Virunga National Park
This is, without doubt, the visit número uno in Rwanda!
Since I had no money enough to pay for the visit to the gorillas, I did not go, but it is my intention to travel again to Rwanda and that time I will go to Viringa.Related to:
- Budget Travel
- Adventure Travel
Sightseeing with an Extraordinary Tourist Guide
In Greek Mythology, “Apollo” is the god of knowledge, light, and sun who lives on Mount Olympus. In Rwandan lore, “Appolo,” the driver, the tourist guide, the coachman, and the man … is legendary. Appolo is a man highly regarded in and around Rwanda, indeed almost mythical. Upon entering Rwanda, I kept hearing the name “Appolo,” spoken each time travel to a different locale was proposed. At the time, I deduced that this all-inclusive “Appolo” was a retinue of coachmen that trekked the countryside of Rwanda. On my first commute day in Kigali, I met this “Appolo man” as the driver who would escort me to my residence. On my second sightseeing excursion, I asked the very same refined man, “And Sir, What is your name?” He politely stated, “I am Appolo.” I thought he spoke of the company name where he was employed. Confused, I reframed my question and inquired of his personal name. He looked at me curiously and stated, “I am Appolo or Appolinaire.” This tall, pleasant, composed, and punctual gentle man was himself thee Appolo of whom I had heard since my arrival. He was the driver, the tourist guide, the coachman, the man, and the legend. The man positioned before me at that moment, was the name that was hailed repeatedly by those seeking dependable transit. This one and only Appolo stood before me ready to take me on the tour of a lifetime. “Appolo of Rwanda,” or Appolinaire is a tourist guide extraordinaire! He was amenable to the itinerary that I had initially proposed. However, with his skill, knowledge, expertise, and observance of my time constraints, his conscientious recommendations obliged my consent and he became the architect of an unbelievable experience. Appolo took me on an expedition that I shall forever enshrine in my most cherished memories. His knowledge of history in the region is prodigious, descriptive, enveloping, well informed, sometimes personal, but most of all enlightening. His cultural pride is deeply respectful and worthy. We drove throughout the beautiful and developing city of Kigali of a thousand hills, its expanding downtown area, with its architectural marvel in the Bank of Kigali. Appolo was very mindful to mark points of interest, such as The Mille Collines, the foregone refugee center once known as Hotel Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. We journeyed passed Urugwiro, the President of Rwanda’s official residence and on to the entry of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which was temporarily closed for the genocide remembrance preparation. We visited the Ntarama and Nyamata churches, both memorials of the lost souls of the holocaust and once bloodstained annihilation chambers that should have been protected sanctuaries of innocent people. Both churches are now peaceful consecrated mausoleums abounding with the actual skulls, bones, and spirits of a sanctioned ethnic cleansing. During our long journey Appolo and I traversed the vales, crossed a beautiful narrow stream in this landlocked country, discussed farming, climate, and the colorfully beautiful people of Rwanda’s past, present, and future. We sojourned several of the well-known marketplaces including the famous Nakumatt market inside the City Centre. He showed me the Nyabugogo travel hub and Kimironko Market that I had visited previously. We stopped so that I could browse and shop at the curios Kaplaki craft market further out from Kigali. Appolo ended this incredible day in ushering me, right on schedule, to the Kigali International Airport for my evening flight. Anyone that has the unique privilege and fortuitous opportunity to visit Rwanda absolutely must seek and find this wonderful travel god of knowledge, light and sun….Appolo of Rwanda. I hereby, volunteer my honest and forthright testimony so that African trekkers to Rwanda may meet a man who fashioned a day in my life, that I shall never forget.Related to:
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
- Road Trip
Gisakura reception office for chimp trekking
There are a couple of starting points for chimp trekking in Nyungwe, depending on which habituated group you're hoping to encounter.
We started from the Gisakura reception office, which is located a couple of hundred metres off the main road. The office is located adjacent to the basic but comfortable Gisakura Guest House - the only budget accommodation in Nyungwe, and a highly recommended overnight stop if you're going chimp trekking, which starts well before dawn at an ungodly 05:00.
Chimp trekking is not cheap - contrary to the unrealistically low cost quoted in the 4th edition of the usually reliable Bradt guide to Rwanda - which may have been correct when it went to print in December 2009. In March 2013, it cost a stiff USD250 per person (including guide and vehicle) - having said that, it's a third of the cost of gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park, and once you realise the manpower required to protect and locate the animals, the cost doesn't seem quite so unreasonable.
Teams of trackers are permanently deployed in the forest during the day to track the habituated groups and note the location of their night nests: this also helps to protect the animals from poachers (although, fingers crossed, this doesn't seem to have been a particular problem in recent years). The trackers set off well before dawn to confirm the location of the group and are in radio contact with the guides, so under normal circumstances, your chances of finding chimp are pretty good.
The reason for the early start is to find the animals whilst they are still in their night nests (which the only use once) as they tend to be fairly mobile during the day.
GORILLAS AND OTHER TOURS IN DRC
Want to see the Gorillas on the DRC (cheaper) side?
Emmanuel Munganga Rufubya is an excellent and economic local guide. I first met him across the border in Rwanda, Hi literally walked me across the border and helped me avoid being strip searched and/or having all my examined item by item by the DRC authorities. Other people were not that lucky. During my time in Goma, Emmanuel organised my transport to and from my hotel as well as my Gorilla permit. He also organised my transport to the Gorillas and back. The best part of Goma was when he organised 2 motorcycles for a full day out in all of Goma. Our drivers were awesome and we had a great time. Emmanuel even dealt with both times we were stopped by the Police and only one bribe of $11 was paid to one of these corrupt bastards. My great guide took me from the shores of Lake Kivu to the main market area of Goma. He always seem to know when to tell me to put away the camera. The first Policeman never even saw the camera - an instant 'fine'. I was even able to get photos of the airport and UN base.
Emmanuel took me to local markets and explained everything in great detail. I can only highly recommend his services. I was on a budget and did not pay him that much. You can contact him and agree a price. Unfortunately Goma is not ready for tourists. With roving Police, Militias and even insurgent Guerilla gangs, you need a good guide here.
I found Emmanuel and his drivers to be a real joy to go and explore the area with. I felt safe in their hands from driving to security. I also saw and experienced the full range of sights and aspects of daily Goma life. Play it safe and smart and hire Emmanuel.Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- National/State Park
Surprisingly interesting royal palaces at Rukali
In all honesty, I didn't arrive the Royal Palace at Rukali with great expectations - maybe because we'd just fallen off a red eye flight from Burundi, possibly because it was tipping rain and probably because the museum in Butare was the standout item in our day's itinerary - which is probably why I had such an unexpectedly good time.
Nyanza was establshed as the seat of the Rwandan monarchy at the turn of the 20th century, replacing the previous model where the monarch and his entourage migrated between dozens of royal compounds dotted across the country. The museum comprises a series of carefully reconstructed huts, as well as the 'modern' palace built for the last King Mwami Rudahigwa Mutara III by the Belgians in the early 1930s.
The museum faithfully reconstructs the royal compound as it would have been, and the multilayered construction of the reed huts is amazing. As well as the royal hut, you are also guided around the hut occupied by the keeper of the royal milk, and - the absolute highlight for us - get to meet the herd of Ankole cattle, who must be about the most pampered cattle on the planet.
As it turns out, the museum would have been an interesting stop even if we'd wandered around by ourselves. However, what brough it alive was a terrific, sharply dressed young tour guide (whose name I have sadly forgotten) who breathed life into the place through his narrative and transformed an enjoyable stop into an genuinely wonderful experience.
Just be aware that if you visit here and then travel onto the National Museum in Butare, there's quite some overlap in the material about the royal way of life. However, there's so much else of interest in the museum, that this is only a minor consideration.
The entry fee covers both the traditional and new palaces on this site. In addition, there is also an art museum in Nyanza which occupies the second modern palace built for the king in the late 1950s on a hilltop overlooking the town. This showcases modern Rwandan art, and is apparently excellent, but unfortunately our schedule didn't allow us time to visit this.
Spotting the sunbirds
Sunbirds in Africa occupy the same ecological niche as hummingbirds in the New World, and are every bit as exquisite and hyperactive.
By far the best place we found to observe them in Rwanda was in the garden of the Gisakura Guest House in Nyungwe. I'm not sure whether it was just the time of year - as many of the bushes were in flower during our visit in March - but there were so many of them that the shrubbery seemed alive with their frenzied activity. Even if you're not staying here - and I would strongly recommend that you do - it's still worth a visit, as the chances are that you'll end up organising a chimpanzee trek or a rain forest hike from the Gisakura Reception Office across the road.
If you're sunbird spotting, be aware of the fact that - true to their name - these little darlings love the sun, so don't expect much activity until the sun is well risen: we found that the best time to spot them was in the afternoon.
Glorious view from the Ndaba Falls
The view out from the Ndaba Falls is possibly one of the most spectacular in a country where stunning vistas are ten a penny.
Especially if you visit in the rainy season when visibility is at its best, you have a sense of being able to see forever.
The beautiful Ndaba Falls
Our visit to the lovely Ndaba Falls (Chute de Ndaba) was a fortunate piece of happenstance because they hadn't featured on our radar when we were planning our trip, but which we came across mention of once we were on the road.
If you're driving from eastwards from Kibuye towards Gitarama (which is counterintuitively the easiest way to get to Ruhengeri due to the dire state of the road along the shore of Lake Kivu), you'll find the falls 20km from town on the right hand side of the road. The falls are located right by the side of the road, and are particularly attractive because of the stark contrast between the falls and the gently meandering, peaceful upstream section of the river before it plummets without warning over the cliff. This would be a nice spot for a picnic, but just be careful if you're travelling with kids, as it would be terrifyingly easy for them to run off the edge (see my second photo).
We were there in March, which is during the rainy season, so there was quite a flow over the falls: apparently in the dry season it's less impressive. However, I wouldn't let that deter you from visiting, as whilst it's hard to find a view in this part of the world that isn't lovely, the falls command a particularly gorgeous vista over the surrounding area.
Beware of Akagera's baboon battalions
There are very few animals in God's creation that I dislike - but in the case of mosquitoes and baboons, I'll make notable exceptions. Mozzies for obvious reasons, and baboons because they are fierce and opportunistic scavengers that become so habituated to humans that they pose a menace.
Having declare my bias, baboons do display fascinating group dynamics, and because they're so blase about human beings, it's much easier to observe their social interactions than it is with other apes. And this troop that we encountered in Akagera was the largest that I've seen in some time - probably over 80 individuals of all ages and sizes.
This large male would be almost as heavy - and probably at least as strong - as a small adult, with vicious claws and enormous incisors to boot. Whilst it's fascinating to watch these beasts from the safety of your vehicle, make sure that you don't have your windows open if you have food in the car. Given half a chance, they will happily risk an opportunistic raid, and be particularly cautious if they appear whilst you're picknicking or eating out of doors in your camp.
Each viewpoint more spectacular than the last
I'l be honest: I can't even tell you where this is, except that it's somewhere on the road between Kibuye and Ruhengeri.
However, that's exactly the point that I'm trying to make: Rwanda is such a spectacularly scenic country that it's no surprise that it's known as 'The Switzerland of Africa'. Actually, as we discovered, that's not the only reason: it is - by a country mile - the neatest and cleanest country in Africa, which came as a complete and unexpected revelation.
If you're a serious photographer and want the optimal conditions for this type of photography, consider visiting in (or just after) the rainy season, when there's less dust in the lower atmosphere, which will give you clearer photos. Rwanda has a 'short' wet season between October and November, and a 'main' rainy season, which runs from mid-March to the end of May.
Surprisingly good gamespotting in Akagera
It was a miracle (and a curse) that we actually got to Akagera, since it had featured on our original itinerary, only to be culled when we realised that we'd bitten off more than we could chew - and then got reinstated due to a stuff up with our return flights.
Having been faced with an unscheduled 17 hour delay in our return flights, rather than being confined to a day room for the duration, we decided to make the best of a bad job and do a day trip to Akagera. To their immense credit, the wonderful Churchill Tours (who had dropped us at the airport before this problem became evident) scrambled a locally based guide to assist us at no notice AND only charged us petrol for the day - if you ever needed a reason to use this company, then this degree of customer service should be the trump card.
On the face of it, Akagera doesn't sound too promising. Although it is a natural extension of the iconic East African plains ecosystem that encompasses the iconic Masai Mara and Serengeti parks, the fact that over half the area of the park (including the neighbouring wildlife reserve) was 'degazetted' in 1997, thus reducing the park area to just under 1,100 square kilometres, was not a good sign. Unfortunately flat land is in very short supply in a country as hilly as Rwanda, and with a population density of 430 people per square kilometre in 2010, the conflict between land for subsistence agriculture and land for conservation was always going to be intense.
On the upside, the road to Akagera is excellent, and getting there from Kigali shouldn't take you more than two hours on a perfectly pleasant - if scenically unspectacular - road. And - perhaps because we went with pretty low expectations of the wildlife - we were pleasantly surprised.
In breach of the cardinal rule of game spotting (which is that the best times to venture forth are dawn and dusk) we arrived in the late morning. But I have to credit that in the next couple of hours, we saw pretty well all the species that we could realistically have expected. Buffalo, giraffe, impala, zebra, bushbuck, warthog, baboon, vervet monkeys and some pretty good birds are a good haul when you're not expecting much, and the scenery was a nice counterpoint to what we'd seen elsewhere in Rwanda.
Let's be frank. Is Akagera a 'must visit' safari location? Well, the answer is no. However, if you are visiting the region and spoilt enough to be looking for a bit of variety from 'ýet another spectacular hilly vista', then it is provides a very pleasant contrast. And if you've never had a safari experience and want a taster to determine whether this might be for you, then its a good introduction' to the delights that might lie ahead.
And if Rwandair's going to foot the bill for the day, well, it's a no brainer ... ;)
The genocide memorial in Ruhengeri
The genocide memorial in Ruhengeri is a low key affair, located a couple of blocks off the main road. In fact, it's so low key, that it's possible to walk straight past unless you're specifically looking for it.
The memorial is set in a small fenced garden with a gate and - in true Rwandan fashion - is kept in a neatly manicured state.
Regardless of your background or ethnicity, it's impossible to overlook the stark imagery. A person on their knees weeping tears of blood, and staring upwards with their hands pressed together in supplication as though they're pleading ... for their lives? For an end to the madness? For God to wake up and deliver them from this nightmare?
For all Rwanda's beauty and apparent peacefulness, it's nigh on impossible to escape the spectre of the genocide.
How fit must you be to go chimp trekking?
How fit do you need to be in order to go chimp trekking?
Well, the slightly flippant anwer is, "Not as fit as you're going to have to be to trek gorillas" (as we discovered to our dismay a few days later), but what does that mean in practicality?
We did chimp trekking in a forest remnant in Nyungwe National Park, and I am happy to report that the going wasn't as tough as I had feared it might be. Tracks have been laid out in the forest area frequented by the habituated troop that we were trekking, and comprise well constructed paths that have been cleared of vegetation. These can be slippery underfoot - particularly after rain - and were fairly steeply inclined in places, but overall, they were well within the capability of someone of average fitness.
What complicates matters is that the chimps seldom hang out along the pathways, so once you're close to a group, you'll have to 'bushbash' through the undergrowth. Trackers will lead the way and clear a route using machetes, but it is still fairly challenging, particularly if you're heading down or up a steep slope. It's easy to trip on the vines or lose your footing on slippery ground, so to handle this, you need to have unrestricted mobility as well as basic fitness. You'll also need to wear stout footwear and long trousers to prevent being scratched to pieces by branches and thorns, and it's advisable to wear a backpack and/or carry your camera and waterbottle on straps that keep your hands free so that if you stumble, you can break your fall.
We found conditions in the forest very pleasant: Nyungwe's relatively high and being early morning, it wasn't too hot and we were shaded from the sun by the canopy. Nonetheless, it's advisable to carry some water with you, and perhaps some sort of snack (especially if you didn't get around to having breakfast becasue of the early start).
We set off from Gisakura at 05:00, and were finished by 10:00 (including a 30 minute drive each way). You are allowed one hour of contact time with the chimps, and it goes by in a flash - although afterwards, your neck will remind you that you were looking up for an eternity!
Extraordinary harmony in Rwanda's largest church
Due to time pressures, we didn't get to spend very much time in churches during our time in Rwanda. This was a great pity, as some of the most important incidents of the genocide unfolded when terrified Tutsis sought refuge in churches - only to find that the maurauding Hutu hoards had no respect for either human life or the ancient tradition of 'sanctuary'.
The one church that we did get to visit was the largest in Rwanda - the Catholic cathedral in Butare. Built in the mid 1930s, it was a personal gift to the Rwandan people from King Albert and Queen Astrid of Belgium, and was constructed from materials that were almost unbelievably hauled all the way from Congo. At the time, Butare was known as Astrida, and was chosen as the site for the cathedral because it was intended that the town would become the capital of Rwanda-Urundi protectorate.
It's a great building, which is all the more impressive because of the austerity of its design. However, the loveliness of the architecture paled in comparison to the beauty of the music emanating from the building. I slipped quietly into a side door, expecting to find a service in progress, and was taken aback to find an almost empty church, with choir practice being conducted in one nave. It still astounds me that less than a dozen people could make such beautiful and complex harmonies, and I could have listened for hours.
The Uwinka Reception Centre in Nyungwe
When you start to research a trip to Rwanda, you'll find that information on the Volcanoes National Park is readily available, whereas Nyungwe is usually mentioned as an afterthought. I'll admit that before we visited, I was a little nervous about what the state of the facilities in Nyungwe might be, but happily I shouldn't have been concerned. A lot of effort and thought has gone into developing infrastructure and trails that make the most of this exceptionally special place without disturbing its tranquility.
Uwinka is the hub of the network of trails that crisscross Nyungwe, and is where you'll meet up with your guide and sign the indemnity forms. It has all the facilities that you might need - decent parking, good clean toilets, a little kiosk where you can buy drinks, and a small but well put together interpretive centre. It's a pleasant spot, and particularly enjoyable if you're celebrating a recently completed hike with a cold drink in your hand!
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