Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mosetlha Newsletter October 2013

It has been an exciting month here at The Bush Camp. We have welcomed back Fran to our kitchen and housekeeping staff after being away for most of 2013, the camp won an Eco-Award for our water usage, and we have had many, many exciting visitors of the four legged kind. Our three buffalo bulls still come and prowl the bird baths, come water holes, every evening. The first half of October saw no rain and so many of Madikwe’s zebra, kudu, warthog and scrubhare could be seen daily coming for a drink in front of the owners' house. Our resident Brown Hyena - Harry - and the Civet still visit us every evening and the Honeybadger has come round a time or two this month, thankfully not upsetting anything at Mosetlha! Four Wild Dog were seen in camp on the 12th running from drinking at the Main House and then down into camp for another drink and to say hello to the early rising guests in the lapa! A pride of five lions left their fresh tracks through camp early in the month as well.

Game Drives have been jam-packed with wonderful sightings. Kgomotso and Justice had thirteen Wild Dog playing in the shade of their vehicles. The pack had a kill nearby and the Alpha Female brought some food for the pups, regurgitating the morsels into their mouths mere meters from the Mosetlha vehicles.

Earlier in the month Jonny and Kgomotso found the Kwande Male lions at Vlei Pan eying a herd of Wildebeest. The chase was unsuccessful but still exciting to photograph and watch. Later in the month the Kwande Males were found by Justice and Kgomotso on a Wildebeest kill, stuffed full to the brim, but happy to give our guests a show of how lions like to eat their meat.

The giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, warthog, tssessbe, and even gemsbok have been seen aplenty as well.

Kgomotso was lucky enough to find a Caracal on the way back to camp during the evening. It was busy hunting a Steenbok, unsuccessfully unfortunately. Caracal, or Rooikat as they are known locally, are mostly seen at night but can be seen during daylight hours, especially in the cool winter months. They are one of the smaller cats found on the reserve and specialise in eating small antelopes like Steenbok and birds like guinea fowl and francolins. Not often seen so relaxed, this was a rare and special sighting indeed.

We have had many old friends come and visit us this October once again at Mosetlha. One afternoon a baby Bushbaby fell from its nest in Cabin Nine. It sat on top of the cabinet calling and calling until the parents came out from their nap and grabbed him by the neck and jumped him up to safety. Ron was kind enough to come and fetch us and some of our guests to come and have a look at the youngster, who after being rescued, poked his head out to spy on the gathering crowd. Thank you Ron for sharing such a special sighting with us!

The Lesser Galago, more commonly known as a Bushbaby, are nocturnal primates no larger than an average sized person’s hand. Their eyes are fixed in the sockets and are quite large so as to utilise the small amount of light at night to find their prey of insects. They also favour tree sap and are known to visit almost three hundred trees a night in search of sustenance. They wee on their hands and feet before jumping to a new tree so as to mark their territory as they go. They nest in holes in trees or in the eaves of our cabins or other bush buildings. In other places in Southern Africa one may also find Thick-Tailed Bushbabies, or Greater Galagos.

The rain is coming more often now, thank goodness, and the bush is starting to sprout new leaves. The frogs are slowly making an appearance along with cicadas calling as Summer is finally here. The sightings are still wonderful with the end of the month seeing Jonny and Justice finding two lionesses and their six cubs, Wild Dog feeding their pups, lots and lots of elephants with small calves as well as our four cheetah brothers making a kill of a young Hartebeest for Kgomotso and her guests.

Here is a short story to get you in the mood to revisit the bush. Can you guess from whose perspective the story is told? (Answer to come in our November newsletter.)

Streeeetch...Waking up is not high on any favorites list, that is for sure. Well, here we go again. Stretch, pause, have a nice look around. Amongst the sound of Southern yellow billed Hornbills clacking and a family of francolins hurriedly digging through the underbrush, you can hear long low guttural sounds coming ever closer. No, not the same as that of The Family ambling on their way, their soundless steps padded with time and purpose. The heat is almost unbearable. Flies attracted to any bit of moisture plague the eyes, nose, mouth. It is almost time. Maybe just a bit longer. The guttural sounds have stopped. Stretch, yawn, slap flies, stretch again. The heat, unbearable, sticky, like trying to breath through water. High pitched screeches, long in the wind, blow past. Clear blue skies dotted with dancing forms on thermals from the heat of the day, give way to a flock of Red Billed Quiellas blowing past like dead leaves. Their pursuits in touch with one another down to the most minute change in attitude, longing, wind direction. They seem to float, to flit, but then become strong as they pick up speed only to flit, to float once more like dusty dry leaves. The sound is closer. It is almost time. Stretch one more time. The heat is abating, moving lazily down the horizon into an explosive orange glow. The family of francolins has stopped rustling to call an alarm, cut short by lack of a threat, only to rise up again, and cut short. They go back to scratching in the parched dirt. You can almost smell the rain now. The cool wet lurid smell. The dirt seems to cry out in agony. The flies now pestering all over and the sound, that low guttural sound, is crawling ever closer now laced through with a low sing song noise. It is usually this way. It is almost time. One more stretch. A quick bath and on to cleaning the work tools. Unsheathing each one by one, making sure to get every nook and cranny. You have accomplished much when you can look at a meal you have brought down for your litter and see the gleam of hunger in little eyes replaced by happiness, by satisfaction. The guttural sounds have stopped succeeded by the sing song noises. Bathing finished, tools sharpened, a bit of ‘Downward Dog’. The clicking noise starts as I roll-over, arise and slowly walk away, tawny fur catching the last of the light, towards the waterhole where The Family drinks, their long trunks extended into the crisp clear water. The sing song voices rise in glee, replaced with click-clacking and the guttural noise comes alive, following close behind as the wind picks up and gives hint to what will be brought home to the little ones tonight. Last loooong stretch, ‘Downward Dog.’ Tools glinting in the sun. Click-click, click-click. Drops fall. The guttural sounds increase and float away. Rain’s here.

All of us here at Mosetlha hope to see you all again soon to come and get more African dust on your feet...

Friday, June 14, 2013

A weekend in May ...

This blog is made up of photographs and comments from our guest, Ryan Viljoen, who came with his fiance, Sarah, to stay just one night with us in May ... these are just a few of his pics from their amazing sightings in only two drives.


African Wilddog photographed in Madikwe Game Reserve, currently the reserve has two packs. This dog is part of the larger pack of approximately 18 dogs.

A baby white rhino posing for this portrait shot, I really liked the various colours on him from the dust and dirt with the little piece of grass between his lips and lastly the beady eye staring at us.

Sun setting on the African bushveld after an afternoon safari...

We had come across this lone female lion walking down a game path pretty intently. Our guide had mentioned that she was part of a large pride of females with sub-adults however none where in view. We followed her for along the path until finally she stopped and gave a gentle roar before the rest of the pride came bounding up to meet her...

This young lion was taking a breather in the later afternoon golden sun after playing with his fellow brothers and sisters. He was staring at the others with interest by couldn't muster enough energy to rejoin the games.

Lion cub in the late afternoon peering over at us on the game drive vehicle while on safari. Love the late golden light highlighting just the cub.

One in a coalition of four Cheetah's current feigning interesting in something in the nearby bushes having just woken up from their afternoon nap. We had arrived while they were still sleeping and after not long they started yawning which is always a sign that they are about to become more active. Finally this one propped itself up...

It is not often that you get to see black rhino, never mind out in the open. This is one of those fortunate moments where this mom and calf were out in the open, it only took them a few seconds to realise we were there before scurrying back into the thicket behind them. Black rhino's have a triangular mouth for browsing and are generally smaller then their white rhino counter parts... they also tend to be some what moodier.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

From the bird bath ....

As you can tell, we are not exactly on the ball with blogging .... Facebooking we're pretty good at, but blogging, sorry, not brilliant.

However all that is about to change! Bart, Mosetlha's new manager, is a fanatical photographer and bush boy ... and he has a new lens to play with. 

This post consists of a few pics he's taken at our bird bath, with his new toy, of:

A fluffed up Fork Tailed Drongo


Golden breasted bunting


A grey go away bird coming in to land (I still think it's a really stupid name, Grey Loerie was MUCH better!)


Melba Finch (or green winged pytilia) and

 violet eared waxbills




Look at this gorgeous little thing! Pearl spotted owlett in the water :)


And in the tree in the setting sun ....


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Madikwe Wild Dogs Rediscovered!




 



A few months ago in August 2012, we were devastated to hear that a pack of spotted hyena had killed an entire litter of wild dog pups. 



We were, at that time, heading up to the north-east corner of Madikwe at least once a day to take Mosetlha guests on special "Wild Dog Puppy Drives", where we would see a pack of fourteen adults and twelve pups who were denning on the private land just across the river.




 
At the same time, a much smaller pack of three adults, had produced six pups and were looking after them in a different section of the Reserve. These are the ones believed to have been killed by Spotted Hyena. None of them have been seen for three months ....
 
 
So it was with great joy that we heard last week that in fact this pack of nine IS still around, that nobody had been killed by anybody, and they are all doing just fine!
 
 
This brings Madikwe's wild dog numbers to 42:
The big pack with pups: 12 + 14
The small pack with pups: 3 + 6
A pack of 5 dogs, and
A pair of 2 dogs ....
 

(All photos from our guest Ryan Viljoen, July 2012: https://www.facebook.com/ThroughtheShutter)



Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rainbows in Madikwe; Monks and Tigers in Thailand

Mosetlha Bush Camp: Spring Bush Telegraph - October 2007

Fifty five millimetres since the end of September has made the rains not only early, but really good - the bush is smiling broadly. The rainbow we saw the other day was the highlight of the afternoon drive (the lions, elephant, rhino and 200+ buffalo at a waterhole paled into insignificance) … an entire double rainbow stretched against a charcoal sky arching over the bright green bushveld, we could see each of the seven colours distinctly.

It was perfection … brought a tear to my eye! You probably won’t believe this (we couldn’t) but we’ve had another kudu chased into the lapa by the wild dogs. This is the third time in four years – and it’s a different pack each time so it’s not as if it’s learned behavior.

They cornered her and darted in and out of the lapa taking chunks off her. All a bit traumatic (for us I mean). We eventually dragged the kudu out with a vehicle to make it easier for the dogs to have their meal and for the guests to watch it all - and to prevent even more blood from splashing onto our (freshly reupholstered since the last time when the kudu ran over the couch) furniture.

Talking of wild dogs, a pack of eight is being released into the reserve today – they have been bonding with the new females who were brought in from Shamwari about a month ago. So there are now two packs in Madikwe, the new one and another pack of eight with their 10 pups. In addition to the dogs, we’ve also had a herd of buffalo in the Camp – there is a little pan near the Camp which has filled up with all the rain, this probably attracted the buffalo to our area, they are usually a lot more shy and steer clear of us; we can also hear the elephants trumpeting and splashing there!

We have seen a young female leopard in the Camp! She is clearly resident in the area and we see her drinking at our little bird bath, see the tracks (hers and a large male’s) all over the place and hear them calling at night. And I watched a very large bull elephant go down on his front knees (I guess that would make them his elbows?) to fit underneath the electrified 6 foot high elephant wire so that he could access a mineral block he obviously fancied.

He used his trunk to coax it towards him, scooped it up and dragged it out to his side of the wire. He then picked it up using a tusk and his trunk – so it was perched against his face and he didn’t know what to do with it! I heard him dropping it (with a great thud reverberating through the reserve) repeatedly – obviously trying to break it up into bite size chunks – for about four hours after that! For those of you who knew I was going to the Tiger Temple in Thailand for a six week jaunt, my report of how it went follows.

I literally ran away from the Temple with one of the other volunteers (we escaped under cover of darkness, in a stealth vehicle with darkened windows – it was a luminous pink taxi actually, but this is better for the story!) and we spent a week in Bangkok in the backpackers area of Khao San Road. Had a jol, did all the touristy things and came home four weeks before I should’ve done.

As I’m owed so much leave (hah!) and it’s my birthday on the 6th, I’m treating myself to a trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda for the first 10 days in November – I hope I will be able to provide more positive feedback from that (with no need to mention war, terrorism or the Ebola virus!)

Look forward to seeing you again soon
Best bush regards
The Mosetlha Team

This is my report on my (brief) stay at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi in Thailand:

“The Abbot, Phra Acharn Chan, kindly welcomed the animals. And so the monks ended up looking after the orphaned cubs. None of them had any training in how to handle tigers. They had to learn on the job. The monastery did its duty. It became a sanctuary and it upholds the sanctity of compassion and kindness to all living creatures.”

I applied to volunteer at the Tiger Temple because I wanted to be a part of the promised “tigers roaming free with Buddhist monks” experience – having an interest in both wild animals (especially the big cats, of which tigers are really the only species I don’t have access to in SA) and Buddhism.

Although I understood that there was probably an element of “marketing speak” due to the fund raising slant in the promotion of the Temple and the mysticism of the whole experience, I thought that, due to my research on the Temple website and other pages and blogs, my expectations were realistic in terms of how these animals lived and were treated.

The animal cruelty and abuse at the Temple was blatant and obvious to me from the minute I arrived. (The first animal I came across was at the Volunteer’s House, a very distressed young female cat who was engorged and in agony with too much milk. Her five 2 week old kittens had been removed from her by Temple staff and – we were told - taken to a “Cat Temple”.

I was surprised and upset to come across an animal in such distress as this was not how I would imagine a sanctuary would treat any animal). I arrived mid-morning and on my first day one of the other volunteers who’d been there for a couple of weeks took me around to show me the captive animals. (There is also a large number of farm type animals – goats, cows, horses, chickens - and water buffalo, deer, wild boar and peacocks roaming around the Temple grounds.)

The first cage I came across was a large “chicken wire” cage under a tree with a hawk in it. The bird apparently had a broken wing. It is never released from the cage, which is strewn with rubbish (plastic wrappers and spoons) with flies all over it. Then there was a row of concrete cages with single adult tigers, one with the baby tigers, and at the end of the row (with a large generator placed in front of it so one couldn’t really see what was in this dark, dingy dungeon) a leopard who has, apparently, not been let out of the cage since she arrived there 8 years ago.

My next visit was to a large, double sized concrete cage almost out of view of all the other cages, where they keep two very young (I would estimate them to be about 6 months old) lion cubs (male and female). The cage is bare but for a concrete bowl of water. There is nowhere for them to shelter or hide (they are clearly terrified of humans) and certainly nothing for them to play with – no tyres or branches or any sort of toys. We then saw all the other tigers – either on their own or with two in a cage. Some of the tigers are never released from their concrete cages.

But others, on average 8 tigers a day (usually the same better behaved and better looking tigers – not the stroppy ones or those with scars or bloody eyes) are taken into the Canyon to be photographed with tourists. This “outing” liberates them from their cages for a 10 minute walk on stony gravel to the Canyon, three hours chained by the neck to a ring in the blazing sun, and a 10 minute walk back “home” to their cages. On their way to and from the canyon the tigers are encouraged to move by being lifted by the base of the tail, shoved and punched.

One “tiger girl” would always walk next to the tiger with a garden hoe in her hand, this she waved in front of the tiger’s face or banged on the ground next to it whenever it slowed down or stopped. (The threat was implicit, but the tiger was motivated to move whenever it saw that hoe.) Whilst in the Canyon, the tigers are disciplined with Tiger Balm being rubbed onto their faces, tiger urine being sprayed into their mouths and (surreptitiously, but in full view of tourists) being punched quickly on the face and head. As to whether the animals are drugged or not, I cannot be sure. (Although sedation would surely be the kindest way of helping them get through those long hot hours in the canyon.) The argument against drugging is the expense and, I believe, the difficulty of dosage (meticulously worked out amount of drug to body weight) – although local herbs mixed in with their boiled chicken could possibly work.

(Some of them were completely unresponsive all the time, even when we visited their cages in the early mornings or in the evenings, and this could possibly imply properly prescribed drugs.) In the Canyon the volunteers are there essentially for crowd control. I felt ashamed at being apparently complicit in the running of this circus - which is really no more than a money making scam where tourists are required to “donate” B300 to come into a Buddhist Temple (illegal to charge, by the way), and another B1000 for a ‘special’ photo with a tigers head placed in your lap.

This place is operated along the lines of a very badly run zoo with no money - not an animal sanctuary which receives all this money (work it out, an average of 400 people a day – and that’s on a slow day – with, say, very conservatively 50 people paying for photos) from tourists. Much of the money received over the years since the Animal Planet programme has been promoting it (since about 2003, I think) appears to have been (very recently, as in it has just started being built) spent on building a "Buddhist Park Project" which will essentially be an area to accommodate the followers of the Abbot's Teacher when he comes to visit the Temple!

The Tiger Island (“for their freedom and return to the forest”) which is apparently the reason we all throw money at the Temple is not yet complete, but seems to be nothing more that an area for tiger cages with a moat built around it so tourists can't actually get at them and see how they live – they will still operate the Canyon Photo Circus and, as they will still be hand reared, there is no plan to release tigers back into the wild (despite what it says on their website: “Grown cubs are to eventually be sent to forest areas, monitored and prepared for readiness prior to their release back to the forest.”)

Although we could wander around the cages at any time and watch the workers with the tigers, volunteers were now prevented from ever actually being with the tigers (no cleaning of cages, no bathing of babies) and I was only ever really in the same position as the tourists and never able to see how the staff treated the animals when there were no tourists watching them – but I feel that the way the tigers cringed away from chains, lengths of hose pipe, the garden hoe and some of the male staff members, that there was certainly discipline metered out behind ‘closed doors’.

When we did wander around the grounds – three female volunteers – visiting the cages and photographing the animals, we were watched at all times by the monks and senior staff who communicated on two way radios with one another.

Some odd things happened with the animals – we came across wild boars being captured by staff and the cages being loaded onto the back of a truck: we were told that they were being taken to be released at a National Park. Also, four adult tigers literally disappeared from their cages and the temple grounds overnight over a three week period. No explanation was given as to what had happened to them. Coincidentally, the four new cubs have been given the exact same names as those who have disappeared.

In the morning the baby tigers are brought to the temple where we have breakfast and are allowed to roam around with the monks, staff and volunteers. Every time a cub came anywhere near one of the volunteers, a staff member would yank it away, the babies (four of them are really little, 2 months old and one quite boisterous 5 month old – he was tied to a pillar) were pulled around by one leg or held back by the tail, slapped so they skidded across the wooden floor boards, thrown up into the air, their faces held and noses punched, pinched and flicked, they were continuously mauled, teased and tormented.

I have to admit that I couldn’t stand it for very long and stay lasted a mere 4 days! There is a flagrant lack of respect and compassion and certainly no love for these tigers. And this lack of feeling clearly gets worse as the animals get older and bigger and stronger.

Essentially, the animal welfare laws in South East Asia are not stringent enough to close down this establishment due to the cruelty and abuse that is metered out there (along with the illegal breeding - one tigress is kept with the sole purpose of producing cubs - which are removed from her almost immediately after birth and reared by humans). All we can do in the short term is spread the word to stop tourists from supporting this place.

Cricket Ball sized Hail Stones ... and Gorillas!

Rwanda - the Land of a Thousand Hills … and 8 Million Smiles!

I am back home from celebrating my 40th birthday in Rwanda (years too early, obviously) and a week at the Camp, enjoying a cup of "gorilla coffee" (extremely good Rwandan coffee of which I bought 3 kgs back with me!), looking at the wonderful baskets and bitege (gorgeous colourful cloth worn by all the ladies) I brought home (on the plane, like a real tourist - you know like those tourists leaving Johannesburg with a 3 metre tall giraffe? That was me leaving Kigali!), reflecting on the fantastic time we had and writing this to tell you of the magnificence of this country and share with you our wonderful “Rwanda Experience”. (My first week back at the Camp was spent boring everybody stupid with my 400 plus photos of gorillas – which are fascinating to me but pretty tedious to others - I shall now do the same in words!)

This trip was easily the best I have ever been on. This was due (I think entirely) to our fantastic guide, Moses Kirenzi, from ITT. He is calm and capable, respectful and friendly, and a careful driver (especially on those treacherous roads along Lake Kivu!). He is knowledgeable and generous, unobtrusive, kind, great company and a real joy to be around. He kept us entertained and busy, and was willing to divert from our itinerary and spend time at a Market (or two!). He taught us to enjoy African Tea and ibitokye (a wonderful cooked banana dish), was always diplomatic and is very, very funny. He was a joy and we felt privileged that he took us around and shared his Rwanda with us.

We left O R Tambo for our 4½ hour flight to Rwanda, stopping for 45 minutes in Burundi (Bujumbura) and arriving late (10pm – no time difference from SA) in Kigali. We were met at the Airport by our trusty guide, Moses, in his Nissan Patrol and he dropped us off at Hotel Baobab for our first night in Rwanda. This was a very nice, inexpensive way to spend the first night (we only checked in at about 11.30pm) - the staff were friendly and attentive, the breakfast good, the water hot. We also spent our last night in Rwanda there and had a very substantial dinner and another comfortable night. (You need to ask for real coffee here, otherwise you get instant Nescafe.) This is in the middle of what would here be called a township, with tin shacks, little shops, a football pitch, lots of noise and lots of people. Coming from South Africa, this was a bit of a culture shock!

We were collected early the next morning after we’d had breakfast and we headed to the Nyungwe Forest, which is in the far south of the country close to Burundi – it is a full day’s drive as on the way we visited Nyanza King’s Palace, the National Museum of Butare and the genocide memorial of Murambi.

Nyanza was the headquarters of the ancient Rwanda Kingdom before the arrival of the Europeans. The compound has the modern palace constructed by King Mutara in 1934. Next to it is the reconstructed King’s hut as it was on the arrival of the Europeans. It is tastefully decorated with the traditional mats and utensils.

Our visit to the Genocide Memorial was a bit harrowing – there is a mass grave with 45 000 bodies, and a further 1 500 skeletons preserved with lime and displayed in rows and rows of class rooms (this place was the high school in Murambi). There is a man who shows you around called Emmanuel who survived the genocide when he was left for dead in a mass grave with a bullet in his head – he fled to Burundi where he was treated and when he returned home there was nothing left. After this sobering tour we continued our trip to Nyungwe, arriving at our hotel, Gisakura Guest House in time for dinner.

Nyungwe forest is a nature lover’s paradise. The only remaining mountain rain forest in East and Central Africa, Nyungwe boasts 260 species of trees and shrubs, over 200 species of orchids and giant lobelias, 275 species of birds of which 25 are endemic, colourful butterflies and 13 recorded species of primates (25% of Africa’s total) including the Chimpanzees. The forest is ideal for walks with beautiful waterfalls (more of this later!) cascading in this serene environment.

On our first morning we met our guide, Aime, at the ORTPN (like Park’s Board) head office and set out to the Nyungwe forest to track the Colobus monkeys. It was bucketing down, we got soaked through to the skin, even through our boots, and our rain gear was completely ineffective! It was fun to see these black and white monkeys, who played the game quite nicely and sat around in the trees above us so we could see them well.

Gisakura Guest House is a good little place with comfortable accommodation. The staff are friendly and willing. Guests should know that they need to turn the geyser on if they want hot water. This location is excellent for any forest activities – in fact it’s the only place to stay, which is obviously why they are quite capable of bumping their paying guest for the owner’s friends or colleagues to stay there. This actually appears to be commonplace and, whilst we had booked ourselves in here for 3 consecutive nights, our booking was changed to a single night and the other 2 nights had been taken by colleagues of the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who own the guest house.

So after the first night we were booted out and we got ourselves into the delightful Tea Plantation Staff House (which is run as just a B – no breakfast!). This was actually a blessing in disguise because the skies cleared, the sun came out and we had the most magnificent view of the forest (Gisakura Guest House had no view) and we watched the Colobus monkeys playing in a little clearing for the whole afternoon (had we known, we’d have laughed off the walk that morning!!). A nice, clean little house with three bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms – not big on hot water, but they have a kettle in the lounge area (and an iron!) so you can make up some hot water for a “bucket bath”. It’s about 5 minutes drive from Gisakura Guest House and you can go there for meals.

The next morning was an early one because the Chimpanzees are in a “fragment forest” an hours drive from the ORTPN office. We picked up our guide (Claude) at 05.00 and headed out to be there by 6 am which is when they apparently start moving for the day. Due to some bad rains in the last few days the roads were particularly difficult and it took us two hours to get there, so the little buggers had a one hour head start! A group of 45 live in this forest and they are habituated. I had a completely incorrect understanding of what it would be like viewing them – I thought they would be like gorillas which sit around eating and ‘just being’ and you can spend some time watching them. Chimps are not like this at all! They move, swiftly, in the tree tops, and don’t hang around to meet you. We heard them as we entered their forest but, after a pretty grueling walk up and down the mountain and back to the forest floor we only managed to sight just 2 animals sitting at the top of a 50 metre high tree. Not very satisfactory, but apparently this is what it’s like.

That night we were back in Gisakura Guest House and the next morning, my birthday, we had arranged to do a gentle walk to see a pretty waterfall with Aime (I had mentioned that I didn’t want a wet walk like with the Colobus monkeys or a killing walk like with the Chimps and he said that he wouldn’t want me to die on my birthday … aaaah, sweet!). Well, whilst this walk was reasonably gentle, what nobody had bothered to tell me was that some of the tracks were about 30 cm wide with a sheer rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other … and I have a little bit of a thing about heights. I didn’t die on my birthday, but I did cry! By the time we got to see this bloody waterfall I was a complete wreck. We sat and gazed at it for about half an hour while I psyched myself up for the return leg (I would have paid good money for a winch or helicopter … sadly not many around in southern Rwanda). Aime had to hold my hand (because I clung and wouldn’t let go!) and guide me all the way home – I was quite cheerful and chirpy on the way back.

Then we drove 100 kilometres on high, narrow mountain roads to Gisenye on Lake Kivu – I think the main challenge to turning 40 for me was less about facing my fear of ageing and more about facing my terror of heights. I spent the 4 hour drive (100 kms in 4 hours gives you a fair idea of the condition of these very high, very narrow roads … in the rain) wide eyed and pretty mute (unusual in itself), with my heart banging around in my throat as Moses kept veering off the road to “look at the wonderful view and take a picture” – I did not do either of these things.

That night we stayed at Bethanie Guest House on the shore of Lake Kivu. Lovely hotel – we were upgraded to the new and improved version, which is stunning if you like everything super sized - it was also very fancy, very smart and very shiny! Two huge double beds, a gigantic balcony (with a magnificent view of the lake), the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen (still with just a shower, a basin and a loo, with acres of glossy tiles in between!), a giant tv and lots of gilt and brocade and tassels. There was absolutely nothing to criticise about this place, although personally I prefer something a little more African and authentic … which we definitely got the following night when we went to Gisenyi.

We went for the pretty expensive option of a boat trip from Kibuye to Gisenye (which I was seriously chuffed about, as this leg was 97 km and a 5 hour drive on these apparently typical narrow, high mountain roads!). We had met Roger and seen his powerful motor boat that would not have looked out of place in the French Riviera (or the Vaal!) the night before and arranged to be at the dock at 11.00 for our one hour trip to Gisenye for lunch. Moses would meet us there having left early and driven himself and our luggage from Kibuye. As planned we met the smiling Roger on time and he helped us into a little wooden boat with a material roof captained by two other smiling men (no English) and he waved goodbye from the shore as we headed out towards the Congo! We were fine (having accepted that we’d been down graded and there was precisely nothing we could do about it now, with smiles and hand signals getting us through the first 10 minutes) and settled down to enjoy the view (the shore looked about 10 km away – The DRC to our left and Rwanda to the right) and our trip. Behind my sunglasses, I was watching these guys watching the lake (it is vast) and watching one another, and watching us and watching the engine (a 200 cc sewing machine!). All fine until the one switched off the ignition and turned to look at us. I had very realistic and vivid visions of us treading water in the middle of Lake Kivu whilst these guys spluttered off going through our backpacks and grinning maniacally at their spoils of cameras and passports and US dollars. Either this or being sold as umzungu slaves to the Congolese rebels. This was the only time we felt unsafe, and it was really due more to over active imaginations than any real danger. The trip continued in this vein for another 2 hours (!!!!), punctuated with breaking down an additional 4 times and running out of petrol. I have never been so pleased to see land barely managed to restrain myself from kissing the sand as I launched myself off this miniature toy vessel and onto the beach. Moses was already there (obviously!) and directed us to the Hotel restaurant before having a few quiet words with the boat trip sub contractors. We had a nice enough lunch at the restaurant in the very luxurious Kivu Sun Serena Hotel (I was pleased we weren’t staying there, we could have been at any beach hotel anywhere, you find the identical versions in Umhlanga or Plett).

And then off to our accommodation for the night in Gisenye. We had been booked into a place called Ubumwe (against our better judgement) because the agent had told us when we arrived that she felt that this was more suitable for us than the place I had carefully researched and specifically chosen called Paradise Malahide. We went with the agent’s better local knowledge and, we assumed, good judgement. What a disappointment. It is a block of flats whose windows have wooden frames and (I think because of this) they pass themselves off as a Swiss styled hotel! The room was small, dark and dingy and, from our very short encounter here, I would find it difficult to recommend to anyone.

Luckily, we had Paradis Malahide's number with us and we secured a reservation for that night. Thank goodness!! This place is a gem and certainly the best place we stayed in in Rwanda. The very glamorous owner, Odette, and her cheerful and friendly staff were welcoming and caring ... she was there to make sure our dinner was okay (it was, the food is fantastic), saw us to bed and was up, making coffee for us at 4.45, handing over our packed breakfast and waving us off at 5am! I just loved it - this little place reminded me so much of Mosetlha and so I believe (completely objectively) that it should be compulsary for all visitors to Gisenyi to stay there! We recommended it to two other sets of travellers who went there and were also very positive about it.

We drove an hour and a half to get to Ruhengeri and the Kinigi park headquarters reaching there by 7am to get ready for the gorilla trekking. Here you are put into groups of 8 people each, allocated to a guide and briefed on the one of seven groups of gorillas you will be visiting that day (there are other groups, I think three, who are visited only by researchers).

We were lucky enough to be allocated to François. François is, at 52 years old, a veteran guide with 27 years experience. He has been involved in habituating all the gorilla groups on the mountain, he knew and worked with Dian Fossey over five years and is responsible for training all the other guides. He is pretty famous in his own right drops Sigourney Weaver’s name on occasion! He speaks gorilla and has a very special relationship with Gahonda, Rwanda’s biggest silverback weighing in at a hefty 220 kilograms, who he habituated by spending months just sitting with and talking to.

The group we were to meet that first day is called Hirwa, comprising 11 animals: a silverback (who had been in Gahonda’s group but obviously realized he wasn’t going to amount to much growing up in Gahonda’s pretty large shadow!) who broke away and “stole” a one female from each of five other groups, setting up a very satisfactory little harem with five wives and five babies, one for each wife (very neat indeed!).

François came in our car with us (where we plied him with breakfast and grilled him for his wealth of information about the gorillas) and we drove for about half an hour to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, where we met with a bunch of guys who work as porters. They provide you with walking sticks and you can pay them US$10 to carry your stuff. It’s not just charity, it is really good to have someone else battling with your bag whilst you are battling through the forest which can be quite dense and is slippery underfoot. It took us only an hour of walking, initially through cultivated farms of potatoes and beans, then over the wall separating the forest from the farms and into the bamboo forest, before we came across the trackers. Some of these guys are apparently ex poachers who now perform the far more valuable (and probably more financially beneficial – we paid them US$10) task of tracking the gorillas for the tourists to visit. Here we handed the rest of our things over to our porters (water bottles, walking sticks, etc,) and, carrying only our cameras, walked a further 10 or 12 metres and there he was: the Hirwa group’s silverback and leader, my first ever sighting of a Mountain Gorilla, in the flesh, up close and personal. It is at this point that I tend to lose any eloquence I may have once possessed and end up saying things like wow and awesome.

After sitting in a little clearing eating bamboo for a few minutes, he got up and purposefully headed for our little group, brushing past François and nudging him with his hip – knocking us all over like dominoes! (This was just to remind François that “you are zero”, and to assert his superiority over us – we heard him loud and clear!) His wife and baby then joined him – she sat watching us carefully and the baby rushed to his dad for some love and attention which was willingly given. After a little while she started moving rather purposefully towards me and François had to remove my camera case (a tiny Rwandan basket weaved in yellow, green and turquoise, with little tassels) from around my neck … her eyes followed him as he carefully hid it behind his back – she so wanted that bag! Moms and babies came in and out of the surrounding bamboo to be with the silverback and interact with one another. The babies are obviously great fun to watch playing, beating their little chests and ripping up and down the bamboo! We spent our allocated hour (exactly) with this family, and then headed back to the trackers and porters, breathless and overwhelmed by this wow, awesome experience.

The walk down the mountain was a breeze, we dropped François back off at the office and, a few hundred metres from the office, booked into the Kinigi Guest House for the next couple of nights. The cheapest lodging around and on the ORTPN office doorstep, this guest house with good food is perfectly situated for getting to the gorillas. I would recommend this if luxury is not a requirement. One of the other guests we met there was a journalist who had been at a luxury lodge the night before, the new Sabinyo Silverback Lodge - President Bush's daughter stayed there when she visited Rwanda - and he said that the food was the same as Kinigi, and they offered to do laundry at Kinigi which they did not at the luxury one!)

We were exhausted from all the excitement of the morning, but after lunch went to visit Virunga Lodge, another seriously luxurious spot at the very top of a mountain overlooking the Burela Lake to one side and Ruhondo to the other. (Why Moses would think I would want to drive up a narrow, windy high road to reach this lodge, and then look down over the edge of the world, I don’t really know … he had clearly not been paying attention a few days before!)

The next day we were back again for another encounter with the gorillas … I would so recommend going twice; the first time is pretty overwhelming, everybody was nervous, not knowing what to expect, and that hour goes very quickly; the second visit you feel far more confident about what’s happening … and if you’re going all the way there and paying all that money you might as well spend another US$500 for a second visit!

Again we were lucky enough to have François as our guide, and this time to be visiting his friend, Gahonda and the group, Sabinyo. Today our walk was even shorter (only 30 minutes in) and Gahonda did a bit of a show of strength swinging across our group on a vine. This guy IS King Kong. His family is smaller, 8 individuals, but so much busier than Hirwa! I had taken 200 photographs the first day, but only managed about 20 with Sabinyo. They were rushing around in and out of bamboo; the one youngster is particularly naughty and aware of his effect on humans. He would rush at one of us and we would all cringe away (you are not allowed to touch these guys) and he would swagger back, full of his power rush, lie down on his back (watching us upside down) and focus on his next victim … repeatedly. Even the youngsters are heavy when they crash into you. This group had a blackback (pre-silverback status and much younger, he is 13 and Gahonda is 35 years old) who was also keen to let us know who’s boss in the gorilla hierarchy. We would be following the group through the bamboo and he would lie in the way, daring us to try and pass him – which obviously we didn’t - at one stage he came to us and grabbed onto François’ trousers, pulling at him to follow!

Gahonda then apparently received “the look” from one of his wives who was keen for “jiggy jiggy” … they headed off in search of a little privacy which clearly they weren’t going to get, from the rest of the group or from us as we followed and were really quite voyeuristic, getting it all on film! François said is very unusual to actually witness them mating, which makes sense as they are only visited for an hour a day and it doesn’t make sense for them to do it when people are all crowding around watching! That completed our hour and we headed back home.

This afternoon we visited a market in Ruhengeri which was such fun, we bargained for material and were thrilled to be paying about R25 for a metre, and they were delighted with our purchases, saying we’d made their day – we were obviously paying “umzungu prices” with their normal prices probably a tenth of that, but it was such good value for all!

Then on the way back to the guest house we stopped at a sacred part of forest (where, historically, the King was sworn in and where a couple of weeks was spent finalising policy) and where I plan to build another Mosetlha … it is the perfect spot with wonderful big trees (that cannot be cut down according to ancient superstition) and jungle and sparkling volcanic rock. I need to do some research to see who owns it and whether I can build there, little things like that – but I already have the lodge planned, right down to the name (and website address!), the colour of the walls, the staff uniforms and who the manager will be!

The next morning we were supposed to track Golden Monkeys but decided to drive to Kigali for a city tour instead – we had spent a lot of time being rained on and dirty and dragging ourselves through the bush, we needed to SHOP!! Got back to Kigali, had a great lunch at a local restaurant and did another wonderful market (quite touristy and expensive, but lots of great traditional handicrafts and still good value). Later we did the Genocide Memorial of Gisozi.

This is a very beautifully done memorial to the 1994 genocide, telling objectively what happened, why it happened, who by and to whom … harrowing stuff and essential for all visitors to Rwanda. I would highly recommend that you do the city tour when you first arrive in Kigali – it obviously sets the tone for your visit and provides an understanding of what this country went through. I managed to hold it together until the last hall upstairs which is a tribute to the children. Ceiling to floor sized photographs of little chubby smiling toddlers with a plaque detailing their name, age when they died, their favourite toy, their best game and how they were killed. I managed the first photo and fled. Outside there is a huge mass grave (still open for all the bodies they are still finding), a wall of remembrance, and a beautiful garden.

This country is beautiful and green and hilly: the hills are covered with patchwork quilts of differing greens made up of cultivated crops of coffee, tea, banana, avocado, potatoes, beans, cassava; and the people appear to have forgiven (but will never forget) and are properly educated, smiley and busy … farming their crops or making bricks or roofing tiles or charcoal (eucalyptus trees are exotic, grow quickly and burn well). The work being done with gorillas will hopefully keep the species on our planet for many more years … there seems to be a very bright future for this little gem, sparkling deep in the heart of Africa. If you want to go, please let me know and I’ll send you all the details of who to go with, what to take, when to go, where to stay, everything! Get hold of me at caroline@thebushcamp.com or via our website www.thebushcamp.com.
 
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