Africa. My first introduction to this expansive continent was when I was about 3 years old. At night after a long day at work, my dad would pull up a book and read to me. One of our favorites, was Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book." Visiting Africa was always on my bucket list but it always seemed like an impossible dream-- too far away, too much of a time commitment, too expensive, how to choose where to go... it was too much to wrap our heads around and the timing never felt right.
It only makes sense really, that our first trip finally happened thanks to an invitation from our awesome travel/adventure buddies... The Bucket List Family.
The invitation: One week at their favorite TAASA Lodge, in Tanzania, with our favorite people? Heck yeah! We jumped at the opportunity and waited patiently for 6 months till our departure date finally arrived.
We knew that the trip over would take about 24 hours so we wanted to make the most of it and opted for extending our trip for a couple weeks. We would take our twin 15 year olds and knew it would be a trip of a lifetime if we did it right. We did some research and got some great advice from friends and our trip coordinators (I'll include their info below). We had a million places we wanted to visit but we also didn't want to be too ambitious; as you can imagine, everything is VERY spread out. We opted with a whirlwind trip to Rwanda, followed by week in TAASA, and then a very chill, very pampered book end to our adventures, in an Indian Ocean paradise, Zanzibar.
When I asked Jess Gee what her favorite country in Africa is, she answered Rwanda. When I asked Jess what her favorite countries were in the world, Rwanda was in the top 3 (also included: New Zealand, which we did together, and Guatemala.. which OBVIOUSLY is so important to us, too!). So, Rwanda was a no-brainer.
What a perfect example of a place you've heard of but didn't really know very much about it-- like, hardly any anything at all. What I did know of its history was mostly based on a Hollywood interpretation, think HOTEL RWANDA and GORILLA'S IN THE MIST. Not proud of that fact but it's the truth!
Rwanda has a dark past. Over 1,000,000 lives were killed during the Genocide. 1,000,000 lives. Men, women, children-- brothers murdering brothers, uncles murdering nieces and nephews. Neighbors against neighbors, friends killing friends. It's impossible to explain here but the gist of it is that on April 6, 1994, through a series of political events and propaganda, the Hutus called upon each other to systematically massacre the Tutsi population- they almost succeeded. Some reports suggest nearly 77% of all Tutsis were murdered during the genocide, which lasted just 100 days. Over 1,000,000 lives lost in just 100 days.
I knew there was a genocide. I had NO idea so many lives were lost. I also had no idea that Hutus and Tutsis were a class distinction that only began in the beginning of the 20th century, and that members of the same family could be divided by these classes. It was heartbreaking and is still very difficult to understand. Yet what Jess loves do dearly about the people and this nation, is who they are today, and how this past has shaped them to be unlike any other nation in Africa.
When we landed in Africa, it was about 9pm. It was dark outside and yet as we traveled through the streets what stood out most to us was precisely what we DIDN'T see. Trash. No where. The streets were immaculate.
Trash bins were every where and there was no plastic cans or bags anywhere to be seen. We've traveled a lot throughout the world and not one place has ever been as clean as Rwanda. In fact, plastic bags are illegal! We had to dispose of them before we got off the plane. When we woke up, street sweepers were out dusting off the sidewalks. We were so impressed with the palatable pride these Rwandan's had in their country.
After quarantining for 24 hours, we were able to make our first stop: The Genocide Museum. I wouldn't recommend this for anyone 8 years old or younger probably. It was absolutely worthwhile and educational but what we saw still haunts me. Much like the Germans I've met, the Rwandans are not shy about talking about their past and the horrors that occurred. They are simultaneously ashamed yet proud of where they are today. Today, they are a unified people. I heard many tell us, "We are one people. We speak the same language. We eat the same food. We share the same blood." Once the genocide ended, families and friends came together in what must be the greatest peace offering of modern day-- all has been been forgiven.
They celebrate the end of the genocide every year with posters and music and celebrations. There are mass graves throughout the nation that are covered in flowers-- the lives lost are not forgotten. They are honored by all and a reminder of what can happen to a nation divided. I was moved to tears many times during our visit.
As we drove throughout the highlands to our next location, I asked our driver if he had family that he had lost from the genocide. Solemnly he answered, "I lost my 2 brothers, my father and my mother. Everyone lost someone. Everyone." I thought of this throughout the 4 hour drive to the Volcano Lodge. Every inch of Rwanda had been affected by the Genocide. No one was spared. And yet here they were, a new nation united with a contagious hope for better times ahead. You could see it in everyone's eyes. No one was forgetting about the Genocide. It's talked about all the time as a teaching tool and as a warning. Children in the street playing soccer never experienced the horrors, yet they knew about it, had been taught it early on, and loved their neighbor unabashedly.
The drive to the Virunga Lodge was truly beautiful. I kept thinking the whole time how much it reminded me of Guatemala. The topography is very similar- very hilly, rich volcanic soil with greenery everywhere, and yes, volcanoes looming over beautiful valleys. It's here in the Volcanoes shadows that the Silver Back Gorilla's live with their own families. We were headed to Volcano National Park , staying on the safer Rwandan side.
The roads were well maintained and were paved the whole way until about the last 10 minutes where we climbed atop the hillside to our lodge-- which was breathtaking. The views. The food. The staff. Never have I ever been awakened by a morning serenade with hot chocolate and biscuits! Thank you, Daniel! Can't say enough about this place. We highly recommend it for anyone looking for the most peaceful setting before taking on quite possible the most adrenaline filled adventure hike of you life.
After a good night's sleep, a huge and filling and delicious breakfast, we got our gators on our shoes, and went on the road. You have to be at least 15 to trek with the gorillas so we were thrilled that the twins could come with us. Would we find the ONE family of gorillas that also had twins? We could only hope!
After a 15 minute run down on what to do and what not to do when we came up on the gorillas, we began our trek. Your guides will determine your fitness level and see how long you want to hike for and look for the right gorilla family for you accordingly. We lucked out and hiked for 6 hours through potato fields, seeing local farmers, and then through thick bamboo forests. Eventually when the terrain got really hilly and the bush, especially thick, our guides took out machetes to clear a path (that disappeared as soon as we walked through).
We found our gorilla family after about 2.5 hours of hiking but the time went by so quickly! We had to keep our eyes out for hill buffalo which are DANGEROUS so that definitely kept us busy. The guides ahead found the family and gave us about a 2 minute warning to put our masks on and leave our walking sticks and backpacks. We took a deep breath, rounded a corner, and there they were.
Sitting in a thicket of stinging nettle (which they love to eat), was a gorilla family: Father Silverback, mother with baby, and 2 rambuctious teenagers frolicking around while the rest lay peacefully eating and napping. It was surreal. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. We had an hour to watch them and were prepared to grunt back and avoid eye contact if we needed to! Time flew as we watched them go about their day. I think what surprised me the most was how serene it all felt. They were in their backyard, not one bit afraid of us, mostly ignoring us, knowing we were there to watch them and adore them. It was truly magnificent.
We left them after taking hundreds of pics and video and spent the next few steps trying to understand how lucky we were to experience these beautiful creatures in the wild. Not for long though. We didn't take more than a dozen steps before we were surprised by two mid-sized gorillas hiding behind a bamboo bush-- the twins! We found them! One even pounded his chest ala King Kong and all my maternal instincts escaped me-- I tried to bolt! Lol. Worst. Mom. Ever. The guide snagged by back pack, assured me everything was fine, that they were just playing with us-- and kindly avoided shaming me for abandoning my children.
What a morning. What a day! What an adventure. Typically these tours have 8-10 guests but because of Covid, we were able to have it be just us and our two friends so it was magically intimate and couldn't have been more amazing.