Gorillas, gunfire and great coffee in Rwanda

Gorillas, gunfire and great coffee in Rwanda

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By Martin Zatko
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“Isn’t it dangerous?”, “Isn’t there a war going on there?”, and “Aren’t there better places to spend your holiday?” are questions you may have to field when telling people you’re off to Rwanda. Even typing the country’s name into Google will instantly bring up the term “genocide”. The horrific events of 1994 cannot, and should not, ever be forgotten, but growing numbers of travellers are now heading to this stunning, mountainous land that is increasingly proving itself the epitome of misunderstood Africa – safe, calm, and full of tremendous things to see and do.

Kigali

For an African capital, Kigali is strangely orderly. Its traffic- and pothole-free roads are fringed with neat black-and-white kerbs, while locals, expats and visitors tuck into sushi, burritos and rounds of the delectable local coffee by day, then hit the bars and clubs by night. Even the slums seem almost entirely safe, and they’re up there with the best places to meet locals and take the pulse of their city. As with much of East Africa, the temperature is perfect throughout the year – up to 29 degrees in the daytime, down to 19 degrees at night. I found it all quite wonderful, though there are visitors who find the city too clean, too well-organised, and perhaps not “African” enough.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. A visit to the Genocide Memorial is more or less obligatory for a first-time visitor, and heart-wrenching though the experience may be, most people agree that the information is relayed in a thoughtful manner.

Volcanoes and gorillas

For those accustomed to travelling in Africa, leaving Kigali can feel a bit strange. Travel is generally conducted by minibus, and while this is a sweaty, sardine-like experience in Kenya, Uganda and other neighbouring countries, Rwanda’s rules of the road are a little better. You’re almost certain to get a seat to yourself, and since services run to set schedules (a true rarity in this part of the world) there may even be a seat or two free.

My destination was Musanze, a likeable town on the cusp of a volcanic mountain range known as the Virungas – one of the only remaining habitats of the highly endangered mountain gorilla. Tracking these wonderful beasts is big business here, though doing so is no walk in the park. First, you’ve got to arrange a permit – slots can be booked up weeks, even months in advance, and each costs a princely $750. Then there’s the 5am wake-up call, and a mountain walk to your target gorilla group – think mud, dense vegetation, stinging nettles, regular rain showers, and potential altitude sickness. These walks can take up to five hours and head over 3000m above sea level, but when you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with the gentle giants, all thoughts of the money, time and energy expended on the way up suddenly evaporate into the mountain air.

 

War over a latte

The next day, another minibus ride brought me to Gisenyi, a town on the shore of Lake Kivu and practically joined to Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had planned to head across the Congolese border during my trip, and spend a night camping by the lava-filled crater of the nearby Nyiragongo volcano. However, those plans were scotched by civil war in the Goma area, and I instead settled for a coffee at one of Gisenyi’s lakeside hotels. At one point, a military vessel full of victory-V-ing soldiers raced by; shortly afterwards, attack helicopters could be seen chopping their way towards the Congolese side of the Virunga mountains. Sipping a latte with war going on just beyond was a surreal experience.

The next day I headed south down the lake to Kibuye – a jarring, bruising journey that lasted from sunlight to sunset. The town has a traumatic history, as evidenced by the skulls of genocide victims peering out from the local church, but its modern incarnation is a delight – a charming little town with bucolic surroundings, super-friendly locals, and plenty of twisting, flower-scented paths. Most of Kibuye’s attractions revolve around Lake Kivu in one way or another – swimming in the lake, drinking beer on the shore, or even taking a short boat-ride to Napoleon Island – given that name because, from a distance, it resembles Monsieur Bonaparte’s famous cap. The island is easily scaled and boasts caves full of bats which emerge to feed in the evening, turning the local sky dark with their sheer numbers.

A peek back in time

My final destination was the southern town of Nyanza. Though initially unassuming, Nyanza has historical pedigree, serving as the Rwandan capital at various points from 1899 to 1962. The kings resided in simple, though beautiful, thatched structures that were, effectively, larger versions of those lived in by village folk throughout the land; it’s possible to peek inside a stunning replica of the former regal abodes, behind which lies a field of Angkole cows, creatures sporting horns of quite preposterous length – occasionally more than 2m long. From here, the surrounding countryside simply begs to be explored, and I spent the whole day wandering from village to village, immersing myself one last time in the charm of today’s Rwanda.

Check the FCO (or your local department) for the latest travel advice on Rwanda.