A Travellerspoint blog

Day 7. Tanzania- Klein's Camp Northern Serengeti

sunny 27 °C

I woke up terribly excited. We were treated with fresh coffee and biscuits delivered to our cabin, which does help you get yourself organized for the morning drive. We saw al sorts of animals- tons of buffalo, impala, dikdiks, giraffe, hyenas, and the list goes on. We also saw a whole variety of birds (one of Don’s favourite)- ostrich, secretary birds (so called because they look like they are wearing a white shirt, black bottoms, and black leggings), Ground Hornbills (black feather, red beak), Love Birds, eagles... I really enjoyed the dik diks- they are a small antelope that stand 14-16 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 10-12 lbs. They are named for the female’s warning call. They are so small that when the grass grows too high, obscuring their view, they move onto other habitats with their preferred low grass but with lots of ground cover. One photo below shows a baby hiding in a bush. Dik diks have a gestation period of 6 months (compare that to 22 months for elephants), and are monogamous so you most often see them in pairs.
Once it had warmed up and the animals were no longer out and about Patita and Franco cooked us breakfast on the hillside overlooking the concession. Incredible to sit with your family, sip coffee and look at the landscape. After napping for the afternoon we headed out in search of the leopard that was in the area. He had been up and around the main camp buildings the night before and heard over by the guest washroom- so I was rushing a tad when using the washroom during dinner. You need to be escorted around the camp at night by one of the staff, which means you also get an escort to the toilet…
This search for the leopard, although entertaining, did not result in a sighting. Late into the drive Patita asked us if we could smell the fire- he said the Maasai were having a ceremony and did we want to watch? We weren't terribly interested, for the same reasons we didn't want to see the local Maasai village, which was that these experiences never feel authentic. I’m not certain a group of comparatively rich white people can walk into a village and truly meet the people in this way, especially when the village often greets tourists. There is usually a fee for visiting and you are expected to buy items while you are there. In any case we declined but he said we were close, so we should just go take a peek. Well, it turned out to be a campfire, mini bar, and chairs set out for us to sit and enjoy the sunset. Very sweet of them.
I had the chance to talk to Daniel, the finance guy for the Camp, about life (and slightly more health related topics) in Tanzania. He didn’t seem to mind my many, many questions about the local healthcare system, where people are most likely to seek health care etc. He did mention that 75% of women give birth at home and use traditional healers, which I think is fairly typical for many African countries. He was also the first to tell me about the local health clinics that &Beyond had built in local communities near their various camps. This is one side of &Beyond that I think they should do a better job of telling people about. I really feel this sets &Beyond apart from some of the other high end tour companies. After our campfire we headed home for a lovely dinner. I got into the port- which just seemed fitting in an old hunting lodge. Plus there were three varieties (in crystal goblets) and you shouldn’t try just one of them.

Posted by Jmclellan 06:44 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Day 6. Tanzania- Arrival at Klein's Private Concession

sunny 26 °C

Once our trip with &Beyond started we were on small planes with local carriers. We flew over Lake Victoria, the biggest African lake and our Tanzanian border entry point was Mwanza, where we purchased our Visas on arrival. I should have mentioned that for Rwanda we applied for our Visas online ahead of time (24hr turn around) and then paid for them on arrival in Kigali. One thing I noticed while we were waiting for our baggage to clear customs in Mwanza was the fairly substantial array of Tanzanian brewed beer. We re-boarded our plane, made a quick stop in Grummeti (our second camp) to drop off passengers and then continued on another 20 minutes to touch down in the Northern Serengeti. We were met by our gruide, Patita, and after coffee and a mid morning snack we started the 1 hr drive (really 1.5 hrs because you are constantly stopping to look at animals) to Klein’s Private Concession, which is on the Eastern border of the Serengeti, very close to the Kenyan border and the section of the Maasai Mara river enclosed by the Serengeti park in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Tanzania. It is at this section of river where all the National Geographic crews go to film the great migration river crossing- but more on that later.

Klein's has been a private concession for a very long time- before owned by &Beyond it was a private hunting concession and the main building overlooking the concession is the original building put in by Klein's previous owners. The camp buildings are all round with stone floors and thatched roofs and are set along the hill side and so all look down into the open plains below. The land is leased both from the local Maasai and the government, both of whom claim ownership and &Beyond pays rental fees to both parties. Since eating is a major activity with &Beyond trips we were soon at lunch in the dining area looking out a huge open window and looking for animals. It is so exciting to be at these camps because the animals you get to see are so incredible. For me a lot of the excitement is the anticipation of going on the drives, and then once on the drive the anticipation of seeing the animals. We were the only guests for this first day, which felt very special.

Our afternoon/night drive was awesome. We saw two young, very thin and scraggly male lions (I have no idea how our tracker, Franco, spotted them). One was limping and they didn't seem in the mood for a visit.... The highlight, however, was that we saw our first (and only) cheetah on top of an old termite mound snoozing after a big meal. He hissed at us because we were in his opinion too close. We happened upon him just before the sun set and had time to snap a few photos. Although he had a very fat belly he was so elegant when he walked. I also want to describe him as slinky.

Posted by Jmclellan 18:04 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Day 5. Rwanda- Nyungwe National Park and Return to Kigali

storm 24 °C

Since we arrived in darkness we didn’t know what to expect from the area surrounding the lodge. When I walked outside in the early morning with Dad we just stood there, each rotating in a circle to take in the views from all sides. I think one of us managed to mumble ‘wow’ but otherwise we were speechless. You are standing in the middle of a tea planation which rises up over a hill behind the main lodge and on your other side the huge canopy of the rainforest, which is the National Park, reaches high into the sky. The plants were damp and the air misty- exactly the feeling I would expect from a rain forested area. The lodge was built on a tea plantation, which the owners bought and still operate. All the individual rooms are built on stilts to minimize the lodge’s impact, which is situated on the immediate border of the rainforest. The lodge buildings blend into the landscape and so don’t block your view. On the hill behind the lodge you could see people in the tea fields harvesting leaves. I was told they harvest once every week or two and take only the top two or three youngest, bright green leaves. Don and I had decided to do a hike in Nyungwe which had us leaving the lodge at about 8:30 to get to the Ranger station (the ranger station we couldn’t find the night before but was apparently a few minutes down the road..). This meant we could enjoy the views from the lodge over breakfast with mom and dad, who had decided to take a bit of a break that morning (we still had a 6hr drive back to Kigali scheduled for that afternoon). I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of the surroundings, which changed dramatically as the sun came up during breakfast and when when the thunderstorm rolled in during lunch. The lodge main building and individual suites were incredible. 20 foot plus high ceilings, tall windows everywhere, and an infinity pool that looked out into the forest. I didn't take as many photos as I should have so forgive me for putting in some photos from the lodge's website.

Although the country is not very big the two National Parks we visited (Nyungwe and Volcanoes) are completely different. I would say visiting Nyungwe is an absolute must. So let me tell you a bit about this incredible forest. Nyungwe is a closed canopy rainforest meaning the forest canopy is so dense that the tree crowns fill or nearly fill the canopy layer preventing light from directly reaching the forest floor. It is the largest single forest block in Africa, one of the last high-altitude primary forests and at 1000km2 the largest protected mountainous rainforest on the continent. It is contiguous with Kibira National Park in Burundi and as a whole harbors more endemic birds, mammals, and amphibians than any other African region. For example of the approximately 1000 species of endemic African birds half of them can be found in Nyungwe. The forest is also Rwanda’s primary water catchment and is a source for both the Nile and the Congo Rivers. A mountain range that runs North to South within Rwanda marks the water divide- water than falls on the east side of the range feeds the Nile and on the west side feeds the Congo. I would have spent three nights in this area if we’d had the time, instead of just one. The park has several hikes and I would have loved to have seen the chimps. Chimps do live in Nyungwe Park, along with 12 other species of primate, but the chance of seeing them is slim. You have much better odds if you drive to a very small park, Cyamudongo, 1.5 hrs away where there is a concentration of chimps.

On directions from the lodge staff we backtracked in the direction we had come and saw the Ranger station immediately. We drove past to figure out why we had missed it the day before. We discovered there is no sign facing the direction from which we came (presumably because tourists never arrive at the park from that direction and always use the paved roads going westward from Kigali). We tried to explain this to the Ranger as an explanation of why we didn’t show up the night before. In any case after we paid our park fees (100USD per person for the day with the ranger. Like Volcanoes you must be accompanied by a ranger to enter the park) we were off and in fact drove back to almost the front door of the Lodge to the trail head. We walked maybe an hour and a half along a windy, up and down, narrow path that was steep and slick in some spots. The entire forest is a bit damp and there is water everywhere, in creeks, dripping off leaves, damp, rich soil. We arrived at Kamiranzou waterfall and clambered up the rocks along the river to get closer to the waterfall. As you pass through one section you get soaked if you are not moving quickly- I got soaked, Don and our guide stayed relatively dry. The waterfall itself was beautiful but what really made the spot memorable were the high canyon walls covered in trees and moss and plants. They stretched way up above the mouth of the falls making it feel like you were in a little tiny spec at the bottom of this huge opening in the earth. On our walk our guide showed us all sorts if things- one that remember well was a bit that looked a lot like an avocado pit. The locals use it to treat gastrointestinal worm infection by grinding it up and drinking it as a tea. If you let the pit dry you can polish it and incorporate it into what I would best describe as traditional tribal necklaces. We also, interestingly, saw quite a few wild begonia plants growing most often as trailing vines.
We arrived back at the lodge early afternoon and decided to stay for lunch before starting our drive back to Kigali. We sat at the same spot we had breakfast, out on the terrace overlooking the tea planation and the rainforest beyond. Clouds rolled in and brought thunder, lightning and heavy rain and the forest completely changed. It reminded me a bit of the ocean or mountains- you always have the same view but it is never really the same. I could have stayed there all afternoon drinking coffee and reading a book but sadly we had a lot of ground to cover and an early flight the next day. We did thankfully manage to get the Rav4 out of four wheel drive- Don thought it was just being finicky- but wow that would have driven that car into the ground had we not been able to get it unstuck. We discussed what we would do if the car broke down on the way home to let you know our level of concern.

The drive home was also a very interesting drive (not quite as nerve racking as our drive from the north) and with all the driving we had done made me feel like we had seen a good deal of the country. Our first hour or so was through the heart of Nyungwe forest and we were lucky in that we ran into a troupe of Black and White Colobus monkeys in the trees and brush on the side of the highway. There must have been at least 100 monkeys, including very young babies still nursing (photo below). We all got out of the car and walked up the road to get a closer look. These are apparently one of the most common types of monkey that live in this region. We rolled in to Kigali at around 8, did a bit of getting lost on the way to our hotel because of road construction and detours. Ben and his staff at the good news guest house made us a huge meal. When we had eaten two dishes I thought we were finished but we hadn’t even received the main course! Then it was in to bed for all of us.

Posted by Jmclellan 18:08 Archived in Rwanda Comments (0)

Day 4. Rwanda- Drive South along Lake Kivu

overcast 23 °C

We spent much time contemplating (once we arrived in Rwanda and heard that the roads were not as good as we had thought) about what route to take to the Southern part of the country. We understood from locals and google earth that some legs of the journey were not paved but we also thought, well how bad can it be? If we can move at say 40km per hour, well the trip should take maybe 6 hrs (It was only about 250km total). Some people had advised we back track to Kigali, but doing that we would have completely missed driving along Lake Kivu which was beautiful (I think you can guess we didn’t backtrack) and one of the Great African Lakes. Plus we wanted to see more of the country. The larger town near Musanze (where we were staying to see the gorillas) is called Ruhengeri. We decided to drive south to Gitarama (an unpaved section), then west to Kibuye (paved), south along the Lake to Kamembe (not paved) and then east the last 10 or 15km to the Nyungwe Park entrance (mostly paved). We thought we were being conservative- If we’d gone straight west to the lake then south, allowing us to drive the entire lake the whole journey would have been on dirt roads.

Well, the unpaved sections proved to be much slower than we had anticipated- I think at one point we had averaged 16km/hr, but this rose to I think 22 or 23 by the time we arrived in Kamembe…There are also almost no road signs unless you are on the paved roads used by tourists (and these are incredibly well marked). So as you might imagine we got lost. The first indication that this was going to be more difficult than anticipated is when the road crossed several small streams and ended at the base of a village on a hill (first photo below). I got out of the car to ask for directions (our only common language was French) and after we spoke with a few other drivers (I thought they were out doing some sort of road maintenance) we were following them to the junction that we had missed to get us on the opposite of the river. What we hadn’t realized was that by taking this junction we had gotten on the wrong fork of the river and were now headed south-east instead of south. Our plan then became to ask at each junction the direction to the major town, Gitarama. It was only just nearing noon so we figured, ok, not too bad. The entire drive was stunning. Lush landscapes unlike I have ever seen and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. We met various people along the way- including four boys who wanted their photo taken (below) and saw various brick firing 'factories' set on hills sides among the banana trees (also a photo below). The bright green rice fields curved along the river and as we passed people stopped their work, waved, and smiled. All in all a great place to be driving slowly because there is so much to take in.

We made it to the Lake in the middle of the afternoon and had lunch at a little restaurant overlooking a power plant harvesting dissolved methane from the lake. This is where I get to tell you that Lake Kivu sits upon the rift valley, which is slowly being pulled apart, resulting in volcanic activity in the area. This rift means the lake is incredibly deep (almost half a kilometer at its deepest point), the 18th deepest in the world. Kivu is also one of three lakes that experience limnic eruptions (the others are Cameroonian Lakes Nyos and Monoun) and is also known as an exploding lake. Limnic eruption, aka lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which dissolved C02 is suddenly released from deep within the lake, resulting in the death of nearby human and livestock because of suffocation. In the case of Kivu it has both dissolved C02 and methane due to lake water interaction with a volcano. Lake Nyos and Monoun have both overturned. The estimated effects of an overturn for Kivu, which has approximately 500 million tonnes of C02, is expected to be catastrophic in comparison because of Kivu’s larger size and the 2 million people living in proximity. Experimental controlled gas release projects have been done on Monoun but these may not be affordable on Kivu because of its much larger size. As far as I am aware they are still trying to find a solution to controlling the C02 release from Kivu. There are, as I mentioned, methane harvesting projects which until 2012 were relatively small scale. KivuWatt, a Rwandan based company, is harvesting on a larger scale and selling the power to the Rwandan Government through a long term power purchase agreement (PPA). The project was estimated to increase Rwanda’s power generating capacity by 20 times, enough to sell to neighbouring African countries.

So, back to the driving story. It took us a couple of tries to get out of Kubuye and on the right road, which as we had hoped had some fantastic views of the lake. If there was ever a road that followed the contours of the earth through the path of least resistance, this was it. Up and down, in and around, and around and up again. It was a single lane road and on one side was a steep drop down to the lake, and on the other a steep hill, usually covered in banana trees. The lake, from our vantage point and with all the surrounding greenery, was well worth the driving time to reach it. During part of our drive along the lake the sun was setting as that was amazing. As it was getting on in the day we ran into a construction zone, which as you might imagine on a one lane road is difficult to pass by. Other points I worried about, but didn’t say anything, were times when we drove though very deep mud and when we passed broken down vehicles. I was wondering what we would do if we got stuck or the car broke down. We managed, after lengthy waits and careful and I'd say quite skillful driving on Don's part, to pass all the heavy machinery.

Now it is dark and we’ve been on the road for 11 or so hours. We finally pass the construction workers camp, run by the Chinese and with Chinese lanterns hung on either side of the front gates, and again need to ask at several junctions which way to the park entrance. Finally, we are on a paved road again. But wait, then Don slams on the breaks because there is a giant mountain of dirt in the middle of the road, so we then follow the makeshift go around dirt road off to the side. We are now definitely in the park vicinity, finally. It is 8pm. Next problem that arises is that we can’t find the ranger station where we are staying. Back and forth along the park road we go, including passing through the park gates, and finally turning around because the road goes and goes with no signs of any sort. We ask at the local town- we have no language in common. We finally give up and stay at the Nyungwe Loge, which is absolutely incredible and set on a tea plantation (more about that tomorrow). By 9 we are at dinner and pretty exhausted. Dad made the final call and I was grateful and relived that we didn’t have to drive any farther (the car was also stuck in all wheel drive and not driving very well anymore). We took the last room available which was one of their nicest and had a great dinner in a beautiful dining area, weighing up our options for the next morning. Go see the chimps (we would need to leave at 5 am and drive for 1.5hrs..?), hang out and recover a bit, or go on a hike in Nyungwe Park. I was fast asleep minutes after I was in bed, Don was up and down all night still considering whether to wake up at 5 to see the chimps.

Posted by Jmclellan 04:19 Archived in Rwanda Comments (0)

Day 3. Rwanda- Mountain Gorillas

sunny 23 °C

A very excited Mom, Dad, Jess and Don headed to the same park rendez-vous point to see the gorillas. We arrived early so that we could discuss with the organizer which group to see. Since the gorillas move around they know the morning of approximately how long of a hike it will be to each group. In total there are 19 groups, 9 are never visited by tourists- the only humans they normally come into contact with are research/conservation groups studying their behaviour and social interactions, among other things. The other 10 groups are habituated to human visitors and are visited maximum once per day when the park is fully booked. As with the golden monkeys tourists are only allowed to spend one hour with the animals. As tourist groups are no larger than 8 only 80 tourists can partake per day. We booked ahead of time but found this wasn't necessary- but then again better to be on the safe side if you have a tight schedule. We in fact hadn't realized you need to collect your permits from Kigali (or purchase them at the head office if you haven’t booked in advance) so when we arrived at the park having paid 750USD per person they did not initially know what we were talking about.

The gorillas occupy the Virunga mountain complex which is located in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the DRC. They also range into Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. Approximately 500 gorillas live in this region (and nowhere else in the world) at altitudes ranging from 2300-4500m. Each gorilla group has a name. We saw the Kwitonda group, which normally ranges quite far away but on the day we visited was one of the closer groups. The park keeps very close track of how many gorillas are in each group, and in fact each gorilla has a name. The rangers have a naming ceremony, as is done in much of African culture, for the new babies at least once per year. The Susa group is the largest and hardest to trek because it ranges highest up onto the volcanoes. It is also famous because it was the group most studied by Dian Fossey (you can buy t-shirts that say ‘I tracked the Suso group’. We met one fellow wearing such a t-shirt and when asked he admitted his hike was only 1.5hrs..). I thought this was a good website for info on the different groups:
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The walk in was a gentle hike, again through farmland and then about 15 minutes inside the park. Our guide gave us a little pep talk, mentioning that we should move slowly, not wear sunglasses, watch their behaviour (they are very human-like) and respond appropriately- ie back away if they seem agitated. The Silver backs weigh on average 250kg. The first gorilla we saw was a female or young male in the tree- the branch was weighing way down because of the animals’ weight. They spend most of their time on the forest floor (one of the reasons they are easy to hunt). We all had our cameras out taking photos of this gorilla 25m away. The guides were urging us on and after the visit I understood why.

In the clearing ahead was a silver backs and at least 5 one year olds. The male was absolutely enormous- a huge barrel chest and pulling down fairly large bamboo branches (I had to hop out of the way so the branch didn’t hit me) to strip off the bamboo leaves. This was really one of the most amazing things I have done in my life. We were often within a 1m radius, and in some cases closer. The guides would make a gorilla sound to keep the young ones at a minimum distance but sometimes they sneak in to check out the visitors without the rangers noticing. One came right up and sat inches in front of me. Another scrambled over to Don and touched his knee. They are incredible creatures. Their hands and feet are so dextrous, and the babies are swinging from low hanging branches and play wrestling constantly. They are covered in dead leaves because they spend so much time rolling around on the floor. You sit there absolutely mesmerized and amazed that they are so close.

A highlight of the visit was seeing a mother gorilla holding her weeks old baby. The baby’s hair was still curly and looked much softer than their hair as the got older. Even the one year olds had hair that looked a bit coarse. But I guess rolling around on the forest floor makes your hair coarse. The mama put up with us for a while and then took her babe, slung underneath her arm into the dense bush. Nearing the end of the visit we were sitting next to the silver back, belly down, propping his chin up with his hand, slowly dazing off. The kids were still wrestling around him, but he didn't seem to be paying much attention. Our hour time limit came too quickly, and we all again reluctantly (and slowly) packed up our things and headed out of the clearing. The rest of our afternoon was spent reminiscing and eating pizza (Musanze has a lot of Western food that isn’t food I’d rave about- except the pizza at Volcano lounge is pretty good). As we were waiting for our meal a storm came in and although we thought we could brave the storm sitting on the covered balcony that quickly proved to be a bad option. Lightning and heavy rains and wind prevailed for several hours, but we were cozy and eating pizza and drinking jars of wine.

Posted by Jmclellan 21:17 Archived in Rwanda Comments (1)

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