In 2003 I was scheduled to visit Kenya and Tanzania on a
5 star safari with zoo keepers and wildlife biologists that I used to
work with at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Illinois. A "situation" in the
Middle East, Iraq to be more specific, heightened the concerns of some
that were planning to go, and they felt it was better to wait until
things calmed down a little before making the trip to Africa. I was
heart broken, and figured I may have to make a different plan if I were
ever to see the Dark Continent.
A couple of months after the postponement of my safari,
I was working with Dr. Miller on a dove project and started talking with
a friend of his from Rwanda. I had met Claver Hategekimana before and
enjoyed talking with him. He was a student here in Iowa and was heading
for graduate school in South Dakota that fall. I explained my sad
situation to him and laughed that he would just have to take me to
Africa. He smiled and said, casually, "OK".
I was of course serious about my offer to pay for his
plane ticket in exchange for him to by my tour guide and for room and
board in Rwanda. It wasn’t long before plans were being made, and we
would meet in Newark, New Jersey before heading to Rwanda. It would be a
long flight and my travel took me from Des Moines, Iowa to Minneapolis,
Minnesota to Newark, New Jersey to Rome, Italy to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
to Entebbe, Uganda and finally to Kigali, Rwanda. It was a grueling 37
hours of travel and about 11,000 miles just to get there ( 49 hours to
travel back). Talk about exhaustion, I had it.
While in Rwanda we visited Akagera National Park. This
park is in the North East portion of the country and is on the western
edge of the Serengeti Plain. The wildlife is less
abundant than in Kenya, but no less spectacular. Most of the remaining
elephants in Rwanda can be found here, and there were numerous Giraffe,
Hippos, Impala, Zebra, Buffalo, and other classic African species that I
had always dreamed of seeing in the wild. Birds were abundant, and to
me, as spectacular as the large mammals. The 700 square mile park was
all ours on the days we were there, and we only saw one other tourist
vehicle in those three days.
We also visited the Southwest corner of Rwanda and
tracked wild Chimpanzees in the Nyungwe Forest, a remnant of the Congo
Rainforest. The steep slopes and dense vegetation added to the intense
humidity made it a trek that was nearly impossible, but one that I will
never forget. The chimps were mostly difficult to see, except when in
the trees (sometimes directly overhead), but their hoots and screams
could be heard for great distances. Amazing! I loved every minute of it!
The last park that we visited, buy certainly not least,
was the Parc National des Volcans (Volcanoes National Park) to see the
world famous Mountain Gorillas. A hike up the side of Mt. Sabyinyo into
the 30 foot tall bamboo gallery forest produced the "Sabyinyo Group" of
Mountain Gorillas! This group of nine animals took a break from feeding
to relax while us less hairy primates sat slack jawed in amazement that
we were in their presence for precisely one hour. When our time was up
they moved off to continue their day of feeding. Mountain Gorillas are
the largest of the world’s primates and arguably the most endangered.
There are about 385 remaining in this isolated volcanic region of
Africa, which is the ONLY place in the world they can be found. Sitting
15 feet from a 450 pound silverback gorilla is a breath taking
experience that cannot be explained. Incredible. Check out the pictures.
wildlife of Rwanda was incredible, but it is the people that take up
most of the space. 8 million people inhabit a country the size of
Maryland, and to suggest that they are a little crowded is an
understatement. I was touched on a level I didn’t think was even
possible by the poverty and simplicity of Rwanda’s people. So many, live
on so little.
people, especially children, were curious about what "Muzungu" (the
white man) was doing. I often perplexed them with my interest in things
they had absolutely no interest in, especially wildlife and birds.
Children asked Claver if I had a "special chemical on my skin that
allowed me to catch lizards and frogs". More to the point, was
there something wrong with me that I wanted to capture these things?
They had never seen anyone do anything like that before. I took
advantage of their curiosity and one afternoon incorporated the children
in a frog hunt paying them for each frog they captured safely and
released after I photographed them. Maybe Muzungu is a little crazy, but
we had a great day and the kids wound up with enough cash to buy a Fanta,
Coke or candy bar. I could never forget them.
A visit to a high school in Gitarama, Claver’s home
town, allowed for a dialogue between myself and about a whole classroom
full of Rwandan students. Although they had taken many classes learning
English, they had great difficulty understanding my Midwestern accent
(Hmmm?), and my Kinyarwanda and French are non existent. Two
translators, one for each language were used to ask and answer questions
back and forth between myself and the students. It was perhaps, at least
to me, a few of the most important hours I have ever spent. Certainly,
it was a wonderful afternoon.
made some very special and interesting friends in Rwanda and continue to
correspond with them and keep up on current events. Theogene Ruzindana,
is an accountant in Kigali and a friend of Claver. He accompanied me on
my Gorilla adventure and went with Claver and I on the Akagera safaris.
During this time he developed an interest in wildlife that he really
hadn’t thought much about before my visit! I enjoyed the time we spent
together and hope someday he will make it to the US and I can show him
what we have to offer.
I hope you will enjoy the pictures and stories from