3 hours earlier. I was standing under a tree outside the headquarters of Parc National des Volcanos, having just been introduced to our local guide for the day, a handful of specially trained gorilla trackers and seven other travellers. Nearby, seven other groups were being formed as we all prepared for what we hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.
I felt a growing feeling of excitement as our guide talked about the gorilla family we were heading towards, gave us some information about the area we were trekking in and shared some interesting facts about the endangered mountain gorillas that lived there. This excitement was slightly offset by my nervousness of starting what I had heard could be a simple two hour hike or an eight hour intense trek, depending on where the gorillas were currently located. I was hoping that my comfortable North Face hiking shoes, waterproof jacket, cargo trousers, bandanna and small backpack disguised my poor fitness levels and presented me as a confident and experienced trekker.
We jumped into a small mini-van and drove the short distance to our starting point, the edge of the 160km² national park that protects Rwanda’s section of the Virunga Mountains which is a range of six extinct and three active volcanos crossing the intersection of the Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo border and home to the endangered mountain gorilla.
There are less than 800 mountain gorillas left in the world and half of them live in the Virunga Mountains, a region famous for the studies of Dian Fossey and infamous for the on-going human conflicts and poaching that have contributed to the gorilla population decline. There are currently eight gorilla families living in the region and each group was trekking towards a different one.
A few months earlier I had paid $500 for my trekking permit in what seemed an expensive fee. But already I realised it was money well spent as I learned more about the conservation efforts employed by the Park as they not only worked to avoid a further decline in the mountain gorilla population but aimed for future growth and sustainability.
As we started our trek I forgot the gorillas for a moment as I was mesmerised by the stunning Rwandan landscape. Endless green, lush mountains surrounded me with the occasional splash of colour from the clothing of local farmers brightening the landscape. The bright sun warmed my face as my jacket protected me from the bitter wind and after twenty minutes of a steady but comfortable walk across the relatively flat ground, I took my first step into the tree-filled forest and began to climb up towards an impending meeting with a mountain gorilla.
The guide and trackers kept my mind off my aching knees as they shared facts and antidotes about the gorillas and the local farmers. Information about the alpha-male role of a silverback in a gorilla family was amusingly followed by a tale of farm bosses placing a bottle of vodka at the end of a field as incentive for their staff to work harder and faster. The trackers often ran ahead or communicated with their colleagues on their radios to ensure we were heading in the right direction and as we grew closer they reminded us of the ‘rules’ of gorilla trekking, designed to protect the great animals:
Viewing time is limited to one hour
Always keep a distance of at least 7 metres between yourself and the gorilla
Keep your voice low
Do not make any rapid movements
If you are charged by a silverback stand still, look away and make no eye contact
And the one rule above all others: follow the direction of your guide. After all, they carry the rifle!
A couple of hours into the trek, I was enjoying a chat with the local guide as I learned about his lifestyle, listened to the passionate description of his job and reflected on his interesting view that poachers should be given jobs in the Park rather than sent to jail “to teach them to love, respect and protect the mountain gorillas”. It was an interesting conversation but one that ended abruptly as we looked ahead to see one of the trackers calling out to us.
We were no longer heading towards the mountain gorillas – they were heading towards us! We followed our guide’s instructions and placed our backpacks on the ground, got our cameras out and stood waiting for the majestic animals. Within a few minutes I heard the rustling of leaves and thought I was prepared for my first sighting of the gorilla family.
Within seconds of seeing our first mountain gorilla many of us broke one of the gorilla trekking rules (keep your voice low) as we unintentionally called out variations of “oh wow”!
Our first viewing was of a mother and her small child and as magical as it was, it didn’t compare to the surreal arrival of the alpha male of the group, the silverback. His arrival caused the second rule break of the day but this time it was the silverback breaking the rule instead of us. We all understood that keeping a distance of seven metres was for the protection of the gorilla as human germs do not always mix well with gorilla DNA, but when a large silverback walks towards you and other gorillas in the family are behind you, you aren’t going anywhere!
I had heard stories of a silverback charging trekkers to stamp his authority on his territory but this one seemed indifferent to our existence. He sat down with his back to us for a few minutes giving us all an opportunity for the obligatory ‘near a mountain gorilla’ moment before climbing a tree to rest. The sight of a large silverback climbing a tree with speed and ease is one I will not forget and when the mother and child we had first seen followed him I was a bit alarmed that our one hour viewing would be reduced to ten minutes.
But it didn’t take long for the rest of the family to arrive and we were treated to an incredible hour of being up close and personal with these mountain gorillas. Like the silverback, they seemed indifferent to our presence and lazily chewed leaves, wandered around, scratched their backs and used their bush toilets! The similarity of their behaviour to that of human beings is both extraordinary and entertaining.
The hour seemed to fly by and we reluctantly started to make our way back, leaving the mountain gorillas behind. In just a few hours I had experienced one of the most memorable and uplifting experiences of my life and felt like I was skipping back to the park’s headquarters, such was my excitement at what I had just seen.
There have been moments in my life when I have had a sudden awareness of both the insignificance of the human race in the bigger scheme of things and the importance of the human race playing our part in the bigger scheme things. This was one of those moments.
Rwanda is accessible to all types of travellers but when visiting any developing country I encourage you to do your research so that you are supporting local businesses and people as much as you can.
Those who are short of time, not suited to long and sometimes bumpy overland rides or not interested in long queues at overland border crossings will be relieved to learn there is an international airport 10km east of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. There are direct flights from Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bujumbura (Burundi), Entebbe (Uganda), Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa) and Brussels (Belgium).
There are land border crossings into Rwanda from Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda for the more adventurous traveller but you should always check the security situation first, especially in the often volatile regions near Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Foreign Offices in both Australia and UK have great websites with updated information that I always check before I visit a country.
One of the most common ways to visit Rwanda is on an overland tour and these are designed for those ‘in between’ travellers (or those I refer to as All Rounders in my What is Your Travel Personality article) who want to travel independently without the bureaucratic red tape and security concerns that sometimes accompany travel in Africa. I spent three incredible months in East and Southern Africa in 2009 and visited Rwanda as part of an overland tour with Intrepid Travel.
The most common base for visitors is the town of Ruhengeri. As there is no public transport from the town to the Park’s headquarters the most common way to organise your trek is through a pre-booked tour. This may be part of a longer overland tour, a tour specific to Rwanda or a pre-booked day for gorilla trekking. This is the easiest way to organise your trek as the tour company will organise the permit that must be obtained before you arrive and your transport to/from the Park. When I visited the Park, permit fees were $500 but these have recently been increased to $750.
In an effort to protect the already endangered gorillas trekking groups are limited to eight people and there are only eight treks a day. Don’t arrive at the Park expecting to purchase a permit and book yourself on a trek that day – it simply will not happen.
You may experience both sunshine and rain in the same day so it’s best to dress in layers with a long-sleeved t-shirt and thin waterproof jacket. You will be trekking through trees and bush so long sleeved shirts and trousers are ideal and of course you will need comfortable hiking shoes (my North Face Hedgehog GTX XCR shoes were my best friend during my round-the-world trip).
Remember that your guides know best and the ‘rules’ exist for a reason. We are a visitor in the mountain gorilla’s home and their survival relies on us learning to co-exist with each other. If you have a contagious illness or even the flu or a cold, you won’t be allowed to join the trek.
Also remember that the National Park is not a zoo and the gorillas are not waiting in cages for us to come and look at them. You need to trek to reach them and you cannot predict the length or level of difficulty of the trek. I was quite luck in that my trek was only a couple of hours and relatively easy but to be honest I would have felt a little short-changed if it was anything less than that. Reaching the gorillas felt so much more satisfying knowing I had made the effort and worked up a sweat to get there. Of course some people do have limitations and letting the guides know this at the start will make it a more enjoyable day for you.
I have never come across anyone who has trekked to mountain gorillas in Rwanda and regretted it. It is an incredible experience that you will never forget and you can enhance this experience by visiting some other areas of Rwanda. Don’t let Rwanda’s traumatic history deter you – this is a country in recovery, a country that is relatively safe for tourists and a country full of beautiful people. Almost all Rwandans I met begged me to ‘spread the word’ about how beautiful their country is and to encourage my friends to visit. They recognise the value of tourism to their country and they are proud of their landscape, culture and wildlife.
The genocide and historical civil unrest in Rwanda is like a cloud in an otherwise blue sky and Rwandans believe a clear blue sky awaits them – they need the rest of the world to believe the same.
Want more Rwanda? 5 "Must-Have" Experiences in Rwanda
Even though I live in a country that is known for diverse culture and natural resources including wildlife, my greatest challenge to go out on advetures is having enough time and money to travel. My mid-year resolution is therefore to organize weekend getaways to nearby destinations. Last weekend I set off for Karatu, Tanzania. I have never been to the region, had no idea where to sleep or what I will find there. The only thing I knew was that it is the land of the Iraqi people who are close to the Maasai, both being nilots. Armed with the internet on my laptop and mobile phone, I further found out the location, the time it would take to go there and names of a few hotels that were slightly above my budget. Asking around from collegues, I found out the price it would cost and how to get there.
Small hut on the Karatu countryside
With a budget of $80USD (128,000 Tanzanian shillings), my nine year old nephew for company and without a host, I set for Karatu. The road trip was a great idea, I enjoyed watching the landscape taking different forms from plains to hills and valleys; it was a wonderful feeling to see streams and rivers flowing in places that were dry a few months ago. With a stop-over at Arusha, it took about 4hrs or so to reach Karatu town. I spent less than 100,000 Tshs for the entire trip to Karatu and back home; the cost includes meals and snacks, a tour, transport and accomodation.
If you are planning to go to Karatu it is a good idea to get in touch with a freelance tour guide and let them know your budget. The only difference in costs for foreigners will be the amount paid to the tour guides which ranges between 10-30 USD depending on the tour type. Transport, food and accomodation costs are the same for both local and foreign tourists. There are direct buses from Moshi to Karatu which leave at around 6:00 am, alternatively you can take a bus to Arusha then Karatu, the price is the same at 7,500Tshs. The benefit of stopping-over is that you can enjoy a meal in Arusha, take a stretch and get on with the journey. Several buses leave Karatu to Arusha up to evening hours (around 5 pm) so you can actually get back on the same day if you wish to, direct buses to Moshi are from 6:00 am up to around 7:30 am.
Locals gathering wood in Karatu
The weather in Karatu reminded me of Dodoma, dry heat or dry cold. It is a small town that is slowly embracing the wave of development. The municipality has 3 banks with ATM services, a bureua de change, mobile money services, a hospital and a range of accomodation and food joints that would fit any budget.
Even though it is an important connection to Ngorongoro and Serengeti national parks, it is a destination of it's own. It offers an oppotunity to enjoy a work-out through treking or biking safari and learning a new culture through the hospitality of the local people who are generous enough to invite travellers to their homes through culture tourism programmes.
I whole heartedly and witout any conflict of interest recommend, Richard, a freelance tour guide who made our experience in Karatu memorable at short notice, keeping in mind our lack of time and traveling with a budget.
You can reach Richard at the following contacts~ web: http://www.gnakoculturaltourism.webs.com mobile: +255767612980 or Facebook: Richardnjuga
The Jungle Book tour in Goa, India, truly is one of a kind. With so many new activities and experiences that the average tourist would never normally encounter this is, for many, a one off opportunity! I will tell you about it now. We were collected from our hotel in the resort in the morning and after picking up all of the other tourists we drove for around 2 hours to the spice plantation.
The spice plantation was just as expected -- an area where they grew lots of spices! They gave us a talk about how each spice grows and we got to smell/taste them. They showed us a particularly small and innocent looking chilli that in reality turned out to be aggressively hot! When offered, a bulshy, over-confident middle aged British man (as much as I hate to admit it these types of tourists always seem to be British!) said he would taste this exotic chilli, and much to my, and others’ amusement was rather taken back from the strong spice! ‘Serves you right’ I thought! We all laughed as he jumped around screaming from the spice!
While at the spice plantation they demonstrated how many of the spices are collected. As some of the are very high up in the trees an Indian local showed us how they would climb to the top, collect what they needed and then encourage the tree to sway from side to side until it reached close enough to the next tree for the man to climb over. It all seemed very skilled, but also very unsafe! This is something you would never see in England!
After all the excitement of seeing the spices we were given some lunch where we were able to sample some of them. Lunch was mushed up combination of soggy rice, salad (which I was a bit dubious about eating in India) and some sort of fish in breadcrumbs, or perhaps it was chicken? I wasn’t quite sure! All of this was served on a banana leaf, and we were expected to eat in the traditional style-with our hands!! Well, with the lack of soap and mushy food-I went on a search for a fork, and was very glad when I found one!
After a somewhat interesting meal, we continued on our journey towards the jungle. We drove for around another hour before we arrived. We were staying in the thick of the jungle. There were huts made from elephant dung that were arranged in a circle around the outside of the clearing. In the middle was a camp-fire and a bar/eating area (OK so the bar is not very authentic but clearly going to be a money earner with the tourists!).
Wandering around the clearing were elephants. It was incredible to have them freely roaming around you in such a way. And they were beautiful! There was also various other nature as expected in the jungle-HUGE spiders, leeches, cockroaches and a very large amount of mosquitos included!
I expected the accommodation to be basic-but this was actually beyond basic! Inside the hut was a double bed with a mosquito net. There was also a basic wooden open wardrobe. Inside the bathroom was a western toilet, a shower and a bath. The shower was cold and only a dribble of water, with ants and various other small creatures crawling all over the surrounding floor area and walls. The bath was a concrete box that you actually couldn’t have paid me to bathe in. But hey, were not here for luxuries-were here for the experience!
Soon after checking into our huts we were taken on a walk to an ‘authentic’ local village. We walked through the village to see the traditional houses the jungle people lived in and the people. We got to walk through the chief’s house to see how the most important person in the village lived. We then got to meet the children. We were told to teach the children some nursery rhymes. We tried things such as twinkle twinkle little star, Jack and Jill and many other, but the kids knew them all word for word-not bad for people that don’t speak a word of English!?
I knew then that this was not as authentic as they made out! I guess the children will see tourists coming through their village every day like this. And the flat screen TV I saw through the window of one of the huts gave me the impression they weren’t quite as poor as they made out too! Having been studying sustainability in tourism at the time as well, I was rather sceptical and not fooled-like the rest of the naive tourists! But this is not a discussion of authenticity.
After our walk to the village we were taken for a ride in the local means of transport -- the BMW! This was basically just a cart pulled by a cow/bull type animal. Were taken for a 5 minute ride which was a little bit of a disappointment as it was literally to the end of the road and back, but again it was an interesting and amusing experience!
Next we went for a trek on an elephant! This was by far one of the highlights of the tour. We had to climb up some stairs and onto a platform to get onto the elephant because it was so high. Then we sat on the top and were taken for a trek through the thick of the jungle. It was great fun! Our elephant was 40 years old and was the oldest elephant they had there. It seemed so happy and healthy looking which was lovely. And it was great to think they had the freedom to wander around the area most of the time, which is sadly not the reality for many elephants used in tourism in India. The ride was great fun and a great experience!
The evening in the camp was an interesting one. We had some curry dinner and then all sat around the campfire watching the traditional Indian dancing and drum playing. I even treated myself to a well-deserved couple of G & T’s! They also put on a show with the elephants where the dressed them up and we got to feed them-it was very cute!
I retired to bed relatively early as it was quite cold round the campfire and I had had enough traditional dancing for one night! Unfortunately it was not a comfortable nights sleep! Before getting into bed I spotted a huge leech on the floor next to the bed! I was too scared to attempt to move it so left it there-although I was worried about it all night! I was also worried about what ever other bugs there were around me! The mosquito net had bugs on the top of it that freaked me out too! Eventually though I did manage to get to sleep, and was glad to wake up and find that I hadn’t been attacked by giant leeches or any other jungle bugs in the night!
It was nice in the night though to lay there listening to the sounds of the jungle. You could hear the elephants outside and the owls and various other animals making their own noises. It was very calming and peaceful, like one of those CD’s you play to help you to get back to sleep!
So we rose at 5am ready for the trek through the jungle to the waterfall. When we set off it was pitch black. It was adventure to trek through the thick jungle with only a torch light to lead the way, and it was beautiful to watch the sun slowly rise. It was quite a challaging up hill walk-but I was ready for it! The only problem was my lack of sensible footwear- jellies didn’t suffice very well at all!!
The trek took us through thick bush to the top of a hill, it was very steep at times and a I was very tired and out of breath by the time I reached the top. However the view from the top made it all more than worth it. We all sat down to admire the beautiful clearly in the jungle, whereby in the middle was a lovely waterfall. I always have been a bit of a sucker for waterfalls too.
After a few minutes rest we began the decent back down, this was even more tricky than the climb! We had to walk along a very picturesque pebbled stream at the bottom of the waterfall, it was lovely but I wasn’t getting on too well with the jelly shoes keep slipping off! But nevertheless I reached the end and completed the trek.
By this time it was about 10am and we greeted with a little clearing housing a small temple. Here we had a go at doing some Indian yoga. It was the perfect setting for yoga; a clearing in the Indian jungle, at the bottom of a waterfall, in the morning when the heat was just right, in front of a temple. It was incredibly tranquil. India is the birthplace of yoga too; making it even more perfect.
The only thing that wasn’t perfect, was actually me! I wasn’t terribly enthused at the time as I hadn’t yet developed my passion for yoga. And me and my friend did giggle quite a lot. However, how many people can say their first attempt at yoga was in such a location? Not many!
The last part of the tour was by far the highlight! We were taken in the bus down to a local waterhole where we spent half an hour or so chilling in the water and sunbathing. Then the fun began! We were met by a stampede of over excited elephants running into the water, playing and splashing around! It was absolutely amazing to watch. The elephants looked like they were having so much fun!
After watching them play for around half an hour, one cam walking towards me. When it got towards the water’s edge I got up and stepped back cautiously. Then to my surprise, the elephant pointed its trunk straight at me and squirted me with water!! Everybody there was watching and they were all laughing in hysterics at me. It was absolutely hilarious and I didn’t stop laughing for ages! I don’t know what drew that elephant to me that day-but it certainly was funny!
Once the elephants had calmed down and were a bit less playful we had the chance to wash them. We got to get into the water with them and scrub them-and you could see that they clearly loved this! It was an amazing experience that I shouldn’t think I will get the opportunity to do too many times in my life! You also had the opportunity to sit on the elephants back in the water and have the squirt you, which most people did and it looked like so much fun! However I was all ‘squirted out’ so decided just to watch this part.
So this was then the end of the tour and the begin of the journey back to the coast. What a fantastic couple of days!! We got to see and do so much-its was incredible! But one of the nicest things for me, was to see how healthy and well treated the elephants were. Many wild elephants in Asia are killed as they are a nuisance to farmers etc and many are abused through tourism and badly treated. Knowing this, it was such a pleasure to see how well looked after these elephants clearly were. So although it was a tour, and it was a little inauthentic in places, this trip enabled me to have some incredible experiences- and I would certainly recommend it!
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According to Catholicism, Santiago de Compostela is the place where the remains of the Apostle Saint James are buried. According to legend, the burial place was found by a shepherd in the 9th Century and since then Santiago became, together with Rome and Jerusalem, a popular destination for pilgrims. The building of the Cathedral, where the remains were eventually re-buried, began in 1075 but was not wholly completed until 1211.
Nowadays, people make the pilgrimage to Santiago for different reasons. There are those that do it out of faith, and why not say it, maybe a bit of self-interest, since if they walk a minimum of 100 kilometres they receive full or partial remission of the punishment for their sins. Others make the pilgrimage as a challenge, to get away from it all or as a cultural trip. The different routes are known as The Way of Saint James, which pilgrims, or at least those that wish to obtain indulgence, have to do on foot. Along the way, you can stay at special hostels reserved for pilgrims for which there is a nominal charge of 5 Euros per night.
When you arrive to Santiago it may well be raining, but this is to be expected and many people would be disappointed if it were not. The Plaza del Obradoiro is the heart of the city and in this square you will find the Cathedral and the office that attends the pilgrims arriving to the city. Here you can also find the Parador of Santiago, housed in what used to be a hospital for pilgrims founded in 1499.
Santiago and the whole region of Galicia have a well earned reputation for good food. Amongst the local specialties, there is a wide variety of seafood, including the typical pulpo a la gallega (octopus), empanada (a large filled pastry) or caldo gallego (stew). All of which taste much better if accompanied by the local wines, Albariño or Ribeiro. For dessert, the tarta de Santiago (almond cake) and filloas (pancakes). At the end of the meal you may be offered an orujo, but careful this is liquor with high alcohol content.