Making the most of your trip
Favorite thing: When you're planning a trip to an unfamiliar region, it's alway's always hard to know what's practical, and it's tempting to try and pack too much into a limited period of time in order to make the most of the experience.
Firstly be realistic about what you can do in the time available. Although Rwanda is a small and compact country, it can take a surprisingly long time to cover what are relatively short distances as the crow flies. Huge investment has been made into the upgrade of the road infrastructure since the end of the genocide, and the roads radiating out from Kigali are generally excellent. However, even if the road is in good condition, the Rwandan terrain is still challenging, and even major roads tend to be winding with steep gradients. As a result, I'd only plan on being able to cover 60km/h on a major road, and considerably less on a minor road ... as for the Kivu road, lower your expectations to 20km/h (especially following heavy rain), after which you'll be shaken, not stirring and thinking longingly of a date with your chiropractor!
Secondly, don't try to fit in too much. Once we arrived, we realised that our original schedule was overly ambitious, and would have resulted in us spending too much time in the car, and too little time experiencing the sorts of things we'd come to see and do. Unfortunately tour operators in Africa are often too eager to please and don't push back hard enough on this point - as a result, they may agree to crazy schedules which ultimately doesn't benefit anyone. If you sense reluctance on the part of the operator whilst you're debating your itinerary, it would be advisable to open the door to their input by asking, "is this doable?" - after all, they're the local experts
Similarly, if you have specific interests (and disinterests), don't be shy to highlight them so that the tour operator can customise an itinerary to suit you - for example, we are particularly interested in birds and reptiles (and less interested in the Big Five), and we prefer to avoid tourism-focused cultural villages and tribal dancing. Keep in mind that it's your holiday, and as you'll be paying dearly for the experience, it's not sensible to endure things that really aren't of interest to you just for the sake of politeness.
If you have organised a private tour and realise that your itinerary is too gruelling (or if you're in a group and all agree that you've bitten off more than you can chew), don't be afraid to ask your guide if it can be scaled back. Responsible tour operators should have good relationships with the hotels and other service providers they deal with, and you may well find that you can make changes to your schedule whilst you're on the road without incurring heavy penalties. For example, we had originally planned to end our trip with a night in Akagera, but realised that it would entail too much driving, and instead decided to incorporate stunning Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda (which hadn't previously featured on our radar).
By virtue of its geography, Rwanda is the sort of place that most people will probably only visit once. You owe it to yourself to get the most out of the experience, so that you don't return home with regrets.
Nous parlons Anglais!
Favorite thing: Notice anything about this sign (other than the scary thought that it will take you 1.5 hours to hike 2.1km on an 'easy' route)?
Yup, it's in English. Which is odd in a former Belgian protectorate which was resolutely Francophone for a century.
Perhaps the most sweeping change that the Rwandan President, Paul Kigame, has brought about is that English has been introduced as a compulsory language in schools, and it is fast replacing French as the languag of business. This is part of a deliberate economic strategy to align Rwanda as part of the English speaking economic bloc in East Africa - rather than the Francophone countries of Central Africa. It also indicates a shift towards closer cooperation with nations such as the U.S. and Britain - he and Tony Blair are big buddies, but then there's no accounting for taste.
From a practical point of view, it means that you have a good chance of being able to get by in English, espEcially when you're interacting with people in their 20s and younger, and most people working in the hospitality industry will have at least a smattering of English. Obviously if you're looking to communicate with older people, French is still likely to be the lingua franca.
Bradt: The best guide to Rwanda
Favorite thing: As a general rule of thumb, we find the Bradt guides about the best for sub Saharan destinations that are somewhat off the tourist track. To date we've used them for Madagascar, Rwanda and Uganda trips, and my husband has also found them reliable for business forays into Ghana, Gabon and Cameroon.
When we visited Rwanda in March 2013, we used the 4th edition - this was first published in December 2009, so it must be about due an update. Even so, we found it fairly reliable, except for the information on the cost of chimp trekking in Nyungwe, which was misleadingly cheap (but probably correct at the time it went to print)
We find the Bradt guides well researched and fairly reliable - even if they are aimed at an older demographic that's (perhaps reluctantly) graduated a step above backpacking, and the tone is a little more 'serious' and less flippant than in other travel series such as Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. One aspect I especially like is that their maps are well thought out and clearly presented (an area in which Lonely Planet in particular really needs to up its game).
Brighton from Churchill Tours: our ideal guide
Favorite thing: As a rule, we prefer to self drive and explore under our own steam: however, because we weren't too sure of how practical this was in the Great Lakes region and were travelling with our children, we decided to opt for a package tour. In hindsight, a wise choice.
We chose Churchill Tours, who are a Ugandan company that also covers Rwanda. After a false start with a taciturn young guide, we hit jackpot with Brighton Munyampame, their senior guide and a man perfectly suited to our requirements.
Although Brighton is Ugandan, like so many people from south west Uganda, he has strong family links to Rwanda and was ideally placed to help us understand both cultures. I was particularly moved by his tales of accommodating Rwandan relatives for years whilst the genocide raged, which brought a whole new - and very personal - dimension to our understanding of this tragic period in the history of this region. The sheer enormity of the tragedy that unfolded over that period can all too easily depersonalise the events to a litany of enormous statistics that leave you feeling punch drunk, and it was important for me to regain the perspective that each and every number quoted related to real people.
Brighton is an excellent safari guide and a skilled game spotter. Even better from our perspective, he has a particular passion for birds, and quite a lot of his time is spent running specialist birding safaris. Although he is an absolute expert, we really enjoyed the fact that - unlike many passionate twitchers - he was willing and able to pitch his expertise at our enthusiastic amateur level.
Because Brighton is a father himself, he was good at anticipating our children's needs, and soon worked out what our specific interests were. It was on his advice that we pruned back our initially overambitious schedule, and his recommendation of amazing Lake Bunyonyi as our last stop was inspired. We found him flexible and good at thinking quickly on his feet: a particularly valuable character trait, as even with the best planning in the world, trips in this region always throw up challenges.
As a personality, Brighton is gregarious, outspoken and keen to share his knowledge and understanding, which suited us well. We were absolutely delighted with him, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend his services.
What to do if you're not happy with your guide
Favorite thing: The relationship between tour guide and tourist is a difficult dynamic as it's so loaded with expectation. And, as with any other relationship, there are times when the fit of personalities and interests just isn't a good one.
For our trip to Rwanda and Uganda, we were initially assigned a young and introverted guide who we simply didn't seem to be able to relate to. After a couple of days of dropping heavy hints about how we thought that he could improve the situation, we realised that it was simply a bad fit, and decided to contact the head office of the safari company.
To their credit, Churchill Tours were extremely responsive, and within a couple of hours, had arranged a replacement guide to meet us en route. We immediately felt an empathy with Brighton Munyampame, and the rest of the trip was an absolute pleasure.
If you do find yourself in this situation, you can help yourself by taking the following into consideration:
1. It's not helpful to simply say, "I don't like him" or, "He's useless". The company needs some pointers to help them identify why the relationship isn't working, and assist them in selecting a suitable alternative
2. Be clear about which of your expectations aren't being met. If, for instance, you have a burning interest in local culture and all the guide wants to do is show you endemic fungi, then point this out. Bear in mind that you should help yourself by clearly stating your priorities and interests at the negotation stage, as tour operators can't be expected to be mind readers.
3. Be polite and constructive. If you are cordial in your discussions with the company and highlight the guide's strengths as well as their weaknesses, you're much more likely to get a sympathetic hearing (and the company has an opportunity to gain feedback which may help them identify the individual's training needs).
4. Be considered in your criticism and be sure of your facts before you make allegations. As an extreme example, if you come from a conservative culture that frowns on physical contact between unrelated males and females, don't make allegations of indecent assualt if the guide helps your daughter up into the safari vehicle. After all, although it's your holiday, it's the guide's career that's at stake.
When all is said and done, you are the client, and you have engaged a service provider to deliver quality service within the agreed time frame and budget. The Great Lakes region is not a cheap travel destination, and it's likely that you've worked long and hard to pay for the trip of a lifetime. The worst possible outcome is that you bite your tongue and return home simmering with resentment because your expectations have not been met, so you owe it to youself to do something to rectify the situation whilst you have the chance.
The definitive map of Rwanda and Burundi
Favorite thing: I absolutely love maps - they're chockful of possibility and promise!
For us, finding a decent map is the start of the planning process - as well as a means of navigating when we're on the ground - but given the wild and woolly places that we often venture, the maps we require are often hard to find.
For this trip, we were lucky enough to happen upon the International Travel Maps 1:300,000 map of Burundi and Rwanda. It's a terrific map, with exactly the level of detail you'll need to explore this region, and since some visitors to Rwanda also tend to visit Burundi on the same trip, it saves you the effort and expense of buying separate maps.
If you're travelling from Southern Africa, I would highly recommend Maps for Africa in Johannesburg as a wonderful resource and the place where we buy our maps and travel guides. The knowledgeable and ever helpful Leon also does mail order, so if you're having trouble finding maps for African destinations at home, he'll be more than happy to assist.
Some tips on capturing a highly photogenic country
Favorite thing: The rolling topography of Rwanda's misty hills shows off the tea bushes to their best advantage and their mesmerising geometric forms are enough to tempt even the most no nonsense tourist to indulge in a little artistic photography. Indeed, Rwanda is one of the most photogenic places that I've ever visited, and although I fall firmly into the 'point and fire' school of photography (no fiddling with F stops and exposure times for me), I found myself inspired to experiment with photographic composition far more than I would usually do.
Of course the beauty of digital photography is that you can 'play' as much as you want, and unlike the punitive development costs of photochemical photography, the only real cost is the time that it taks to erase your unsuccessful attempts!
In response to queries from fellow members on what sort of camera they should bring for this type of trip, we travel with a Nikon D310C and its predecessor, the D70S. The standard lens is 18-55mm - which is ideal for landscapes - which we swap with a 55-200mm lens for wildlife. Last year, my husband (who's much more serious about all this as I am) treated himself to a 500mm 'rocket launcher' of a lens for extreme closeups - he bought a generic Sigma lens which is compatible with Nikon camera bodies, rather than the Nikon lens, for which we would have to have remortgaged the house!
My husband is passionate about wildlife photography, whilst I prefer photographing landscapes and 'people related stuff". We have therefore developed a happy division of labour along these lines, which means that when we decide upon the selection of photos to be printed into a photo album and inflicted on friends and family, it has a balance that is a true reflection of our experience.
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Trek in to see the Mountain Gorillas
Favorite thing: The trek in to see the gorillas is only a day hike, and for our group it was only 2 hours each way. Depending on where the group of gorillas is that you are going to see, it may be up to 4 hours each way.
We were supposed to not get closer than 15 feet to the gorillas, to protect them from human illnesses. But sometimes they would come right up to us. The little ones especially were curious.
Fondest memory: Seeing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.Related to:
Favorite thing: Rwanda especially Kigali caters to the tourist. Gorillas are the big thing but a little reading and research points you in the right direction. It is very easy to circumnavigate the country while on the ground and a pre-booked itinerary is NOT necessary; too late for me BUT not for you guys! For the Gorillas pre-booking IS A MUST but the ORTPN or Rwanda webpage can easily do this for you, book at least 4-6weeks in advance. PRICE U$500 and rising…
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Interview with the President
Favorite thing: An interview with a head-of-state is always a special thing. To top that, interviewing someone who has had such a crucial role to play in where Rwanda stands today, was even more important for us.
Paul Kagame, the soft spoken- teetotaller president, exudes an image which almost seems to hide his past. A military man for most of his life, he led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) the Tutsi rebel force which toppled the genocidal Hutu regime and brought an end to the slaughter.
There have, however, been accusations against President Kagame as well... from the French for one, that he was the one who gave the order to shoot down the airplane of the then president Habyalimana, which sparked off the genocide. He has rubbished the allegations and has in turn accused the French of being directly involved in supporting the Hutu extremists during the genocide. This view on France's role, is also shared by a lot of people in Rwanda.Related to:
- Business Travel
- Historical Travel
Favorite thing: At Ntarama, we met Eddie. A Hutu, who had been part of the Interhamwe and one of the killers.
He had been in jail for 9 years, and had been freed recently, by the Gacaca court, and was doing his bit of community service now.
We wanted to interview him on camera and he agreed...
Eddie recounted, in great detail, his experiences during the killings and his own actions. Pretty brutal and spine chilling stuff...
He described how he had hated the Tutsis, how he killed his neighbours wife, and how he and his fellow Hutus used to compete in killing Tutsis. The fewer the blows needed to kill, the more committed you were to the cause. Heavier clubs with nails were therefore the prefered weapon of choice. He killed 16 Tutsis that he could remember out of which 3 or 4 he killed single handedly.
Today Eddie walks free, though he says its with a heavy conscience. The Gacaca courts had set him free and the husband of his neighbour that he'd killed, had forgiven him too...Related to:
- Business Travel
Favorite thing: Before setting off for Rwanda, i reccomend that you try and watch a couple of films... One is a documentary, `Ghosts of Rwanda' (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/). Its a very powerful documentary which goes into great detail of the events that led to the killings and has used a lot of actual footage which can be pretty chilling to watch...
The other, is the film `Hotel Rwanda' (http://www.mgm.com/ua/hotelrwanda/).
An award winning film, based on a true story, about the heroic actions a hotel manager, who risked his life to save over a thousand Tutsis and Hutus during the massacre.
The hotel where the film/ incident is set is the Mille Collines in downtown Kigali. (http://www.millecollines.net/indexb.html)Related to:
- Business Travel
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Favorite thing: Kigali's central prison or Gikondo Prison, built in the 1930's, was only meant to house a few thousand inmates.
After the genocide, the numbers swelled to well above 50,000. Most of the inmates are accused of savage acts of genocide and refered to as genocidaires. They wait here for their trails to come up before the Gacaca courts.
The bright pink dresses mark out the prisoners. Every afternoon, there are some who get to step out and meet waiting members of their families outside. As soon as times is up for one lot, the next one is brought out.
The time we were shooting there, we were told that no pictures could be taken. Definately none from the outside (the one here has been snapped by hiding my camera behind my producers back).
We were there to shoot the prison fellowships activities inside the prison.Related to:
- Business Travel
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Favorite thing: I forget her name... But hers was a typically sordid tale among many of the survivors. Perhaps hers was a little worse than the others though.
After seeing every single member of her family being butchered at the hands of the attackers, she spent three months in captivity, held by the Hutu 'interhamwe' militia. She was regularly assaulted and raped thru that time.
At the end of the ordeal, when she was eventually free, she realised that she was pregnant. Also, she was suspected of being HIV positive. She eventually bore a son, the only family she has now. The child to her, was also a cruel reminder of the terrible events from the past. She loved him and hated him... Admitted that she sometimes vents her angusih on the child, who had just turned ten.Related to:
- Business Travel
Favorite thing: Things weren't exactly what I planned when I was there so I was trying to get a plane ticket out of there. This is the place that offers you the cheapest price. They don't really care much about customers...perhaps because of the fact that they have loads of them. But if you want a good price, bare with them.
It's at Ave du Commerce, opposite site of Western Union. It's on the second floor.
Tel 573079 Email email@example.comRelated to:
- Budget Travel
Boulevard de la Revolution, Central Kigali, P.O. Box 7469, Kigali, Rwanda
Good for: Solo
The hotel has beautiful views of the park, and is close to the start point for the mountain gorilla...more
Pros: The Manor Hotel in Kigali was clean and had all the functionality you would expect from a nice...more
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