THE RESURGENT COUNTRY OF A THOUSAND HILLS
I know what you’re thinking: Rwanda? You want me to go on a safari in Rwanda in Africa? What about the spring of ’94 when the news all over the world flashed images of a country ripped apart by a violent genocide that left a staggering one million dead. But remember, the media will always favor the macabre and the sensational over a country’s recovery process. And recovery is just what happened. It is especially thanks to Rwanda’s women. It was their natural reaction to safeguard their own families and homes that has allowed them to ‘[carve] out unlikely new roles for themselves as pioneers for creating stability and recognition in the genocide’s wake.’ Could we have imagined in the mid-nineties that in 20 years 64% of the seats in Rwanda’s elected house of Parliament would be held by Rwandan women? This number is unrivaled by any other country. So yes, Rwanda is rising from the ashes and rebuilding its society – and one of their accomplishments lies in the field of tourism. Rwanda offers the safari-goer an exceptional and authentic experience, but to get to this point It has taken the undying devotion of park rangers and wardens, private donors and conservationists. To Rwanda! GORILLAS! GORILLAS! GORILLAS! Okay, there is, of course, a great deal to see besides gorillas. As the Bradt Travel Guide waxes lyrical: ‘the mountain-ringed inland sea; the immense Nyungwe Forest National Park with its chimpanzees, monkeys, and rare birds; the wild savannah of Akagera National Park; and, perhaps above all, the endless succession of steep cultivated mountains’ – but Rwanda is unmistakably a mountain gorilla wonderland. SPARK UP YOUR TREKKING SAFARI AT VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK It claims to be the most accessible gorilla national park on the planet. You can curate a varied safari package for your trip abroad; besides gorillas, Volcanoes Park is also the stomping ground for golden monkeys, various bird species, amphibians, reptiles, spotted hyenas, buffaloes, black-fronted duikers, elephants, bushbucks and even fascinating itty-bitty insects – yup, both big and small, found in abundance. The park also has 178 bird species with 29 endemics. Let me guess … you’re wondering about the word ‘volcano’ in the name? This 160 km2 (62 mi2) area in northern Rwanda forms an integral part of the great Virunga Volcano Conservation Region. If you visit, you will literally see a chain of volcanoes and every single tint of green imaginable. The beautifully dense tropical rain forest in the Virunga Mountains along the volcanic slopes is where the gorillas are situated. It’s good to remember that the Virunga tropical forest lies at the crossroads of a trio of countries; the national parks have different names: Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now you know. In 1967, the American zoologist Dian Fossey established her research base at the Karisoke Research Center. She led the conservation campaign for the mountain gorillas and used resources to fight against poaching, up until her murder in 1985. They buried her at the center next to the grave of her darling gorilla, Digit. NAME THE GORILLA Onwards to 2005. To keep tourist’s interests in the park and in conservation, as well as to advertise the gorilla safaris, the team at the park created a yearly gorilla baby naming ceremony known as ‘Kwita Izina.’ The gorilla population has subsequently boomed. There is lots to do in the park apart for gorilla trekking. You can hike to the Karisimbi volcano (3 800 m/1 246 ft of greatness), go on the Mount Bisoke volcano hike, visit the Dian Fossey Center or you can go on a scenic boat trip on the twin lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera. Even better, how about exploring in a traditional dug-out canoe and enjoying a delicious picnic on your island of choice? The landscape is a breathtaking wetland habitat, home to a variety of water birds. Plan this visit to the twin lakes after your intrepid gorilla trek or after a spell of golden monkey tracking. BUT WHAT SHALL I WEAR? Here at TAG Safari, we’ve got you covered. Zip through the list below for all things useful for the ultimate lifetime experience: A small backpack to carry water, a packed lunch, your camera, and binoculars – the rain forest isn’t a shopping mall so you’ll need to have brought all your supplies with you. One little bag makes light work. A pair of lightweight hiking or waterproof walking boots – ensure you have shoes with good ankle support, so get the ones that reach above the ankle bone. A light jumper and breathable waterproof jacket/trousers – temperatures and weather conditions can change quickly. Lightweight, long wool socks – didn’t you get a pair from your aunt a few birthdays ago? A few long-sleeved shirts/trousers – you don’t want safari ants mistaking your arms and legs as a funicular railway. A sweater for cool evenings and those chilly mornings. A rimmed bush hat for protection from the hot sun. Make sure your sunglasses have a neck strap. Yes, you’ll still look cool… Sun cream – a no brainer. Video/photo camera, extra lenses and reserve batteries – you know this, right? Insect repellents to protect you from mozzies. Good old garden gloves to protect you from germs and other items that may scratch your hands. Energy snacks and lots of drinking water – gorilla trekking can take from 30 minutes to eight or so hours. GUIDE YOUR WAY THROUGH NYUNGWE FOREST NATIONAL PARK Nestled in the middle of tea plantations, this massive tropical Afro Montane rain forest is probably the most preserved forest on the African continent. Moreover, it simply oozes with biodiversity. This is a hiker’s idea of paradise. You can also go on a monkey or a chimpanzee trek, opt for a canopy walk on the first forest canopy walk created in East Africa or go birding. The rain forest receives over 2,000 mm of rain each year – it’s Rwanda’s biggest water catchment area – and holds two-thirds of all the country’s water. The rain that falls on the eastern side feeds the River Nile and on the western side, runs to the DRC. Here you will experience primate tracking at its best. Exquisite orchids bloom everywhere, and they attract many butterflies. It will make for ridiculously beautiful photographs. The park offers 13 hiking trails, lucky you! 130 km (50 mi) of trail meanders through the forest. Private hikes between one to eight hours cater for the fit and those of us who abscond from a gym membership. Surround yourself with wildlife, birds, primates, plants, flowers, butterflies, and those majestic trees. Aaaah… now on to the treetop canopy walk. It’s 50 m (164 ft) above the ground – dizzying for some, but guess what lies in store: you’ll witness groups of monkeys swinging and jumping from treetop to treetop, exotic birds flying and swooping above you and below, and an unbeatable view of the mysterious Nyungwe forest. It’s simply amazing. This canopy walk is 90 m (295 ft), and it will be one of the most remarkable distances you’ll ever undertake. A FEAST OF WILDLIFE AT AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK This wonderful park is situated in northeastern Rwanda, right where Rwanda borders Tanzania. It’s a swampy, small lake country and the Kagera River cuts right through it. These water sources work in unison to create splendid scenery and an incredible ecosystem. The game drives here are something else … plenty of buffalo, antelopes (including elands and topis), Maasai giraffes, monkeys, savannah birds, civets, leopards, hyenas, and steely cats. The guides here have a solid reputation of expertise and surprising knowledge about the flora and the fauna that is found in the park. A small aside: remember to remain in your game driving vehicle unless the park guides say that it’s safe for you to get out to take a closer look. Here, they have what is called ‘The Nocturnal.’ It’s a 2-hour game drive at night with a spotlight to view the creatures. It differs from the day drives since at night there is ample opportunity to view predators on the prowl scouting the terrain for a kill or fittingly, a midnight snack – leopards, lions, civets, serval cats, hyenas, and birds, as well as wide-eyed bush babies. IT WAS THIS BIG Fishing in Lake Shakani is another popular activity. Cast your line amidst the snort of the hippos. (They do it naturally; it’s not a commentary on your fishing skills.) At times, the park offers fishing tournaments, so you have the chance to accompany fellow anglers. You also get to keep what you catch, and in case you feel like cooking it, they’ll start a fire and have it roasted for you for lunch. ON A BOAT ON LAKE IHEMA. Boat safaris are one of the main highlights of Akagera’s Lake Ihema. The lake has one of the largest concentrations of hippos in East Africa, and there are also many crocodiles that will regard you from the shores of the lake. While you’re floating down this large, tropical lake, try to spot a shoe bill stork. You’ll also see the elephants bathing. A boat safari will grant you the opportunity of getting much closer to the ellies than you would in a vehicle on any game drive. BEST TIME TO GO ON SAFARI IN RWANDA The weather is generally temperate, and favors travel year-round, thanks to the country’s compact size, the equator being close-by and the high altitudes. Expect a fresh highland feel with a daytime temperature of 30°C (86°F). It can be rainy, however, so you’ll definitely want to go during the dry season – mid-May to mid-October. The conditions are splendid, especially if tracking gorillas is your thing. Einstein said, “Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” If you’re the curious type of traveler, you’ll find the answers you’re looking for on safari in Rwanda.