Hungry hippos and an unexpected detour
The journey continued through Rwanda. Travelling by river is a pretty cool way to see the country and get into some remote regions. Saying that, you are never far away from people in Rwanda. The country is about 26,000km2 with a population of around 12 million making it very densely populated (ranks 4th in the world - UK is 15th and Australia is 100th). Everyone was so friendly, warm and kind whilst simultaneously fairly bemused by what we were doing.
Rwanda is known as being the land of a thousand hills. I think they rounded down considerably. It’s all incredibly green and so beautiful. It is also one of the most progressive countries in Africa. They have worked hard to reduce corruption, make it an easy place to do business, improved healthcare (life expectancy increased 10 years in the space of a decade), made it incredibly clean, worked to reduce poverty and improve gender equality. They have the highest representation of woman in government at over 60% and ranked 6th in the 2018 Gender Gap report which ranks 149 countries by their progress towards gender parity across a number of themes. Australia ranks a disappointing 39th.
There’s masses to do here in Rwanda. You’ve got the large national parks with walks and treks on offer including gorilla and chimpanzee treks. Then you can go mountain biking (check out Rwanda Adventures who have some amazing trips and treks). There's Volcanic National Park and the Akagera National Park with game drives on offer. In the west there is the huge and beautiful Lake Kivu. Kingfisher Journeys can take you out kayaking and canoeing in the crocodile and hippo free waters surrounded by the hundreds of rolling, green hills.
Being a relatively small country it’s easy to get around so you can fit heaps in. Definitely recommend it as a destination to pop on your bucket list. The Financial Times agrees and has Rwanda in its 'Where to go in 2019' list. You can find out more at Visit Rwanda.
Back to the river – this section it was flat. We made our way along the Rukarara River, then the Mwogo before joining the Nyabarongo River, Rwanda’s longest river.
Day 6 on the water I woke up to hear a hippo in the river making its way upstream. Hippos have the fearsome reputation of killing more people than any other animal in Africa and they scare the hell out of me.
It wasn’t too long before we met our first hippos. We managed to make our way round them without any issues. Also spotted a few crocs. I wasn’t sure what constitutes a large croc, but I was assured by the boys that a couple we saw fell into the category of very big...
Then, cruising along, we see a baby hippo. I’d barely got the words, “Where’s Mum?” out, before she popped up and we had drifted between her and bub. She lost it. Came at us huffing and puffing and gave us a big nudge using her head under the raft to seemingly try and flip it. We were frantically trying to row away from her, but she came at us again, determined to do some damage. She sunk her enormous teeth into the back of the raft putting a bloody great hole in it. The boys reckoned if it had been a lighter, smaller raft she would have flipped us. We made it land and leapt out onto the river bank and she backed off. We were very lucky to have come out unscathed.
After offloading and deflating the raft the boys spent the next hour or so patching the hole (thank goodness we had the replacement glue), before we reloaded and put the raft back on the water. I was really scared. Now I’d seen up close what we were up against and this was very early into the trip. I knew this wasn’t going to be our last hippo encounter.
Peter made the call that for future encounters we’d get off the river and tow the raft if we could. While hippos do get out of the water and are surprisingly fast on land, they tend not to during the day. It wasn’t long before we got to put Peter's plan into practice when we came across a huge male hippo.
I’m no hippo body language expert, but the opening and closing of the jaws, snorting, huffing and puffing, jumping up and down and scattering of shit suggested Mr Hippo was not overly impressed by our presence and was moments away from having a crack at us.
We waited til this psychotic display calmed down, slowly towed the raft past and tentatively got back in the water. We were to repeat this routine on multiple occasions, got chased by some and had them pop up in front of us. They are topping the list of my least favourite animals right now.
It meant for some very tense days. From then on I think we had one or maybe two days on the river without seeing a hippo. We also got to sections where we couldn’t get off the river – that scared the crap out of me. One, we couldn’t escape the hippos and two, if anything happened, getting off and getting to help was almost impossible. Fun!!!
Hippos weren’t going to be the only threat on this section. The Nyabarongo River becomes the Akagera River at Rwanda’s border with Burundi and on the edge of Lake Rweru. By now I had the hang of the GPS, but at this point there were multiple channels to choose from that weren’t on the GPS. We asked some local fisherman in their dugout canoes the way.
The directions given just nudged us over the unmarked Burundian border and it wasn’t long before a few guys from the Burundi army came over to investigate. We didn’t have visas for Burundi as the route shouldn’t have taken us there. Even though we had barely crossed the border and it was an unintended mistake, we were instructed to row across the lake.
After padding across the lake we were questioned by the army before the police got involved. After more questioning they decided they wanted to inspect our gear. Everything had to be unloaded and they went through it all with a fine toothcomb, down to the point of opening every box of matches. They were somewhat puzzled by my feminine hygiene products – it was poor Koa who had to explain what they were. Brought me some brief amusement in an otherwise unamusing and somewhat frustrating situation.
By this time there was a huge crowd of at least a hundred villagers watching this spectacle.
Then they said we had to deflate the raft. Not long after that they announced we were being taken two hours deeper into Burundi for more questioning. What the…?! We loaded up their truck. We were on the seats on the outside of this truck with a policeman at each corner holding their AK47s. After 30 minutes we stopped and I asked that we be allowed to change. It was getting cold and dark and we were still in our damp river gear. They agreed.
Then it was back on the truck in front of another large audience – pretty sure they don’t see too many blond, female mizungu’s being detained by the police there.
Got to our destination for more questioning. Questions included asking about our marital / family situations. Mine was clearly worthy of mentioning. One guy came up to me after the questioning and said “I hear you’re single”. “Yes” I confirmed. “That’s shameful” he replied. Whatever. At this point I was tired, hungry and cranky as.
We were taken to a hotel where we had to stay while our fate was considered. The next day was a long, slow, boring waiting game. On the upside it was a chance for me to get to know the boys better - some unexpected bonding time!
Day three of confinement and we were told we were being taken to the Rwandan border to be released. It was a tense time, but we were finally on our way. We pretty much held our breath all the way until we were with the Rwandan immigration who approved our coming back to Rwanda. Joanna from Rwandan Adventures had arranged a driver to come and get us. As we drove under the sign saying welcome to Rwanda we cheered and high-fived.
There were a lot of people working behind the scenes to ensure our quick return to Rwanda – too many to mention here. To all, I am eternally grateful, THANK YOU.
Big smiles as I stand on the Rwandan side of the border!
Another positive from this detour was spending a couple of days back in Kigali to regroup, catch our breath and then get back on the river. When we’d first come here I’d told myself this was somewhere I would come back to. Just hadn’t expected it to be quite so soon.
There was a bit of running around but did get to explore a little. It included a trip to the Genocide Memorial – a moving, heartbreaking and must-see destination for anyone visiting Kigali.
We decided that we would put back in a fair way away from the Burundi border and there were more cheers as we got back on the Akagera River.
The Akagera dips into Tanzania – we had seven days making our way through here. Day one we hit some rapids, including a nice grade five. There was a huge pod of hippos to get round at one point, but for once we weren’t met with an overly aggressive response. Praise be!
One night we were camping very close to a pod of hippos that had required some careful negotiation to get round. We found some cow pens – partially fenced areas. We set up camp and used the rope from my throwbag to form a barrier across the front of the pen. Hippos get out to graze at night – the rope was going to keep them away from us.
Not sure any of us slept that well. We knew we were potentially going to have to contend with them in the morning. They turned out to not be an issue…it was the rapids that were going to be our next big challenge…
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
When 2018 started this trip still seemed like an impossible and far off dream. I can hardly believe I am here and this incredible journey is underway and I am quite literally living my dream. I love being able to share this all with you. And as I always say, it's only possible because of all the help and support I've had from the get go. For all this kindness and generosity I am eternally grateful and feel incredibly blessed to be able to be doing this and following my dream.
I hope you are having a fabulous time over the holidays with family and friends. As you make your way into the New Year and set your intentions for 2019 I hope there are some big crazy goals there.
"There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." Nelson Mandela
Happy New Year everyone and wishing you an incredible 2019!!
Sarah x x