Susan wanted to see mountain gorillas, and to ride in a balloon above the plains in Uganda. That’s why, one slightly snowy Friday evening in January, we boarded a plane for Kigali, Rwanda, via Doha, Qatar and Entebbe, Uganda. It took about 20 hours, but was comfortable, as such things may be. Qatar Airways was very efficient. Only a few signs of its Islamic affiliation: the (very good) food was “prepared according to Islamic principles,” the screen display gave the direction of and distance to Makkah (Mecca), and passengers were advised to stay in their seats while praying.

Many us associate Rwanda with the terrible genocide of 1994. It was precipitated by a single violent event, the downing of an aircraft carrying the presidents of Uganda and neighboring Burundi. But it was not a spontaneous outburst. Roadblocks were immediately established and the killings began. In three savage months, close to a million people died. Twenty-five years later, the country seems amazingly tranquil. Will it stay that way? Some would argue that the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry is ancient and enduring, but its intensity is recent. They are virtually the only two groups in the country, and they have a common language, Kinyaranda. The Belgian colonizers exacerbated the differences by (not always accurately) issuing identity cards to each group. These days it is impolitic to inquire whether one is Tutsi or Hutu. Just say “Rwandan.”

We were met at the airport by Eric, our young driver/guide for the next eight days. On our first ride through Kigali I made the following observations:

Rwandans are very dark;

They are very good-looking, especially the young women (also the men, Susan adds);

Motorcyclists always wear helmets;

Bicyclists never do. Bikes are oftwen used to ferry loads, pushed rather than ridden.

Kigali, population about 1.1 million, is currently a lovely, hilly city. Traffic is manageable (this will not last). There are museums; the one indispensable visit is to the Genocide Memorial. It is not an uplifting site, but an indication of how openly the country is confronting its recent terrible past.

We stayed at Heaven—actual hotel name—in an upscale part of town. It is the creation of an American Jewish couple, now living there with their three children. (See Josh Ruxin, A Thousand Hills to Heaven) A few hundred yards uphill is the Hotel des Milles Collines, famed for its sheltering role in the genocide (see the film Hotel Rwanda). It is now an extremely luxurious place, with a giant swimming pool frequented largely by white people.

Soon we were heading northwest to the mountains, with Eric driving the land cruiser. The roads were well paved at first, then dirt of varying bumpiness. By noon we had reached the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge. (The area is full of such places, including inevitably the Villa Gorilla.) We had lunch during a downpour, the heaviest of the entire trip. But as it lasted only an hour, we were able to have our scheduled canoe trip. Apart from the guide, there were three other canoes: for two British couples (from Kent) and one from Kigali, the only local tourists we encountered on the whole trip. The canoe were durable, the river cloudy with a slight downward current. The shores were very green and lovely, with occasional wildlife. There were only two disruptive incidents:

Early on, when were out of sight of the other canoes, a young teenage boy jumped in the water and grabbed the stern of our vessel. I shouted “no” and “hapana” (Swahili), but he was not deterred for some time. Near the end these was a mild rapids, which gave us little trouble. But it was followed by an extremely low bridge. Here Susan, who was in the bow, takes up the story: “I was sure I was about to hit my head on the bridge. So I suddenly leaned back and to the side...” That is how I ended up in the river.The water was warm, but over my head. I grasped the edge of the canoe and was eventually helped to shore, very wet, by some local men, posted by the canoe company for just this purpose. It was more fun than falling off a camel in the Gobi Desert.

Early the next morning we headed up to Karisoke, site of Dian Fossey’s famous gorilla research activities. Her story, culminating in her brutal and unexplained killing in 1985, has been told many times, as in the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist. She was an extremely difficult woman, without whose efforts the mountain gorillas might not have survived. Our guide was the flamboyant Francÿaoois Bigiramana, who had guided many clients, including Ellen DeGeneres and Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame (twice). Francÿaoois provided graphic explanations of toilet functions, permissable and not. Our first hour was across gentle open slopes that had been cleared for agriculture. Then, abruptly at a stone wall, we entered the rain forest. The trail steepened, and I realized that I was growing older. That has been true since I was born, but the process has accelerated. I was often out of breath during the next uphill hour. Then the angle eased, but the footing got worse—unavoidable mud. Each step felt like two. This is the time to note that the forest was wild and beautiful.

Shortly after noon we entered the site of the Karisoke buildings that Dian Fossey had established. Nothing remains. Every stick has been looted. But you can see the grave of Dian Fossey and of a number of gorillas.

The following day we had an easier trek—about an hour and a half—to see the golden monkeys. These small, quite rare creatures jumped about and ignored us while we photographed them.

Onward south and west to Lake Kivu, the eighth-largest of the great central African lakes. Unlike most of the others, it is free of bilharzia, so you can swim in it. We did. We also took a small motorboat to Peace Island, home to imported monkeys. One visited our boat for a feed. We had a short walk-around, with a good view of Napoleon Island, so named because it has the shape of Napoleon’s head gear.

Our accommodations were highly aesthetic—a hill-side bungalow just above the lake.

Drive back to Kigali for another night at Heaven, then fly farther back to Entebbe. My first visit to Uganda since 1967. Doubtless the place has changed greatly, though memory fails me here. From now on we were in the care of Natural Habitat Adventures, which is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund. We had signed on first for a private trip north to Murchison Falls National Park. Our splendid driver Edward took us there in a land cruiser—an eight-hour trip. The roads north from Entebbe and around overcrowded Kampala were excellent, but after a while dirt took over. Murchison Falls is quite unlike Niagara or Victoria, in that it is not broad. Rather, the huge flow of the White Nile is forced through a rocky gap only 23 feet across. Then it roars and boils some 150 feet through a rocky chasm. We viewed it from the top—spectacular and scary. In the 1950 film, King Solomon’s Mines you can see Deborah Kerr lounging in this spot. On a later day we approached the falls from the bottom, on a 20-person boat. This was spectacular in a different way, though the boat had to turn back a mile away because of rocks.

We were staying at Paraa Lodge, a luxurious place with a big swimming pool. To get there, we had to cross the Nile on a small car-carrying ferry. The ferry may not be around much longer, as a bridge is being planned nearby. Oil has been discovered in the region, which causes great apprehension for the future of the park. Already new roads are being built that threaten park land.

It was in the park that we attained one of our prized objectives—a balloon ride. This required a 6:10 morning departure from the lodge and a long drive as the sun rose. We found a big parti-colored shape sprawled on the rough plain. In charge was David, a Ugandan who had spent seven months balloon training in Luxor, Egypt. (The balloon company, the only one in the park, is Egyptian-owned.) He had to qualify first as a commercial pilot. We had faith in David, but we weren’t so sure about the balloon. The idea was to heat it up with blasts of fire, so that it would rise, as balloons are supposed to. The problem was the wind—-it was gentle, yet strong enough to push the inflating balloon sideways. After the second failure, I was ready to return to the lodge. But the third try was a triumph. After being instructed on how to assume the “crash position,” we climbed into the small basket. Up we went, and for the next hour David gently glided us over the plain, spotting wildlife. We stayed only a few hundred feet above the ground. When we dipped too far, David fired up the heat.

After the jolt of landing, we were driven to the river for a “bush breakfast.” It wasn’t very bush: two liveried cooks at a counter making omelets, just for us.

We took another Nile boat trip, this time away from the falls. It began at 7:15—no late starts on this vacation—and lasted nearly five hours. We saw many strange creatures in and out of the water, and in the air. Only some of the birds took notice of us and fled. To the delight of bird-watchers, we did spot a shoebill, an elusive, nasty stork-like bird.

Edward drove the land cruiser back to Entebbe, but we were not in it. With three other passengers, we took a single-engine chartered plane. It took a lot less time than the drive would have.

Now we were ready for our final adventure: Natural Habitat’s “Great Uganda Gorilla Safari.” Our guide was Paul Karui, a Masai from Kenya who had become a Uganda resident. We had two land cruisers, one driven by Francis, the other by the redoubtable Edward. We were 11 clients: American, plus one Canadian. I was the oldest as usual, but not by much—only two years senior to a fellow Harvard grad. One of the eleven—Catherine, the Canadian—had not appeared by departure date. No one know where she was. Addis Ababa perhaps, or Newark or maybe her starting point, Montreal.

A long drive west brought us to our first stop, Kibale National Park. We stayed two nights at Ndali Lodge, where we told not to walk around at night, as unspecified wild animals might be doing the same. The lodge is beautifully perched on a hill above a small lake. It is owned by a Belgian and his Ugandan wife, whose parents live in our Brooklyn neighborhood. The following morning we took a “swamp walk” along the margin of forest and corn field. Monkeys jumped out of the forest to grab corn stalks. In the afternoon we went on a chimpanzee walk that revealed few chimps. Back at Ndali we found the elusive Catherine. She had spent two hotel nights in exotic locales: Addis Ababa and Newark. And the next morning we found a whole bunch of chimpanzees.

On to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here we took our best boat trip, on the Kazinga Channel between Lake Edward and Lake George. Elephants, profuse, walked majestically along the far bank and cooled of in the water. Hippos were abundant, although usually only their backs were visible, like rubber tarpaulins. We saw one on shore, walking by a bunch of people who ignored it, as it did them. This despite the hippo reputation for being very dangerous on land. An occasional crocodile slept on the river bank.

We were approaching the climax of the entire trip: mountain gorillas. There are only about 800 of them, all in the Congo-Rwanda-Uganda rain forest. They live in family groups, averaging 20 or so, and move around, building new nests every night. Only the professional trackers can find them. They might be some distance up the mountain. Ever since my breathless performance at Karisoke, I had been anticipating the gorilla trek with apprehension. Some accounts described five hours of muddy uphill slogging to reach them.

Here’s how it goes: all you tourists assemble early morning at the park headquarters, for a briefing. You are wearing hiking boots, gaiters for the mud, and perhaps work gloves for the nettles. You are divided into groups of eight, and you each select a porter to carry your (rather light) day pack. You may also, as we did, hire an extra porter ($20 each) to push and pull you if necessary. Only now do you have a sense of where the gorillas might be that morning.

Off we went. There had been little rain, so the rough paths were not muddy, nor were they rocky; they were crossed by tree roots and occasional fallen logs, however, so you did have to watch where you were going. The nastiest part was a couple of short but slippery stream crossings. The gorillas must have been sympathetic to my infirmities: they were away less than an hour and half of nearly level walking. As you near them, the trackers take over the guiding, and you stay very quiet. The gorillas are neither carnivorous nor aggressive, but they can be very intimidating, weighing over 400 pounds. NOTE: the families that you visit have been “habituated” to human presence—a process that takes a couple of years and can be hazardous at first. But once habituated, they pay you no heed. You are supposed to stay 25 feet away from them, but sometimes they approach you (don’t let them snatch your cell phone). A medium-sized one casually crossed the path where we were standing and wandered oblivious to the other side. Their main morning occupation is eating leaves, on the ground and in trees. Unwise to stand beneath one of them, lest you become a toilet.

Viewing time is strictly limited to one hour, but we were granted a second day. I won’t try to describe these amazing creatures, but our photos should give you an idea. Actually viewing them requires various commitments. One is financial: an hour’s gorilla-viewing costs $1500, the funds needed to protect the fragile rain forest habitat. Nor is western Uganda the easiest place to get to. And you must be prepared for early mornings.

The gorillas were the trip’s climax. Now we needed to fly back to New York, far away. The first part was a charter flight, two small planes to return the group to Entebbe, where we chose to spend a final night. Our flight was scheduled to leave for Doha, and thence JFK, the following evening. We learned that it would depart several hours earlier, in order first to go back to Kigali. That increased our travel time to nearly 24 hours. But it got worse. We were late leaving Entebbe. We didn’t arrive at Doha until about 1:00 a.m. Flights from Kigali land several miles from the terminal, requiring a bus ride. At the end of it we and the two other passengers headed for New York were met by a Qatar Airways representative who led us on a sprint to the New York boarding gate. Too late. The next flight—at least it had space—was six hours away. There was no airport hotel. Well there was, but it was full. Other hotels were too distant to be practical. But there were couches in the lounge. But they too were full. We found refuge in a nearly full “quiet room,” which was fairly quiet and had recliners. We were no longer so pleased with Qatar Airways. By the time we reached a snowy JFK we had been going 30 hours.


We saw lots of other animals, including:

—wart hogs (abundant);
—lions (sleeping in trees; they ignored us;
-hyenas (nasty beasts);
—water buffalo;

Political outlooks:

Rwanda: as noted, President Kagame is extremely though not universally popular. He has been in power since 2000, and—alarmingly—could remain there until 2034. The internet has many references to the reconciliation process. Note: the last Saturday of every month is devoted to country-wide community projects.

Uganda: a much bigger and more diverse country than Rwanda. Its post colonial history has been turbulent, especially in the reign of the notorious Idi Amin. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, has held office since 1986 and is contending for a seventh term. He may be opposed by the musician and activist, Bobi Wine. When asked whether to country their country will remain peaceful, many Ugandans will only say “Maybe.”

Update, March 9, 2019:Rwanda has closed its border with Uganda. This is bad for both countries.

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