Remarkable Rwanda

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Rwanda is a nation reborn. It’s stepped out into the light from a blinding darkness, and has opened its arms to the world. Philip Briggs, co-author of Bradt’s Rwanda guidebook, is here to help you embrace all that is Rwanda.

Over the past 15 years Rwanda has experienced a remarkable renaissance, becoming a stable democracy and one of Africa’s most economically buoyant and politically enlightened nations. Supported by its world-famous population of mountain gorillas on the slopes of the spectacular Virunga volcanoes, it has also become a fantastic and welcoming eco-tourism destination.

However, few of the 40,000 tourists who visited the gorillas in 2008 spent more than a few days in the country. This is a pity on several levels. Not only do these visitors leave the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ without experiencing the rich diversity of its attractions, but they also can’t hope to comprehend truly where this country has come from and where it is going, a realisation that is more powerful than any glimpse into the liquid brown eyes of a gorilla. The growth of the country’s resurgent economy is also hampered by the short duration of most visits. Just imagine how much more tourism might contribute if the average duration of a visit increased from a couple of days to more than a week.

So, if you’ve ever dreamed of tracking gorillas through the same misty slopes once trod by Dian Fossey, visit Rwanda. And while you’re at it, tag on some downtime on the gorgeous mountain-ringed shores of Lake Kivu, as well as a safari into Parc National de l’Akagera or a hike through the verdant swathes of Nyungwe Forest. You will be duly rewarded, as will this brave and forward-looking country.

Parc National des Volcans
Pushed up against the northwest border with Uganda and the Democratic Rebulic of the Congo (DRC), Parc National des Volcans is Rwanda’s premier tourist attraction. It protects the Rwandan portion of the Virunga Mountains, a series of magnificent mist-swathed freestanding volcanoes whose forested slopes provide sanctuary to the very same mountain gorilla groups studied by Dian Fossey in the 1970s. Today, seven of the park’s mountain gorilla groups are habituated to tourists, and a maximum of 56 tracking permits are issued daily, affording visitors what is surely the most exhilarating and emotionally engaging wildlife experience Africa has to offer. The park is also home to buffalo and elephant, whose steaming calling cards litter the forest trails, and to a number of bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift. Although gorilla tracking is the most popular attraction, it is also possible to take part in various other activities: visit a habituated troop of golden monkeys (beautiful bamboo-dwellers whose range is now confined to this one mountain chain); hike to Karisoke (the former research centre and burial place of Dian Fossey); or undertake an overnight trip to the peak of Karisimbi (4507m), the highest point in Rwanda.

Lake Kivu
Running for 100km along the DRC border, with its shimmering waters hemmed in by the steep green hills of the Albertine Rift escarpment, Lake Kivu is a visual treat. Of the three port towns on the Rwandan lakeshore, the most popular resort is Rubavu (formerly Gisenyi). This is due to both its proximity to Parc National des Volcans and its outstanding facilities. But Karongi (formerly Kibuye) and Rusizi (formerly Cyangugu) are also worth a visit, and the unpaved road that connects the three towns is compellingly scenic.

Source of the Nile
No question so vexed 19th-century geographers as the mysterious location of the source of the Nile. Remarkable, then, that the most remote source of the world’s longest river was only determined as recently as 2006, when the Ascend the Nile team discovered a headwater 107km more distant than the one pinpointed by Dr Kandt a century earlier. It rises in the far north of Parc National Nyungwe, but is most easily visited from Lake Kivu – it’s about an hour’s hike along a footpath from the Gisovu Tea Estate.

Parc National Nyungwe
There are no gorillas in Nyungwe, but as the largest extant block of Afromontane forest in East or Central Africa this 1000-square-kilometre park in the hilly southwest has exceptional levels of biodiversity. Primates are the big drawcard, with some 13 species identified. These include chimpanzee, some of which are habituated for tracking, the conspicuous L’Hoest’s monkey, large Angola colobus troops, the elusive sloth-like potto and the enigmatic bamboo-loving owl-faced monkey. There are no less than 270 bird species, including 26 Albertine Rift endemics and the brilliantly colourful great blue turaco. Botanic treats include the giant lobelia and some 200 varieties of orchid. Serviced by an extensive network of forest trails, this park currently receives limited attention from tour operators due to the rather basic facilities, but that is set to change soon with the planned opening of two 4 or 5-Star lodges in late 2009.

Huye (formerly Butare)
Recently renamed Huye, Butare was once the largest colonial-era settlement in Rwanda. It eventually lost ground to Kigali after the city was chosen as capital in 1965. Today it’s a likeable, sleepy small town whose main road, lined with old colonial buildings and terrace cafés, has a slight continental feel. The National Museum on the northern outskirts houses some fine ethnographic collections (English captions were recently added), while the National University on the south side is Rwanda’s premier centre of higher learning. It’s also the site of a shady arboretum.

Nyanza
In 1899, Nyanza Hill was chosen as the permanent capital of Rwanda’s royal family by King Musinga Yuhi V. It retained this role until the monarchy was abolished in 1961. Musinga’s restored palace – an enormous domed structure made of traditional organic materials – is now a museum, while a later house built by his son and successor, King Mutara III, now houses an art museum showcasing some fine contemporary Rwandan artworks.

Nyabarongo Wetlands
South of Kigali, the Nyabarongo River feeds a dozen lakes and innumerable swamps to create a vast wetland that is listed as one of Rwanda’s seven Important Bird Areas. The wonderfully varied birdlife includes swamp dwellers such as papyrus gonolek and papyrus yellow warbler, and several of the lakes also host hippos and crocodiles. The recent construction of a surfaced access road and the opening of an attractive resort on Lake Rumira are the first steps to bring tourism to this formerly neglected area. If you have limited time, a stop on the new bridge that spans the Nyabarongo (just 15 minutes south of Kigali) could easily yield sightings of 40-50 different bird species in two hours.

Parc National de l’Akagera
It would be downright misleading to compare Rwanda’s only savannah reserve to its larger and more famous counterparts in Tanzania or Kenya. But taken on its own more modest terms, Parc National de l’Akagera is well worth a visit. It supports a varied landscape of acacia woodland, open grassland and rocky outcrops dipping towards a labyrinthine network of swamps and lakes fed by the Akagera River. Elephant, buffalo, giraffe and hippo are conspicuous, while lion and leopard are considerably less so. There are a dozen antelope species, including eland, roan, topi, oribi and the swamp-dwelling sitatunga. Akagera is one of the finest birding destinations in East Africa, with an astounding 530 species recorded within its confines – look out for shoebills around Lake Birengero as well as localised populations of red-faced barbet.

Kigali
Sprawling over several hills and valleys in central Rwanda, Kigali may not rank among Africa’s great cities, but as far as capitals go it’s very attractive and unthreatening. The compact centre has good facilities and is easily explored on foot, while the sloping green suburbs that surround it offer some unexpectedly fine culinary opportunities. Nobody should leave Rwanda without paying a visit to the harrowing Kigali Genocide Memorial, which opened in April 2004 on the tenth anniversary of the genocide.

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Get planning
Whether you have a few days or a couple of weeks at your disposal, Rwanda is ripe with rewarding possibilities. Here are three suggested itineraries.

Kigali and mountain gorillas (3-4 days)
• Kigali
• Parc National des Volcans

>> Day 1
This itinerary is aimed at people doing a safari elsewhere in East Africa and making a pit stop visit to Rwanda to track mountain gorillas. Depending on when you land, spend your first afternoon exploring central Kigali on foot and adjusting to the altitude.
>> Day 2
In the morning, pay a visit to the sobering Kigali Genocide Memorial, then in the afternoon transfer to one of several excellent lodges in the Virunga foothills near Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri).
>> Day 3
Be at the Parc National des Volcans headquarters at Kinigi at 7am. Here you’ll be allocated to one of the seven gorilla groups (elderly or unfit travellers should ask their guide to request they go with one of the groups that’s usually easier to reach), and transferred to the appropriate trailhead to start tracking at 8-8.30am. You might be back at the trailhead any time from 11am to 3pm. Return to Kigali in the afternoon and fly out that night or the next morning.

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Primate discovery tour (7 days)
• Kigali
• Parc National des Volcans
• Nyanza & Huye
• Parc National Nyungwe

>> Day 1
This itinerary is aimed at reasonably fit and agile travellers who want to make the most of Rwanda’s superb primate viewing options. Assuming you land in Kigali early enough, head straight to one of the lodges at Parc National des Volcans, and overnight there.
>> Days 2-3
Spend the first morning tracking gorillas (see Day 3 of Kigali and mountain gorillas tour), and the afternoon at leisure in your lodge. The next morning, either track gorillas again, or vary the routine (and save a stack of cash) by tracking golden monkeys. Head back to Kigali in the afternoon.
>> Days 4-6
In the morning, head towards to Parc National Nyungwe, stopping at the museums in Nyanza and Huye en route. Once in the forest, take it slow along the main road – there are some stunning viewpoints and plenty of birds and monkeys to see. The next two mornings are dedicated to primate walks. Angola colobus tracking is a must as a habituated troop numbering 400 hangs out close to the Uwinka trailhead. Chimp tracking can be very tough because of the steep slopes and is only recommended for fit travellers. Alternatively, a general forest walk is bound to throw up two or three monkey species and some stellar birds.
>> Day 7
Enjoy a short morning activity (the forest patch in Gisakura Tea Estate is recommended, and a new canopy walk will open at Uwinka later this year), before driving back to Kigali. Fly out that night or the next morning.

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Rwanda grand tour (14 days)
• Kigali & Nyabarongo Wetlands
• Rubavu & Lake Kivu
• Parc National des Volcans
• Karongi & Parc National Nyungwe
• Nyanza & Huye
• Parc National de l’Akagera

>> Days 1-5
Spend the first two nights in Kigali. On day 2, visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the morning and Nyabarongo Wetlands in the afternoon. On day 3, drive to the Rubavu and spend two nights there relaxing on the shore of Lake Kivu. On day four or five, make the trip to Parc National des Volcans to track the gorillas (see Day 3 of Kigali and mountain gorillas tour).
>> Days 6-7
Drive to Karongi for the night. You’ll arrive for lunch and if you’re feeling energetic can hike to the source of the Nile that afternoon. Next day, drive through to Nyungwe for three nights, stopping at the lovely port of Rusizi for lunch.
>> Days 8-9
Head into the wilds for primate or forest walks (as detailed in Days 4-6 of the Primate discovery tour).
>> Day 10
If you still have the energy, hike one of the shorter trails in Nyungwe before driving to Huye for the night. If you have time, visit the national museum in the afternoon.
>> Days 11-14
Drive from Huye to Parc National de l’Akagera, stopping at Nyanza (to see the museum) and Kigali (to take lunch). Spend one full day and the next morning in the park, taking part in game drives, guided walks and boat trips onto the lakes. Depending on your flight time on day 14, either drive to Kigali for night 13 or enjoy one last night in Akagera.

 

Right time, right place
Dry season
This is the best time to visit for travellers who aren’t so young and agile, and who are in a position to book gorilla tracking permits several months in advance. Depending on luck and which group you visit, gorilla tracking can be anything from a mildly invigorating walk to a tough climb involving plenty of steep slopes and clambering over and under fallen logs and bamboo. That said, it is usually a lot easier in the dry season, when slopes are not so slippery and there is less chance of watching your gorillas in the drizzle. June, July and August are the driest months.

Wet season
If you are fit, or prefer to make travel plans at the last minute, tracking gorillas is perfectly feasible during the rainy season. There are actually three distinct advantages to it. The first is that while all 56 tracking permits for any given day are likely to be booked months ahead over June, July and August, visitor numbers drop dramatically in the rainy season, especially in March, April and May, making the odds of getting a last minute permit excellent. The second is that some hotels and lodges charge low season rates during the rains. And lastly, the Rwandan countryside is at its most attractive during the wet season.

 

Rwanda Factfile
Language
The main indigenous language is Kinyarwanda. The only other official language, following Rwanda’s decision to join the East African Community, is English. The colonial language of French and East African lingua franca KiSwahili are also widely spoken.

Time zone
GMT + 2

International dialling code
+ 250

Visas
Nationals of the UK, USA, Germany, Canada, Tanzania, DRC, Uganda, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, Sweden, Singapore, Hong Kong and Burundi may visit Rwanda without a visa for a period of up to 90 days. Check the website www.migration.gov.rw for updates and visa application forms

Health
Malaria is present throughout but is most prevalent in lower-lying areas such as Akagera. Prophylactics should be taken by all visitors. Bottled water is widely available and cheap.

Safety
Rwanda is one of the safest and most hassle-free countries in Africa. However, given its border location with the DRC, temporary unrest is always a possibility. Under normal circumstances, the biggest risk is probably car accidents.

Money
The unit of currency is the Rwanda franc (RF). In 2009, recent exchange rates were: UK£1=920RF, US$=569RF
and €1=796RF. The US dollar is the hard currency of preference, but euros and British sterling are also widely accepted.  Travellers’ cheques are of limited use and credit cards are accepted only at a few large hotels, though local currency can be drawn against Visa and MasterCard at the Access Bank in Kigali.

Costs
Rwanda is not cheap. The first reason for this is that a permit to track gorillas, the main reason most people visit Rwanda, costs a flat US$500 per person. The second is that while upmarket hotels prices are on a par with neighbouring countries, budget accommodation tends to be costly – it can be difficult to find a hotel room under US$20. Independent travellers who use local buses and cheap hotels and restaurants might get by on £25 (solo) or £30 (couple) a day, excluding park fees and permits, but a 50 per cent higher daily budget would be more comfortable.

Getting there    
International carriers linking Kigali to Europe include Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com) and Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com). Kigali International Airport is 10km from the centre of the capital.

Getting around
Rwanda is a very compact country and all the major attractions lie within three hours’ drive of the capital, so most people travel by road. Private 4WD trips and packages can be provided by most tour operators. Alternatively, a good network of buses and express minibuses connects most towns and can be used to reach Nyungwe and to get within striking distance of Parc National des Volcans
(but not Akagera).

Books
The only dedicated English-language guidebook is Bradt’s Rwanda by Philip Briggs and Janice Booth (the 4th edition is due in early 2010). The Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe is the most detailed choice for birders, covering every species found in Rwanda. Dian Fossey’s landmark Gorillas in the Mist and Bill Webber and Amy Vedder’s In the Kingdom of Gorillas are highly recommended. There is no shortage of literature available about the genocide, but Linda Melvern’s Conspiracy to Murder stands out as a balanced and readable starting point.

Find out more
The national tourist agency ORTPN has a useful website – www.rwandatourism.com – which has full contact details for booking gorilla permits. Regular updates to the Bradt guide are posted at http://bradtrwandaupdate.wordpress.com

 

First published in Travel Africa magazine, edition 48

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