After the rainy season in Rwanda, the ‘land of a thousand hills’ is ablaze with blooms of bougainvillea and frangipani flowers. Arriving in Kigali is like being welcomed in a large village: it appears so peaceful that you wouldn’t guess it’s the nation’s capital. Indeed, Rwanda seems to be at odds with the rest of world as the majority of its population is young and rural, to the point that it has the reputation among its neighbours as being a sleepy little place. With its lush country side and a newly thriving economy, it’s no wonder that Rwanda is emerging as a wonderful destination for world travellers.
In Kigali there are many sights, but the one not to miss is the genocide memorial centre, a poignant reminder of Rwanda’s devastating recent past. As you wander through trellises of flowers you will be struck by the concrete-covered mass graves of 250,000 people who were murdered during the genocide. In a mere 100 days, 800,000 people were killed largely by the Hutu population, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that Rwanda isn’t exactly teeming with tourists. However, far from being stuck in the horrors of the past, the country has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past seventeen years. It is now taboo to speak of Tutsis or Hutus. Rather, there is a drive towards unity and tolerance and you will spot signs all over the place reminding you to love your neighbour. This sense of community is encouraged by an extraordinary measure developed by the government: on the last Saturday of every month, everyone over the age of 18 has to take part in umuganda, a day of community improvement which means the streets and park are pristine.
Leaving Kigali, it won’t take long for you to be in the countryside, with snaking red roads, banana plantations and small markets on the wayside, and this gives a trip there a real feel of adventure travel. The mountain gorillas are found in the Volcanoes National Park, which is an 80 km drive from Kigali. There are only 750 of these beefcake monkeys left in the wild, of which 500 live in Rwanda. However, numbers are on the up, since they reached an all-time low of just 250 in the 1960s, thanks to vigorous conservation efforts.
Catching a glimpse of these awe-inspiring mammals is an arduous task. Because this isn’t one of your average safari holidays, there are also stringent visitation rules once you’re in the gorillas’ habitat: you can stay a maximum of one hour with the apes, you can’t go if you have a cold and you can’t even cough or sneeze (all for good reasons, of course!). Not forgetting the ramshackle plane journeys most people will have taken just to get to Rwanda, the trip up the mountains is fraught with obstacles: coils of rope-like roots at your feet seem like they’ve been put there just to trip you up while forests of stinging nettles lunge at your tender legs. You’ll be tired and muddy and just sick of munching on your trail mix.
Just when you’re about to give up, you’ll be met with a pair of molten chocolate eyes, which seem to gaze deep into your soul and say “Wasn’t I worth it?” “Oh, yes!” you cry, and indeed, it was. A fully grown male will weigh 220kg and reach 1.9m when standing. If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a mother and her baby, you’re in for a real treat. Watching a gorilla mother attentively feed her young is an emotional sight. If you’re familiar with reproductions of the faces of early humans, you will be struck by the similarities between them and the gorillas – a moving reminder of how close we really are to these extraordinary animals.
There are now eight groups of gorillas in Rwanda, and carefully regulated ecotourism is helping finance the conservation efforts of the government and organisations. Importantly, Rwanda is a safe and stable place to travel to. Combined with a unique wildlife observation opportunity, the lush countryside and welcoming ambiance of Rwanda make it a fabulous destination for wannabe Dian Fosseys.