“Experienced guides say that Uganda and the DRC offer more ‘off the beaten track’ appeal, but Rwanda is hands-down the most accessible, progressive, advanced and safest of the three countries for gorilla trekking.”
I’d heard so much about Rwanda by the time I boarded a Rwandair flight in Cape Town bound for Kigali, the capital city, that I didn’t think I’d be surprised by too much. How wrong I was. I knew that Rwanda was a small, extraordinarily beautiful country where more than one-third of Africa’s now 1000-strong population of mountain gorillas find refuge in the high-altitude cloud forests of Volcanoes National Park. Dominated by six extinct volcanoes, the park forms part of the Virungas massif - 111,000 acres / 45,000 hectares in extent - that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Experienced guides say that Uganda and the DRC offer more ‘off the beaten track’ appeal, but Rwanda is hands-down the most accessible, progressive, advanced and safest of the three countries for gorilla trekking. The hefty $1500 price tag attached to a single trek helps fund conservation and community projects in and around Volcanoes National Park as well as the expansion and reforestation of the mountain gorillas’ critical natural habitat. Sitting meters away from a silverback was life changing, of course, but you can also get close to endemic golden monkeys, visit lakes Buhondo and Burera and the lava tunnels of the Musanze Caves. In 2020, the impressive new Dian Fossey primate research center, funded by Ellen Degeneres, will be opened.
There’s no doubt that the likes of Bisate Lodge, Kwitonda Lodge and soon-to-open Gorilla’s Nest on the edge of Volcanoes National Park have put cushy gorilla trekking within easy reach. It’s become a seamless add-on to a classic safari circuit in Tanzania, thanks to increased airlift, but since the turnaround of Akagera National Park by African Parks, a non-profit organization that has taken responsibility for the rehabilitation and management of the park in partnership with the Rwandan Development Board, you don’t even have to leave Rwanda to go on safari. The park has some of the most scenic savannah in East Africa, teeming with plains game, a healthy population of lion (reintroduced into the park in 2015 after a 20-year absence), black rhino (introduced in 2017), plenty of hippo as well as more than 520 bird species, including the shoebill stork. Wilderness Safaris recently opened Magashi Camp, overlooking beautiful Lake Rwanyakazinga.
The afro-montane forests of Nyungwe National Park, with its chimpanzees, golden monkeys and white colobus monkeys, provides yet another contrast. Here, on a tea plantation on the edge of the forest, One&Only Nyungwe House’s 22 suites and elegant farm-to-table dining provide the springboard to chimpanzee trekking, hiking and birding (the forest is home to over 300 bird species, 27 of them endemic to the Albertine Rift).
I didn’t have time to explore Lake Kivu’s hundreds of kilometers of coastline and numerous offshore islands (boating, fishing, birding and stargazing are just some of the relaxing activities here), because I was impatient to reach Kigali. I’d heard the capital had free wifi for all, a zero-tolerance policy towards plastic bags (and, by 2020, plastic water bottles too), clean streets and not a McDonalds in sight. Instead, as I discovered, there are local cafes like Now Now Rolex where I sampled Kigali’s answer to fast food, a rolex (’rolled eggs’, said quickly), which is a chapati sandwich filled with an omelet, cheese, onion, tomato and shredded cabbage. Another on-the-go snack is brochette - grilled goat or other meat on a skewer.
Pressed for time, I spent a day with a private guide, Stella Mucyo, an engineer moonlighting during high season for Thousands Hills Africa. She quickly summed up what I was most interested in. Stella equaled insider access to authentic markets, where I stocked up on baskets woven from banana fronds and sisal in several shapes and sizes, and handpicked weaving and other craft collectives, including the Nyamirambo women’s sewing center where impoverished women are taught to read, write and sew. We popped into boutiques specializing in pottery, local fashion labels (the floaty, feminine designs of designer Sonia Mugaeo caught my eye), and jewelry made from recycled padlocks. Question Coffee is a female empowerment initiative where women own the farm-to-table process from fair-trade harvesting of the raw cherries all the way through to roasting the beans that are used to make complimentary, pre-trek cappuccinos at Volcanoes National Park’s headquarters every morning. I also developed a taste for iron-rich, vitamin C-crammed tree tomato juice, especially as crimson sorbet from a roadside gelateria. Further bliss came in the form of tree tomato jam sandwiched between chewy oatmeal cookies at Inzora Rooftop Cafe inside Ikirezi (meaning ‘treasure’ in Kinyarwanda) bookstore. It was after a hearty lunch of Rwandan fish curry, fried plantain, spinach and green beans, washed down with a Virunga Mist beer, at Repub Lounge and Bar in Kimihurura, high above the city, that I was given the best explanation of the Rwandan concept of ‘umuganda’ by my guide. This is the president-sanctioned monthly gathering of neighbors across the country, not only to keep their communities clean - those spotless streets - but to discuss pressing community issues.
A visit to the Genocide Memorial is almost compulsory if you want to understand the devastating impact on a nation after close to a million people were murdered. Rwanda’s recovery in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide is nothing short of miraculous - testimony to the impressive work ethic, determination and humility of its people. That luxury tourism in a country torn apart by genocide as recently as 25 years ago is vastly improving the lives of everyone makes this one of the greatest recovery stories in history in Africa.
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