Imagine Africa specialist Matt has just returned from a week in Rwanda, where he discovered there’s more to the ‘land of a thousand hills’ than gorilla trekking. Here, he explains why this fascinating country should be next on your list…
The highlight of anyone’s adventures in Rwanda is the ultimate bucket list excursion: tracking mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. I want to show people that there is more to Rwanda than these primates alone, but at the same time I can’t overlook how special this experience is. Rwanda is one of the best places to see the gorillas, due to the vegetation being less dense than it is in Uganda, which means you get much better sightings and you can stand within touching distance of the gorillas when they’re out in the open. Watch your back on the trails though, as the cheeky juvenile blackback males can sometimes come up behind you and push you out of their way!
I spent time with the Umubano family, with their three towering silverbacks who sat nonchalantly observing the group as we tried to speak gorilla, which essentially involves grumbling and clearing your throat – needless to say the gorillas weren’t too impressed! The Umubano group currently has one youngster, and while we observed the group each of the adults took their turn rolling around and playing with her. The experience was enthralling and we could have happily stayed with them all day, but sadly you are given just one hour with the gorillas before you return back to your lodge to scroll through the hundreds of photos you’ve taken.
There’s no doubt that the chance to have this enchanting encounter with Rwanda’s gorillas is what draws most visitors to the country, but there is so much else to see besides this. Despite being sub-Saharan Africa’s most densely populated country, there are vast swathes of untouched rainforest to explore, and not only in the Virungas. A day’s drive south of Kigali is Nyungwe Forest, which was untouched by the ice age and as a result supports one of Africa’s most biodiverse eco-systems, with some 1,000+ plant species, 13 primate species, countless bird species and more insect, reptile and mammal species than you can shake a stick at.
Nyungwe Forest offers fantastic chimpanzee tracking opportunities – even just hearing the chimps in the forest is a spine tingling experience, but to see them up close is certainly on par with encountering mountain gorillas, and quite a lot more thrilling at times due to their highly mobile nature. Just watch where you stand – I wouldn’t want you to be covered in chimp pee like I was! Nyungwe also offers countless walking trails, a 160-metre long canopy walk reaching a dizzying 70 metres in height at its peak, spectacular birding opportunities, and the chance to see a troop of 500 colobus monkeys. From there you can head to Lake Kivu, the world’s 14th largest lake and a beautiful place to relax and unwind, be it at Kibuye in the south or on the more popular beaches of the affluent Gisenyi in the north.
For me, another big draw of Rwanda is the open savannah of Akagera National Park, which lies in the lower altitude regions to the east of the country. The park is rarely visited, possibly because of the depletion of wildlife during Rwanda’s difficult times, but at last Akagera is making a comeback. This is most notable with the translocation of 18 lions into the park from South Africa over the past few years. The pride have settled in well and reports suggest there may even be lion cubs… the first born in Rwanda for many years. Elephant, leopard, buffalo, giraffe, hippo and impala also reside in the park, making it the perfect safari add-on alongside gorilla tracking and other primate encounters.
Rwanda may be better known for its turbulent history than its beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Rwanda may also not always offer the height of luxury and first class service that its East African neighbours do. However, the charm of the people, the splendour of the landscapes, and the diversity of the wildlife will charm you and stay with you forever.