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Rwanda: Mountain Gorillas and memorials

It was not lost on me that anyone I met in Rwanda from about the age of 20 onwards had experienced and survived one of the most unspeakably dark events of the 20th century. Was the man driving my taxi a Hutu or a Tutsi? What was his story? Did he lose loved ones? Did he still think about it each day? What did he see? Did he himself kill anyone? It was impossible not to wonder.

After two days caged in the back of the truck from 5am through until well after dark, finally crossing the border and pulling into our Rwandan campsite was a moment of pure elation. Though possibly not for our poor cook group who had to pull dinner together at 9pm in the freezing cold rain.

Entering Rwanda that morning instantly brought back memories of our early days in Guinea – the people were just so friendly. They could not have made us feel more at home. The big beaming smiles and waving arms were in stark contrast to the welcome I’d expected, given Rwanda’s history.

Making friends and as always, drawing a crowd

We arrived at our campsite at 9pm at night and had our Gorilla trek booked for the crack of dawn the very next morning. We were cutting it a little fine, but we made it. Malaria cases and emergency crew changes be damned!

The gorillas were something we’d been talking about since day one, so we’d had a good six months to build up the experience in our imaginations. Turns out they were every bit as incredible as we’d hoped. We trekked for about two hours to reach Amohoro, our gorilla family, named after the Rwandan word for ‘peace’.

The trek itself was no easy feat. We walked about two hours each way in the intermittent rain, the whole time either ankle deep in mud or pushing our way through stinging nettles. The gorillas are tracked all day every day, so our guide knew exactly where to take us, and before long it was time to leave the trail and head down the mountain. That meant another half hour of trying to balance from tree root to tree root like the graceful gazelles we are not, trying desperately not to slip and break an ankle.

There are few things in this world worth braving stinging nettles for, but seeing an entire family of Mountain Gorillas is definitely one of them! We had 45 precious minutes to sit, observe, and try to pick our jaws back up off the floor, as we watched these beautiful creatures go about their day to day business. We saw a baby tumble turning, up and down the mountain, crawling all over her elders before eventually having a nap on a mate’s belly. We watched as the big silverback, more powerful in person than I could ever capture in my photos, stirred from his sleep and took his place in the middle of the family. We even got a romantic display of…ahem…affection from one of the silverbacks and his lady friend who didn’t seem to mind an audience. Every single moment was incredible.

I left the Amahoro family on a high, breathing a quick sigh of relief that my $900 had been well spent.

Our time in Rwanada was shortlived and after the gorillas we had just one more night before we headed to Rwanda. We headed into town for a long night and morning of dancing in a local club, we discovered a little cafe with real coffee and the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted in my life, and we browsed the local markets delighted to find rosemary among the otherwise standard assortment of African fruit and vegetables. Africa is yet to really truly embrace the herb in its cooking repertoire, so you can understand why a little sprig of rosemary would cause a cook group so much joy.

Our final stop before heading to the border, was the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. A place to learn, to try and understand, and to remember what happened in 1994. What I find truly remarkable about Rwanda is that Rwandans as a whole have not allowed themselves to become victims of their past. Whether it’s in spite of or because of the genocide, Rwanda seemed to me to be a country that doesn’t want to forget, and yet refuses to have their future defined by the past. A country of one people, one nation.

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The Curse of the Tran Africa: a lesson in anti-malarials

When your driver gets recurring malaria driving down West Africa, you think that’s pretty unlucky.

When your TL gets Typhoid with a side of malaria, you think that’s getting really unlucky.

But by the time your East Coast driver gets malaria, it’s almost getting comically unlucky. Though I’m sure poor Nick could thing of a few other choice words to describe the experience.

And so it was, with our third crew victim down and out, that the curse of the Trans Africa 2014 became legend.

We left Snake Park for the Rwandan border like a bus load of excited school kids. And with good reason too, we were off to see the Mountain Gorillas! We only got as far as the Shoprite in Arusha, however, when it became pretty clear that Nick needed to get to a doctor ASAP. He’d been unwell our entire time in Arusha, but had twice been cleared of malaria and had put it down to a bad flu.

Third time tests must be the charm though because this time, not only did he test positive for malaria, but his counts were so high he was told he might not have made it one more day without treatment.

We managed to pin the time of infection down to the dress up party in Lake Malawi, where Nick was coerced into sporting this little number:

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

Great for showing off those pins. Not so great for mosquito protection.

A lot of overlanding crew living in Africa choose not to take anti-malarials because long term use isn’t exactly good for liver and kidneys. But then again, Nick doesn’t exactly walk around dressed like a tramp every night either.

Now being unexpectedly stranded in strange places for days is just a regular part of the Trans, and at any other time we would have welcome the extended visit to Shoprite and free wifi at the ice cream store, but on this particular occasion we had mountain gorillas to see and we only had a few days to get there!

Overlanding family to the rescue! While oasis flew emergency driver Gareth in from Uganda, Acacia Africa lent us one of their own to see us back to Snake Park safely.

With a whole day of travelling lost, we spent two straight days trapped in the back of the truck trying to cover as many miles as possible. We’d wake up well before sunrise, and set up camp well after dark. But we made it!

Poor Gareth. Not only was he thrusted into leadership of our group of riff-raff who’d already been travelling around Africa for over six months, far longer than any of his east coast tour groups. He also copped a never ending barrage of pre-emptive malaria jokes for the two weeks that followed. So imagine how bad we felt when we got word just after he left us that he too was a victim of the Big M. Crew member number 4.

The Trans Africa 2014 curse. Turns out, it’s a thing.