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Africa 2003!

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.

The 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.

Most 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.

I 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 Rwanda!

*Click on Pictures to Enlarge
Kevin Stalder, Owner/Operator
3371 Ubben Avenue
Ellsworth, IA 50075
(515) 836-4659

This site was last updated 07/24/10

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