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Rwanda - The New African Dawn

23 January 2012, 15:38

A recall of our recent filming in the Heart of Africa
Rwanda is not my first pick when it comes to travel destinations.

All that comes to mind are the tragic scenes of the 1994 genocide along with snippets from movies like Hotel Rwanda and Gorillas in the Mist. So, you can imagine that it was with quite a strange feeling that I headed off to the capital Kigali, for the start of a 7 day adventure around the country.

We touched down safely in the heart of Africa after a smooth and comfortable four hours’ flight from Johannesburg on Rwanda Air’s brand new Boeing 737-800NG - Africa’s most modern aircraft, I’ll have you know!

Going through immigration was quick and painless; the officials’ beaming smiles were refreshing and welcoming. But I wasn’t prepared for what I found stepping out the Terminal Building... The streets were clean; the gardens were neat and tidy, street signs advocating the routing out of corruption and co-ordinated traffic! Here in deepest, darkest Africa, things seemed to be organised and operating efficiently. I suddenly started wondering if we had actually landed in Africa!

My trip was off to great start! Clearly I was in for a couple of surprises!

KIGALI

The Hotel Mille Collines couldn’t be more true to its name – a hotel of a thousand hills. Sitting on the breakfast terrace, you’re able to admire the rolling hills of the city of Kigali while savouring a strong cup of coffee. The waitress confirmed that it was local Rwandan coffee - a great way to slowly get into the local groove!

Rwanda's capital is an attractive and low-key city located right smack bang in the middle of the country – so it’s a central and convenient starting point for trips. The city was established with the arrival of German Dr. Richard Kant in 1907 and remained a tiny colonial outpost, until Rwanda gained independence in 1962. Today, Kant’s original house has been transformed to the city’s Natural Historic Museum and is open to visitors daily. The views from the balcony’s are well worth the trip.

One can’t visit Kigali without stopping at the Genocide Memorial Site, it is a sombre visit that beautifully captures the country’s tragic past. The centre is built on a site where 250 000 genocide victims were buried. It is a memorial to the victims - a historical reminder and a place to grieve. But most importantly it shows how far Rwanda has come from these dark days of 1994. For me the room displaying large photographic prints of the children that were lost in attacks, along with their names, their likes, their ambitions and how they were killed is difficult to bear.

Although there aren’t that many attractions in Kigali itself, the city is a great place to meet locals. Today, close to a million people call Kigali home.

The Nyamirambo district has an African Soho-feel about it. I ventured off to meet the colourful women of local cooperative who offer an in-depth view of the area with charming hospitality. I was blown away by the local cuisine – a range of vegetarian dishes, creatively using things like green bananas similar to mashed potatoes – absolutely delicious! For visitors who’d like learn more about day to day life in Rwanda – the Nyamirambo Women’s Co-operative is a must!

The perfect way to end the day a long day of exploring is with an ice cold Primus, a local Rwandan beer. If you order a small one you tend to be brought a 750ml bottle and after a full day filming it is the most refreshing drink. Kigali’s bustling night scene offers a range of clubs of pubs. If you get a chance to visit Mama Africa make sure you say hello to Cobra – the Rwandan legend in Night Life, his restaurant and night club is a draw card for locals and foreigners alike with great food and vibey tunes!

VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK

After a night on the town, it was an extremely short night’s sleep before I was off to the Volcano National Park to explore some of the country’s natural treasures.

The Virunga Mountains stretches over the borders between Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda. With peaks climbing from 2500m to 4507m, this fertile rainforest is an exciting mountainous hiking destination with a range of trails and activities on offer in the area. But the Volcano National Park is home to Rwanda’s biggest tourist attraction – the mountain gorillas. The population of around 400 mountain gorillas has made Virunga the principal gorilla tracking destination on earth. Troops of up to 27 female and juvenile gorillas are headed by a Silverback, these impressive creatures can tower up to 1.8 m high and weigh over 200 kg.

You will need a permit from the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), so be sure to book in advance before you head off to the RDB's Kinigi Headquarters. Visitors are divided into small groups of no more than eight first thing in the morning. After a short briefing we then set off with a friendly, experienced guide into the rainforest in search of mountain gorilla groups.

The guides are in contact with rangers who protect the gorillas deep in the forest via two way radios. So, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come across a group of gorillas within an hour or two’s tracking. Dressing appropriately is essential, it’s quite a track up the steep muddy slopes through dense vegetation, so wearing your Sunday best is not recommended! I looked like a warthog that rolled in a mud bath coming out of the forest. Even though I’m quite fit this track can be quite challenging. I went slipping and sliding a couple of times, grabbing onto the closest plant turned out not be the best option.... it was pretty painful! The forest is full of stinging nettle, a plant that leaves tiny swollen bumps on your skin along with a distinct burning sensation– OUCH!

But it’s all worth every step, seeing the gorilla families up close is a humbling experience! The most important rule is to keep a distance of 7 meters; although the gorillas don’t always stick to this! They move freely about their everyday lives, without paying much attention to the human visitors. We spent roughly an hour observing the gorilla family before making our way back down.

LAKE KIVU

Arriving at Lake Kivu, you could easily make the mistake of thinking you’ve rocked up at the local beach with Gisengi locals lazing about on the sand, enjoying water sports and splashing about in the clean waters of Rwanda’s largest lake.

Across the deep blue water you are surrounded by mountains and can clearly see the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the pristine lake is one of the deepest Rift Valley Lakes, falling 480m deep, stretching 100km long. It’s the ideal “beach” vacation spot in the middle of Africa.

For the more adventurous tourist, the recently opened 227 km Congo-Nile Trail is just the thing. It offers a range of hiking, biking or 4x4 trails through the lush countryside all along the lake – breathtaking scenes that will leave you in awe of Rwanda’s untouched beauty.

Gisengi also has a lot to offer on the cultural scene. I was lucky enough to stumble across the Dancing Pots, from the Abatigayubuke community just outside Gisenyi. The Batwa people, originally pygmies, lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests but now benefit from tourism, with traditional dance performances and pottery making. The angelic singing and local beats combined with ancient dancing is a mesmerising sight. The dancers make you feel welcome; maybe a little too welcome...I was made to join the festvities, all 1,94 m of me! There I was, a giant surrounded by waist high pygmy dancers – not quite as mesmerising, but definitely an amusing sight!

NYUNGWE FOREST

Rwanda is home to the largest still remaining Montane Forest on the African continent. Stretching along the mountainous Southern border to Burundi this 1015 km2 forest is a biodiversity haven. 1050 plant species, 200 orchids, 85 mammal, 278 bird, 32 amphibian, 38 reptiles, 170 butterfly species and 13 primates including the endangered Chimpanzee.

Nyungwe is home to around 400 chimpanzees, they are our closest species relative in the wild with 98% of chimpanzee DNA being identical to that of humans. Entering the dense forest just after dawn can be rather thrilling when you hear the excited chatter and shouting of chimpanzee groups just meters above your head in the trees. I discovered an adult male chimp, high up on a branch munching away on his breakfast. Although the semi-habituated chimps don’t seem too phased by human visitors; I don’t think he was too keen on his picture being taken - because shortly afterwards a warm yellow liquid showered us from above!

After visiting our relatives, I headed off to Nyungwe National Park’s latest attraction - the Canopy Walk. This guided walk through the heart of the Nyungwe Forest is amazing, but not for the faint hearted. The 70 m (?) high walk across suspended bridges allow for spectacular views, but my fear of heights made crossing the canopy slightly challenging. I can tell you, you will be rewarded for facing your fears! Hiking in the crowns of the majestic rain forest offers endless opportunities to enjoy awesome views over the mountains and chances to spot other primate species like the Colobus, Hoest, Silver, Owl Face or Red Tailed Monkeys.

BUTARE & NYANZE

The cultural centre of Rwanda is situated just south of Kigali in the towns of Butare and Nyanza.

Home to the National Museum of Rwanda, Butare is known as the intellectual capital of Rwanda and as centre for education. A gift from King Baudouin I of Belgium in 1988, the museum’s 7 display rooms offer a complete overview of Rwanda’s history.

Nyanza is about an hour’s drive north of Butare. The town is rather unassuming but rich in historical value. In 1899 the King of Rwanda decided to create a permanent royal capital on Nyanza Hill breaking with the traditions of having residences all around the country. The King left Rwanda in 1954, and although he hasn’t returned to the country, one can still visit the traditional palace constructed from grass reeds and clay. The King’s bed gives new meaning to the idea of a King size bed – the Rwandan King & Queen rested their heads on a custom sized 4 by 3 meter bed! One has to wonder if they every played a game of tennis on it – it sure would have been possible! Outside the traditional palace is a herd of the king’s long-horned cattle – an unusual species with great sculptured looking horns.

Adjacent to the traditional palace is the Rukali Palace Museum, the modern palace, which was built in 1933 – a more colonial structure with western furniture. It’s worth a walk through to see the contrasts between the old and new.

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK

To the East of the country the topography suddenly changes from the rolling hills to the relatively flat and lower lying landscapes. You may not think of Rwanda as a safari destination like Tanzania or Kenya, but you’d be amazed to know that the biggest attraction out this way is the Akageera National Park, managed by African Parks. The reserve is named after the Akagera river and is home to Elephant, Buffalo, Lions and dozens of Antelope species. It’s become well known as an ornithologists’ paradise with over 550 recorded bird species. And the bonus is that it’s a malaria free area because of its altitude, so there’ll be no endless mozzie swatting.

The highlight of my Akagera trip was a boat trip across Lake Ihema. Quite unusual for game a reserve, this excursion allows stunning views of bird life, hippos, crocodiles and large floating papyrus islands, and with some luck also any of the larger mammals.

LOOKING BACK

Rwanda is so much more than Diane Fossey’s Gorillas and the images of genocide that blitzed around the globe in 1994. The Country of the Thousand Hills turned out to truly be a country of thousand surprises.

This tiny country in the centre of the continent in my mind is the heart of Africa. It has made an astonishing turnaround and has grown leaps and bounds from its tragic past. People are honest, sincere and friendly. It’s overwhelming and endearing to experience such warm welcome everywhere you go from the cities to the villages to the countryside.

The cultural and environmental highlights are all just a few hours’ drive from Kigali. The country is safe and crime is virtually non-existent in this obviously law-abiding country, so you free to explore and discover Rwanda’s hidden treasures.

If you ever get a chance to visit Rwanda, don’t give it a second thought! Rwanda is a must travel destination for any globetrotter, explorer or ordinary traveller!

TIPS

Getting there:

Rwanda Air is a first class airline. Its runs services to Johannesburg, Libreville, Lagos, Brazzaville, Nairobi, Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam and Dubai, as well as a range of internal flights.

Getting around:

There are plenty of ways to get around the cities – with public motorcycles, minibus taxi’s and bus services operating at reasonable costs. Going the self-drive route is also an option. Be sure to hire a car from the airport – it’s quick, easy and cheaper. Driving was another surprising experience, Rwandan drivers are courteous and friendly! Simply indicate you next move and the car behind you slows down and lets you in, if you want to overtake - the car ahead of you signals you with his indicators when it is safe to do so. What a pleasure!

Keeping in touch:

Wifi connections are available just about everywhere – while the connection may be slow at times, it’s usually free. If you feel like going the old school route and writing a quick postcard, get ready for another awesome surprise. The post office I popped into clearly hadn’t had any international postcards for a long time. There was a bit of a debate about where exactly Malaysia was. The polite staff battle to find the correct stamps, and as it turns out if you’re planning on sending a postcard from Rwanda make sure you don’t have a lot to say – the stamps take up most of the space!

Environmentally consciousness:

Rwanda is strides ahead of other African countries. Most places won’t sell cooldrink cans, it’s all mostly glass bottles that are returned and recycled. You’ll also battle to find any plastic bags, as they are prohibited in Rwanda. The strict environmental and infrastructure policies are visible everywhere – there is no garbage or filth flying around, the country is simply spotless!

Local Lingo:

Most Rwandans speak a combination of Kinyarwanda, French and /or English. It’s easy to communicate – someone will usually be able to help you so don’t worry about getting a translator. As a Caucasian traveller you’ll hear the term “Muzungu” A LOT! It’s not an insult, it simply means white person – and little children from local villages shout it out a friendly greeting – it’s very cool to experience!

To follow Awesome Africa - the unique travel program of the African continent please join our Facebook Group: www.Facebook.com/AwesomeAfricaTV

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