A completely fabulous, if extremely knackering, weekend away with the girls.
Back in May I was supposed to go gorilla trekking with my friend Paul, but decided to throw myself on a bonfire instead, so managed to get an extension from Rwanda Tourism. My friend Jo (of Rwandan Adventures) arranged the tickets, and Maia decided to make this her Christmas present to herself, which was funny as she once said she would only go and see the gorillas when she was ready to leave Rwanda. She's just opened a tapas bar and night school.
The day before we were due to leave, Facebook rather sweetly pointed out that it was eight years since I last went trekking gorillas, back in 2008 with Dad and Marilyn.
It's the end of the short wet season, and the weather on the morning of departure didn't feel like a great omen.
For me and Maia this was our first time out of Kigali in ages. It's the same when you live in any city. You get swept away in your work and daily routines. It was so good to get out and remember just how stunningly beautiful Rwanda is.
It is Dian Fossey's final resting place and there are plenty of mountains, gorillas and mist.
We stopped off to meet Jo's friend Elaine on the way north. Elaine and her husband, Kavos, have lived in Rwanda for many, many years and run a really lovely little guesthouse called The Garden House in Musanze. They don't really advertise, so it's word-of-mouth. It's an old colonial house with an open fire and terracotta tiling. Elaine has so many incredible stories to tell. It really is a special place.
Then we drove a few minutes up the road to a total surprise.
Well, for me. Jo and Maia already knew about this.
Our lovely friend Nicole has built an extremely upmarket hotel with her husband Robert. It's called Five Volcanoes because you can see five massive volcanoes from the restaurant.
I last visited in March last year when they were still building, so it was incredible to see it again now that everything is complete. Robert has worked as a tour guide for the gorillas for many years and they had absolutely every little luxury covered. The showers were incredible - and cobbled! The staff are really friendly, and greet you with hot towels and juice. They even rent backpacks, gaiters and rain macs if you forget to bring them, plus you get a packed lunch for trekking and your shoes cleaned when you get back. There were even hot water bottles in the beds. I could not believe we were staying there. The rooms cost more than my monthly rent for a single night. Very lovely of Nicole and Robert.
The next day we were up at quarter to six in the morning for a yummy breakfast, then into the car and up the road to Volcanoes National Park.
Couldn't believe how beautiful the weather was. We were really lucky it was a gorgeous, sunny morning. It was freezing cold (well, about 13c) during the night, as the temperature drops steeply in the mountains. Coming from lowland Kigali, where it rarely gets below 17c, it was pretty nippy. But a few minutes into walking we were sweating profusely. That may also have had something to do with the amount of wine we'd drunk the previous night. Before we'd even left Kigali, Maia was dishing out fresh brownies from her kitchen, along with white wine over ice in classy plastic cups. It was like an adult children's party. We realise we need to go on holiday more often.
Things got a bit bumpy on the road, forcing us to abandon our own car and cadge a lift in another group's overlander.
We reached the edge of the trail and walked through beautiful fields of Pyrethrum, the flowers of which are dried and sent to Chicago to make a potent insect repellent used on mosquito nets.
With the mountains in the background, you sort of expected Julie Andrews to come skipping across the meadow singing. Also found little shrooms, and a very hairy caterpillar.
Then it was into the most incredible bamboo forest. Bamboo is a gorilla's primary food and if they eat too much of it, it ferments in their stomachs and they become drunk. We were also joined by an armed guard to protect against buffalo.
We had a little nibble on the bamboo ourselves as we walked. After about an hour and a half, we bumped into the rangers who guard the gorillas. Then there was a loud crash and a baby gorilla fell out of a tree right ahead. Our guide shepherded us into their nest. It felt uncomfortably close at first - these guys are big, and curious. But we spread out and soon felt at home with the Hirwa clan.
Just as we were preparing to leave, one of the younger ones accidentally fell out of a tree onto the sleeping silverback, who sprang to all fours in a moment of surprise and ran towards us! It's one thing to be told 'don't run' in the face of an oncoming gorilla, and quite another to follow that order when it happens.
Had an absolutely wonderful time. Made it back down the mountain to base camp, where there was one last surprise. As we were waiting in the hut to receive our certificates, Maia looked up and said, 'Isn't that your friend?'
There on the ceiling was a painting with an inscription to the lovely Christiane.
We stopped off for pizza on the way home, and at the roadside market, where I bought sugar cane. Returned home absolutely exhausted but very happy. Rainbow in the garden just before I fell asleep.