I fulfilled a bucket list dream recently – going gorilla tracking in Rwanda, which was amazing.
While the focus of the five-day was gorilla tracking, we did have time to explore Rwanda a bit - and in the short time I managed to fall in love with the country and its smoke-wreathed thousand hills, friendly people and beautiful landscapes.
I’d done my usual pre-trip research on Rwanda before I travelled, reading a book about the 1994 genocide (A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali) and scouring my Bradt guide book, but reading about a place and being there are two entirely different things.
It turns out there’s a lot more to Rwanda than a horrific past and gorilla tracking for tourists. Here’s what I learned on my short trip to this incredible country:
14 things I learned about Rwanda
1. Kigali is the cleanest city in Africa
Really. Rwanda has banned plastic bags (they will cut up your bags at the airport), and as a result, there’s barely any litter on the streets. There’s also compulsory community service once a month for all Rwandans, where people clean up their communities.
2. There are more than a thousand hills in Rwanda
Rwanda is known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ but I counted at least 1012 hills on the three-hour drive from Kigali to Lake Kivu, in the northwest. I haven’t travelled extensively around the country, but I can bet there are more hills to be counted.
4. How horrific the 1994 genocide was (and how the country has recovered)
Like me, you probably know the facts about the 1994 genocide – 1 million people (mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus) killed in a 100 days. When bad things happen in countries very far away from you, and the only way you find out about these things is through CNN and newspapers, then there’s a tendency to be disengaged from the reality of it.
Like me, you probably don’t have an idea of how horrific the genocide was. That was, until I visited Kigali’s Genocide Memorial, which documents the genocide through photos, text and videos. There are 250 000 mass graves at the memorial, and more remains of bodies, found all over the country, are being brought in everyday. Spending an hour in the memorial was a harrowing experience – you couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by emotion, seeing photos of bodies of women and children, and videos of attackers testifying to their murders in front of village tribunals after the genocide. It was a big step from the disengaged way in which atrocities like the Rwanda genocide are presented on the news, and I think a visit to the memorial should be at the top of every tourist’s list – to pay respect to the country’s past.
Rwandans haven’t forgotten the genocide but they’ve somehow found a way to move on from it and not let it hold them back. The country is one of Africa’s best economic and political success stories, with a well-respected president, and a zero-tolerance approach to corruption. The country is now peaceful, stable and there seems to be nore more tension.
5. Tourists are good for gorilla conservation
While there is some debate among conservationists about whether gorillas should be exposed to tourists on a daily basis (mainly because of germs that can be spread from people to gorillas – if you have flu and a gorilla catches it from you, the whole gorilla group could die). However, gorilla tourism brings in money that goes towards conservation and the preservation of this highly endangered species (there are only around 800 gorillas left in the world). The gorilla tracking permits for Volcanoes National Park are expensive at $750USD a person, but it’s worth paying that much money, knowing that it goes towards preventing poaching in the park, paying for scientific research, park rangers’ salaries and community upliftment projects around the park.
6. How easy it is to go gorilla tracking
I’d thought of gorilla tracking as an epic adventure that you do once in your lifetime – a long, arduous journey into Central Africa. I’d pictured the tracking as hardcore trek through rebel-infested jungle crawling with massive snakes where you need to wear expensive hiking clothes. It turns out that it’s really easy and accessible (from South Africa at least) – it’s a four-hour long flight to Kigali, and then a three-hour drive on really good roads to the Volcanoes National Park. There’s a range of accommodation around the park, from budget to luxury, so you don’t need to forgo hot water and CNN, if that’s your thing. The tracking itself was really easy – you can choose to hike for as short as half an hour to see gorillas, and you can do it in jeans and running shoes.
7. You can track golden monkeys
In addition to gorilla tracking in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, visitors can now also track golden monkeys – a rare species that is found only in that area – for $100USD a person. As monkeys jumped from tree to tree performing elaborate acrobatics, we ran around below them, trying to photograph their every move. While seeing golden monkeys is not quite as epic as standing metres away from an animal that shares 98.6% of your genes with you (I’m talking mountain gorillas here) it’s a great jungle experience – hiking through thick bamboo forests on the watch for buffalo and elephant and finally catching sight of beautiful chattering golden monkeys. I’d recommend staying near the Volcanoes National Park for two or three days – spend one day tracking gorillas and then next seeing golden monkeys.
8. Rwanda has a Costa del Sol
Well, not quite, but just about. Lake Kivu, in the northwest of the country, on the border with the DRC and close to the Volcanoes National Park has a beautiful stretch of unspoiled shoreline and calm water for swimming. I didn’t expect to end my trip to Rwanda by lying on a lounger at sunset with a cold beer looking out at the misty mountains of the DRC with a Miss Rwanda competition being filmed on the beach behind me, but there you go – that’s what travel is all about.
9. Rwanda is the tiny heart of Africa
Situated 1270 km west of the Indian Ocean and 2000 km east of the Atlantic Ocean, and around 160 km from the equator, Rwanda is pretty much slapbang in the middle of Africa. Rwanda’s neighbour, the DRC, is known as the ‘Dark Heart of Africa’. If the DRC is a super-sized muffin, then Rwanda is half a raisin. This tiny country is therefore Africa’s tiny (but warm) heart.
10. Malawi may not be the friendliest country in the world
I used to think that Malawi was the friendliest country in Africa (and maybe the world, bar Thailand). Now I reckon Rwanda is a strong contender for this position. From the guys in airport security (notoriously unfriendly, no matter what country you’re in) to waving, beaming children in villages wherever we went – it was rare to find someone who didn’t radiate friendliness.
11. Best brews
Coffee and tea are Rwanda’s biggest exports – and they’re delicious. Drink the Rwandan tea without milk to taste its flavour properly (it’s very low in tannins and not bitter). Rwandan speciality coffee, some of the world’s most expensive, is winning international competitions, and is used by big coffee brands such as Starbucks.
On a side note, I also learned that Rwanda has fantastic beer (Skol, an international award-winner), interesting fruits (tree tomato, or tamarillo, which tastes like a cross between a granadilla and a tomato) and great curry (having dal and chapattis for breakfast reminded me of India).
I went to Rwanda on a package trip with Getaway Adventures. A four-day package to Rwanda, including flights, accommodation and the $750 gorilla permit is R23 000. For more on the trip, and to book for next year click here.