My nose was cold when I woke up on our second day in Rwanda. The fire meant to keep our cabin warm had long since burned out and by dawn, the cold mountain air had crept back in. My husband and I changed into our hiking gear as fast as possible and headed back to Volcanoes National Park headquarters. The mountain gorillas had already left a lasting impression. This time we would be tracking a rare species of endangered Golden Monkeys.
The hike was peaceful and mostly flat as we made our way through muddy fields of Irish potatoes. We pulled our socks up over our pants (to avoid “ants in our pants”) and chatted easily with the rest of our group as if we didn’t all look ridiculous like this. One group of ladies from Chicago, who also happened to be staying at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, was particularly lovely. For years the fabulous foursome have left their husbands at home every March and gone traveling to all sorts of wonderful places. For those of you who think mountain gorilla trekking seems a bit too adventurous, consider that the eldest woman in the group is 82. I certainly hope that I am still climbing mountains with such energy and enthusiasm at that age!
Like mountain gorillas, the rare golden monkeys can only be found in the Virunga mountain range that spans Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here, they inhabit the bamboo forests at the base of the volcanoes. Our group, one of two habituated groups of monkeys in Rwanda, was 120 strong but not as easy to spot in the dense forest vegetation as I had imagined.
When they did shyly appear from the rustling branches, with their chubby cheeks, fuzzy eyebrows and golden fur, they were amusing to watch. Some of them sat quietly eating leaves, keeping a watchful eye on the little ones and pretending not to be as interested in us as we were in them. Others chattered noisily and chased each other playfully through the distant trees.
We observed them from the neighbouring hillside for a while before climbing clumsily over a stone wall into the depths of the forest. From there we navigated a maze of tangled branches while the monkeys darted through the tree tops above, dark shadows against the bright sun that had appeared in the sky.
An hour later, we emerged from the forest to find it had turned into a beautiful, warm day. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I tied my jacket around my waist and inhaled the fresh mountain air. Two treks through the African rainforest and not a drop of rain on our new jackets. StuffeeStuff. 2. Rainy Season. 0
We returned to find Isaac, our wonderful tour guide from Churchill Safaris, waiting to take us back to the Lodge. We had time for a quick shower and lunch before leaving for our last destination, the Serena Hotel on the sandy shores of Lake Kivu. Described as one of the great lakes of Africa, it sounded like a nice, peaceful way to end our brief holiday.
I spent the next ninety minutes with my nose pressed to the window, eyes glued to the scenic landscapes and tableaus of daily life that passed by. Fields of garden vegetables and tea rolled into the distant hills, women walked along the roadside with everything from baskets to garden hoes perfectly balanced on top of their heads, children waved excitedly or stared curiously as we drove by.
All the while, Isaac spoke knowledgeably about Rwanda and his home in Kampala, Uganda. As we got closer, he casually said “You will have a nice time at Lake Kivu. You know, we sometimes call it “Death Lake“?”. Wait, what?
It turns out that the bottom of Lake Kivu is filled with compressed carbon dioxide and methane, with more methane dissolved in the deep water than any other lake in the world. The pressure of the water keeps the gasses under control but there is a risk that an unexpected volcano eruption or earthquake could upset the delicate balance. If that happens, Lake Kivu could explode and the 2 million people who live on its shores would suffocate. “But don’t worry,” Isaac said cheerfully. “It is perfectly safe to swim in.”
I’m sure it is. In fact, there were plenty of people swimming in the quiet, serene lake. However, when it started to rain a little, my husband took it as a sign that we should skip the boat cruise (AKA: dinghy ride) that had been arranged for us and we enjoyed the view from the hotel bar instead.
On the top balcony of the hotel, we found a quiet table all to ourselves. And here we sat, drinking beer and intermittently watching the sun set and the rain fall over the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other side of the lake. When it started to pour we huddled in our rain jackets under the umbrella, ordered another beer and watched the lightning flash across the sky, thankful that the heavy rain had waited until now to present itself.
The next morning we woke up at 4:30am to return to the airport. (Thanks to Kenya Airways who decided one day before to cancel our afternoon flight and put us on an early morning one instead.)
Overall, we had a terrific trip to Rwanda. In a brief few days we had an inspiring visit to Kigali, befriended a family of mountain gorillas, tracked golden monkeys through a bamboo forest and relaxed on the shores of an exploding lake. (Although if I had it to do over again, I would skip Lake Kivu and spend another day in the mountains. I could hang out at a hotel by the water anywhere, but trekking with the gorillas or simply spending another day in the unique, casual atmosphere at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge is truly special.)
What impressed me as much as these destinations were the people I met. Each time I watched the men and women perform their traditional dances, their bright smiles and boundless energy gave me the sense that they were really, truly enjoying themselves. I felt the same positive energy in casual conversations. From our guide Isaac who shared many of his stories with us, to our waiter Gilbert who grew up just 3km from the lodge, to the lovely Alice who helped me select a hand-carved statue and some woven baskets in support of the Women’s Project. Despite the country’s tragic history and proximity to the civil war in the DRC, each person I met carried themselves with confidence, grace and a positive attitude.
If you haven’t considered visiting Rwanda, you should.