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Posted (edited)

I am about to do something very impetuous and extremely foolish.

 

I am going to try doing two trip reports at once.  With Costa Rica underway, I’m now going to jump off the cliff and start with Rwanda, even though there are still some photos from the trip that I haven’t even looked at yet. 

 

But I am so far behind on my trip reports, I fear if I don’t start now, I’ll still be talking about it this time next year and be even further behind.  (And after these two are done, I’ve still got Brazil from July 2016).  Now, how quickly can I get all this done?  That’s another story.

 

Anyway, as they say, “Crazy is as crazy does.”  Here goes nothing……

 

_________________________

 

 

I am still bemused by the looks of horror from friends and acquaintances when I tell them that we spent our last vacation in Rwanda.  In their defense, most people only know of Rwanda from newscasts covering the savage genocide that occurred there over the course of roughly 100 days in 1994 when nearly 1,000,000 people were brutally slaughtered by their own countrymen, a tragedy later memorialized in the popular and award-winning film Hotel Rwanda.

 

Why, they ask, would I want to go there, of all places? 

 

“That’s easy,” I reply.  Gorillas in the Mist,” recalling yet another well-known movie, this one about the late Dian Fossey and her groundbreaking research on the lives of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. 

 

Then, when they hear of the expense and the trouble necessary to live out this adventure, some of them become incredulous.  “I’d just go to the zoo,” they say, teasingly in most instances.

 

But that one yields an easy response, too, because all of the gorillas seen in zoos are lowland gorillas.  Their larger cousins, the mountain gorillas, have never successfully been able to live in captivity. 

 

There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence, and they can only be found in a very limited range – the Virunga Mountains straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. 

 

For a variety of reasons, I chose to base ourselves in Rwanda for this experience, and Rwanda delivered. 

 

To kick things off, here are portraits of the lead silverbacks from the three family groups we saw:

 

Isabukuru Group:

 

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Umubano Group:

 

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Ntambara Group:

 

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Edited by Alexander33
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The end.

 

Just kidding.  You know I’m far too loquacious to stop there.  But....give me some time here!

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Posted (edited)

Rwanda has much more to offer beyond gorillas, but I can’t deny that the gorillas were the star attraction.  The idea of my seeing mountain gorillas in the wild had lurked in my head for several years when I came across a short report back in 2014 by @BonitaApplebum here on Safaritalk.  One look at his unforgettable photos was all it took for me to get serious about planning this adventure. 

 

Besides that report, and another one from 2009 by @Atravelynn, there wasn’t much on here about Rwanda.  Then, beginning last October, we were treated to a rash of reports, first one by @Zubbie15, then @michael-ibk’s trip from November, followed in short order by tales from @amybatt and @SafariChick about their visits earlier this year.

 

Rwanda seemingly was in vogue all of a sudden. 

 

And, then, just as swiftly came the announcement on May 6 by the Rwanda Development Board of an immediate doubling of the price of gorilla permits (from $750 USD to $1,500).  With that development, one has to wonder if the recent spate of visits to Rwanda by Safaritalkers will slow back down to a trickle.  In any event, we booked our trip in July 2016, a year in advance, and our permits had been purchased at the lower price in effect at that time.  Fortunately, the increase was applied only prospectively, and all permits purchased before the May 6 announcement have been honored. 

 

I’ll discuss my thoughts on this issue in greater detail later in the report. 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Posted (edited)

ah very much looking forward to your report @Alexander33 and reliving my happy Rwanda memories through you!

Edited by SafariChick
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I agree with @SafariChick, I'll read this with interest @Alexander33, especially since I see a couple of familiar faces! :)  I agree with you, it was amazing how many people were horrified that we were going to Rwanda.  Looking forward to more...

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I am about to do something very impetuous and extremely foolish.

 

Of all the impetuous and foolish things one can do, two trip reports registers low on the scale.  But you may lose sleep and forego your social life.

 

Great photos to start!

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1 hour ago, Atravelynn said:

But you may lose sleep and forego your social life.

 

That sounds impetuous and foolish to me!  (But, then again, I'm kind of boring like that.....)

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Excellent start.  Wonderful photos!  I too will be reliving my own trip through your trip report.  I'll be curious to hear how guides and those on the ground are interpreting or thinking of the raise in trekking permit costs, if you had that conversation with anyone.  I've found it difficult to recommend this activity now that the price is so ridiculously exorbitant, even as a YOLO bucket list item.

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@amybatt

 

Thanks!

 

I've definitely got some strong feelings about the permit fee increase, and I think our individual mindsets on this issue are going to be aligned. 

 

However, I've realized that I need to hold off on elaborating further until the end of the report. I'm doing this not to string people along, but because I can't discuss the subject as informatively as I would like without first covering our additional travels in the country.  That will help put things into perspective.

 

The issue is more complex than I first imagined, and it goes beyond just Volcanoes National Park and the gorillas. 

 

Thanks for bearing with me here. 

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Planning Snafus Galore

 

Although we may have lucked out in skirting the problem with the price hike on gorilla permits,

this trip still had an unusually high number of hiccups that I had to deal with in the months leading up to our departure. 

 

Although it was stressful at the time, with the benefit now of hindsight, it’s evident that the workarounds we were able to achieve improved the quality of our trip, even with the added expense.  But it sure didn’t seem like I was having a positive experience at the time.

 

First came news from our travel agent that Nyungwe Forest Lodge, reportedly the nicest lodge in Rwanda and a big force in our decision to visit Nyungwe in lieu of Akagera, was closing for renovations.  Our reservation had been moved to the next best lodging in the area: the not-nearly-as-nice Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel.

 

Since I really wanted to see Nyungwe, we went ahead with the change, but I assuaged my disappointment by deleting one night on Lake Kivu and adding a third gorilla trek (still at the lower permit price).  This was an expensive decision, but, as it turned out, well worth it.

 

Then I really got blindsided. 

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First, in March the U.S. Department of Homeland Security unveiled a hastily executed and very poorly thought-out electronics ban on all U.S.-bound flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports, including Doha, Qatar, our intended point of transit.  The ban definitely included camera bodies, but, literally, weeks passed, and then months, with no clear rule ever being handed down as to whether camera lenses were included. 

 

As our primary motivation for this trip was gorilla trekking, I (dating myself here) couldn’t help but recall visions of those 1970s American Tourister ads.  Anyone else remember those, you know, where they hand off a suitcase to a gorilla (actually a man in a gorilla suit), which then proceeds to beat the crap out of it to show how durable it is? 

 

(These stills are all in the public domain).

 

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Anyway, that’s the vision I had of baggage handlers on the tarmac tossing our checked camera gear into the belly of the plane or offloading it into some contraption for transport to the baggage carrousel.

 

Unwilling to risk the chance of damage to or theft of our camera equipment, we embarked on yet another very expensive change to our itinerary by rerouting our return through Johannesburg and London, where I surmised we likely could avoid the ban.  Because I could not interline a flight from Kigali to Johannesburg with our new return flight home, I then booked two nights at a game reserve within driving distance of Johannesburg to smooth out the process. 

 

As it turned out, an ironic twist of fate at the end of our trip would make me wonder if this “reroute” had somehow been foreordained all along.  (More on that later).

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Posted (edited)

At this point, I thought I had it all covered.

 

Imagine my dismay, then, when in May the U.S. government announced that it “likely” would soon extend its still-vague electronics ban to all European airports, including those in the U.K.  For weeks, we were left hanging.  In desperation and out of frustration, I purchased two hard-sided Pelican cases (the 1485TP model) for all our camera equipment.  While there was no guarantee that these would provide absolute protection for our gear should it have to be checked, they were better than our soft-sided backpacks. 

 

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And then I held my breath.

 

Then, just weeks before our departure, I was stunned to learn of a sudden air, sea and land embargo placed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern neighbors, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, whose air space rights boxed in Qatar’s.  There was a real possibility that if the situation escalated, Qatar Airways would effectively be shut down, and we’d have to find a last-minute (and guaranteed expensive) alternative way to get to Rwanda, which might or might not be covered by our travel insurance.  (That didn’t come to pass, but tension in the region is still high as I write this).  Let’s just say I was sweating bullets up to the moment our plane took off.

 

After all this angst and turmoil, our final itinerary ended up as follows (beginning June 29):

 

Day 1 –   Dallas to Doha (Depart P.M.), Qatar Airways

Day 2 –   Arrive Doha (P.M.); Overnight at The Airport Hotel (airside)

Day 3 –   Doha to Kigali (Arrive P.M.) (Kigali Serena Hotel)

Day 4 –   Kigali

Day 5 –   Road transfer to Volcanoes National Park (Gorilla Mountain View Lodge)

Day 6 –   Volcanoes NP (Golden Monkey trek)

Day 7 –   Volcanoes NP (1st Mountain Gorilla trek)

Day 8 –   Volcanoes NP (2nd Mountain Gorilla trek)

Day 9 –   Road transfer to Lake Kivu (Depart A.M.) (Cormoran Lodge)

               Volcanoes NP (3rd Mountain Gorilla trek)

Day 10 – Second Day at Lake Kivu

               Road transfer to Lake Kivu (Cormoran Lodge)

Day 11 – Road transfer to Nyungwe National Park (Nyungwe Forest Lodge Top View Hill Hotel)

Day 12 – Nyungwe NP (Chimpanzee trek)

Day 13 – Nyungwe NP

Day 14 – Nyungwe NP

Day 15 – Road transfer to Kigali (Kigali Serena Hotel)

Day 16 – Kigali to Doha (Depart P.M.), Qatar Airways 

               Kigali to Johannesburg (Depart A.M.), RwandAir;

               Road transfer to Welgevonden Private Game Reserve (Makweti Safari Lodge)

Day 17 – Doha to Dallas (Arrive P.M.), Qatar Airways 

                Welgevonden

Day 18 – Road transfer to Johannesburg; To London (Depart P.M.), British Airways

Day 19 – Arrive London (A.M.); To Dallas (Depart and Arrive P.M.), American Airlines

 

A special thanks to all of the Safaritalkers who gently supported me as I literally freaked out and ranted online periodically over those last few months.  In the end, we made it through and proceeded to have a life-changing trip.

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Holy macaroni!  I somehow missed that airfare change at the end and didn't realize you were going to S. Africa too (for more than just a plane change).  Wow.  The stress of all this would've killed me!  But...I really do believe everything happens for a reason, so now I'm really curious about how this all played out!

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We Finally Get There

 

Because gorilla permits are limited in number and are often sold out well in advance during the high season, when we were visiting, I had built in plenty of time in our itinerary prior to our first trek as a buffer for any unanticipated travel delays. 

 

We spent our first two nights in Kigali, the first following a late afternoon arrival simply to shake off the jet lag and the second following a leisurely guided day tour of the city, including a visit to the Genocide Museum.  Recent reports by other Safaritalkers do an excellent job of describing the Museum, so I won't repeat all the detail.  Suffice it to say that it was a very moving experience.  I'm glad we started our trip there, because it helped put our experience in Rwanda into greater context.  I still grapple with the horrors that unfolded -- and more frighteningly still, the realization that things like that are possible anywhere, not just in small, faraway nations.  We should never forget nor ignore.

 

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The Requisite Pat-down

 

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Kigali Skyline Viewed from the Genocide Museum

 

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Following an alfresco lunch at the Hotel des Mille Collines (the hotel where over 1,200 people were given refuge during the genocide and the incident that served as the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda), we drove through the streets of Kigali and concluded the tour by spending some time a local market. 

 

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7 minutes ago, amybatt said:

Holy macaroni!  I somehow missed that airfare change at the end and didn't realize you were going to S. Africa too (for more than just a plane change).  Wow.  The stress of all this would've killed me!  But...I really do believe everything happens for a reason, so now I'm really curious about how this all played out!

 

@amybatt

 

All's well that ends well!  

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We arrived at Gorilla Mountain View Lodge early the next afternoon, driven there by the affable Patrick, our driver/guide from Primate Safaris who would remain with us for the remainder of the trip.  After having lunch and getting settled in, we took a privately-guided birding tour, which turned out to be more like a walking tour through the small local village of simple, small dwellings, constructed of hand-hewn eucalyptus logs and packed clay, all of which was occasionally covered with a coating of cement if, we were told, you were “rich.”  At times, we had up to eight curious children trailing us single-file, seemingly fascinating by these tall foreigners who were being led by one of their own.  We didn’t end up seeing many birds, but we certainly had a front-row view of a slice of Africa.

 

The next morning we set off in search of golden monkeys.  In addition to providing another buffer day, this would be an opportunity for us to gauge the physical demands of hiking through the farmland and in the forest beyond the wall that demarcated the national park boundary. 

 

We drove about 20 minutes to the park headquarters, where everyone with a permit for golden monkey or mountain gorilla treks that particular day would gather as they were assigned a group and a guide for their respective activity.  While the guides took care of necessary paperwork, we would all huddle in and around a gazebo for coffee and tea. 

 

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A group of traditional dancers provided entertainment to pass the time. 

 

 

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This would be our routine for the next four days. 

 

Although I had heard some say, in a pejorative way, that the whole experience was touristy, I actually quite enjoyed it.  Look, it takes a little bit of time for everything to be sorted out: pairing up the specific visitors who are there that day with treks they most likely can handle (which themselves are only worked out early each morning), and then issuing the permits so that park officials know exactly who and how many people are in the park, etc.  What’s wrong with using that bit of down time to watch some talented and genuinely enthusiastic traditional dancers while you sip coffee or tea and make last minute adjustments to your gear and backpacks? 

 

All in all, it was well organized, at least from my perspective, and on each of our four days there, we were back on our way by no later than 8:30 AM.

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Although groups for the gorilla treks are limited to 8 persons, golden monkey groups can have as many as 25.  And, as it was high season, that’s exactly how many we had.  I was worried that such a large group might crimp my style, but we stayed close to our guide up front and, as most people were there precisely because they had the same interests in wildlife as we did, we found everyone to be polite and simpatico.  Once we reached the monkeys, I quickly became absorbed with them, and the group size was no longer even a factor.

 

Golden monkeys are endemic to the highlands of the Virunga Mountains and surrounding vicinity, where they feed primarily on the tender, young leaves of native bamboos.  They live in troops of about 30 individuals, and, due to habitat destruction, are now listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List.

 

In order to reach the park boundaries, we traversed through farm land that was cultivated right up to the edge of the park. 

 

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Even though we were lucky to find them in a fairly exposed area, like most monkeys, they are very active and quick, and photographing them, especially in the bamboo that they love so much, was a real challenge.

 

With the bamboo feast at hand, be prepared for lots of shots that look like this……

 

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and this……

 

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and this……

 

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Oh, and like this, too…..

 

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And when the monkeys do deign to show themselves fully, as often as not it will be in an impossibly backlit situation like this……

 

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Ultimately, through sheer perseverance on my part after most others in our group had given up, I managed to nab a few shots worthy of a second look.

 

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As with the gorillas, each tour group is allotted one hour with the golden monkeys, and in seemingly no time at all, it was time to pack our gear up and return to the lodge. 

 

As we would do each day, J. and I each hired a porter to carry our backpacks, which contained camera equipment, bottles of water, snacks, and rain jackets in case of inclement weather.  For $10 USD, plus a tip (we paid each porter 10,000 Rwandan francs, or about $12), we could employ local villagers, some of them former poachers, in a manner that benefitted both conservation and the local economy, not to mention our lower backs and overall energy level.  It was a win-win from our perspective. 

 

As we walked out of the park, and back into the farmland, lagging behind, a very eager young man attached himself to me and cajoled me into letting him carry my camera.  So now I had two porters.  I’m not sure if he was part of the organized collective or not, although none of the other porters seemed to object, and, you know what?  It’s ten bucks, and they need the work. 

 

My soft heart reaped the rewards, as my new porter took the initiative to stop and point out chameleons in the hedges and foliage bordering the trail that we would never have detected otherwise (ID help, anyone?),

 

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In retrospect, I am glad that we did the golden monkey trek first.  As happy as we were to see them, the fact is that they don’t quite measure up to the gorillas.  There were some people at our lodge who did this hike last, as it typically ends up being an easier hike, and, thus, logistically, is a fairly safe bet if one needs to transfer to another area in the afternoon. 

 

But there is no doubt that, for me, it would be a letdown after having seen the gorillas.  By doing this activity first, we were able to use it as a scheduling buffer (as protection in the event our international arrival had been delayed) and to acclimatize ourselves for the more strenuous gorilla treks.

 

Our first would be tomorrow.  My anticipation mounted.

 

 

Edited by Alexander33
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Wow- you got some fabulous shots of the golden monkeys. I trekked them in Uganda and they never left the leafiness overhead so I have maybe one photo of them (lots in my head though). I don't think I knew they did these treks out of the same place in Rwanda (did a couple gorilla treks out of Rwanda as well as one in Uganda). In any case....unbelievable shots of them. I'm impressed :)

 

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Posted (edited)

@lmonmm

 

Thanks very much.  They were certainly a challenge, to say the least!

 

Do you remember which gorilla groups you saw in Rwanda?  And I have a feeling that Rwanda vs. Uganda will unavoidably come up in this report, so when it does, I'd be interested in hearing the perspectives of someone who's been to both.

 

 

Edited by Alexander33

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I wonder if the other 23 or 24 people got as good of golden monkey shots as you did.  To think I complained about sharing the golden monkeys with 18 in Rwanda.   What a great idea to have traditional dancing at the gorilla gathering place.  I saw this at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, but why not bring the dancers to the visitors instead of the other way around.  Regular practice means these traditional dances will be passed down to the next generation.  Nice chameleons too!

 

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@Alexander33  I visited the Amahoro family and the Sabyinyo family (thank you certificates with the names on them :) ).  Hands down the viewing in Rwanda was better than in Uganda. I loved Bwindi, but it is a very dense and thick forest, so aptly named. Had great interactions with the gorillas there, but very few photos as it was so dark (don't recall the name of the group there). The golden monkey trekking was in equally dense forest in Uganda, but the hike was very nice and at one point we could see neighboring DRC during the hike. Kind of surreal. This was in Mgahinga Park. I used Volcano's safaris and stayed at their lodges both in Rwanda  and Uganda with the exception of the lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was an absolutely stellar trip!!!!

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Wow, I didn't remember that you booked the extra couple days near Jo'burg either - I do remember all the worries over the electronics policy though, and rightly so! Shame about the lodge you wanted being closed - I think I remember reading about that one too!  Same thing happened to us with Jack Hanna's place closing for renovations - but we ended up being very happy with our altnerate lodging, which was also a bit cheaper! You got some fantastic shots of the monkeys! Looking forward to hearing how it all plays out.

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what a start to your trip - and you hadn't even began the journey too! I would have thrown my hands up and gave up but your skills at organising and overcoming each are admirable. and it looks like they paid off too. I'll be very interested to read your thoughts on the $1,500 fee, which honestly I would pay up if I wanted to see gorillas, assuming they go back to the local community and the anti-poaching efforts to keep the gorillas safe. the only reason I have yet to go see gorillas, which is high on my list!, is my lack of confidence in my stamina and endurance doing the treks. Like antartica, i have come to terms with the unlikelihood I'll ever go. So I live voraciously on TRs like yours. :)

 

Love those gorgeous golden monkeys, esp the one with the leaves framing its full face. 

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22 hours ago, Atravelynn said:

I wonder if the other 23 or 24 people got as good of golden monkey shots as you did.  To think I complained about sharing the golden monkeys with 18 in Rwanda.   

 

 

@Atravelynn

 

Ha!  I know it may sound like a nightmare, but it really wasn't bad.  Everyone was nice and respectful.  I think it helped that we were in a rather open area and the monkeys were spread out in a few different groups, which gave us some room as well as flexibility in searching out the best photo ops.  If the monkeys had been in a less accessible area, the outcome might have been different. Fortunately, we didn't have to test that theory out.

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21 hours ago, lmonmm said:

@Alexander33  I visited the Amahoro family and the Sabyinyo family (thank you certificates with the names on them :) ).  Hands down the viewing in Rwanda was better than in Uganda. I loved Bwindi, but it is a very dense and thick forest, so aptly named. Had great interactions with the gorillas there, but very few photos as it was so dark (don't recall the name of the group there). The golden monkey trekking was in equally dense forest in Uganda, but the hike was very nice and at one point we could see neighboring DRC during the hike. Kind of surreal. This was in Mgahinga Park. I used Volcano's safaris and stayed at their lodges both in Rwanda  and Uganda with the exception of the lodge in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was an absolutely stellar trip!!!!

 

@lmonmm

 

Very interesting comparison.  Thanks.  

 

Yes, the Amahoro and Sabinyo groups are well-known.  

 

And the certificates!  Our driver guide kept asking us at the end of each trek if we wanted to go to the park headquarters to get our certificates, and I always responded with a, "M'eh." Lunch was more important, and the whole concept sounded kind of cheesy at the time.  At the end of our trip, though, he handed us a manila envelope with all of our certificates in it, and said, "You need these."

 

And he was right.  As soon as we got home, I was so glad to have those as souvenirs.

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