Green, clean, safe, lively and friendly, I was recently privileged enough to be invited on a trip-of-a-lifetime to wonderful Rwanda. Wherever we went, our group (consisting of other industry specialists) was met with warm welcomes and genuine smiles. As well as the amazing people, I found myself in awe of the country's outstanding natural beauty, home to diverse national parks and, of course, incredible and rare wildlife. From game-covered plains and hippos relaxing in lakes, to lush rainforest and striking volcanic parks filled with primates, I was blessed to discover just how much Rwanda has to offer...
After a pleasant flight via Brussels, we touched down in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Compact and charming, Kigali is set over the country’s famous hills, contrasting traditional buildings with more modern skyscrapers, though still maintaining a feel that is distinctly Rwandan. I was struck by just how beautifully clean Kigali (and the rest of the country, for that matter) is. No plastic bags are allowed into Rwanda at all, while the locals clearly take pride in keeping their community and city spotless - we often passed people trimming their hedges or sweeping the street. In fact, a guide of ours explained that each month, a communal tidy-up occurs across the impeccably-kept city.
While here, we stayed at The Retreat, a gorgeous boutique hotel owned by US couple, Alissa and Josh Ruxin. With a background in public health and having worked in a Rwandan orphanage, they combine their super stylish hotel with great opportunities for local people through vocational training and employment. Josh has even written a book - A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope and a Restaurant in Rwanda – which tells the story of their journey. He was kind enough to give us each a copy and I can’t wait to get reading! Alongside this, they showcase local culture and artwork through a small gallery and boutique selling artisan goods. In fact, through Alissa, a lady in our group purchased the stunning piece of art that hung behind our safari lodge's reception desk, providing the local artist with a worthy income and the visitor, a one-of-a-kind souvenir of her trip to Rwanda. The Retreat also hosts a programme dedicated to cultural experiences in Kigali. These include tours that focus on fashion, art, culture, culinary and coffee, as well as traditional dance lessons, cycling tours and opportunities to volunteer with local farmers. While in Kigali, we visited the Genocide Museum. Sensitive and moving, it allowed us to learn more about the country’s history, leaving me in further awe of its strength and positivity.
Akagera National Park:
After a scenic and comfortable 2.5-hour drive from Kigali (bar the last bumpy 45 minutes!) passing rice, banana and sugar cane plantations, we arrived at Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, a diverse area that is home to woodland, swamps, low mountains and savannah – and a range of wildlife within it! Up until now, there have been no luxury properties here, something that is set to change with the new Magashi Camp, due to open within the next few months. As we drove to Magashi, we spotted zebra, buffalo, giraffe and elephant – to name just a few species. We were taken on a glorious boat ride across Lake Rwanyakazinga with a knowledgeable, friendly and passionate guide who will be working for this new Magashi Camp. He explained that a pride of lion has been introduced to the conservancy and the female has been collared for tracking and conservation purposes. This means that, while at Magashi, sightings of lion are pretty much guaranteed! The boat ride was a welcoming relief after the “African massage” of a Jeep safari. Relaxing and beautiful, we spotted large pods of hippopotamus, crocodiles basking in the sun and a truly fascinating variety of birdlife. Our guide explained that over 500 species of bird have been recorded here – impressive!
Nyungwe Forest National Park:
Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest of Rwanda was our next destination. It takes around five (very scenic) hours to drive from Kigali, but it is this remoteness that really adds to the mystical, almost other-worldly feel of the park’s lush green rainforest and tea plantations covered with mist. Here, we checked in to One&Only Nyungwe Lodge, a charming hotel with truly breathtaking views over the nearby forest and surrounding tea terraces - we even enjoyed a tea tasting session, sampling brews made from leaves grown locally. As well as countless hiking trails through the beautiful forest, Nyungwe is home to the exciting Canopy Walk, made up of three suspension bridges that reach up to 100-metres above the ground! Though not for the faint-hearted, the walk offered a unique perspective of the forest and, on the trails nearby, there is the chance to spot Nyungwe's rare birds and primates.
A great introduction for what was to come, our first primate trekking experience in Rwanda was in search of the local chimps. There is no excitement quite like that of first reaching the trackers who have spent the morning searching for the chimps, to eventually come close to these fascinating primates! I felt so lucky to see these amazing animals going about their daily lives in their natural habitat, rather than in a zoo. We also trekked to the edge of the forest, spotting cheeky Colobus monkeys as they played way up in the treetops.
Upon leaving Nyungwe, we stopped at Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes with a staggering area of 1,000-square-miles! Passing traditional fishing boats, we head out across the lake by kayak. Watching the sun begin to set and listening to locals singing at the nearby church, this experience added yet another layer to the enchantment of Rwanda, enhancing my stay here further - if that was even possible!
Volcanoes National Park:
Setting off again towards Volcanoes National Park, the dramatic volcanoes started to emerge in the distance. Not surroundings I enjoy every day in the UK, this really built the excitement for what awaited! Perhaps the country’s most renowned park, there is a good choice of accommodation here – including the eco-friendly Bisate Lodge and cosy Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – as well as new luxury properties in the pipeline. Of course, the main reason for visiting the park (and often Rwanda itself) is to see the mountain gorillas that call it home. However, before the main event, we head out on a trek in search of the area’s charming golden monkeys. Meeting at the park headquarters - where you can learn more about its inhabitants and the conservation measures in the park - we set off past local villages and lush forest, before coming across a family of one-hundred of these primates swinging high in the trees!
This marvellous monkey sighting perfectly led up to the highlight of the trip, the gorilla trek! Back at the park HQ, we were assigned to a group of gorillas to track, as well as the same lovely guide that took us in search of the monkeys, Joelle, who grew up in the nearby town of Musanze. I asked her if she always wanted to do this for a living, to which she replied it was her dream job. This was evident in just how knowledgeable and passionate she was throughout the trek. Alongside the incredible guides, porters are also available to join you on treks, helping to carry bags or assisting you when the terrain gets steep or slippery (which it definitely did at times!). As well as being super helpful for trekkers, this is a great form of employment and a way to give back to the local community. We were told that several porters used to be poachers but have since swapped their source of income to animal conservation - amazing!
Joelle explained that, in the park, there are twenty troops of gorilla: twelve that are tracked by tourists and eight that are studied for research purposes. After trekking through the wonderful green and dramatic scenery of the national park, with an undeniable buzz in the air, we finally came across the gorilla troop that we were tracking - the Mahoza family – made up of eight females, four babies and one mighty silverback. Sat watching them as they ate, climbed and play fought was simply surreal and I felt totally safe throughout my time near these gentle giants - with whom Joelle told us that we share around 98% of DNA! Due to this similarity, the guideline is to stay seven metres away to avoid the spread of illness - though the gorillas don't always adhere to this! A mother with a baby came close and it was breathtaking to be that near to wild animals of such a size, watching their mannerisms, facial expressions and how they go about their everyday lives. Having been warmly welcomed and suitably wowed throughout my time in this incredible country, this was the cherry on top of a trip I’ll truly never forget.
Why don't you experience the Land of a Thousand Hills and a Million Smiles for yourself? Get in touch today to begin building your tailor-made Rwanda itinerary.