Welcome to Day 70 of quarantine Maui style. Yesterday marked the celebration of Memorial Day and fortunately atleast on Maui beaches are once again open to relax on if it’s a group of 10 or less and there’s no camping or grilling. Beaches everywhere were stockpiled full of families out enjoying the beautiful weather and water which was really heartwarming to see.
In other news, Hawaii News Now aired a live broadcast today with several local sources included a representative from the Department of Labor. He said that Hawaii’s unemployed numbers total 242,000 and the majority of those are tied to the visitor industry. The Department of Labor anticipates that less than half of these numbers will be able to return to work due to job loss or business shutdown. Further they stated that “if we are lucky” we’ll be able to bring back 35% of workers by the end of the year. Using their figures that means that as 2020 nears an end 157,300 people will still be without a job. Hawaii currently stands at having the second highest unemployment rates in the nation and the state is anticipating that it will be 5 years before the number of visitors entering the islands returns to normal.
Meanwhile it’s the third day in a row with no new cases, over 90% of our total cases have recovered and the government is still unwilling to commit to a date when interisland travel will be permitted. Perhaps mid-June they say. As to travelers entering the state it is being proposed that Japan, New Zealand and Australia residents be permitted to travel to Hawaii first after we enter into treaties with those countries. Our Lt. Governor said it’s much harder to coordinate when travel from the mainland will be allowed without the mandatory 14 day quarantine and that visitor arrivals aren’t anticipated to open up at all until the end of September.
Moving on from that doom and gloom, I figure now is as good of a time as any to continue on with talk of that one time when I could easily leave my rock to hop on a plane to Africa. The last time I ventured over to Africa it was to take a trip to South Africa to do a wee bit of sightseeing and spend 2 weeks volunteering at a very large privately owned game reserve focused heavily on conservation. Right up my alley. The flights getting there and back were fairly dreadful and it took me a couple years to wrap my mind around over 30 hours of travel again. Lucky for me this time it actually wasn’t horrible and I just used the 2 layovers as an excuse to pace in circles and give my poor legs a break from sitting 8-10 hours per flight in those cramped planes. The flights did have an usually good movie selection this time around. It’s the little things.
We flew into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda at 7pm on a Saturday night and had splurged for a really nice hotel for 3 nights not knowing what the other accommodations would be like. The hotel sent a driver to pick us up and he was right on time, but asked if we could wait at the car because he was also picking up another guest. No problem right? Well he returned shortly with the other guest who apparently went back and forth from France a lot on some sort of business I didn’t quite understand. His English was exceptional. So much so that within the 15 minutes from the airport to the hotel somehow the conversation got diverted to hookers and some sort of African bugs they have in Rwanda that burrow into your skin without you realizing it. I guess he took one home. The bug, not the hooker. We were very excited to hit the eject button as soon as we reached the hotel!
The first day was a “do nothing on purpose” day so we could get our wits about us and eat a lot. Those Rwandans eat well I’ll tell you that. The food there was absolutely amazing. Fresh vegetables, very healthy options and delicious coffee and desert. Just stay away from their cucumber smoothies – it basically tasted like firewater and made you question your will to live.
Day 2 in Rwanda we had set up a full day safari using Go Kigali Tours to visit Akagera National Park and try to find some lions and elephants ideally. You have to leave the city at 5am and estimated return time is around 6:00pm but we didn’t end up getting home until 8:30pm because of an elephant delay then a major traffic snafu. Our guide was honestly the nicest person we met while in the city. He was born in Rwanda, but then had to flee to Uganda during the genocide with his family only to return years later. Akagera Park was expansive and had tons of ungulates throughout and a troop of baboons not far from the visitor center. The herd of elephants we had our heart set on was at the opposite side of a very marshy plain, but our guide talked two other tour operators into traversing it together so if any of the vehicles got stuck there would be enough people to rock it back and forth until it was freed. I wasn’t super keen on pushing Land Rovers in the bush so fortunately it never came to that.
Day 3 in Rwanda began our departure from the city with Ronald and Kajie Safaris. We spent the morning in the genocide memorial which although it was quite a lot to process I’m very glad I did. It took nearly 3 hours to get through all of the information they offered and all I will say is that not only is it incomprehensible what transpired, it’s even more disturbing that this information was never broadcast in full to the outside world. In layman’s terms it’s really not okay. After finishing the morning at the memorial and having a nice lunch we started the drive north to Volcanoes National Park and had one night at the Hotel Muhabura which is famous for housing Dian Fossey over several years. A word to the wise – watch what you eat in their restaurant…. I’ll just leave it at that. (And you’re welcome!)
Volcanoes National Park is very beautiful and is home to both the Mountain Gorilla and the Golden Monkey. Your trek experience will vary greatly depending on what group you are assigned to and that is dependent on 1) luck 2) age 3) physical endurance and 4) any special requests you may have. I had been hiking here very regularly to get in shape before the trip so I was in hindsight overly optimistic about the lack of physical exertion really required. That all went out the window as I’m sweating crisscrossing through crops and wheezing scaling up the side of a mountain. Rule #1 = bamboo is your friend. I would grab and hold onto the stocks of that stuff for dear life more than once knowing it’s nearly impossible to uproot it and it was really helpful for not falling down a mountain or falling into a gorilla.
Everyone starts the morning at one general meeting area where they have free coffee and beverages and try to make you feel very welcome. They also have western toilets which you should take advantage of because you’re definitely not going to see one the rest of the day. This meeting spot is where the guides haggle over what guests get to see which group of gorillas and groups are limited to 8 humans per family of gorillas for a maximum of 1 hour. We got herded around and matched up with our guide who was very exuberant and excited to tell us all about the family of 23 gorillas we were about to journey to find.
The first alarm bells should have gone off when I noticed we were paired with a professional athlete and his equally in shape wife. I mean I’m an active girl and all, but there’s realistic measurements to everything and I’m not about to meet the pro athlete meter any time soon. The only reassuring part of this was that he was gassed going up that damn mountain too. So ha! It wasn’t just me.
You have a guide who is on the phone with trackers to guide us to where the gorillas are that day. The trackers basically stay with the gorillas 24×7 to ensure their safety from poachers, alert veterinarians in case of emergency and to help tourists reach the gorillas in the most seamless manner possible. You also have the option of hiring a porter to carry your lunch, your camera gear and quite frankly YOU up and down the mountain in one piece. Best $15USD ever spent. Once you get to within a few minutes of where the gorillas are everyone stops and takes out their cameras and prepares to leave our porter (otherwise known as our new bff) to traverse up and over bushes, bamboo and mud to where the gorillas are having breakfast.
I had two cameras on me with different focal length lenses which I wouldn’t recommend doing and I gave up the second camera after the second gorilla trek and just used my 100-400mm lens which I thought was perfect. I also had a handheld Sony camera for shooting video clips. Listen, at $1,500 per permit for all of 60 minutes time with the gorillas I was going to record every last second I could. For such large animals, the gorillas cram themselves in some small spaces! You are pretty limited to where you can stand without sliding down the hill to someplace you don’t want to be so be prepared to bend and turn in some really weird positions and be happy about it.
We trekked with the Amahoro group which means Peace and was named after the dominant silverback because he has such a peaceful demeanor. I was taking photos of him tucked away in the bamboo all of 10 feet away when the trackers insisted that we move up and around the corner. Reluctantly we followed to then be shown a brand spanking new 2020 model little gorilla asleep on it’s mother’s chest in a beautiful nest overlooking the valley. It had just been born the night before and the rangers only stumbled upon it once we had arrived. So just like that the family of 23 grew to 24.
The rangers and guides in Volcanoes National Park were very friendly and very laid back compared to other parks we later visited. We had young gorillas bumping into us while moseying up the trail, poking at our pant legs and coming to play with each other just a few feet away. We were allowed to record and photograph all of this without any issue whereas in other parks it was strictly forbidden to document close encounters such as when a silverback came within a foot or two of my head. There are strict laws that you are not allowed to come within 15 feet of the gorillas, but just as with whales, often the animals have other ideas.
I really loved the time in this park, but I personally won’t go back because the cost of the permit is over double what is charged at the other parks and honestly I just am far more partial to Uganda than Rwanda. I am so grateful though that it all worked out, and especially to be able to have such the lovely surprise of finding the brand new baby. The jungle backdrop with clouds blowing in and out and the experience of being touched and poked by gorillas will likely be burned into my brain for a very, very long time.
The remainder of day 4 was spent crossing the border from Rwanda to Uganda which has to be done on foot. No joke. You have to get out of the car, walk over to a little shed with a person to fill out a bunch of paperwork on the Rwanda side, then they give you the nod to walk past a guardrail to the other side of the dirt street where there were 3 more little stations on the Uganda side to fill out more paperwork and answer lots of the same questions over and over again. You also had to pass through a plastic quarantine tent where you must wash your hands for 30 seconds (no soap available) then have your temperature taken and report any recent travel or sicknesses. I would have taken photos but that was forbidden and I really wasn’t trying to test my luck. We arrived in no time at the next hotel (the Travelers Rest Hotel) where we had a cold (because it wasn’t an option) shower and I started wrapping myself in KT Tape like I was a little mummy. If you don’t know what it is google it – it’ll save your life some day!
For day 5 it was another pre-dawn start to eat breakfast, pack a lunch and go find more gorillas……
To be continued.