My journey to Rwanda started with a very early flight from Norwich to Amsterdam. From here, I met up with a colleague and connected on KLM’s daylight service direct to Kigali. Departing from Norwich Airport was a little surreal; a tiny airport, perfectly efficient although the mandatory £10.00 pre-departure Community Infrastructure levy came as a bit of a surprise… I felt like I was already in Africa!
It is clear as you land in Kigali why the country is known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’. Although I arrived at night, the rolling hills incorporated within the city were easy to see, and magnificently lit by a myriad of twinkling lights. After a good night’s sleep, our journey started with a few hotel inspections followed by a tour of the genocide memorial. The memorial is an extremely moving experience and one I would recommend to any visitor to Rwanda, particularly at the start of your trip. The memorial gives you a good understanding of the horrific tragedy that occurred as well as a greater admiration for the Rwandan people as you continue on your journey through their country.
Once out of the bustling city, we drove north to the Volcanoes National Park (Parc des Volcans), home to the endangered Golden Monkeys and Mountain Gorillas. Our first trek, to the Golden Monkeys, was a little harder than we anticipated. The monkeys had moved some distance into the forest having been chased the previous day by local farmers for helping themselves to the potato crop! We walked through the forest for a good hour and a half at a reasonable pace before we caught up with these affable monkeys and spent an enjoyable hour watching their antics.
The next morning involved another early start and transfer with our guide back to the park headquarters where we ‘checked-in’ for our gorilla trek. Nothing quite prepares you for the immense elation when you first lay eyes on a gorilla in the wild. Trekking through their habitat can be tough with slippery ascents and descents, tangled vines and stinging nettles but on seeing the gorillas all is forgotten. Our trek was fairly strenuous and slippery under foot and I was grateful to have a helping hand from my local porter! We spent an unforgettable hour with the Agashya Group which consisted of over 20 members with one Silverback and several babies. Our sighting was superb. Initially, the gorillas moved for a few minutes and we duly followed at an appropriate distance. However, they then settled and for most of our precious hour we watched attentively as the adults ate and the babies frolicked in the undergrowth: a truly a magical experience.
Having spent three days at Parc des Volcans we departed for Lake Kivu, firstly heading westwards to Gisenyi for a quick hotel inspection and then southwards to Kibuye. This was without a doubt one of the longest and most spectacular drives I have experienced in Africa. Rolling hills hug the edge of the lake as you wind up and down along the unsurfaced road. The numerous villages are filled with friendly locals going about their daily routine, children walking to/from school, women working in the fields, all of whom stopped and waved as we drove past. We reached our destination on the lake in time to enjoy the sunset with a chilled glass of wine and watched in awe as the local fisherman departed in their boats, singing beautifully they set off for their night of fishing.
Our last three days were spent at Nyungwe National Park in the southwest corner of the country. The forest here is stunning. The terrain is rugged, and the steep-sided hills covered with a variety of dense vegetation. There are a number of walking trails and pretty waterfalls and the area is a birders paradise – my favourite was the Great Blue Turaco, frequently heard calling in the canopy.
Another key reason for visiting this area is for primates. During our two days, we enjoyed a colobus monkey walk and a chimpanzee trek. The latter was exhausting but exhilarating. We had a very early start (4am wake up) and were driven by our guide to the start point where we met up with the parks guide and porters (the use of a porter is very highly recommended). We set off at pretty much a jogging pace on a fairly good path into the forest, and I learnt quickly that trekking for chimpanzees here was going to be at a much faster pace than for the gorillas! We managed to locate a single chimp within half an hour which gave us the chance to catch our breath but we were then off again as we tried to make contact with the main group. When chimps move, they move fast and we followed off the path through the thick forest and up, virtually on all fours, a hill that felt never-ending before we caught up with them again. It was well-worth the effort and we had an amazing sighting in the glorious morning light and we listened to their incredible vocalisations as they foraged and swung effortlessly from tree to tree – a wonderful experience.
In summary, Rwanda is a superb destination offering not only the chance to see gorillas and other primates but variety of birdlife, plant life and spectacular scenery. And we should not forget the culture and the people which are very much part of the holiday as you soak up the ambience of local life passing through the villages and towns between your destinations. Unfortunately most visitors spend just three or four days in the country to see the gorillas, but there is so much more to explore and it is definitely worthwhile considering Rwanda for a longer holiday!
For more information read our Guide to Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda and Uganda.