Expert Reviews – Rwanda

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More than gorillas
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The way Rwanda has positioned itself as one of the most exciting tourism destinations in Africa is seriously admirable. Its controversial president, Paul Kagame, has invited some of the top tourism operators to develop properties in the country, bringing luxury accommodation to Volcanoes National Park, where the mountain gorillas are, and launching the first Big Five safaris in Akagera National Park, which has been rewilded by non-profit African Parks. It’s safe and noticeably clean, thanks to a monthly community clean-up day and a ban on plastic bags (a ban on single-use plastics has just been introduced).

Most people will go to Rwanda for the gorillas – but everyone should stay for the prolific wildlife, world-class birding and its cool, arty capital, Kigali, which is deserving of at least a couple of nights. It’s a tiny country, so it’s easy to drive everywhere. As a single female, I felt very comfortable catching the bus from Kigali to Gisenyi on Lake Kivu – an easy way to save some cash.

Akagera was ransacked during the civil war, but this beautiful park – with its lakes, papyrus swamps, hills and savannah – is now a Big Five safari destination. I’ve been twice so far and seen lions, elephants, buffalos, hyenas, hippos and even a leopard (in the northern Magashi concession). The birding is excellent, too – there are nearly 500 birds in the park and my group counted 100 over a two-night stay.

Nyungwe Forest is another great birding destination and also where you can visit tea plantations and track chimps. A similar habituation programme is currently taking place in Gishwati Mukura National Park, which is being developed for nature tourism. Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s ‘beach’ destination – I had fun paddle-boarding on the freshwater lake (which is free of crocs and hippos) from Gisenyi.

Rainforests, savannah, volcanoes and Lake Kivu
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I was apprehensive when I first visited Rwanda in 2000, just six years after the horrific genocide in which close to a million people were killed. The wounds were still raw, but even then Rwanda had started to rebuild its tourist industry from scratch.

For me it was an emotional journey and the beginning of a long relationship with a country to which I’ve since returned on several occasions. It’s incredible how Rwandans have managed to pick up the pieces and move on. But they have. Today the country is flourishing, and tourism is playing a big role in the upliftment of the people.

Rwanda’s biggest draw is the opportunity to track mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. It is only one of three countries where these gentle giants live (the other ones are Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). I’ve been privileged to track them many times and I can say it is as worthwhile as the hype suggests. Rwanda is perhaps the most famous gorilla country as it was here that Dian Fossey first habituated these great apes. If you have read about her and the work she has done, you might be interested in hiking up to her old research station and gorilla cemetery. This is just one of many hikes on offer in Volcanoes National Park; there are several summit hikes as well as the opportunity to track golden monkeys.

Unfortunately, many tourists do the gorilla tracking as an add-on to a safari in Kenya or Tanzania. There is, however, a lot more to explore in this beautiful country referred to as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.

Nyungwe National Park protects a stunning montane rainforest home to as many as 13 different primate species including chimpanzees. There are lots of different trails to explore in Nyungwe and as there are no gorillas here to attract the crowds, activities tend to feel very low-key.

Akagera National Park has seen an amazing transformation since it came under the management of the capable non-profit conservation organization African Parks in 2010. The recent reintroduction of lion and black rhino has given the park Big Five status again.

A stay at Lake Kivu, a scenic Rift Valley lake hemmed in by several volcanoes, is a nice safari add-on for relaxation, swimming and boating.

Reconciliation and renaissance
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Rwanda is one of the most inspiring countries I’ve visited. I first went in 2004 and have returned many times since: each time, I’ve been amazed at the country’s ongoing regeneration and resilience.

Rwanda is known for two things: its rare mountain gorillas and the devastating genocide against the Tutsis of 1994 that saw around 800,000 people murdered by the Hutu majority. While the horrific conflict is in the past, it still very much influences the country today – the government has strived for unity and reconciliation among its people. There are no ‘Hutus’ or ‘Tutsis’ these days: everyone is Rwandan, and while it would be facile to say that the whole country has moved on, visitors are astounded by the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness that they witness. A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a must to understand the history and horrors of the past, and to truly appreciate just how far the country has come.

Economically and environmentally, Rwanda has moved on too. From being the poorest country in the world in the late 1990s, it now has one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies with a health system that is the envy of its neighbors and more women in parliament than any other country in the world. It’s also spotlessly clean – plastic bags have been banned here for many years, so please remember to leave them at home.

Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, almost every corner on Rwanda’s winding roads offers up another fantastic view of mountains, lakes and knolls. And the wild places and wildlife have experienced a fantastic resurgence too. The numbers of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park have consistently increased over the years. Akagera National Park in the east has become a Big Five reserve following the reintroduction of lions and rhinos. Nyungwe Forest National Park became a protected reserve to safeguard its incredible primate populations and, most recently, Gishwati-Mukura received national park status to preserve its primary rainforest.

I would urge anyone visiting Rwanda to spend around two weeks here, not just a flying visit for the gorillas lasting a couple of days. Aside from the national parks, there is so much more to experience – from its gleaming capital Kigali to the beach-like shores of Lake Kivu.

East Africa’s phoenix state
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Once regarded as among the most fractious of African countries, Rwanda suffered multiple outbreaks of civil war and ethnic violence of its first 30 years as an independent state, culminating in the horrific genocide that claimed the lives of one-eighth of its population in 1994. When I first visited the country in 2000, memories of the genocide were still raw, but the country had already embarked on a long and arduous road to normalisation from which it has barely deviated in the subsequent two decades.

Still, few back then would have predicted that Rwanda would one day rank among Africa’s most compelling wildlife-viewing destinations. Yet that is exactly what it is today. Its number-one attraction is undoubtedly the opportunity to track mountain gorillas on the same forest- and bamboo-swathed slopes where the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behaviour for almost 20 years, and the movie Gorillas in the Mist was shot in 1988. Other attractions include Lake Kivu, a vast inland sea hemmed by the sheer slopes of the western Rift Valley; the immense Nyungwe Forest National Park with its habituated chimps and plethora of monkeys and rare birds; and the endless succession of steep cultivated mountains that have justifiably earned Rwanda the soubriquet ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.

Furthermore, while Rwanda once fell short as a conventional safari destination, this has changed dramatically following a recent program of reintroductions that have upgraded Akagera National Park to a fully fledged Big Five savannah reserve.

Not your stereotypical safari destination
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There is much more to the ‘the country of a thousand hills’ than initially meets the eye. Small, compact and easy to travel around, friendly Rwanda has well and truly consigned the tragic genocide of 1994 to history. The country has reconciled and rebounded spectacularly from this tragedy and today it is one of the friendliest, safest and most welcoming countries on the continent.

With its many families of habituated mountain gorillas, Volcanoes National Park in the northwest of the country is unquestionably the most famous (and popular) of Rwanda’s protected areas. Sadly, most visitors to Rwanda simply come to spend time with its world-renowned mountain gorillas and then leave without sampling any of the country’s other safari offerings. While gorilla trekking is definitely Rwanda’s top safari attraction, Akagera and Nyungwe Forest national parks are great additions to your Rwandan safari experience.

All three national parks are easily accessible by road, so a country-wide circuit through Rwanda’s gently rolling hills can provide a fascinating and rewarding Rwandan safari experience. It could include Volcanoes National Park (for gorillas, trekking and birding), primate-filled Nyungwe Forest (for chimpanzees, waterfalls, bird watching and hiking) and Akagera (for a typically East African Big Five savannah safari experience), along with some time on Lake Kivu (for boating, kayaking and hiking) and a couple of days to explore the capital city of Kigali (with its sobering genocide museum).

With its stunning mountain scenery and surprisingly diverse wildlife resources, Rwanda offer far more than Africa’s premier mountain gorilla viewing, and is absolutely worthy of further exploration.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.2/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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