Rwanda – Africa’s rising star

It’s a story of Africa gone right. Rwanda may be tiny and landlocked in equatorial Africa, but it has a big story to tell of unity and progress. Then there are also the uniquely beautiful places, rare wildlife and magnanimous people that all make a visit there inspiring.

By Keri Harvey

At 900 foot above sea level, Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda is low lying, hot and humid compared to the high altitude coolth of the rest of the country. The park is majestically beautiful with rolling hills skirted with Albertine Rift Valley lakes. There’s a sense of old Africa here and a deep stillness seldom found. It’s true when Sarah Hall, Marketing and Tourism Development Manager for Akagera, says: “We’re off the beaten track but not, because the park is just two hours from Kigali. Yet there is the sense of having it all to yourself.”

Karenge bush camp, Akagera, Rwanda

Karenge bush camp, Akagera, Rwanda

Akagera National Park is one of many success stories in Rwanda. In the past five years animal numbers have doubled to over 12 000 and the surrounding community is being engaged and educated on the importance of the park to Rwanda’s natural heritage. There’s a Lions community football team to raise awareness of the newest carnivore arrivals in the park, women’s sewing groups are running and over 1 300 local school children have visited the park recently. Bee keepers have been trained to keep hives in the buffer zone around the park, there are partnerships with fishermen and poaching is under control. Visitor numbers to Akagera have also doubled in the past five years – 32 000 people visited here last year. 

After overnighting at Ruzizi Tented Camp on the banks of Lake Ihema, we drive north and game is prolific. We see Roan antelope, eland, zebra, hippos in the lakes, olive baboons, impala, endemic Defassa waterbuck, Topi, buffalo, warthogs and more. Crested cranes, goliath herons and jacanas are also in the mix. But in the Muhana Valley we stop to marvel at the diversity of wildlife and are promptly encircled by 10 Maasai giraffe, curious at our curiosity. “Everywhere you look is beauty,” says Primates Safaris’ Head Driver Guide, Alex Kagaba, “what else could we wish for?” Maybe only the remoteness of mobile camp of Karenge which changes location twice a year, leaves no footprint and runs on solar. Watching wildlife on the Kilala Plains below, crackling fire at sunset and the silence of the surrounding savannah has to be the ultimate African bush experience.

Maasai giraffe, Akagera

Maasai giraffe, Akagera

Rwanda may just be 250km east to west and 150km north to south, but getting around the uncountable hills and hairpin bends takes time. It’s a long day’s drive over perfectly paved roads from Akagera via Kigali to Nyungwe rainforest in the southwest corner of the country. All the way patchwork green food gardens roll up and down and over the hills in different textures. Women are the farmers here and their open-air pantries are abundant, meticulous and right up to their front doors. They ensure that Rwanda feeds itself and no basic food is imported, while high quality tea and coffee are the main exports.

Patchwork farms

Patchwork farms

Arriving in Nyungwe is a primeval experience. Tall, spindly trees reach for light in Africa’s biggest mountain rainforest. Here live a quarter of the world’s primate species – including chimps – along with 1 086 different species of trees and shrubs and over 140 different orchids. “To us, trees are more important than land,” says Alex and adds that new species of life are being discovered all the time in Nyungwe. Importantly, this rainforest supplies over 70% of Rwanda’s water and new research has shown it to be the furthest source of the Nile.

Nyungwe is another success story with poaching firmly under control, while the park is surrounded by a sustainable harvesting buffer zone to protect the rainforest from encroachment. In the past 20 years, visitor numbers went from 150 to 9 500 last year. This year I add one the total as I walk the Igishigishi trail with Alex. Tiny ferns, white mushrooms and vibrant butterflies line the forest path – and then a black suited white ruffed L’Hoest monkey watching us as a sideshow.

Traditional fishing boats on Lake Kivu

Traditional fishing boats on Lake Kivu

On a shortcut mountain road to Lake Kivu we meet women carrying potatoes. She’s gone all the way over a mountain to trade vegetables. Others move goods on motorbikes, but in the rural areas bicycles are the main mode of transport. They carry loads of sugar cane, bananas and charcoal and are pushed uphill to freewheel down the other side again. A three-piece wicker lounge suite also makes it home via bicycle.

Lake Kivu is on the border with DRC and is low lying and steamy. Traditional fisherman ply its waters for tiny capenta fish and head out to catch at night. Three wooden dugouts are lashed together, the middle one lit with lanterns to attract the fish and the boat on either side is slung with nets for the catch. Here fish and vegetables is staple dinner, and fresh fruit for dessert.

 

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu

Rwanda’s topographical spine is the Virungas. The ancient volcano chain is the natural border between the DRC and Uganda, and it’s also where the highly endangered mountain gorillas live. Every year thousands of intrepid trekkers come from around the globe to climb the steep volcanoes to visit one of 10 habituated gorilla groups. Golden monkeys also live in the Virungas, which was the stomping ground of renowned primatologist, Dian Fossey. She focused world attention on the plight of mountain gorillas, and in so doing preserved the species.

Augustine Nzamurambaho is a local and has been up the volcanoes over 1 000 times, trekking gorillas as a guide and collecting data on them too. “They are our forest people,” he says. “Visitors say seeing gorillas is the best experience in their lives. Some cry. Others propose marriage on the mountain. But did you hear we now have lions in Akagera?”

The start of gorilla trekking

The start of gorilla trekking

Without knowing, he completes the circle and a journey of positive revelations from a tiny country in the heart of Africa. Here the pulse is for progress, the people are inspired and daily life is clean, green and always gregarious.

 

Travel arrangements:

Fly Rwandair – daily flights connecting Johannesburg and Kigali. www.holidayaviation.co.za; www.rwandair.com

Land arrangements – Primate Safaris – highly professional on every level and in business for 15 years. Outstanding guides, vehicles and personalised itineraries – email info@primatesafaris.info; www.primatesafaris.info

 

Accommodation:

Akagera National Park – Ruzizi Tented Camp in the south – www.ruzizilodge.com; email: ruzuzi@african-parks.org and Karenge Bush Camp in the north – www.akagera.org; email: karenge@african-parks.org

Akagera bush camp

Akagera bush camp

Nyungwe Forest Lodge – built on the edge of Nyungwe Forest, the lodge is beautiful, luxurious and close to numerous forest trails.

http://www.newmarkhotels.com/accommodation/lodges/nyungwe-forest-lodge/

Email: reservations@newmarkhotels.com

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Virungas National Park – set in forest with volcano views and close to the starting point for gorilla trekking. See: www.3bhotels.com ; email: info@3bhotels.com

Lemigo Hotel, Kigali – elegant and with views over the city. Ideally located close to the RN3 which leads to the airport. See www.lemigohotel.com or email reservations@lemigohotel.com

 

Essential reading:

The Bradt Travel guide to Rwanda – by Philip Briggs

Important: The film Hotel Rwanda is more fiction than fact and was shot in South Africa.

 

Dian Fossey tomb

Dian Fossey tomb

When in Kigali:

Shop at the Union Trade Centre of Nakumatt Centre on street KN3, and Nyabugogo market – the biggest African market in Kigali. Buy crafts at Africa Gift Corner, Mode Savane, Azizi Life Boutique, Amahoro Ava Hejura, COOTRAC, Rwanda Nziza and Gahaya Links Gifted Hands.

Dine at Africa Bite in Kimihurura for traditional Rwandan food. Drink coffee at Bourbon Café in the Union Trade Centre.

Listen to traditional Rwandan music and drumming at Culture Lab Umurage, Niyo Cultural Centre and Inema Art Centre.

Visit The Kigali Memorial Centre to understand Rwanda’s history and the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

Kigali

Kigali

 

Rwanda’s radical progress:

  • Poverty rating: 79 below the poverty line in 2012 compared to 157 in 2002.
  • HIV infections have been reduced from 13.6% of the population in 1996 to 4% in 2010 – treatment is free at government hospitals.
  • Plastic packets are banned.
  • There is no litter anywhere in the country and the last Saturday of the month is clean up day for citizens. President Paul Kagame participates too.
  • Slums have been eradicated and there are no mud huts or grass roofs.
  • No basic foods are imported for the population 12 million.
  • Kigali is being rapidly regenerated with modern buildings. It’s already a conference hub in Africa. Infrustructure around the country is being upgraded 24/7, there is cell signal everywhere and wifi will soon cover the country.
  • The entire country, with the exception of national parks which cover 10%, is cultivated by hand by women and produce is organic. Crops include tea, coffee, maize, yams, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, bananas, mangoes and various other vegetables. All Rwandans have access to land for cultivating food.
  • Crime is virtually non-existent and violent crime is not tolerated. Rwanda is currently rated the safest and cleanest country in Africa, and of the least corrupt.
  • They have the biggest solar farm in Africa and use hydro electric power.
  • Rwandans each plant 30 trees per year, anywhere they like. No indigenous trees may be cut down.
  • From 1963-1994 the National University of Rwanda had under 2000 graduates; from 1994-2015 there were 60 000 graduates.
  • There are no tribal distinctions in Rwanda post 1994, only Rwandans.
  • Rwanda speaks one language, Kinyirwandan – neighbours DRC speaks 400, Tanzania 106 and Uganda 56. There is no word for ‘genocide’ in Kinyirwandan.
  • Tolerance on all levels is an unspoken motto.
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