My first encounter with Rwanda came on an overland trip through East Africa in 2007. Like most overlanders, indeed most visitors to Rwanda in general, it was a brief visit, designed to see the country’s most famous attraction - the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains. The three days spent here was more than enough to whet my appetite to further explore this fascinating and utterly beautiful country. Even among all the natural wonders and cultural interests of East Africa, Rwanda stood out. Its natural landscapes - one thousand hills with every shade of green both natural and cultivated - made the country seem like one giant national park. The extraordinary encounter with the mountain gorillas was a wildlife experience like no other. And Rwanda’s human story, both the unimaginably horrific genocide and the country’s remarkable recovery since, demanded further investigation and insight. This was Africa in extreme - its lands more beautiful, its people more friendly and resilient and its wildlife more spectacular. I needed to see more so a little over four years later I returned to Rwanda.
The peace and stability enjoyed by Rwanda in recent years has seen a boon in tourist numbers and revenues. It is now the premier destination to trek the mountain gorillas, whose population of only 800 is restricted to the Virunga Mountains at the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda. Yet despite Rwanda’s other attractions, most visitors follow the itinerary of my first visit. Overlanders, either on trucks or independent travelers, will cross the border from Uganda, see the gorillas and maybe fit in a quick trip to Kigali and then return north. Those with a bigger budget fly in to a nice lodge in or near the Volcanoes National Park and quickly fly out to the more popular safari parks of East Africa. Few stay on to explore further, a loss to them and a country in need of tourism revenues.
Rwanda’s small size, aided by a centrally located and modern capital in Kigali, makes it more suited than most countries in Africa to independent travel. Most big towns and cities are connected by an efficient (and very cheap) network of minibuses along mostly good roads, though the lake road connecting Gisenyi to Kibuye and Cyangugu is, for now, best avoided. Kigali thus makes a good base from which to explore the northern volcanoes, Lake Kivu’s port towns in the west, the safari park of Akagera in the east and the little explored south of the country. Developments in transport and tourist infrastructure have helped open the country to independent travelers in recent years, though challenges still remain to overcome the difficulty and expense of exploring the main national parks.
Gorillas in the Sunshine
Of course Rwanda’s biggest attraction by a distance remains a visit to the mountain gorillas of the Volcanoes National Park, one of the most awe-inspiring and memorable travel experiences in the world, let alone this small central African country. The old cliché about a “once in a lifetime experience” wasn’t quite true for me as I had come back for a second visit – it was inconceivable though to visit Rwanda again without an encounter with these amazing creatures. To guarantee a permit, I had pre-booked for a short stint aboard an overland truck with Absolute Africa before I arrived in Rwanda – despite the $500 cost (and soon rising to $750) permits can often sell out for weeks in advance and indeed on arriving in Kigali I discovered there were none available for the rest of the month. The short overland trip was a cost-effective way of exploring the Virungas (allowing me to focus my finances on a private tour of Nyungwe Forest) as well as a chance to share the gorilla experience with others.
After meeting the truck in Kigali, we took the stunning three hour drive on the Kigali-Ruhengeri road, through the beautiful verdant hilly landscapes for which Rwanda is renowned, before checking into the Centre Pastoral Notre Dame de Fatima, a uniquely Rwandan hostel / Catholic guesthouse which brought back good memories of my previous visit to the town. An early start the following morning got us to the National Park headquarters for check-in at 7.30. The headquarters is in a beguiling location, overlooked by the peaks of the Virunga Volcanoes, with an (admittedly slightly touristy) local intore dance performance adding to the atmosphere. Despite the early hour, the excitement was palpable, as the 56 tourists awaited assignment to the seven habituated groups and a wildlife encounter like no other.
The trek on my 2007 visit to the Sabyinyo group had almost been the proverbial walk in the park, a short hike at low altitude to one of the easiest to reach groups. Whilst the experience was spectacular, I was hopeful for a longer trek this time around, both to have more time to appreciate the national park and a more worthwhile challenge to reach the gorillas. I was not to be disappointed, indeed the trek to the Amahoro group drew every ounce of energy from us and was as tough as anything Kilimanjaro was to throw at me the following month. Eventually located about 500 metres from the summit of Mount Visoke, the trek involved a 600 metre straight ascent through thick rainforest in muggy, humid conditions.
The aches of the trek immediately faded of course on hearing we had found the gorillas. About half of the Amahoro group, including the two junior silverbacks, were in a small clearing in the forest, gathered around the fallen trunk of a dead tree – chewing on this dead wood provides an important source of sodium for the gorillas. The others, with the head silverback Ubumwe, kept watch from a nearby ridge. What followed was an exhilarating and unforgettable hour, as we stood and crouched mere feet from some of the most intelligent yet endangered animals on earth. Much of the time was spent giddy with excitement at their every move and expression, inevitably taking too many photos and incredulous at where we were and how close we stood one of mankind’s closest cousins. The feelings however were not to be reciprocated – the gorillas regarded us with mildly irritated indifference, their daily human visitors once again interrupting their mid-morning feed and relaxation.
The time of course passed far too quickly and all too soon we had to leave them behind and head back down the slopes of Mount Visoke, a descent that was treacherous on the footing and joints at times but far easier on muscles and lungs. After collecting our certificates, we headed back to the hostel bar in Ruhengeri to share tales and compare experiences with the others on the truck who had tracked different groups. Most were exhausted from their exertions on the trek, all euphoric from the experience of meeting the mountain gorillas.
The remaining days in Ruhengeri were inevitably somewhat anti-climactic. The response of the children at a local orphanage that we visited was the polar opposite to the gorillas’ indifference – a manic hour of excitement, questions, playing and endless photographs. The following day I headed back to the Volcanoes National Park, this time to visit a group of recently habituated group of golden monkeys (left), a species endemic to the Albertine Rift. A very different encounter to the mountain gorillas (and only one-fifth of the price), the smaller animals were much more energetic, rapidly jumping amongst the trees of the thick bamboo forest. Sightings of the endearing primate were sporadic but excellent, and it certainly was a worthwhile addition to my time in the area.
Returning to Kigali, I had more time to explore Rwanda’s capital city and its base for exploration. Built on a series of hills (what else?), Kigali retains a distinctly African character but is a far more attractive city than most of the continent’s other urban centres. Nowhere is Rwanda’s recent economic progress more evident than here, with ongoing construction leading to the development of a very modern and appealing metropolis. It is a scrupulously clean city and indeed was the first African city to be awarded the Habitat Scroll of Honour. While Kigali may lack many obvious tourist attractions, it more than makes up for this with a plethora of hotels, restaurants, bars and other facilities and a safe and pleasant ambience. Connecting the different hills and neighbourhoods are the city’s transport lifeblood of crowded minibus taxis and the ubiquitous motorbike taxis, the latter a far more flexible and comfortable option for visitors.
I was based in Kacyiru during my stay, one of the city’s most attractive neighbourhoods, being the site of parliament and many government buildings, as well as numerous embassies and hotels. The Discover Rwanda hostel, the country’s first western style hostel, was in the lower spectrum of visitor accommodation in Kacyiru but nonetheless a wonderful place from which to explore the city and country. Developed in conjunction with the UK Aegis Trust (also involved in the development of the Genocide Memorial Centre), it’s located in an attractive part of town with beautiful views of Kigali’s hills. As elsewhere in the world, the great advantage of hostels over hotels is the opportunity they offer to meet other travelers and share stories and advice. Discover Rwanda catered to more than the standard groups of backpackers however – volunteers, researchers, UN workers and business people, in addition to independent travelers, made for a fascinating stay and highlighted what makes Rwanda such a fascinating destination for so many people.
To much of the world, the mention of Rwanda is still synonymous with the genocide of 1994, in which up to a million people were killed by the extremist Hutu regime. While Rwanda has made astonishing progress since in rebuilding the country and healing the wounds and ethnic divisions, the memory of the events and victims is rightly kept alive. The Kigali Memorial Centre, opened in 2004 in partnership with the UK-based Aegis Trust, superbly tells the disturbing story of the genocide, as well as placing it in context of other genocides throughout history. I had visited the Memorial on my previous visit but it was well worth reacquainting myself with its displays. One of the new features at the Memorial is a Wall of Names being constructed to commemorate the victims, a mammoth task given that some 250,000 people have been buried in a mass grave on the site. But it was again the Children’s Room that was the most poignant part of the centre, with the pictures and brief stories of some of the genocide’s youngest victims bringing home its true horror (two of these are reproduced below).
Favourite Food: Cake
Favourite Drink: Milk
Enjoyed: Singing & Dancing
Behaviour: A neat little girl
Cause of Death: Stabbed in eyes and head
Favourite Drink: Cow’s Milk
Favourite Game: Hide & Seek with big brother
Behaviour: Very talkative
Cause of Death: Burnt alive in Gikondo Chapel
While the Centre in Kigali provides a peaceful, dignified and informative memorial of the genocide, other sites in Rwanda present a much more harrowing and heartrending experience. Of these, the memorial in Murambi, 2km from Gikongoro in the south of the country, is perhaps the most extreme and affecting. Approximately 50,000 people, who had gathered in the technical school for protection, were murdered here by the extremist Hutu interahamwe forces. Having been exhumed from mass graves at the site, hundreds of partially decomposed bodies were preserved with lime and are on display in several of the buildings, packed onto wooden stands. Though only representing a fraction of the victims at this site, it’s an overwhelming and extremely distressing experience to walk into each of these rooms, overcome by the sight and smell of the corpses, which include children and babies. A new museum at the site tells the story of Murambi and the causes and events of the genocide throughout the country. The churches at Nyamata and Ntarama, just south of Kigali, offer a similar experience, with the possessions and bones of the victims assembled at the sites of the massacres but there are only so many of these visits you can take on any one trip.
Primates of Nyungwe Forest
Along with the Volcanoes and Akagera National Parks, Nyungwe Forest in the south of Rwanda is one of the countries three great natural attractions, though its relative inaccessibility and a shortage of accommodation options limit the number of visitors it receives. Covering over 1000km2 of medium altitude forest, Nyungwe is renowned for its high concentrations of primate species with 13 in the park including some habituated groups that can be tracked. It’s also a popular birding destination with close to 300 species. The forest can also be appreciated on numerous hiking trails of various levels of difficulty including the exciting new Congo-Nile Divide Trail, a 3-4 day hike which traces the ridgeline separating the watersheds of the two great African rivers.
With guide Kasim from Bizidanny Tours, I drove from Kigali via the National Museum at Butare, the Rukali Palace Museum at Nyanza and Murambi Memorial to Gisakura Guest House, just west of the park’s boundary. The only accommodation option within the forest is a campsite at the Uwinka Centre. The following day we awoke pre-dawn for the journey to Cyamudongo Forest, a small patch of forest to the west of Nyungwe, driving past many local early risers walking the roads in the pitch dark. A murky dawn light had appeared by the time we reached the trail head and soon heard the trackers had located the resident chimpanzee community.
Leaving the road, we headed down into the thick forest and soon began to hear the unmistakable hooting of the chimps high in the trees above. It’s an exhilarating experience as one initial hoot gets magnified by other members of the troop before reaching a crescendo and dying away again. That said, this was a very different experience to gorilla tracking – in thick, dark forest the chimps are difficult to locate and see in the branches and treetops. There isn’t the extraordinary and intimate experience of standing just feet from a primate and staring into its black eyes and intelligent face. This is a wilder and more transient experience, but none the less thrilling because of it.
The other primate encounter in Nyungwe was with a small troop of Ruwenzori colobus monkeys in a relict forest patch near the Gisakura Tea Estate. Unlike the chimps, sightings of the monkeys here was excellent as the troop are very habituated and the forest patch so small that they can be easily seen from its perimeter path. While they an intriguing looking animal however, the experience isn’t on the same level as the ape encounters – a nice bonus rather than a reason to travel to Nyungwe in itself.
Short of time here (and in Nyungwe, time is indeed money!) I went on just one short hiking trail from the Uwinka Reception Centre. I was curious to see the new canopy walkway that has recently been constructed in the park. The 200 metre long walkway offers superb views of the forest canopy and the chance to spot birds in the nearby trees, as well as the vertigo-inducing thrill of staring straight down to the forest floor from the middle of the shaky bridge. This short hike offered just a small glimpse of the beauty of Nyungwe and it really deserved much more exploration. Perhaps on another visit or when the infrastructure is developed to allow independent travelers the chance to see more without breaking the bank.
After days of travelling, hiking and tracking primates in Rwanda, Lake Kivu and its picturesque port towns offer the perfect chance to relax amidst the beautiful lake and coastal scenery. One of Central Africa’s Great Lakes, Kivu runs for 100km along Rwanda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kivu’s small number of fish species and lack of hippos and crocodiles is likely due to high concentrations of methane trapped under the lake surface. Limnic eruptions of this gas every few thousand years caused mass extinctions and today constitute a threat to both the fauna and surrounding population. To prevent this and utilise this natural resource, the methane is now being extracted by power plants near Kibuye and Gisenyi.
The two most popular of the lake towns are Gisenyi at its northern tip and Kibuye directly west of Kigali. Of the two, Gisenyi, with its proximity to Volcanoes National Park, is more developed for tourism. It has a beautiful lakefront, with a tree-lined boulevard connecting several upmarket hotels. However this is in stark contrast to a rather rough and tumble upper town, sadly encouraging a divide between locals and visitors that seemed rarely crossed. Nevertheless Gisenyi made for a pleasant short break. In particular the coastal road walk from the town to Rubona 6km to the south was a highlight. Despite being a restricted area, the Rwandan army checkpoint guards were seemingly happy to let a lone muzungu through. The almost deserted road provided a rare moment of peace and quiet in this densely populated country. The reward at the end of the hike was a superb grilled tilapia lunch at the renowned Paradis Malahide.
The quieter town of Kibuye however is Lake Kivu’s gem. From the small town centre, the road in either direction along the circular peninsula route offers superb views of the lake, indented coastline and nearby islands. It’s a blissfully peaceful spot, save for some boat owners offering trips on the lake and a few curious locals intrigued by a rare visitor. Kibuye’s most popular hotel, the Bethanie, is stunningly located (left), set on an outcrop of the peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the lake and is excellent value for money. Many of its chalet-like rooms have lake views, allowing you to soak up some of Rwanda’s finest scenery at your leisure. A perfect setting to finish a trip to this wonderful country.
Rwanda - An African Gem
Despite its small size, Rwanda certainly punches above its weight when it comes to attractions for adventure traveler. Improvements in tourist infrastructure have mirrored the country’s remarkable economic and social progress in recent years and it seems only the negative impressions caused by the genocide and related conflicts have prevented it from becoming a much more popular travel destination. There are still some improvements required however that would enable independent travelers to gain even more from visiting the country. Private transport is necessary (and expensive) to explore the three big national parks, while limited accommodation options tends to curtail exploration of Nyungwe Forest. The stunning Lake Kivu region would also benefit from improved infrastructure. The road between Cyangugu and Kibuye with its stunning lake scenery would be an attraction in itself if it wasn’t in such poor condition (resurfacing is proceeding slowly from the south) while regular boat transportation on the lake would be a boon to tourists and locals alike. Despite this, Rwanda is a spectacular and undervalued African travel destination, offering wildlife, trekking and natural attractions on par with anywhere on the continent. All the more reason to visit it now before the word really gets out.
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