We interrupt this service…

26 04 2010

Anyone who has been looking at this blog regularly will have noticed that over the last couple of weeks the number of posts has slowed dramatically. That’s because we’re now working on a project in Butare, rather than just bumming around on holiday, and so free time has been pretty limited.

The project we’re helping with is Inzozi Nziza (“Sweet Dreams”), Rwanda’s first ever local ice cream shop. Officially we’re working for a non-profit venture called Blue Marble Dreams, which is the brainchild of the people behind Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn, NY. The mission, put simply, is to “explore the potential of ice cream to inspire joy and spur economic growth”. Which is a pretty nice mission, we reckon. In the case of Butare, it means providing a collective of local women with English and computing lessons, then opening a business that will provide a sustainable, lasting benefit to the women who work there, and the community as a whole.

The shop is due to open at the start of June, so this is a really busy time for the project manager, Nikki. When we arrived in Butare a few weeks ago she was juggling a million responsibilities, including teaching English lessons to around sixty women, organising the shop fitout, hiring staff, preparing a marketing strategy and supervising construction of plumbing, drainage, and important things like that. So she’s been rushed off her feet, and we have a couple of months to spare in which we’d like to do something to help… so we go together like mint and chocolate chip.

Right now we’re teaching English…

I'm either conjugating verbs or writing out the line-up of Liverpool's 1986 Double winning team... can't remember which

Either way, it's going down a treat

The students sit, enthralled by another English lesson / texting their friends* (*delete as appropriate)

We’re also taking on some of the marketing, which begins with a brand, spanking new blog. If you can, please take a look around, post some comments and generally help us to build up a pre-opening buzz. Over the next few days I’ll provide links to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, so keep an eye out. We’ll still be posting bits and pieces on here, but it’ll be a case of when we get the chance, rather than all the time.

Sweet dreams, everyone… x


Things I’ve seen that I want never to forget 4

12 04 2010

There was so much that was incredible and unforgettable about Nyungwe Forest National Park that I could write about it forever. To save us all some time, I’m going to keep this mainly to pictures, which I think tell most of the story anyway.

We kicked off with the Waterfall Trail, which is around 11km, departing from Gisakura. From here you walk through the edges of the tea estate to the beginning of the trail itself. Even on this introductory half hour or so, the views were spectacular, looking north to Lake Kivu, with glimpses of Idjwi Island (part of the Democratic Republic of Congo) behind.

Idjwi (the landmass just visible in the mist) is apparently the second largest inland island in Africa, and the tenth largest in the world. So there. Don't say this blog isn't educational

Me with our guide, Robert

We’re usually a bit reticent about hiring drivers or guides because we prefer to do things at our own pace and stop to look at weird things along the way. But in Nyungwe you have to have a guide with you, and we struck gold with Robert. Not only does he know Latin names, common names and folklore surrounding every plant, animal and bird in the forest, but he also has an informed opinion on the merits of everyone on the fringes of the England squad. He’s a great guy to have along on a walk.

The rainforest lived up to all possible expectations.

The forest makes you realise that the word 'green' covers many, many colours...

...and here, trees aren't just things that grow - they're places for everything else to grow, from creepers to funghi, mosses to vines

We made exceptionally slow progress; there was always something wondrous to stop and gawp at

Predictably enough, the Waterfall Trail ends at a waterfall. The night before our walk, it had rained hard all night. As a result, the noise was thunderous and the air seriously wet as we approached the falls.

In fact, we really were blessed (if you like loud noise and getting soaked) – Robert told us it was biggest he’d ever seen the waterfall. And yes, he’d seen the waterfall a lot.

The obvious question to ask about the photo above is what we’re pointing at. Well, the conversation went pretty much like this:

Robert: (indicating the point right by us where the water from above crashes into the pool below) What do you think would happen if you fell in there…?
Simon: You’d get very clean.
Robert: No, you’d die.

There was me thinking it was a trick question.

And these were the photos that I wasn’t going to post, because I figured that it wouldn’t be a good idea to let Jess’s mum see that I stood by while her daughter climbed a very wet rock next to a potentially lethal waterfall:

On the way back, we achieved our secondary goal of seeing monkeys without having paid for any expensive primate tracking. We saw Dent’s mona and red-cheeked mangabeys. However, the downside of not paying for the expensive primate tracking is that the primates aren’t habituated, so you don’t get close enough to get decent photos. Mainly you see branches bobbing up and down like crazy as the monkeys run away from you, with the odd glimpse through the leaves of something looking at you very suspiciously. But on the upside, these are wild, wild monkeys and you still get to hear their amazing noises (especially the mangabeys, which tweet loudly like birds).

The next day we took the pink trail, which is shorter than the Waterfall Trail but a bit more up and down, so probably of a similar (or harder) difficulty (NB none of these are difficult, this is just relatively speaking.)

The pink trail offers breathtaking views across the forest

It's also called the Umoyove, or mahogany, trail... and this is why

Halfway through, we stumbled upon some mountain monkeys (also known as L’Hoest’s monkeys), which like to walk around the ground and were using our trail when we encountered them. They quickly scarpered to the other side of the river and watched us from there. Again, we didn’t get any great photos, but the next day we saw one by the road, and it obligingly posed for a portrait.

Mountain monkeys have a red back, a white beard and, bizarrely enough, red testicles (not pictured)

In the end, part of me wished that I could forget Nyungwe. It would be the perfect excuse to go back…

Nyungwe Forest National Park

3 04 2010

Before we visited Nyungwe, it was a bit difficult to find information about it, and the place has been going through some changes since the Bradt travel guide was published, so this is just a few bits and pieces that might be helpful to visitors.

Assuming I’ve got the hang of posting pdfs to a blog, you can see the current park fees by clickinghere. They’re pretty self-explanatory, except possibly for one thing. We weren’t sure whether paying for something expensive (e.g. primate tracking) for several days would also grant you to access to other, cheaper things (e.g. nature walks) during the same period. It doesn’t, so if you want to do two days of chimp tracking and one day of nature walks then that’s what you pay for, so it works out quite expensive if you stay for several days but want to do different things each day. We opted for three days of nature walking, figuring that we were bound to see some cute and fluffy monkeys along the way. We were right, though the monkeys weren’t habituated, which means they will run away when they see/hear you coming – but you still get to see them, and we felt it was all a bit more authentic, somehow.

We visited Nyungwe in early March, which meant we were there just before the improvements came online (typically). The new visitor centre at Uwinka, built with USAid money, looks pretty impressive:

The new visitor centre should be open by the time you read this

We also saw work in progress on the new walkway that will give you views of the canopy:

Work in progress on the new canopy walk

It should make for quite a gentle nature walk, without the gradients and soft ground that make other trails at Nyungwe harder work than they should be. Didn’t look quite so gentle or pleasant to work on, though:

And when it’s finished, it should look like this:

Artist's impression of completed canopy walk (from Uwinka tourist info)

All this – the new visitor centre, the canopy walk and some other minor changes – were scheduled for completion by the end of March. It might have slipped a little bit since then, but most things seemed fairly close, so it shouldn’t be too much later.

Gisakura Guesthouse

24 03 2010

After deciding that the Gisakura Tea Estate wasn’t for us, our next stop was the better-known Gisakura Guesthouse (sometimes called the ORTPN Guesthouse, because it’s next to the ORTPN office and used to be part of it).

The beautiful setting of the Gisakura Guesthouse

A fairly spacious, very clean double room cost 25,000RwF (£28), with two toilets and showers shared between three rooms. Best of all, the showers actually had hot water, whereas everywhere else we’ve stayed since Kampala a month ago promised it had hot water, but actually didn’t.

If you’re staying in Nyungwe on a budget, there aren’t many options. The Tea Estate is quite inconvenient; to stay at Uwinka camp site in the heart of the forest you need your own food (which basically means you probably need your own car too as there aren’t many shops around). The Guesthouse is comfortable, not too pricey, and it’s convenient: you can buy your park permit from the adjacent ORTPN office, and the excellent waterfall trail departs from here. The habituated colobus monkeys are nearby, too.

Most people – unlike us – who arrive at the Guesthouse seem to have a driver with them. This is useful, because there’s only one member staff who speaks much in the way of French or English, and she is often away in Kigali. Luckily we didn’t anything too complicated. Meals have to be booked in advance, and are ridiculously hearty. Breakfast (included with the room) consists of a giant vat of porridge, an omelette, three or four slices of toast with jam, peanut butter and Nutella, and some fruit. Trying tracking chimps after that little lot. The “light” lunch option is a giant vat of soup and three toasted cheese sandwiches – each – while dinner (and the “not-so-light” lunch) is an epic sequence of stewed beef or fish, rice, peas, chips and fruit. For this reason, the staff think you slightly strange if you eat three meals a day; we did anyway, because (a) we were going on long(ish) walks, (b) our biorhythms are accustomed to eating three times and, erm, (c) we’re on holiday.

The Guesthouse is set in some lovely gardens, and there is even a thatched area at the end where there is a campfire every night. We were very happy with an easy schedule of walk in the morning, sleep or relax in the garden in the afternoon, stuff our faces, fall asleep.

Thatched camp fire area visible in the foreground - good for drying off clothes if you're unlucky on your walk!

There’s even some nature that comes to see you while you’re blogging.

Vervet monkey


Getting to Nyungwe, and the Gisakura Tea Estate

21 03 2010

This post is just about how we got to Nyungwe National Park from Huye/Butare, and staying at the Gisakura Tea Estate. It’s probably not that interesting for anyone reading from casual interest; however, we were a bit worried about the journey worked and couldn’t find all that much information, so I thought a few details might ease the minds of anyone attempting the same journey.

We’d been staying in Butare, and the plan was to catch the Sotra bus from here to Nyungwe. We weren’t entirely sure this was possible; it was, but it’s worth knowing a few facts beforehand.

Firstly, we nearly didn’t secure a seat because we just turned up on the day. Of all the bus companies that operate from Butare, Sotra is the only one that runs to Nyungwe. The buses originate in Kigali so they can be full by the time they get to Butare. We were originally told that there was no space on any of the buses that day. Bizarrely, after we’d been around all the other bus companies and returned to Sotra to book tickets for the next day, we were told that it was now possible. Bear in mind that they don’t over-fill their buses here (this isn’t Uganda) so it’s very possible that all tickets can disappear in advance.

The bus from the centre of Butare headed, worryingly, back in the direction of Kigali. Luckily, it turned out that this was just to drop us at the petrol station at the edge of town, where we could pick up a bus on the main Kigali-Cyangugu route. So far, so good.

The drive to Gisakura, on the western edge of Nyungwe, is truly, truly beautiful, but at the back of our minds there was the worry that no-one had seemed to totally understand that we wanted to get off at the park, and not continue right through to Cyangugu. But there was no need to have worried – I think they understand that white people typically want to see the park, and not some slightly manky town on the DRC border. So they stopped first at Uwinka, which is the main campsite and point of arrival for visitors here, expecting us to get off. We shouted Gisakura and the bus rumbled on (or rather slid on… they call it a rainforest for good reason).

Because it is the cheapest place to stay in the area, we wanted to stay at Gisakura Tea Estate Guesthouse. Note: This is not the same as Gisakura Guesthouse, which is where we stayed for the next few days and we’ll come back to in a later post. The Tea Estate is seriously no frills, and is marked by a sign saying ‘Gisakura Usine a The’ on the left-hand side of the road, about five to ten minutes’ drive from the exit to the park. Our bus driver thought it pretty bizarre that we wanted to stay here, but stopped happily enough.

From the road it’s about a 15-minute walk (with bags, anyway) to the guesthouse, which is tucked away just past the roundabout. I don’t have any pictures of the guesthouse itself, but here’s the road leading up to it:

The Tea Estate Guesthouse is just past the roof you can see in the distance

The Tea Estate Guesthouse is basic. It cost 10,000RwF (£11) a night for a double room, with attached toilet/shower. Basically, if you have a car and you’re really on a budget (a strange combination, but possible, I suppose), then it’s probably fine. But if, like us, you’re reliant on public transport, then it’s pretty inconvenient, because it’s so hard to get anything to eat. According to our guidebook it’s possible to get food from the tea estate canteen, but it was (very) closed up when we got there. There aren’t any shops in the vicinity – they’re about 25 minutes’ walk away – and the only other place to get food is the Gisakura Guesthouse, which I suspect wouldn’t feed you if you weren’t staying there. So the rooms are cheap (a little bit cockroachy, but at this price that kinda goes with the turf), but you’re totally stranded, and if you’re walking/hitching back here after 6.30pm, you’ll need to do so in the pitch, pitch dark.

Great views of the tea, though.

Things I’ve seen that I hope never to forget 3

19 03 2010

Sometimes things affect you when it hasn’t occurred to you that they might, and Nyungwe National Park was, for me, one of those things. For the record, it’s the largest mountainous rainforest in Africa, and I suppose what surprised me was this: I think, in my mind, I’d decided that I would probably never in my life see a rainforest. I mean, I’m not the kind of person to seek out a terrain that I generally associate with leeches, giant spiders and hacking through undergrowth with a machete. So to sit on a bus watching this incredible, just-how-you-imagine-it landscape roll by, knowing all the while that you’re going to have days to explore, made my eyes go kinda watery.

Our first glimpse of Nyungwe National Park

Almost as impressive, when we reached the other side of Nyungwe, was Gisakura Tea Estate:

That, my friends, is a lot of tea

For someone who drinks so much tea, it suddenly seemed strange that I’d never seen the stuff grow. It’s very green.

A few days later I ended up watching England/Egypt in the staff common room of the tea factory. That was a strange experience, although I suspect it was at least as strange for the workers as it was for me. Not my fault there is no other satellite telly in the vicinity of the rainforest…

An orphan’s tale

18 03 2010

While travelling in Rwanda we met a boy called Cloudy, and this is his story. I don’t want it to come across as a begging letter, and nor do I want to dissuade anyone from helping if they’re inspired to do so. This is just a story – one of many – from a part of the world that has had more than its share of pain, and it may be instructive for those of us who have been lucky enough to escape such misfortune.

Cloudy was born in 1991. Like many Rwandan Tutsis, he wasn’t born in Rwanda. His parents fled from persecution in 1959 and so Cloudy was born in Kasese, Uganda. His father was a soldier who joined the unsuccessful RPF invasion of Rwanda in 1990. In 1994, Cloudy’s mother and father returned to save their compatriots from the genocide, leaving Cloudy with neighbours in Uganda.

Cloudy later learned that both of his parents were killed during the massacres. Soon he was living on the streets in southwest Uganda, attending school when he could, begging or working to support himself. But Cloudy was lucky; in his teens he received funds from American sponsor, which allowed him to gain a diploma in computer studies.

Cloudy returned to Rwanda in 2007 and enrolled at the National University of Rwanda, Kigali, to study computing and telecommunications. Two years into his four-year course, his sponsor died; Cloudy had to quit his education, leaving him with few prospects. He is unemployed, though off the streets for now. His school fees, the amount he now needs to complete his studies, are just 500,000RwF a year (£550).

What struck us about Cloudy wasn’t just the misfortune of his story. His eyes are wet, even now, when talks about his loss; his voice still wavers. Rwanda is a country where post-traumatic counselling is scarce, and what resources there are must be allocated to the most serious cases, the very many children and adults who witnessed unthinkable atrocities – rape, torture, mass killings – during the genocide. For young people like Cloudy, life is just about getting by.

In a video testimony at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, one woman talks about losing her family. She says, ‘When I was with them, I was safe from everything. I was even safe from the thunder.’ For orphans such as Cloudy, the pain isn’t just from the death of loved ones; it’s from the fact that the very people who protect you as a child and shelter you from the evils of the world are gone forever. From an early age you know just how cruel the world can be, and you know that you’re on your own.

There are no guarantees in this part of the world. There is no guarantee that, even as a graduate, Cloudy would find work. There is no guarantee that, facing his demons alone, he will have the mental or emotional strength to fulfil his potential. But if anyone wants to contribute some or all of the fees Cloudy needs, I have his contact details, and you have mine.