Rwanda, First Stop on my Animals of Africa Tour

I'm really excited to be in Rwanda. My focus, this trip, is most decidedly African animals and the gorilla is top of my list. My driver, Arthur, and most of the locals are smiley and eager to please. This hasn’t stopped Arthur handing me a punishing schedule, which breaks every law relating to happiness on holiday. I am expected to get up before six a.m. nearly every day - sometimes well before. There are also two tickets entitling me to an emergency ambulance airlift should it be required. I wonder if they would give me a ride home if I fall asleep on my treks?

Facts and Factoids

  • Rwanda is at the heart of Africa. It’s also known as Africa’s Switzerland: small, green, mountainous and very neat, surprisingly clean and manicured, with little hedges and brickwork lining the roads. The hills give it its alternative soubriquet, 'Land of 1,000 Hills'.
  • Rwanda is deliciously warm and pretty, with refreshing alpine air.
  • Most of the roads are good - Chinese built, like the majority of the roads in Africa it seems - though steep and irritatingly blocked by slow trucks at times. Two thirds of the terraced land, over which they swoop, is devoted to agriculture, mostly tea and coffee.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, given the alpine feel, this is the most densely populated country in mainland Africa and land has to be utilised efficiently.

Rwanda - Africa's Switzerland

Tourism is up and coming, though it has suffered again this year with the fear of Ebola (despite the distance to West Africa) and unrest in neighbouring Congo and Burundi.

A Brief History of Rwanda

  • Rwandans are drawn from just one cultural and linguistic group, the Banyarwanda. However, within this group there are three subgroups: the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. The Twa are a forest-dwelling pygmy people and are often considered descendants of Rwanda's earliest inhabitants. The Tutsi and Hutu have been at loggerheads, over the centuries, since the Tutsi led Kingdom of Rwanda began to enact anti Hutu policies. German, followed by Belgian occupation (from 1916) in the nineteenth century, encouraged the pro-Tutsi stance.
  • The Hutu population revolted in 1959. Ongoing conflict and changes of government culminated in the Rwandan genocide, in 1994, when Hutu extremists killed an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu over one hundred days. The RPF (Tutsi based) ended the conflict, with a military victory in July 1994. Much of Rwanda was devastated over that time. Memorials to the genocide line every road.

In Search of History - Nyanza

It all now seems remarkably peaceful. Rwanda is a republic, the world’s highest representation of women in parliament and was the first country in the world to legislate an outright ban on plastic bags. On the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan participates in Umuganda, a day of national community service.

From a tourist point of view, palaces have been reconstructed and museums built. The king (or mwami)'s capital was initially mobile, but the kings eventually settled on Nyanza, due to its hilltop position. The court, by that time had grown to about 2,000. The palace was recreated here, for visitors (see above). It's a beehive, made of papyrus and thatch, with several rooms, including one for all his ladies. They also keep some of the majestic long horned Inyambo cattle, descended from the king's herd, outback. Apparently, they bred them just because they looked pretty.

Next door to the huts is the new palace, built in 1932 for the Mwami Mutara III, during Belgian occupation. Most of the furniture was stolen during the conflicts, The fireplaces and ceilings are decorated with typical Rwandan motifs. Yet another new palace was built, on the opposite hill, but the king died before it was finished, so it became the National Art Gallery.

There's also the nearby Ethnographic Museum in Huye. It's mostly glass cases with artefacts on plinths and masses of background information.

In Search of Chimpanzees - Nyungwe Forest National Park

My very swish lodge is surrounded by forest and very scenically nestled in the middle of a tea plantation. There are numerous crackling log fires to take off the evening chill. I meander through rolling tiers of lime green tea bushes to my bungalow on stilts at the edge of the forest. My guide book says this is the nicest hotel in Rwanda. I’ll buy that. Naturally, it serves its own tea.

I am not allowed into the forest alone so have to pay extortionate prices for a somewhat idiosyncratically drawn up list of activities, all accompanied by rangers. Very clever tourism tactics and commercially successful, as they have trackers permanently following the most popular attractions - mainly primates. (Most of the Big Five safari mammals have been poached out). Number one attraction is chimpanzee trekking, despite the necessity for the silly o’clock (4.15 a.m.) wake up call. My group is comprised mainly of Swiss. They are a fit bunch, determined to be first on the scene if there is any likelihood of a photo alert and set off at marathon runners’ pace, not bothering to check if anyone has been left behind.

The trail is precipitous and overgrown with hidden booby trap lianas, waiting to trip me up. Tarzan managed them with much more élan than I do. The chimps are elusive. We can hear them whooping as they crash through the undergrowth but they don’t want to be caught even more than we would like to see them and a wild chase ensues. Eventfully they clamber up the tall fig trees to eat and pelt us with fruit. (I'm told we are lucky as sometimes you get peed on.)

Using the camera is not easy. It’s too easy to overbalance on the steep slopes - and I do. The branch I cling onto invariably snaps. And the Swiss don’t baulk at barging you out of the way if there is good photo to be had - I have some huge bruises on my back. Nevertheless, there are identifiable chimps in my pictures, some of which look remarkably like shots from Planet of the Apes.

In Search of Colobus Monkeys - Nyungwe Forest National Park

I have paid 70 dollars to go in search of black and white colobus monkeys, on my next morning expedition in Rwanda. However, there was no need. The monkeys have pre-empted me and visited my hotel after lunch. I can see them, in line, swinging through the trees and landing, trampoline-like, in the bushes in front of my bungalow balcony. The tree bounces back up again and the next monkey follows suit. It’s like a circus act performed by wizened little old men with extraordinary white whiskers. Their tracker is sitting by the pool snoozing. I trade my colobus trip for after lunch bird watching, but all the birds are sensibly having their afternoon nap too. The flowers are luxuriant however, and it’s a peaceful scenic walk. And there’s the added benefit of at least one lie in.

Later, more entertainment is provided by bearded mountain monkeys, who creep right under my veranda, squatting in the bushes and gorging themselves as they chatter away. The only thing I haven’t seen are the common blue monkeys who are supposed to frequent the hotel grounds. Maybe no-one has told them.

In Search of Gorillas - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

The road from the forest alongside and above the long strip of Lake Kivu and then up to the Virunga Mountains is not as good. In fact that’s an understatement. It’s still being constructed. Weary Chinese engineers in huge straw hats stand wearily smoking and issuing directions to JCB drivers and labourers wielding pick axes. It’s dusty and rutted and it’s very slow going. Thank goodness it’s the dry season.

On Sunday, the memorials are crammed with relations remembering their dead. We pass a school, where all the children were murdered because they refused to divide into Tutsi and Hutu - ‘We are all Rwandans'. Around another corner the remains of a huge church where the priest locked in ten thousand of his congregation, nailed up the doors, lobbed grenades into the windows and then blew up the entire building.

At Virunga, I have been warned that gorilla trekking in Rwanda is arduous and very steep (at altitude), climbing up the volcanoes, and that the undergrowth is full of tenacious stinging nettles. The rangers will hack their way through these and the bamboo that the gorillas love to eat, using machetes.

At the mustering point, I spy the Swiss group and stay well away. There are ten groups of eight people allocated to each gorilla family. Fortunately, I manage to talk my way into the dodderers’ group and we get the easy trek. My gorilla group, named Hirwa (aptly meaning lucky), has been good enough to settle right by the forest boundary today. So, a forty-five minute walk, slightly uphill and we are there. Much easier than the chimps. And what can I say -? It is amazing.

A gaggle of sleepy females with children who are clearly a handful. The indulgent mothers hug their pop eyed babies, their fur standing up in black haloes whilst they cling on. Other adults fold their arms and watch tenderly as the slightly larger siblings totter around break off sticks, chew them, poke their parents and then hurl them. Even naughtier twin youngsters put on a gymnastics exhibition, turning head over heels, doing headstands and swinging on the trees. Two adolescents wrestle for a good ten minutes, sliding down the slope towards us, lying exhausted, intermittently beating their chests to bluff that they are the strongest, then starting again. The giant silverback surveys the whole scene laconically from his sunny nest. Picture perfect.

This lodge is not as plush as Nyungwe, but there are beautiful gardens, views of the volcanoes and birds galore and I have my own crackling log fire.

In Search of Golden Monkeys - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Another trip into the rainforest, fortunately not too arduous to see the the rare golden monkeys. I'm told they are habituated - though they are not nearly as nonchalant as the gorillas. They don’t run away, but they keep a wary distance and startle easily. Nevertheless, they look angelic in their little caps as the sun patterns their burnished fur.

Then back to Kigali, the capital, founded in the early twentieth century. I have completed my clockwise journey round Rwanda. I'm staying in the Hotel Rwanda of the film (actually it's called Mille Collines - One Thousand Hills).The film documents hotelier Paul Rusesabagina's efforts to save the lives of his family and more than 1,000 other refugees by providing them with shelter in the besieged hotel at the time of the genocide, in 1994.So, it's an interesting place to stay and it has a very good bar.

Next stop Madagascar.

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