Expert Reviews – Rwanda
Heather is a British travel / conservation journalist, and has written for publications and broadcasters such as the BBC, Departures, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times.
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More than gorillas
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.
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.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
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Rainforests, Savannahs, Lakes & Volcanoes
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 tourism 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 many times. It’s incredible how Rwandans have managed to pick up the pieces and how they’ve moved on. 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 one of only three countries where these gentle giants live (the others are Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). 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 the gorilla cemetery.
Many tourists visit Rwanda for gorilla tracking only 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 that’s home to as many as 13 different primate species, including chimpanzees. A big network of trails makes this a great hiking destination. You can walk to several waterfalls and a swamp, but the thrilling Canopy Walk is a must – the views from the suspension bridge are breathtaking. I would rate this forest as a top-class tourist destination, but I’ve never encountered many visitors here. That’s exactly how I like it.
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. On my most recent stay here in 2022, I’ve seen the Big Five and much more. While wildlife viewing isn’t quite on the same level as in famous East African parks such as the Serengeti and Masai Mara, this beautiful park offers a great alternative if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-track alternative.
For me, the best way to end a Rwanda safari is to chill for a couple of days on the shore of scenic Lake Kivu. There are several lakeside resorts, but wherever you’re staying, it’s worth getting out and about to soak in a little bit of Rwanda’s cultural life. Shop in a colorful market, try the local food or visit a tea cooperative. A highlight for me was joining a traditional fishing crew on one of their regular nighttime trips.
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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East Africa’s Phoenix State
Once regarded to be among the most fractious of African countries, Rwanda suffered multiple outbreaks of civil war and ethnic violence during its first 30 years as an independent state, culminating in the Genocide against the Tutsi 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 normalization from which it has barely deviated in the subsequent two decades.
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. Indeed, this is the only country in Africa to host wild populations of all the following iconic creatures: gorilla, chimpanzee, lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, black rhino and white rhino.
Rwanda’s number one attraction is undoubtedly the opportunity to track mountain gorillas on the forest- and bamboo-swathed slopes of Volcanoes National Park – the very same place where the late Dian Fossey studied gorilla behavior for almost 20 years, and the movie Gorillas in the Mist was shot in 1988.
Gorillas aside, Rwanda offers several other wonderful primate-viewing opportunities. Mischievous 100-strong troops of the endangered golden monkey inhabit Volcanoes National Park, where they are mainly associated with bamboo forest. Primate diversity is highest in the immense Nyungwe National Park, with its habituated chimps and plethora of monkeys and rare birds. Chimps, monkeys and many forest birds are also resident in the recently gazetted Gishwati-Mukura National Park.
Rwanda once slacked as a conventional safari destination, but that has changed dramatically following a recent program of reintroductions that have upgraded Akagera National Park to a fully fledged Big Five savannah reserve. Other attractions include Lake Kivu, a vast inland sea hemmed by the sheer slopes of the western Rift Valley, the hiker- and cyclist-friendly Congo Nile Trail through the Kivu hinterland, and the endless succession of steep cultivated mountains that have justifiably earned Rwanda the sobriquet ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’.
Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.
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Not your stereotypical safari destination
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 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.
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
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Reconciliation and renaissance
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 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.
Harriet is a zoologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She has the privilege of working with the world’s top wildlife photographers and photo-guides.
Africa’s Phoenix Rising
It is astonishing how this country has reinvented itself and turned itself around after previous atrocities. Rwanda is now one of the most exciting and vibrant African countries.
It is remarkably clean and safe, with smooth tar roads, good communications and everything works. Although the distances look small on a map, the roads are very twisty, with strict speed limits (thankfully), so it still takes a surprisingly long time to get between destinations. Try and build in an extra rest day or two and don’t be tempted to dash around.
Rwanda is very densely populated, and there are people everywhere, so visiting here is not a wilderness experience. However the landscapes are beautiful and the national parks, although small compared to elsewhere in Africa, are impressive. The government is seriously investing in conservation and national park infrastructure as tourist dollars are such an important source of revenue.
Of course, most tourists come to see mountain gorillas. Rwanda’s gorilla tourism is very well organised and certainly delivers that magical bucket list experience. However there is far more to Rwanda than just gorillas. This country’s other natural treasures include chimpanzees, a multitude of monkey species, endemic forest birds, volcanoes, lakes and, amazingly, the recently reintroduced Big Five at Akagera National Park.
Rwanda also offers a lot of cultural history. Although the Kigali Genocide Memorial is understandably harrowing, we were glad we visited to gain a greater understanding of what this country has been through.