. Back in the room the fire had gone out and the temperature had certainly dropped. So we went straight to bed where we found a lovely surprise waiting for us. It had been turned down and hot water bottles placed at the foot. They felt heavenly to warm our feet on them. So much so we decided we had to buy some when we got home.

Moments before I failed to keep my eyes open I managed to set our alarm for 5:25am, just five minutes before our 5:30am wake up call. Here at the Sabinyo Silverback Lodge the wake up call was unlike the usual automated phone call, here it was going to be someone waking us up with tea/coffee or hot chocolate!

Next day >>>

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