Rwanda, Uganda, a Rav-4 and Gorillas-In-The-Mist

I boarded flight WB107 from Johannesburg to Kigali on 6 February with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I was paying a visit to clients in Rwanda and Uganda, and although I have visited both these countries several times before, on this occasion, I would travel from Rwanda to Uganda by road, I was driving myself and I was squeezing in a gorilla trekking experience over the weekend in-between! The reason for the seemingly crazy idea of self-driving, was a new contact I was visiting in Mbarara in the south west of Uganda, and the most reliable way to get to Mbarara is by road. Never one to shy away from an adventure though, I could not contain my excitement, so armed with my Garmin with a map of East Africa pre-loaded, as well as an offline Google map of Rwanda and Uganda on my phone, I sat back in my seat on the plane, confident that I was well-prepared for this trip.

My visit to Rwanda commenced with a days’ training with the hearing care professionals at Rwanda Military Hospital. The fact that the RMH driver who collects me from the hotel is a soldier, never ceases to amuse me! For the short 15-minute journey from the hotel to the hospital I always feel a bit like a military VIP being driven around the spotless streets of Kigali. I’m sure after nearly 6 years, he also finds it rather curious that I still have my picture taken with him every time!

   

As I only visit RMH once a year, there is always a myriad of information to cover. Apart from my planned training objectives for them, they also had their own training requests, so we had an early start to a long day of Marvel, Belong, Vitus, Direct Connectivity, Rechargeability, CROS and speech audiometry training. The eagerness of the RMH staff to learn about new technology and to know they’re doing things right, is always such a breath of fresh air!

Upon my return to the hotel that evening, my rental vehicle was waiting, and as expected a left-hand drive, designed for the right side driving of Rwanda. It was going to take some focus to remember to change sides once through the border of Uganda, where they drive on the left side of the road, like us. As the fuel indicator light was already lit, I realised the first few kilometres on the road was going to be a baptism of fire with having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, as well as trying to find a filling station….. fast!

Luggage loaded, I set off the next morning, my offline Google maps successfully guiding me to the nearest filling station and then further on to Buhoma in Uganda. Along the journey to the border I passed several beautifully manicured tea plantations and rolling green hills as far as the eye can see. This journey gave me a true understanding of why Rwanda is fondly referred to as the
“Country of a Thousand Hills”, but probably not nearly as good an understanding as the thousands of cyclists along the road, making a living by transporting anything from enormous bags of charcoal, huge stainless-steel containers of milk and often up to six heavy bunches of bananas, over endless hills and valleys on their rickety bicycles.

Finally, after 8 hours on the road, of which an hour was spent haggling at the border post and another two hours completing the last 30km of dirt road, I arrived at Rushaga Gorilla Camp, dusty, hot and exhausted. The long drive was
however soon forgotten as I walked out onto the veranda and took in the landscape that unfolded before me. Set high on a hill, the lodge has panoramic views of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, famous for being home to the largest numbers of the remaining mountain gorillas in the world. Seeing these elusive animals in their natural habitat has been a dream of mine since I was thirteen years old, and I could now hardly believe I had finally got myself to the place where this will happen.

As excited as a kid on Christmas day, I had difficulty remaining in bed past 5am on the morning of my booked trekking excursion. Finally, at 07:30 I drove to the briefing point where all permit holders are allocated a guide and a group to trek with. I was allocated to the group of Peace, our guide, and we were to trek the Busingye Gorilla family – a family of 11 individuals, with amongst others, 3 silverbacks and 4 babies! Before setting off into the forest we were all advised to tuck our trousers into our socks to prevent the notorious soldier ants in the forest crawling into trousers. This sounded like a potentially very uncomfortable situation, so I duly obeyed. Furthermore, Peace checked we were all wearing proper hiking shoes to negotiate the slippery mountain slopes, had rain jackets, as well as thick leather garden gloves. It was clear we were in for some serious stuff…

After four hours of trekking through thick jungle, climbing the one steep hill after the other, and sliding down slippery slopes covered in mud, leaves and insects, our perseverance finally paid off. We found Family Busingye at the bottom of a hill, close to the river that hugs the perimeter of the Bwindi Forest.

What an incredible privilege to sit quietly amongst these gentle creatures and observe their habits and interactions with each other. Initially I took plenty of pictures and videos, but eventually realised I simply couldn’t capture the experience on film. I just had to “be” there. The family seemed undisturbed by our presence and went about their daily habits as usual – little ones climbing trees and frolicking around, while the adults were mainly focused on gorging themselves on leaves and other plant matter. The hour spent with the gorillas exceeded all my expectations. After more than thirty years at the top of my bucket list, this dream had finally come true!

   

 

 

 

 

It was with contentment that I headed to Mbarara the Sunday morning, where I was to visit a new clinic the following day. After another long day on the road, I reached Nyore Hillside Retreat late afternoon. Set amongst banana plantations in the hills just outside Mbarara, this place turned out to be a true gem in an area where decent accommodation is a rare find. The staff even assisted in finding a vehicle mechanic to fix the brakes on my vehicle which failed just as I arrived at Nyore! Having dinner in the lush gardens that evening, I realised why Winston Churchill referred to Uganda as The Pearl of Africa in his book “My African Journey”. It is a spectacularly beautiful country, right in the heart of Africa.

The clinic visit in Mbarara on Monday didn’t disappoint. Set up by two energetic young ENT’s, Atlas Audio opened their doors about 10 months ago. Though they are facing similar challenges as other new audiology practices in countries where audiology is a relatively unknown profession, Drs Doreen Nakku and Victoria Nyaiteera are eager to make a success of this new venture and showed immense interest in the discussion we had regarding all the services offered by H.A.S.S. and E.T.I.

    

A fruitful trip completed, I finally headed back to Kigali early the Tuesday morning, to catch my flight back to South Africa that evening. The long drive back to Kigali gave me time to reflect on this trip and yet again, I realised how ignorant we often are about Africa. Often regarded as a continent to fear and where one is unsafe, I was again so humbled by the friendly nature of the people and the warm reception I received everywhere. The beauty of these two countries is truly complimented by the people who live there. What an adventure!

Written by Nicolene Rossouw on 27 February 2019