Rwanda – a true diamond in the rough – caught me pleasantly by surprise. This small country in East Africa, whose name once conjured up heart wrenching images of a senseless and horrific genocide, now shines as one of Africa’s safest, cleanest countries, with a fast growing economy and friendly, hard working people brimming with hope for the future. It is a breathtakingly beautiful country and one that really touched my soul in so many ways. In the ten days I spent there, I did not see a piece of litter flung anywhere, not a pothole in the road, not a stray starving dog – which is really unusual for a third world African country.
Kigali, the capital, is an interesting city which is gearing up for an increase in trade and industry, with international conferences and an impressive newly built free trade centre and convention centre. The likes of Radisson Blu and Marriott are opening huge hotels recently. I stayed at Hotel des Mille Collines, the famed Hotel Rwanda which was a safe house to hundreds of genocide survivors, and visited the haunting Genocide Memorial. As I walked around the memorial, I struggled to understand how so many people could have been slaughtered while the world stood back and let it happen.
Widely called the Land of a Thousand Hills, I read somewhere that whoever named it that got lazy and gave up counting and that seems about right. It’s also a land of volcanoes, verdant rainforests, sparkling lakes and plains teeming with game. This was a trip of many highlights. Nyungwe Forest, which stretches for 970 square kilometres across southeast Rwanda, is one of the world’s most ancient forests, dating back to before the last Ice Age. The canopy walk, suspended 75 m above the forest, offers an exhilarating birds eye view over one of the most important ornithological sites in Rwanda, where almost 300 bird species reside. Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s great lakes, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, offers a tranquil beach escape whilst offering plenty to do, including houseboats, kayaking and fishing. To the east, Akagera National Park is a small park boasting three ecoregions: savannah, mountain and swamp, and with the planned introduction of rhino later this year, will soon boast the big 5.
Of course, the absolute highlight and something on many travellers’ bucket list are the endangered mountain gorillas. Found up north west on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC, the gorilla population is slowly increasing thanks to the commendable conservation efforts of the Rwandan people. With 22 baby gorillas born this past year, this is a rare success story in the fight against poaching. For USD 1,000, a gorilla trekking permit gives one the rare opportunity to come face to face with these gentle giants. Trekking can be pretty hectic, with treks of up to 7 hours in hot conditions through bamboo forests at high altitude, but the hour spent observing these magnificent creatures is truly a lifetime experience.
Remarkable Rwanda is just that – from the humble, enthusiastic locals to the many natural gems, unique wildlife encounters and touching history, there are countless reasons to visit and even more to return again. – Written by Jennifer Cole