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Mary explores Rwanda – March 2017

A holiday to Rwanda is inevitably synonymous with seeing the magnificent mountain gorillas in the Parc des Volcans.  My recent trip however has shown that there is far more to the country and that it can now confidently be sold as a stand-alone destination.

I first visited Rwanda in 2007 when I found the Rwandese to be polite and the accommodation adequate. Soon after my arrival on this trip it became clear that much has changed.

For me the most striking change was in the people. In 2007, with the horrors of the genocide 12 years before still fresh, I would be on the receiving end of smiles that never quite reached the eyes and I found it challenging to engage with a population that were very reserved. This time however I found the Rwandese to be exceptionally warm and friendly people. As we drove through the countryside scores of children would appear, waving and crying out ‘good morning’, irrespective of the time of day!

Kigali has certainly become more modern with conference centres and a lot more five star hotels, including a Marriott and Radisson Blu, having opened, but what sets it apart from other cities, throughout the world is the cleanliness. The last Saturday of every month is called Umuganda, roughly meaning ‘coming together to achieve a common purpose’. Its introduction was in part to create a shared national identity in the post Genocide era and to help re build the shattered country.  Not only does this include cleaning but it also infrastructure development and environmental projects. During this time, all citizens partake in communal duties, varied as they may be.

Most visitors will spend at least some time in Kigali, if only just to visit the excellent genocide memorial, a sobering and sometimes harrowing museum which helps to put the country in context.

Heading north from Kigali, the primary destination for most tourists is the Parc des Volcans, a chain of five Volcanoes which are the home to the endangered and magnificent Mountain gorillas.  You can read about our epic seven and a half hour trek to see to see the gorillas in Frances’s trip report.

Whether you do one or two treks to see the gorillas or perhaps combine one gorilla trek with a trek to see the golden monkeys, you will undoubtedly most likely enjoy some down time afterwards. Relaxing in the grounds of your hotel soaking up the views and perhaps indulging in a massage is one option but there is more to see in the area; the twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo, the Iby’Lwacu cultural centre at Kihigi, and even gentle canoeing trips close to Musanze which offer some splendid birding, are all worthwhile.

Leaving the towering volcanoes we headed west to the bustling town of Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu, Africa’s second biggest lake. If time is limited and you want to spend just a few days relaxing after your hikes, Gisenyi is a good option. The Lake Kivu Serena offers comfortable, but not luxury, accommodation directly on the lake shore and a lovely place to soak up the sun and enjoy the resort’s facilities.

It is as you travel further south however, that the lake and the landscape comes into its’ own. Much of the road has now been tarred but the project is ongoing making some of the journey quite bumpy but the discomfort is outweighed by the stunning scenery. Every inch of the fertile land seems to been cultivated and the journey south takes you through banana and yam plantations,  fields full of sugar cane and coffee plantations which are run as a cooperative by the local villagers.

At times the roads hugs the shoreline and gives glimpses of the vast lake and, on a clear day, the mountains of the Congo. Elsewhere the road cuts through a green and lush landscape with steeples terraced hillsides and the ubiquitous children calling out their greetings!

Kibuye is a particularly scenic lakeshore town which makes a good overnight stop. Here, the lake is dotted with small islands which can be explored using local boat trips; there is good birding and Napolean Island is known for its population of fruit bats. The location of Kibuye, mid-way between the Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe Forest in the south of the country, makes it an ideal place in which to break the journey but the relatively modest standard of accommodation on offer in the town does mean it really only warrants an overnight stay.

However, continue further south and you arrive at Kivu Lodge, a lovely property set on a private peninsula jutting out into the lake. When we visited, the lodge had only recently opened but given time to bed in, it will serve as a lovely base for some rest and relaxation after your gorilla trekking and before you head off in search of chimpanzees in Nyungwe. Days can be filled doing as much or as little as you want; trips to the surrounding coffee plantations, boat cruises and water sports will all be available; or you could simply lie by the pool all day.

Nyungwe Forest National Park is both vast and breathtaking. Tucked away in the south-west corner of the country, the park covers over 1000 km sq. and is the largest tract of montane rainforest remaining in Africa. Arriving in Nyungwe is like approaching an enchanted forest; the road winds through vast tea plantations which are suddenly, and with no warning, replaced by towering trees, the variety of which is truly impressive with well over 200 recorded species. I don’t think I have ever seen so many shades of green in one place! Within and beneath this vast canopy is a myriad of life, both animal and plant life. Orchids abound in the forest with over 160 different species found in the swamps, on tree branches and on the forest floor.  The park is a haven for biding enthusiasts with over 300 different species, lepidopterists are well catered for with an array of butterflies and there are 75 mammal species of which 13 are primates including chimpanzees and the largest troop of Ruwenzori black and white colobus monkeys.

It is the chimpanzees that are, for many, the main attraction within the park and as with the gorillas, it is possible to do an early morning trek to see them. We were lucky; although wet, muddy and very slippery underfoot, we trekked for less than an hour before we found a group of chimps and fortune remained on our side as they were very settled and far more interested in feeding on the ripe fruits than in moving on.  It can however be much harder as the chimps can be very fast moving and following them through dense vegetation and on steep slopes can be a bit of a challenge!

Walking is a key activity in Nyungwe with numerous trails of varying lengths and difficulty on offer but the most impressive walk, and the one which offers the most spectacular views of the forest, is the canopy walk, the first of its kind in East Africa.  Hung some 60 metres above the forest floor the walkway offers a completely different perspective of the park and brings you so much closer to the birds and even some of the monkeys. It is not for the faint hearted however which is which is why I, with an inherent fear of heights, stayed firmly on the ground and left it to Frances to venture across!

Accommodation options are limited with the simple, but very well run, Top View Lodge currently being our only viable choice. By the end of this year however there will be an upmarket alternative as One & Only will be re- opening the Nyungwe Forest Lodge under it’s new name of Nyungwe House.

Our final stop took us to the east of the country where we arrived at Akagera National Park, an area of over 1000 with a varied landscape of rolling savannah hills and the riverine and lake system. When the park was first established in the 1934, it was twice the size but much of the fertile savannah was settled on in the late 1990’s by refugees returning after the civil war. In 1997 the park was officially re-gazetted to its current size.

The park is both beautiful and diverse. It is flanked on the eastern edge by the Kagera River, whose waters feed into a network of lakes, linked by papyrus swamps. These waterways make up almost a third of the park and are home to crocodiles and hippos and a wide array of birdlife (there are over 500 recorded species on the park). Specialities which can sometimes be seen are the elusive Shoebill and the shy swamp dwelling sitatunga antelope. Further species that can be seen in the park include elephant, buffalo, topi, zebra and waterbuck amongst others.

The park is now run in conjunction with African Parks whose ultimate aim is to conserve and to return the park to its former glory.  Seven lions were trans-located from South Africa in 2015 and, although one of the original females has since died, they have been breeding and now number 17 in total. Since our stay, black rhino have also been reintroduced thus technically once again giving the park Big 5 status!

A visit to Akagera can in no way be compared to the much larger wildlife areas of neighbouring Tanzania or in Kenya where the density of game is so much greater. Big game sightings in Akagera are not assured but what it does offer is a contrasting experience to the rest of the country. Staying at Ruzizi Tented Camp in the southern section of the park was the only time that I felt completely ‘off the grid’ throughout our stay in Rwanda, and the peaceful ambience of having sundowner drinks overlooking Lake Ihema was reminiscent of being in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve or even the Okavango Delta!

Time did limit our experience in the park somewhat but an afternoon boat cruise on Lake Ihema was a relaxing way in which to do some birding and the following day we drove north over the rolling hills to the northern sector where we saw elephant and buffalo on the expansive Kilala Plain. From Ruzizi it is possible to do a full day trip to the northof the park but during two seasons in the year (from June to the end of August and from mid-December to mid-February) it is possible to combine Ruzizi with Karenge Bush Camp, a small seasonal camp offering a more rustic and authentic safari experience.

There are development plans for the park however with Wilderness Safaris due to construct a lodge in the north and 3B Hotels (who own Mountain Gorilla View Lodge and Kivu Lodge) also planning to open a new camp later this year.

The first time I travelled to Rwanda I really enjoyed the experience but this time I fell in love with the country, its people, and its landscapes.  I suspect the gorillas will always be the main reason for people to visit but there is so much more to the country. A two week trip can comfortably accommodate energetic trekking, lake side relaxation, adrenalin fueled canopy walks and some traditional game viewing; all in the company of your private guide and without the need of any internal flights.
During Mary’s visit to Rwanda, she stayed at Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, Amakoro Songo Lodge, Cormoran Lodge, Nyungwe Top View Hotel, Kigali Serena, and Ruzizi Tented Lodge.

She site inspected the Marriot Kigali, Radisson Blu Kigali, Hotel des Mille Collines, Flame Tree Village, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Bisate Lodge, Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, Kivu Lodge, Moriah Hill Resort and Akagera Game Lodge.