Dark Heart Safari

This journey into the heart of Africa offers moments of wonder in the presence of our biggest cousin – and makes you question your very humanity. Justin Fox explores western Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

Gorilla by Justin FoxThe gorilla turns from his meal of bamboo shoots and glares at me. He’s a monster, three times bigger than an average man. His eyes, soft amber, bore into me as if asking a thousand questions, or maybe just the big question separating the two of us.

I’m mesmerised, staring through my lens and pressing the trigger almost continuously. But then he grows in size, his eye filling the whole viewfinder. I lower my camera. He’s striding straight towards me, with a hunched and swaggering gait. ‘Back off, don’t look him in the eye!’ shouts my guide, but we are pressed against dense foliage: there’s no way to get out of his path.

The silverback grabs the guide and shoves him aside, then brushes past me, heading for two baby gorillas that have materialised behind us. My heart pounds and I’m shaking like a leaf, but my whole being is elated. I’ve been touched by a big, hairy angel!

A tale of two rifts

As it leaves Ethiopia, Africa’s great Rift Valley splits. The eastern arm extents south from Lake Turkana through Kenya and Tanzania via the soda lakes, Masai Mara and Serengeti. The western arm runs through Uganda via lakes Albert and Edward, then through Rwanda’s Lake Kivu before opening into the wide gash that is Lake Tanganyika in western Burundi. It was my intention to try to explore both of these rifts, with an emphasis on the western arm. Intrepid Tours runs a 16-day trip out of Nairobi that takes in gorillas and chimpanzees, and follows almost exactly the route I wanted. Abandoning any thought of doing the journey on my own, I opted for a group of merry overlanders.

We arrived in a sweltering Nairobi just before the long rains. The air was heavy with promise; thunderheads built each afternoon, but not a drop had fallen yet. Our truck was of the large Mercedes variety, comfortable, with plenty of storage space for tents, food and camping equipment. The Intrepid group was a mixed bunch of young Australians, Brits, Danes and a lone South African – me. We had a driver, a cook and our leader, who was a tall, dignified and unflappable Kenyan, Lelei Jonah Kipkenei.

Piercing the eastern arm

A mere 50 kilometres west of Nairobi, the A104 drops into the Rift, an enormous valley with steep sides, it’s floor dotted with lakes, volcanoes and plains teeming with game. The sight is elemental, quintessentially East African. It’s in and around this Rift that our ancestors became truly human. Down on those plains, we learnt to stand on our hind legs, walk long distances and perfected the use of tools. This Rift ushered in a split in the evolutionary path, away from our primate cousins, and it’s here that many of our greatest leaps in evolution took place.

The truck descended into the valley and rumbled past lakes Naivasha and Elementaita – hazy mirrors swathed in the pink of countless flamingos – before halting for the night at Lake Nakuru. Our two-person dome tents were pitched in a semi-circle round the lorry, the cook set to work on supper and the rest of us headed off on a game drive.

Although a small park, Nakuru didn’t disappoint. The game densities were staggering. Driving round the lake’s rim, we threaded through endless herds of buffalo and common waterbuck; Rothschild’s giraffes and Thompsons gazelles were dime a dozen, while black and white rhinos had regular walk-on parts. Colobus monkeys were a first for everyone and the Intrepids were practically climbing over each other to aim their long lenses out the windows.

The bird life was, of course, remarkable. From a lookout point, the lake appeared to be blighted with red tide. It was only upon closer inspection that we could discern individual flamingos. As we drew nearer, the pelicans, storks, stilts and spoonbills among them became apparent, dotted in a sea of pink. Hyenas, whose diet had become distinctly fowl, roamed the water’s edge, looking for opportunities.

Back in camp, for some Intrepids it was their first night in the African wild. They were nervous. The barking baboons and whooping hyenas didn’t help. Juma’s spag bol went down quickly, then camp chairs were drawn closer to the fire. The Australians, jet-lagged and lariumed up to their eyeballs, nodded off at a moment’s notice. The Danes – straight out of a European winter – already looked like lobsters, the sweat pouring off them. But we’d all acclimatise, no one would be eaten, a team would be forged, no worries mate.

An audience with chimps

Climbing out of the Rift, we continued west, crossing the border at Malaba. After the dry and dusty browns of Kenya, the lushness of tropical Uganda was like a balm. Every patch of land was cultivated and piles of green bananas lined the road. The towns were ugly, polluted and rundown, but everywhere were markets bright with life, music, colour and mountains of fruit. To the west, the countryside grew increasingly green and comely. We were heading for the Ruwenzori Mountains on the Western Rift Valley … and an appointment with one of the world’s largest remaining groups of wild chimpanzees.

From our camp on the edge of Kibale Forest National Park we could see the Mountains of the Moon, rising like a grey bulwark in the west, a 100 kilometre-long block of rock thrust up during the development of the Rift. They’re Africa’s tallest range and mark the border between Uganda and the DRC.

Our tents were pitched on rolling lawns below a colonial bungalow surrounded by tea plantations. It was an enchanting spot. The two Danes, both of them zookeepers, had regained a more muted pallor and were feverishly photographing every creature they could find. They terrorised the tree frogs and kept snapping the black-and-white-casqued hornbills until they flapped off in irritation.

Early one morning, we mustered at the visitors’ centre in Kibale Forest for a day of chimpanzee tracking. After a briefing on primate etiquette (the forest is home to 13 species of our cousins), we were divided into small groups and moved into the forest.

Soon we were enveloped by Kibale’s dark interior. The ground was a bed of leaves; great stems stretched to the sky. The forest’s architecture was spellbinding: flying-buttress root systems, hoary bark that looked like stonework and a lofty roof of shingled leaves. The foliage leaked an earthy musk. Soldier ants criss-crossed the path in vast regiments, unseen birds called from walls of green, enormous muddy footprints spoke of forest elephants. In the dappled glades, butterflies of every hue flashed their brilliance like disco lights.

Up there, somewhere, we heard the cousins. A glimpse of vervet, the crashing about of olive baboons, the flash of a grey-cheeked mangabey swinging between branches like an acrobat, the inquisitive face of a red-tailed monkey peering down at us as if from an apartment window.

After a few hours of trekking, our guide received a call on his walkie-talkie. A troop of chimps had been found. We rushed to the spot and settled under a behemoth fig tree to watch the show above our heads. The apes paid us little attention as they sat squeezing fig juice into their mouths. With the falling fruit, urination and defecation from on high, an umbrella was almost in order.

Then, in response to some silent instruction, the chimps descended and ambled by, hardly giving us a glance. We pursued, crashing ineptly after them, slipping, tripping and getting tangled in vines. One ape stopped, shimmied up to the fork of a tree and regarded us, but soon grew bored with our antics with binoculars and long lenses. With a jump and a swing to the forest floor, he disappeared.

I thought of our ancestors, once, eons ago, taking that leap to the ground and staying there. Then venturing out onto the open plains, leaving the forest. Today we humans were ill suited to this return. Our bipedalism felt all wrong: us lumbering clumsily on the ground, whipped by fronds, stung by nettles, ankle deep in mud, while our graceful cousins made a comfortable home in the branches overhead.

Darkness at the heart

Besides the joy at seeing primates, the forests were doing something else to me and I sensed it in my travelling companions too. We were heading for Rwanda and all of us were anxious about confronting the stories of horror there. Circulating on the truck were books that set the mood: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali and Hotel Rwanda about the genocide, Heart of Darkness, Facing the Congo and Poisonwood Bible set the scene for the DRC and The Last King of Scotland got us in tune with Idi Amin’s atrocities in Uganda. The land embraced by the two arms of the Rift has had a very dark past.

Overt fecundity and rioting vegetation seemed only to add to the sinister feeling. The misty miasma that leaked from the soil and shrouded the valleys reinforced the mood. The jungle could hide any manner of ill, one felt. It got you wondering at the inherent amorality of our species – and all the primates. How thin was the gloss of civilisation and empathy? Behind a wall of leaves, lay the hunters and the hunted, the carnality of sex, the sticky threat of disease (from Aids and malaria to ebola and meningitis). Behind the veil of leaves, the veneers of education, religion, culture and learnt morality were easily peeled away and the primeval, the primate, released.

A slogan, a slight, a grudge appeared all the justification required to unleash a feral response. The scale could be tipped too easily, it seemed. And yet the place ached with beauty and therein lay the strange attraction and contradiction. At night the jokes round our fire, talk of cricket scores (the damn Ozzies were up in the home series) and of television soap operas were necessary antidotes to the pressing darkness.

Setting sail in the QEII

Our next stop was Queen Elizabeth National Park, situated in the middle of the western Rift’s lowlands and hemmed between two of the valley’s famous lakes: George and Edward. We camped at the village of Katwe surrounded by herds of elephants that ambled across the euphorbia-strewn plains or swam to islands in the lake. Ugandan kob (similar to an impala) and buffalo by the thousand dotted the land.

We boarded a boat in the Kazinga Channel –which connects the two lakes – and cruised west, taking in the life along the banks. Hippos, buffalos and crocs lay side by side like old friends, antelope kept a safe distance and birds by the tens of thousands lined the sandbanks and cliffs. It seemed that every waterfowl, from tiny malachite kingfisher to goliath heron, was present, all in ridiculous over abundance. It was too much to take in, even at drifting pace. Eventually I stopped jotting down species or photographing … and simply gazed.

In the presence of lakes, plains and mountains named after venerable Victorian explorers and their royals, and free of forest, our spirits lifted. It was as though the achievement of coming down from the trees and finding a home and a culture in the savanna was our personal victory. Intrepids indeed.

Rwanda bound

The road zigzagged out of the Rift again, passing through a fairytale land of peaks, crater lakes and impenetrable forests. The southwestern corner of Uganda is arguably its prettiest. In the distance were the volcanoes of Sabinyo and Muhavura (4#127 metres); beneath them lay a land of cultivated valleys and mystical lakes, of which Bunyonyi is perhaps the most picturesque. We spent a night at its resort where we swam, paddled dugout canoes, took trips to enchanted islands and downed cold Nile beers to the sound of drums and thud of dancing feet. It was the perfect chill-out spot before Rwanda.

At the border the next morning, there was a kilometre-long queue of trucks, but our crossing was easily effected. Then it was a slow, 100-kilometre drive to Kigali. Having been steeped in genocide books, every element in the landscape took on significance. As we drove, Lelei tried to give us an introduction to the country. Most importantly, he explained, the genocide had changed the very fabric of society. The words Tutsi and Hutu were discouraged: everyone was Rwandan now; links with France (seen as partially responsible for the genocide) had been severed, visas withdrawn. The government was contemplating a change of the national language from French to English and even switching to driving on the left.

In Kigali, we made straight for the Genocide Memorial Centre. It overlooks the city in large grounds, one section comprising graves and a commemorative wall with names of the slain, another with a garden of remembrance. Some of the graves have been left open so you can see the stacks of coffins, most of them containing the body parts of more than one victim.

Some of us were already feeling a bit queasy when we entered the hallowed space. You’re led through a display featuring the history of Rwanda and tracing the causes of hatred between Tutsi and Hutu, and the apartheid-style laws that enforced the separation of ‘races’. Next comes a sequence of movie clips, photos and exhibits that takes you into the eye of the storm. Some were too difficult to watch. Eventually you exit via a room of family photographs of the slain and a room of skulls, some with a neat gash made by machete. Video screens play interviews with survivors, many of whom will never recover from the trauma of the mass murder, rape and torture they witnessed.

The hard road to Ruhengeri

Leaving Kigali, our truck headed north to Ruhengeri, which would be our base for gorilla trekking. We were all affected by the scenes we’d witnessed. No-one spoke. Many retreated into books and iPods.

The landscape grew more lovely: quaint villages and terraced hills with every scrap of land cultivated, even on impossibly sheer slopes. But everything was loaded. The civility of neat town squares, boulangeries serving crispy baguettes, boucheries offering the best cuts of meat and mountain passes boasting French engineering were, somehow, hollow. They seemed a mockery. These streams that meandered so peacefully through the landscape were once, not long ago, clogged with bodies.

We now knew that in every village the Tutsis were rounded up and massacred by their Hutu neighbours. Each roadblock we passed recalled those where Tutsis trying to escape were slaughtered by the thousand. Simply watching men hacking weeds with machetes beside the road sent a shiver down my spine. It was all so recent, too close; almost every person over the age of 15 had been there, had witnessed or been part of the horror. I’d come looking for a Great Rift … and found one too terrible to contemplate, a society torn apart by hate and the subsequent butchering of nearly a million people.

Gorillas in our midst

In Ruhengeri we found lodging at a Catholic mission station. The town is in the northwest of the country, in a horseshoe of volcanoes which are home to more than half the world’s remaining wild mountain gorillas. Thunderheads shrouded the volcanoes: the long rains were due any day now. Even at midday, the town was dark, lightning splintering the sky round the compass points.

But the morning of our trek dawned clear. We set off in a 4×4 from the gate of Volcanoes National Park, ascending the slope of Mount Sabinyo. When the track got too rough, we abandoned the vehicle and continued on foot. Our group was joined by two armed guards (the peak we were aiming for marked the border between Uganda and the DRC). Scrambling over a basalt dry-stone wall, built to prevent buffalos from raiding farmers’ lands, we were soon into jungle. Our guides were out ahead, hacking a path where necessary. The going was tough, muddy and always upward.

In the middle of a stand of bamboo, wheezing and panting at 3#000 metres, we happened upon the Hirwa family of gorillas: a large silverback, six females and five babies. Although the patriarch was a little tetchy – approaching our group to stand within a metre and forcing us to cower in submission – the young ’uns gambolled around us unconcerned like animated balls of fluff. They’d climb a bamboo shoot until it bent to breaking point, sending them tumbling to earth. One baby approached us, raised himself onto his hind legs and beat his chest, imitating daddy. The oohs and aahs from our group were not exactly the reaction he’d hoped for.

After the shortest hour of our lives, we were led back down the mountain, slipping, sliding, caked in mud … and over the moon.

Although the trip was far from over, the high point had been reached. I could tell you about how we drove back through Uganda, spent time tracking (and being tracked by) buffalo around Lake Mburo and our days at Jinja, where the team went white-water rafting down the Victoria Nile. But Rwanda had provided such moments of intensity that the rest passed as something of an afterthought.

All too soon we found ourselves again at the eastern arm of the Rift as it brushes past Nairobi. We stopped to look. Here again was Africa’s great divide, a split that rent it’s spine. Our safari had shown me other rifts, like the split between us and our cousins on the evolutionary tree, the racial and ethnic divisions that led to the tearing apart of nations such as Uganda under Amin and Rwanda during the genocide, or Burundi and the DRC more recently.

This machete slash through the heart of Africa was a wound and a forge. It spewed lava, formed soda lakes, created a microclimate, but most of all it was the place we became human, where we climbed down from the trees and strode out onto the plains. It was where we shaped our humanity, culture and morality … and where, today, these are still tested. This Rift is at the very heart of who we are.

The north-central Rift

The Great Rift Valley is one of the most dramatic natural features on Earth, stretching some 6,000 kilometres from Lebanon to Mozambique. In East Africa, the valley divides into two, the Western Rift Valley and the Eastern Rift Valley. The eastern arm in Kenya is up to 100 kilometres wide in places and supports an enormous diversity of fauna and flora. Evaporation has left a high concentration of alkaline volcanic deposits in the Rift’s ‘soda lakes’. The algae and crustaceans that thrive in these are ideal food for flamingos.

The western arm, also called the Albertine Rift, is edged by some of the highest mountains on the continent, including the Virungas and Ruwenzoris. Its lakes include some of the deepest in the world. All the African Great Lakes were formed as result of the Rift and most lie within its long valley.

How to get there

Getaway flew with Kenya Airways, which offers three daily flights from Johannesburg to Nairobi. Kenya Airways has an extensive network offering scheduled flights to more than 40 destinations in Africa, Asia and Europe, with its main base at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi. Tel 082-234-5786 or web http://www.kenya-airways.com.

About the journey

Intrepid’s 16-day Gorillas, Chimps and Game Parks trip leaves from Nairobi (your first night is spent in the Kivi Milimani Hotel). Thereafter it is mostly camping in two-person tents. Plain but hearty meals are provided by a cook. Intrepid encourages responsible travel and leaving a minimal footprint. There are also opportunities on the trip to visit local schools and communities. Tel 011-675-0767/8, e-mail salessa@intrepidbundu.com, web www.intrepidbundu.com.

What it costs

The 16-day trip costs from R7,700 a person and you also need to put US$1,100 in the trip kitty for sundries. This includes all food, accommodation, transport, park entrances and most of the tours (including gorillas and chimps). A US$50 visa for each entry into Uganda is necessary for South Africans. There are a few optional activities (such as white-water rafting, city tours, etc) that will cost you extra, so bring spare cash. US dollars are your best bet.

At quite a number of overnight spots, there’s the option to have your own room (usually between US$10 and US$20 for the upgrade). After a few consecutive days of sleeping on the ground, this may prove an irresistible option.

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