I have been part of the Rhino Africa dream team for over 13 years now and what an adventure it has been. They say that Africa is in your soul and my heart definitely beats to the African drum. Working for Rhino Africa I have been blessed to travel extensively through South Africa and Kruger, Botswana and the Okavango Delta, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Tanzania. And while I could regale many stories about all of these amazing places – one destination stands out so clearly for me – and that is Rwanda.
Rwanda – The Land of a Thousand Hills
Visiting Rwanda and the mountain gorillas has been my most memorable and life changing trip to-date. To be honest, I could easily have moved there. Lock stock and two smoking barrels! Who knows, maybe one day I will.
Rwanda is steeped in history and what they have achieved since the genocide is nothing short of a miracle. Of course seeing the gorillas is the bucket-list experience that should be at the top of everyone’s bucket lists. There is nothing else that compares to standing a few meters from these majestic, human-like creatures and staring into their eyes. While the gorillas are the big draw card to come to Rwanda, what I discovered was that there is so much more to be explored.
A Hidden Gem of an African City
My trip began with a direct flight from Cape Town to Kigali, on Rwanda Air, easily comparable to some of the best airlines in the world. Our first night was spent in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, which is a beautiful and extremely clean city. The whole country comes together on a Saturday morning once a month to pick up the rubbish, you literally don’t see a chewing gum paper anywhere. Rwanda is one the cleanest place I have ever been to.
Kigali sits on a hill overlooking the valleys and hills beyond and you immediately get a sense of why it is called “The Land of a Thousand Hills”. A surprise to me was the culinary delights the city holds. We ate at some wonderful restaurants and the people were so friendly.
Kigali has a multitude of hotels, convention centres and a variety of suburbs from upmarket to more authentic areas. There are plenty of restaurants, buzzing marketplaces and more motorbikes than I have ever seen before. The local taxis are Mopeds and there are just thousands of them everywhere you drive. The traffic is quite insane but somehow it all seems works – welcome to Africa. My favourite hotel in Kigali is The Retreat By Heaven, located in an upmarket suburb – it is small and intimate with a world-class restaurant too.
The 100 Days that will never to be forgotten
Anyone who visits Rwanda must visit the Genocide Museum. Throughout my trip, I always had a sense of the pain and sadness the people of Rwanda have experienced and a visit to the Genocide Museum to fully comprehend this is essential.
My trip to the Genocide Museum was certainly a very difficult experience for me, much more than I had expected. But I am glad I have seen it. I feel it honours the citizens to understand and get a sense of the horrors that once happened there. But even more so I can admire the strength and courage it has taken to overcome and move forward from the atrocities of the 1994 Genocide. It is still so difficult to imagine nearly a million lives were lost in just 100 days – it is heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time. I highly recommend adding this to your itinerary and visiting it before heading off on safari and to see the gorillas.
From City Centre to Forest Fantasy
Finally, it was time to head off on safari! We were collected early in the morning to take a fairly long five to six hour drive to the north-east of the country to Akagera National Park, overlooking beautiful Lake Rwanyakazinga (known to have the biggest population of hippos anywhere in Africa). Here we were transferred to a game drive vehicle and began our game drive to our lodge. Magashi Camp is a classic Wilderness Safaris Camp with just enough luxury to feel like a queen, but understated enough to not take away from the natural beauty and surroundings. It is located on a private concession and safaris are taken by vehicle or by boat on the lake for sunrise or sunset. We had an incredible sighting of a leopard by boat and being able to slowly glide up this elusive creature is something I will never forget.
Here you will see the Big 5 and much more too – eland, hippos and crocodiles were some of my favourite sightings. Akagera National Park borders Tanzania so it has an abundance of wildlife and is also a birders haven. The food is everything you might expect from a luxury safari, but it is the people that leave the lasting imprint and flood you with inspiration and joy.
The drive to the lodge is long, through winding roads and villages. The speed limit in Rwanda is 40km/h and the roads can be fairly hair-raising at times. So for those less adventurous I would recommend taking a helicopter option to get there – which is adventurous in its own right. I would suggest taking a helicopter to Magashi and then drive from there to Bisate Lodge (the next stop on the itinerary) as it does not cost much more and of course gives you the views from above.
The Wonders of Bisate Lodge
This lodge is situated just outside the Volcanoes National Park and in a reforestation area, where in years to come the gorillas will come right to your doorstep, you might not even have to trek to see them. Bisate Lodge is a Premier Wilderness Camp and there are few words to adequately describe this unique and gorgeous property. Bisate is located on an eroded volcanic cone, overlooking the peaks of the Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes and on the doorstep of the Volcanoes National Park. The site is unique in that it is away from the main town, where most of the other lodges are scattered and you are truly in nature from the time you arrive.
The lodge is a haven of warmth and fireplaces, it can get quite cold due to the high altitudes. There are no words to describe this camp, it is by far the most stunning camp I have stayed at. It is SO unique and eco-friendly and the rooms are designed like the traditional Rwanda Weave, so you feel you are in a basket, it is beautiful. They have amazingly big bathroom with a black sunken bath and a little deck overlooking the park and a fireplace that is in the bathroom and bedroom area (the suites are massive).
This lodge is basically in the park as they are reforesting a previous farming area with about 26000 trees so far. Guests are invited to plant a tree and they get a certificate with the GPS coordinates of their tree. This move to planting trees in front of the lodge, which is built on the hillside, is going to mean the gorillas will be seen from the lodge in years to come. What is unique here is that you are not as remote and wild. What Wilderness is doing for the region, uplifting the communities around the lodge and employing people from the community is just WONDERFUL.
When should you visit the Gorillas?
We experienced the gorillas in November/early December which is the rainy season in Rwanda. And whilst not for the faint of heart and definitely more challenging, it is still a wonderful experience. Even out of peak season the gorillas have dedicated trackers that follow them and protect them, so they know where the family groups are at any given time.
We were allocated the Amahoro gorilla family, a peaceful group of 17 individuals with Ubumwe, the dominant silverback of this family group. The trek to see them was fairly easy and was one hour up, one hour with them and one hour back down. Since it was the rainy season, it was extremely muddy and slippery. A porter is essential in the rainy season as they are also your stability. And you never know, a few romances might bloom with a lot of hand holding to try remain upright. Let’s just say that the sight of six women and six random men holding hands up and down the mountain is something that still puts a smile on my face.
The porters are all from the local area and all come from ex-poaching families. So even if you don’t use or need the porter, just pay the 10 USD plus maybe a 5 USD pp tip as it employs these young men, keeps them away from poaching and able to feed their families as there is really no other employment in the area.
Trekking the Gorillas
Luckily, seeing the gorillas is guaranteed as the trackers are with them from sunrise to sunset and then catch up with them again early the next morning. All gorilla treks start off with registration early in the morning at the park headquarters. There are 12 family groups that are habituated, with a maximum of 8 people per group – this is all that is allowed on any given day. By the time you get to headquarters, the guides already know where the gorillas are and each group can choose an easy, medium or hard trek (these can be up to 6 or 7 hours, so only for those who are fit).
Once you locate your gorilla group, your heart will be pounding out of your chest. It’s like you are transported into another world, everything seemingly stops and you realise the value of just being in the “here and now”. We were so lucky to see various young babies playing, moms feeding as well as two silverbacks. We were within three meters of them but they often come closer and sometimes, if you are lucky, one might even come and touch your hair. Our group was so calm and peaceful and just absolutely heart wrenchingly beautiful to sit and watch. The hour seemed to disappear so quickly and before we knew it we were heading back down the mountain, arm in arm with our guides. It was such a surreal and special moment for me.
What to include in your Rwanda Itinerary
There are so many amazing things to see in Rwanda. If you have the time, I would highly recommend adding a trip to see the chimpanzees too which can be found in the south-west corner of the country in Nyungwe National Park. Rwanda is a very small country, you can drive around the circumference in a day. I would suggest splitting your time between Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park as well as Nyungwe. By doing this, you will see more species of wildlife than anywhere else in Africa – many species of primate, birds and even the Big 5.
Rhino Africa specialises in bespoke tours in Africa, look at the Conserving the Rwandan Reserves Tour as an example of the kind of itinerary you could experience. Rwanda has to be the most diverse and special place I have ever visited, everyone should make this their next African adventure.