I will also post a link under the Rwanda Forums section. This is a long report, so apologies in advance! My husband & I spent a lovely 11 nights/12 days in Rwanda & Uganda from April 28-May 9, 2013. We had been to South Africa & Tanzania in the past, but previously had never been to these countries. I reached a milestone decade birthday & used it as an excuse to check one of our “bucket list” items of seeing the silverback gorillas off the list! The gorillas were amazing, but we saw & did so much more than that & the trip exceeded all of our expectations! Below is a run-down of our trip. I will post pics later – am trying to figure out how to use flickr & am not the best at technology! Maybe within the next couple of days?
After doing probably 100+ hours of research & contacting several tour companies, we decided to book a private tour with Primate Watch Safaris (“PWS”, www.primatewatchsafaris.com) about 9 months in advance of our trip. They were super responsive from the get-go & prices were really good. We are soooo happy we went with them – their execution of the trip was flawless – from pick-up at KGL at beginning of the trip to drop-off at EBB at the end. Our driver/guide, Ben, was awesome & a wealth of knowledge & he became our friend. We would recommend PWS without reservation.
Day 1 & 2 – Kigali, Rwanda – lodging Hotel des Mille Collines – we used these days to have our bodies adjust (we flew from Chicago & spent 24 hrs in Paris on the way over) & in case luggage got lost, could be put on the next flight into Kigali 24 hours later. My husband’s luggage did not make it & unfortunately, 2 weeks later, still has not made it back to him. Anywho…minor blip in the big scheme of things! We visited the Genocide Museum (highly recommended – very sobering experience & no visit to Rwanda would be complete without it) & the Inema Arts Center. Inema is a new art gallery housing all local artists & is active in supporting the community. There are also rooms with artwork for sale by orphans & a local women’s group (purses, Rwandan baskets, jewelry, etc). We bought a painting & souvenirs here. We also hung out at the hotel bar drinking excessive amounts of Primus & Amarula! : )
Days 3 & 4 – Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda – lodging Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge (will write separate review later). This lodge was probably my favorite of the entire trip! Of course, the highlight here was seeing the gorillas at PNV! After awesome performances by Intore dancers at the park entrance & waiting a little while for the torrential downpour to end (it didn’t!), we set off to hike to see the Agashya group. After 2.5 hours in the rain, we reached them. Amazingly, it stopped raining just before we reached the gorillas. And the gorillas – WOW WOW WOW does not even begin to describe the experience! The gorillas were in a large clearing, so everyone was able to view easily instead of jockeying for positions to view or having trees blocking the view. The silverback charged us once, but veered off before reaching us. It was a big group, complete with babies, which are the cutest furry things ever!!! I loved watching them pound their chests, tumble around & huddle together in the grass. The hour just flew by. After taking some pics & video, we just observed & soaked in the experience.
Days 5 & 6 – Bwindi, Uganda – lodging – Mahogany Springs. Really gorgeous lodge – kind of the Ugandan counterpart to Sabyinyo. We hiked around 2.5 hours to the Habinyanja group. That forest is pretty impenetrable! Much thicker foliage & steeper than PNV. The poor silverback, Makara, had been previously injured in a fight the day before w/ an unhabituated group & as a result, was very weak & the group seemed depressed. The good news is the gorilladoctorsblog.org website said he’s since been treated by a vet & should be on the road to recovery. I loved seeing the gorillas gnawing on trees & my favorite was the tiny little baby climbing all over his mama. After our hour was done, I cried amazed & grateful tears that I got to experience this once-in-a-lifetime experience twice!
Days 7-9 – Queen Elizabeth Natl Park, Uganda – lodging – Ishasha Tented Camp (S. Sector) & Mweya Lodge (N. Sector). We knew there was only a slim chance of seeing the tree-climbing lions – we hoped to see one, but didn’t expect it. We saw one!!! It was a female, just napping in a tree. So amazing! We also saw a leopard, which I understand is also a rare sighting in QENP. To be honest, the other wildlife viewing was not as jaw-dropping as Tanzania or South Africa, but we were highly entertained nonetheless. We saw a big herd of elephants (complete w/ tiny baby!), a ton of kob, waterbuck & buffalo, warthogs (w/ 3 babies), Nile crocodiles, hippos, many different birds & baboons, among others. We really enjoyed the boat trip on the Kazinga Channel – perfect weather, relaxing, good animal viewing. PWS arranged a surprise candlelit birthday dinner w/ Mweya Lodge complete w/ cake & champagne. It was so thoughtful of them & I was so touched. Wow, I am starting to tear up just writing this!
Day 10 – Kampala – lodging – Kampala Serena Hotel. We spent almost the entire day on the road – almost 8 hours & got to Kampala around 5pm & didn’t have a chance to do anything that day. But the hotel is truly lovely & was an oasis in the middle of that big city!
Day 11 – Ngamba Island – lodging – Ngamba Island Tented Camp. As primate lovers, we went here for the chimpanzee forest walk experience. As with so many things during this chimp, it was unforgettable. The chimps here (47 or 48) were all rescued, most from horrific situations & will probably never be able to be released into the wild & be accepted by other chimps, so they will have to remain here for the rest of their lives. During the forest walk (1 hour), chimps wanted to ride on our backs & one held my hand during a rest & groomed me. I think he wanted to be my boyfriend! Their hands are amazingly like our’s & their eyes are so wise. It is obvious that the caregivers there really love them.
Day 12 – before our 11:30pm flight out of EBB, we got a day room at The Boma in Entebbe. It was nice to swim & lay out by the pool, take a nap & read a book & shower before the long journey home.
I can’t use the word “amazing” enough to describe our experiences during this trip. I totally broke my previous record of # of times crying during vacation – not sad tears, but happy/touched/amazed /I-want-to-stay-just-one-more-day tears. The two countries, their people & the quantity & quality of unique experiences are special. We want to thank the many people on Tripadvisor who have helped us plan our trip – you all provided us with great tips & invaluable information!
Some of our tips:
• Hire porters for the gorilla treks! I can’t stress this enough. I work out regularly & run several ½ marathons/year & still thought it was difficult at times – it was so muddy & slippery with steep uphills/descents. Only 3 of our group of 8 at PNV hired porters & our porters helped everyone. About ½ of our Bwindi group hired porters. Besides carrying our bags, they pushed/pulled us uphill/downhill & I’m not sure we could’ve done it without them. And tip them well. They are worth it.
• Gorilla trek attire –I wore hiking boots. My husband’s hiking boots were in his lost luggage so he had to wear tennis shoes, but he was OK. Though it was hilarious having him show up to the PNV trek in blinding white brand-spanking new shoes purchased in Kigali! Gardening gloves was key in PNV – the stinging nettles are really, really painful & there are a lot of them! We did not really need the gloves in Bwindi as not many stinging nettles there. PNV was cold – I wore a tank sports bra, long-sleeve shirt, rain jacket & pants & still was a little cold. Bwindi was much warmer – just wore the tank sports bra & hiking pants & was comfortable. Wear long socks you can tuck into your pants b/c there are large biting ants in both countries in both PNV & Bwindi.
• Road conditions – can be really bad. Due to flooding & landslides or large trucks getting stuck in the mud & blocking the road, some were nearly impassable. One group of Swiss tourists had a 6 hour detour getting to the Ishasha camp. So though distances between 2 places may seem not very far, it will take a long time. The roads into & out of Bwindi were bad, as were the roads from the Southern to Northern sectors of QENP. So allow for long road times in your itinerary. We played music from my iphone to entertain us (though I can imagine that Ben got a good chuckle out of my off-key singing & propensity to dance in my seat!) & I can luckily fall asleep in anything moving as well, no matter how bumpy the ride!
• Currency – both countries take USD (and I think EUR) along with their local currency. If you use USD, the bills have to be printed 2006 or later in Uganda & must be in pristine condition. Would recommend getting small denominations of whatever currency you choose for tipping/buying souvenirs, etc. b/c it is difficult to exchange for small denominations almost everywhere. We worried about how we’d get UGX once we crossed over from Rwanda & PWS advanced us UGX & we reimbursed them the advance in USD at the end of the trip. Kigali & Kampala have a lot of ATMs but not in between, from what I could see. Most of the upscale lodges take credit cards.
• Language – the official language of both countries is English & most people you will encounter will speak English, but did get to practice my high school French of long ago in Rwanda (some hotel staff & people on the streets are more comfortable w/ French) & with some Congolese musicians in Uganda. Seems like some people in Uganda speak Kiswahili, which was also fun practicing (took week-long lessons in TZ six years ago).
• Weather – we went during the traditionally rainy season, so it was great that we got significant discounts on some lodging due to that! It rained almost every day, but other than the downpour that plagued most of our PNV trek, the rain magically seemed to clear up whenever we had an activity!
• Safety – not an issue at all at any point during our trip. As in any country anywhere in the world, just use common sense & you’ll be fine.