Expert Reviews – Rwanda

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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.

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