15 May 2018 by Katrin Rummer
My first glimpse of Rwanda was from my seat in the new state-of-the-art RwandAir Airbus A330 – and what a sight it was. It became immediately clear why the country is called ’The Land of A Thousand Hills’, with lush, green slopes stretching all the way to the horizon, interspersed with winding rivers and pristine lakes edged with little villages. One of the most populated countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Rwanda is, principally, known for two things – the harrowing 1994 genocide and the majestic mountain gorilla. But this tiny, immaculate country – about half the size of Scotland – offers far more than just that, which I was about to discover on my one-week trip.
Arriving into the capital Kigali after an 11-hour direct flight from London Gatwick (including a 1-hour stopover in Brussels), we were picked up by our comfortable 4 x 4 safari vehicle and transferred to the newly opened luxury boutique hotel The Retreat, to freshen up and enjoy a nice cup of the famous Rwandan coffee or spiced tea. Just 30 minutes’ drive from the airport, this peaceful hotel offers a true oasis in a residential neighbourhood of buzzling Kigali. I loved the modern architecture, slick décor, and lush greenery surrounding the property, as well as the unique outdoor saltwater pool, perfect to relax in after a long flight. For someone on a smaller budget, the adjacent Heaven Boutique Hotel offers lovely rooms decorated with Rwandan artefacts. Guests staying at either property can choose to dine at the next door Heaven Restaurant serving a mix of delicious Rwandan and International cuisine at a decent price. This is where I also tried my first Banana beer over lunch, a local brew with an astonishing 14% of alcohol!
Later in the morning we embarked on a visit to Kigali’s genocide memorial site and museum. In order to truly understand Rwanda and its people, this is a must on any itinerary to Kigali. The genocide against the Tutsis in 1994 was one of the most gruesome events in modern history and it's therefore remarkable how far Rwanda has come since. I was truly impressed by the efforts of Rwandans bringing the nation together – for example by introducing a joint community service on the last Saturday of each month. An added benefit of the joint cleaning, scrubbing, building and fixing is that of an immaculately clean and orderly country – the cleanest African country, or possibly any country, I have ever seen.
Akagera National Park
A three-hour drive to the east that same afternoon brought us to Akagera National Park, straddling the border with Tanzania. While the road was mostly paved, it was extremely windy and hilly so the journey took far longer than it looked on the map. But what an exciting journey it was! The lush green hills and farmland slowly gave way to a more savannah-like landscape, the perfect environment to accommodate the Big Five. We arrived at the park’s Southern Gate right in time for the 4.30pm sunset boat trip on Lake Ihema which was an incredible experience with the mirrored lake, surrounding stunning scenery, the wildlife on shore and on the pretty islands – ranging from thousands of birds to hippos, crocodiles, buffalos and baboons. Sailing past pretty papyrus swamps with the sun setting golden-red behind us, we returned to shore to continue the 10-minute drive to Ruzizi Tented Lodge, our rustic, simple yet comfortable overnight accommodation. Following a well-deserved sundowner drink and dinner in the boma by the peaceful lake we settled into our tents for the night.
The next morning, we were off on our safari in search of the Big Five, driving the entire length of the park to the Northern Gate. We were excited to see so many antelope, birds, baboons, zebras, giraffe, elephant and buffalo (there are a total of 12,000 animals in the park) but disappointed not to spot any black rhino, leopard or lion. While the park has re-introduced a great number of each since the genocide, I believe it could take another couple of years for this to become a ‘sure Big Five' destination. The upcoming opening of a new luxury lodge however in the northern part of the park in late 2018 or early 2019 will however put this beautiful park further on the tourist map.
Leaving this stunningly beautiful park behind, we returned back to Kigali. An additional night in Akagera National Park is certainly recommended for the greatest chance to spot wild cats or black rhino and to have a more relaxing experience. Tonight we stayed at the Marriott Kigali, the most high-end hotel in the city, offering sophisticated rooms and the most comprehensive facilities, including several dining options, a lively bar and outdoor pool.
This morning we enjoyed a fascinating drive from Kigali to Nyungwe, the green hills stretching all the way to the famous forest and national park. Hilly roads wind themselves past rice paddies intermingled with eucalyptus trees and tea plantations and it was fascinating to watch the villagers going about their daily lives, bicycle taxis bringing colourfully dressed ladies to their destination, school children waving and laughing at us, people balancing baskets and goods of all sorts on their heads and men busying themselves with paving the gravel roads. The views onto the surrounding landscape were truly spectacular and I just couldn't get enough of this beautiful, clean and green country.
Two hours into our journey, we stopped for a visit of a replica of the 18th century King’s Palace and the 1930s royal residence. The most impressive sight was the resident royal ‘inyambo’ (sacred cows) with their super-sized horns, spanning up to 2.5m between the two horn tips! After a delicious chicken curry lunch in nearby Huye, we continued on our way to Nyungwe National Park, the country seemingly getting greener and more forest-like with every kilometre passed. Home to about 300 bird species, 85 mammal species including 13 different primates – amongst them the famous chimpanzee – as well as over a thousand plant species, Nyungwe is a dramatic, pristine and mountainous rainforest in the south-west corner of the country, bordering Burundi.
We arrived in time to enjoy a short guided afternoon hike through the forest and the longest (160m) and highest (70m) canopy walk in Africa, marvelling at the deep ravines and thick forest of Nyungwe. Our accommodation for the night was the Nyungwe Top View Hotel, a simple hotel located, as the name suggests, atop a hill with excellent views onto the tea plantations, surrounding mountains and Lake Kivu beyond. The excellent service and high standard of meals at the hotel made up for the rather basic accommodation. My recommendation for a more comfortable stay in the area would be Nyungwe House. It's not only the best hotel in the region, but, run by the famous ‘One & Only’ brand, it's one of the finest in Africa. Expect infinity pools, farm-to-table dining and open-air spa treatments all wrapped in lush rainforest.
The national park is a hiker’s paradise and a great location for chimpanzee tracking and the main reason for visiting Nyungwe. Leaving early the next morning we departed excitedly in search of these fascinating primates. Trekking first along a well-defined path, we quickly veered off and hiked through thick rainforest and up and down steep muddy forest slopes – until we heard the spine-chilling screeches of our closest cousins. The fantastic guide and trackers pointed out a community of chimpanzees high up in the trees – a fascinating and well-deserved sight after a fairly strenuous trek! We were lucky that the chimps stayed put for a while due to the rain that had set in, as they are known for swinging from branch to branch and changing location quickly. Photos taken, we returned contented, muddy and wet, for a shower in our hotel. My main advice for the less experienced hiker would be to visit in dry season! Although we enjoyed an exhilarating, adventurous hike, the pouring rain at times made the paths very slippery and fairly difficult to navigate.
Lake Kivu is more beautiful than I had imagined, with about a hundred small islands dotted across the lake and hemmed in by steeply terraced escarpments, verdant slopes and sandy beaches. The best way to explore the lake is by boat and kayak, and with a complete absence of crocodiles and hippos, it's also safe to swim off the beaches in its warm waters. Leaving Nyungwe’s chimpanzees behind, our first stop was the lovely Cormoran hotel on the central-eastern shore, a great place to enjoy a lakeside coffee or early lunch (or even an overnight stay in the lovely wooden chalets). From here, we continued via speed boat to the northern coastline, while our luggage was transported the 2.5 hours by road. En route I marvelled at the breath-taking views of the neighbouring DRC’s (Democratic Republic of Congo) awe-inspiring, active Nyiragongo volcano and its dramatic red ash cloud.
Lake Kivu Serena Hotel is the best option for a stay here, a resort complete with pool, pool bar and beach. Dining is buffet style and the hotel even offers evening entertainment. I recommend a 2-night stay for a relaxing break after the chimp trekking and before the upcoming gorilla adventure. Kayaking is a wonderful way to experience the lake and after a short rain shower in the morning and a quick kayaking lesson, our enthusiastic guides took us, in bright sunshine, across to a lush island and on to the nearby hot springs, which are used by the local Rwandans for their supposed health benefits. With the Sunday’s passionate gospel singing from the nearby local church in the background, we kayaked back to shore where our experience came to an end and the next adventure was about to begin.
A 1.5 hour comfortable drive brought us to the stunning Volcanoes National Park – for many the true highlight of Rwanda due to its troops of mountain gorillas living along the slopes of the five extinct volcanoes, at altitudes of between 2,400m and 4705m. A stay here of two nights gives you enough time to track the mountain gorillas, however three nights will allow for further must-do activities, such as golden monkey trekking, visiting Dian Fossey's museum, hiking to Bisake volcano’s crater lake, canoeing or volunteering with the local community.
Our hotel for the night, Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, is the best value option in the Musanze region, offering spacious Deluxe rooms (or smaller Standard rooms for the smaller budget), delicious food and great service – including hot water bottles warming the bed at night and complimentary boot-cleaning service after the gorilla trekking. Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is one of the most well-known high-end lodges in the region, set high atop a hill with the most breath-taking views onto Bisoke volcano from its outdoor terraces. I loved the luxurious and spacious private bungalows furnished in a traditional style, the fireplaces and the large verandahs overlooking the lush gardens. The top hotel in Volcanoes National Park is Bisate Lodge, with six sumptuous villas all with a unique, luxurious design. Views over the surrounding volcanoes are dramatic to say the least and every part of the lodge is wonderfully stylish, from the chandeliers to the fireplaces. However, for the ultimate, look to the brand-new One&Only Gorilla's Nest. Its end-of-2019 opening marks a new standard in luxury, with the best in cutting-edge accommodation and dining. There's even the possibility of a chance encounter with the local golden monkeys.
The next morning it was finally time for the highlight of the trip – gorilla tracking! Up to 97 gorilla tracking permits are available to pre-book each day. On arrival at the well-organised Kinigi Gorilla Head Quarters, we were welcomed with coffee and tea and then all permit holders were split into small groups according to each person’s fitness level, as walks can take between 2-8 hours return. There are 10 habituated gorilla families in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and our group was allocated the Sabyinyo troop of gorillas, apparently one of the best if you prefer a shorter, less strenuous hike. It's also famous for its two silverbacks, one of them the largest in Rwanda.
After our safety briefing (and learning how to communicate with gorillas) we drove the 15 minutes to the park boundaries and excitedly set off through the light bamboo forest along the slopes of Sabyinyo volcano, following our guide, trackers and porters. The hike and weather were stunning and the landscape changed into one of thick bush, shrubs and stinging nettles – one of the gorillas’ preferred foods. And there they were – a big gorilla mother and her cute baby, just a few metres away from us! I spent the next hour in absolute awe, alternating between delight and fear, clicking away on my camera, and filming approximately 12 mountain gorillas scattered around the bush in small sub-groups: babies play-fighting with each other, one silverback lazing in the bush, one brushing incredibly close past me, and gorilla babies somersaulting down the hill like toddlers. What an incredible, unique, stunning and mind-blowing experience! The allocated hour passed far too quickly, but with a big smile on our faces we returned to our lodge to freshen up and, after lunch and a quick visit to the Gorilla Guardians Village, we drove the 3 hours back to Kigali for our last night at Marriott Kigali.
With a farewell dinner of Rwandese delicacies and final Virunga Mist beer at the popular Republic Restaurant, our fascinating trip to this beautiful, wildlife-rich country came to an end. Then next morning our excellent driver transferred us to Kigali airport for our day flight back to London Gatwick.