From silver to gold
Friday 14
th October 2011

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Julie was reluctant to get up when the hot chocolate and tea arrived at 5:45am this morning. She was thinking about throwing a "sicky" today and staying in bed instead of getting up for our Golden Monkey trek but in a flash she was up on her feet shrieking "Spider!!".

I came to her rescue and scooped it up in a glass before throwing it outside. It was quite large by our British standards but looked just like a common household non-poisonous variety. Although not being an expert arachnologists we took no chances.

Now up and wide awake we got dressed. Our boots had arrived back last night cleaner than the day we bought them! That was impressive service.

After a some toast and amazing honey for breakfast we headed down to the car park to meet up with Eric who was waiting for us. He was busy wiping down his sparkling clean Toyota 4x4. We drove the short distance to the Volcanoes National Park headquarters at Kinigi to register for our trek permit.

Once again we were entertained by the Intore dancers. As anxiety was not gripping Julie as much this morning we relaxed with a cup of tea and enjoyed their energetic performance.

We were so absorbed into the Intore dancers we were late for our briefing on the Golden Monkey trek. We met up with our fellow trekkers just as the guide said "... and that's about it really"

I later learned there are two habituated groups of this endangered species, the Musongo group high up on Karisimbi and the Kabatwa group on the lower slopes of Sabinyio, which thankfully we had been allocated.

Back in the car Eric drove us almost all the way back to the Sabinyio Silverback Lodge.

"If we had known" said Julie "we could have met them here and had an extra hour in bed!" It literally was a ten minute walk from the lodge!

We parked up, picked a porter to carry our rucksack and started walking slowly through a small wooded area.

In the centre of this copse were two steaming mounds of earth giving off such a delicious smoky smell. Our tracker/guide explained that beneath the soil there was wood burning slowly.

"This is how charcoal is made in Rwanda" he said.

Out of the woods and into the potato fields we continued our gentle stroll towards the park's boundary. We had hardly we'd been walking up hill.

Our tracker pointed towards Sabinyio and told us how the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo all met at its summit.

Most of the group weren't bothered by that fact but I've always loved the idea of standing at the point where countries converge and walking around from one to another.

The 45 minute walk to the stone wall boundary of the Volcano National Park felt like no time at all. Our only obstacle was to skirt around a soggy patch of uncultivated land where the water came up to our ankles.

After only a further five minutes of strolling through bamboo along reasonably defined paths we came out into a clearing and there they all were, high up in the trees.

They were doing what you expected from monkeys, climbing and jumping from one tree to another. At first they were difficult to photograph as they moved quickly and often we could only see their silhouette against the bright sky.

I wasn't so impressed to start with. My neck was already aching and my eyes were struggling to adjust to the contrast between light and dark.

After a while the more inquisitive monkeys came down to the lower branches to have a better look at us which also allowed us a better view of them. They were a beautiful golden orange colour on their backs, with black limbs and a grey almost blue face.

The Kabatwa group numbered around 70 -80 so there were plenty of opportunities to get a closer look at them.  As time passed more and more came to meet us.

They all kept their distance though. They may have been well habituated but they weren't so familiar as to pick our pockets or ransack our rucksacks. It's probably why we left our bags with the porters as not to tempt the monkeys into mugging the tourists.

After about ten minutes they all moved on, deeper into the thick forest. So we followed them, our tracker leading the way through some really dense undergrowth. It was very uneven underfoot and full of prickly vegetation.

They do recommend that you wear thick gardening gloves on these treks. We had packed ours but we weren't wearing them. (They were left in our suitcase)

One poor woman paid the price of not having any. She stumbled, instinctively reached out and grasped a fistful of nettles. She was in agony.

We reached a clump of bamboo and literally stepped inside the cluster. We had found their happy place. It was bursting with Golden Monkeys and not high up in the canopy either but down at our eye level, even Julie's eye level.

This was awesome. They were just a few feet away busy eating fresh bamboo shoots. We were so incredibly close to them. I had to fight an irresistible urge to reach out and stroke one. They just looked so cute but I know I would without any doubt have been bitten for my troubles.

To my right, as I turned in the direction of some rustling, I almost yelled out when I suddenly found myself face to face inches away from a golden monkey.

It was such a magical moment.

It didn't scamper away but stared straight at me. I stared right back. It blinked first; although it would have been difficult not too with the camera flashing in its eyes.

Apparently it's acceptable to take flash photography of these cheeky little primates. It did make this one blink and move on but it didn't startle at all.

From deep inside the bamboo cluster we spent a fun filled half hour getting unbelievably close to these monkeys.

All good things must come to an end however and it was time for us to slowly make our way back.

Along our route we did come across another few stray monkeys sat above us in the trees. One of them did look the largest and oldest of the lot.

Our guide explained that whilst the Golden Monkey group did have a chief (probably this one) they don't have the same dominant male social structure as the gorillas.

The big head honcho did exert some of his dominance by pissing all over us tourists. Oh my God, how it reeked. I could smell it from 5 metres away.

One guy copped a direct hit and was not best pleased. Neither was his partner, the woman who stung her hand on the nettles. They weren't having much luck on this trek!

We all left the forest after an hour in the presence of these funky golden monkeys.

Julie and I were both surprised at how much we had enjoyed the experienced.

They couldn't rival the gorillas nor the chimpanzees for absolute excitement or sheer awe but they were certainly worth getting out of bed for. Also the hour felt like the right length of time, not too long, not too short.

Back through the potato fields we trudged waving goodbye to the monkeys who had come down to the stone perimeter wall to see us off.

Every where we looked in the fields women were busy with toiling the earth. Such a display of an incredible work ethic. Julie also noticed what looked like a patch of weeds overrun with tall white flowering plants.

A piece of unkempt land it was of course not; not here where every scrap of land is used. It was yet another crop. Apparently it's the main ingredient of a local medicated oil. (I think?)

It took a lot less time to walk back. We must have benefited from the slight gradient.

After about half an hour we had met up with Eric.

A makeshift stall had appeared where our vehicles had parked. A board laid across beer crates with a selection of carved gorillas and miniature traditional baskets all lined in a row.

Not one of us stopped to have a look.

As we drove off I felt a little sorry for the woman who had gone to all the effort to set up the stall and a little disappointed in myself for not having bought anything from her.

The weather was looking quite favourable so Eric suggested we should go and see Lake Burera today. It was only 11am, so there was no time like the present. We drove back through Kinigi to Ruhengeri and joined the main Cyanika - Ruhengeri road heading towards the Ugandan border.

Driving through the towns of Kigombe, Nkumba and the several little villages in between gave us another opportunity to see Rwanda's colourful daily life. The smooth tarmac road however meant we sped through a bit too quick to interact properly with the charming waving children.

It was noticeable though that they were slightly less excitable than those "Muzunghu" calling frantically waving children along the shores of Lake Kivu.


Shortly after Nkumba, about ten miles outside of Ruhengeri, we turned off the main road and followed the signs for the Virunga Lodge, a luxury 5 star accommodation with an unbeatable location over looking Lake Burera.

Bouncing along on a dirt track the silver waters of Burera suddenly appeared as the steep slopes dropped dramatically down to the lake.

We descened and then climbed sharply up the next hill. This we repeated countless times, catching a glimpse of the largest lake within Rwanda (which discounts the huge Kivu as that's only partially in Rwanda).

Eric said "This lake is like Lake Kivu, it is also a volcanic lake"

"So no hippos or crocs in there then?" Julie asked. "No, no crocodiles" he replied bursting into great big smile.

At the point where the road forked we stopped and got out of the car to properly appreciate the breathtaking views of the lake.  It was a great vantage point, high above the lake looking across towards the Eastern shore.

In its centre several islands with names like Mudimba, Bushango and Batutsi broke through its surface, enhancing the spectacular scenery.

It wasn't long before we began to attract a crowd of children. Only one or two at first who happen to be passing with a pair of goats on a string, then before we knew it there must have been over a dozen.

Where did they all come from?

One minute we seemed to be miles away from civilisation then the next we were surrounded by children eager to get a closer look at us and just say hello.

We were slowly beginning to get swamped and Eric was getting slightly anxious.

"Time to get back" he suggested and ushered back into the Toyota.

He then performed a precise 3-point turn on a knife edge, on the top of a sort of an arête with steep slopes down to Lake Burera on one side and equally extreme slopes on the other.

In the moment of reversing towards the abyss and fearing for our lives (well one of us did) we did stop briefly to notice the amazing sight of an entire hillside completely cultivated.

Those slopes were so steep they had no right to be worked but that was a testament to the incredible hard work and determination of the Rwandan people. Amazing.

With Eric's expert driving skills never in doubt we were soon bumping our way back down the dirt track. If it was potatoes we noticed the most earlier it was tomatoes we saw on our return leg. Every village seemed to have a roadside stall piled high with them.

It was 1pm by the time we got back to Sabinyio Silverback Lodge. When we arranged tomorrow's pick up with Eric it dawned on us that today was our last full day in Rwanda. Julie and I both sighed when we realised it.

With our boots and gaiters taken off to be cleaned we shuffled over to lodge No.2 in our green plastic shoes.

We weren't as tired as yesterday and weren't in need a siesta so instead we sat in front of the fire with a cup of tea and watched a slideshow of all our photos from the day we arrived in Kigali, through to the Royal Palace, the chimps, Lake Kivu, the gorillas and today's Golden Monkeys. We've been on quite an adventure!

Engrossed in our photos we almost forgot about lunch. In fact we could have done without the three course meal but as it was available we dragged ourselves away from our cosy little pit.

However, at the table, we ate everything put in front of us. The roasted veg soup with guacamole and bread to start, chicken curry with cous cous and roasted veg tart with sauted veg to follow were all very tasty.

We spent the rest of the afternoon back in our lodge digesting lunch and just relaxing. It was nice having nothing to do and nowhere to go, for a change.

At 6:30pm it was time for dinner! Accompanied by our own personal torch bearer we walked over to the main lodge in time for the cocktail hour where we skyped Hannah and uploaded a few photos onto facebook whilst enjoying a few delectable canapés.

At 7pm we all went through into the dinning room. As last night we had been set together as one large table.

The communal dinning made for a fun evening, even Tracy and Nelis joined us. The topics of conversation were varied and surprising, from erectile dysfunction to the Planet of the Apes.

David and Corrine talked about the time he bought her a special birthday present. H was away with work when a large wooden crate arrived to her front door. Inside was a full scale antique carousel horse which now takes pride of place in the corner of their living room.

The most astonishing revelation was when Steve's wife confessed to once being trained as an undercover CIA operative. "You know we're all going to have to be killed now" I quipped. They found that much funnier than when I joked about getting a bionic penis on the National Health Service in the UK. It may have been too close for comfort for some.

The conversation drifted into American politics which lost us for a while but our interest rekindled when Tracy talked about their previous jobs in South Africa. Nelis went to work everyday in a bullet-proof vest as part of an anti-poaching team protecting Black Rhino. Not only did she fear for his safety but also her own as quite often the poachers would threaten the community. They applied for the managers position at the Governor's Camp Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, a job they only started six weeks ago!

I have to say they were excellent at being the hosts. So welcoming.

The food was once again of a very high standard, the soup, followed by a sun-dried tomato risotto and a Tilapia with a chilli sauce and boiled potatoes were delicious.

We ordered dessert but we needn't have. When our lemon mousse and cheese 'n' biscuits were served we also had this spectacular chocolate cake brought to us.

Tracey had spent the afternoon making it especially for Julie and I in celebration of our wedding anniversary. We also received a note saying "We wish you well on your 25th Wedding Anniversary, may you continue to share a life of love and laughter together and enjoy the many blessings that family brings into one's life."

That was such a lovely touch, beyond the call of duty. Julie and I can't sing their praises highly enough.

We had a wonderful evening and were the last to leave the main lodge. Our dutiful porter had waited for us and escorted us back home for the night.

Next day >>>

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