Virunga National Park and Kigali


Aug 29th - Sept. 1st, 2016

Entering Rwanda
After eight fantastic days in Uganda we crossed into Rwanda today. The drive from the Bwindi Lodge to the border took about four hours. It was a beautiful drive, the first half of which was inside the Bwindi Forest National Park. We had a brief rest stop by the shores of Lake Bunyonyi where we saw a rare lake otter swimming in the waters just ahead of us.

Rwanda became the 79th country I have visited in my life. Crossing the border into a new country still is an exciting event every time. I feel very lucky to have seen so much of the world and I have never lost a real sense of privilege to be able to do this.

Immigration formalities at the Uganda/Rwanda border crossing were a bit confusing but fairly relaxed. We had to get out of the car, fill out a couple of forms and then get stamps in our passports. Since we got the East Africa Visa when we entered Uganda, we didn't need to apply for a visa on arrival here. The immigration officer was quite amused by the fact that the Ugandan official had printed my visa upside down.

About Rwanda
The Republic of Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a population of around 11 million. It is a landlocked country located just south of the equator and shares borders with Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and the DRC.  It is also among the highest countries in the world with an average elevation of 1,600 meters. English and French are official languages in addition to the local language called Kinyarwanda. Christianity is the main religion in the country. Rwanda was colonized by Germany in 1884 and became part of German East Africa. During WWI Belgium took over as the colonial power in 1916, and it continued to rule Rwanda as a UN Trust Territory after the second world war. The country gained its independence in 1962.

My very positive impression of Rwanda started right after the border when we were officially greeted by a representative from the Rwandan government, who gave us a five minute welcoming introduction. He told us how important tourism is to the Rwandan economy, he introduced us to the national parks in the country and gave us a bunch of maps and brochures. This is not something I have ever seen happen in any other country and it really made us feel very welcome here.

Virunga Volcanoes Lodge
About half an hour after the border we reached the town of Musanze (which used to be named Ruhengeri), where we had a nice lunch in the garden of the Hotel Muhabura. One funny thing we noticed immediately were the bicycle taxis. These are sturdy bikes with a seat on the back and they are the official taxis around here. All the riders wear official green vests. And since it's quite hilly, you see them work very hard cycling uphill with a passenger and then racing downhill at scary breakneck speeds.

After lunch we drove up to the absolutely stunning Virunga Lodge. The lodge is located on the top of a hill between Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo and has amazing 360 degree views over the lakes and six of Virunga volcanoes.

Gorilla Tracking in Virunga Volcanoes National Park
Today was our second day of gorilla tracking. Virunga Volcanoes National Park was established in 1925 as the first national park in all of Africa. Today it covers an area of 7,800 square kilometers across Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. The park became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1979. The park was mainly established to protect the mountain gorillas. It was here in 1967 where Dian Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center on the saddle between the two volcanoes Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke and where she worked until her murder in 1985.

The hike to get into the park was a bit easier than in Bwindi. It took us only about an hour to reach the group once inside the park. The Rwandan gorillas look slightly different since they are much furrier. This is due to the greater altitude and thus slightly colder climate they live in compared to their Ugandan cousins in Bwindi. There are a total of 18 habituated groups in the Virunga park, of which 8 are only used for primate research purposes and 10 are visited by tourists. We saw the Isabukuru group which had 20 members including two fairly old silverbacks (35 and 29 years old).

They were feeding during the time we were there, which meant they were much more active but also more dispersed and a bit harder to see than the group we visited in Bwindi, which had been resting at the time.

This is the 35 year old dominant silverback of the group. He was enormous and checked us out carefully when we first saw him but then ignored us. Adult males can weigh over 200 kilograms, while females are around 100 kilograms.

We were allowed to spend exactly one hour with the group. It was an incredible experience and the hour seemed to go by very fast. I also made this short video about our experience with the Rwandan gorillas:

While still critically endangered the mountain gorilla conservation efforts have had significant success over the last 30 years. Based on the last census there are just under 500 gorillas in the Virungas and another 400 in Bwindi. (The two parks have been physically separated for more than 100 years.). It is estimated that there were fewer than 300 individuals left in total in the early 1980's. Poaching has essentially been eliminated in Rwanda (but not entirely yet in the DRC). Our tracker told us that the last time someone tried to capture a gorilla baby was 13 years ago. The gorillas are still in danger of getting caught in snares set by antelope and buffalo poachers, but they are no longer targeted directly. The main reasons for the success in fighting poaching are the signifcantly increased antipoaching patrols, but also the fact that a portion of the park fees go back to the local villages. This way the local communities are engaged and people are very aware that they benefit from protecting these animals. Almost all of the funding for protecting the gorillas comes from tourism. Park fees in Rwanda are 750 USD per person, which is expensive but worth every penny if you consider that it helps to secure the survival of these rare and amazing animals.

On the way down from the park we hiked through farmland and just like in Uganda everywhere we went children were waving at us and shouting ‘Hello’ or ‘Muzungu’ (which is Ugandan and Rwandan for white person).

Driving back to the lodge we passed this large wooden gorilla sculpture surrounded by lots of tents, and we were told that this was the site of the upcoming annual gorilla naming ceremony taking place two days later. Turns out this is a really big deal in Rwanda. It is an annual celebration attended by the country's president and shown on live TV where all the gorilla babies born in the prior year will be officially named. It is great to see that the whole country takes such enormous pride in their gorillas. (Here are links to a local newspaper article and the whole ceremony on youtube.)

In the evening we had another dance performance, which was a lot of fun. Music and dancing are big part of Rwandan culture and dance performances are part of every ceremony or festivity.

Golden Monkey Tracking
Very early morning again. We got up at 4:30 am to pack and get ready to leave for our morning Golden Monkey tracking. The Golden monkeys are an endangered species which is endemic to this particular mountain region only covering a small corner of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. It took less than an hour to get to the park, and the advanced trackers had located them close to the park border.

The monkeys were a lot of fun to watch. We spent an hour following them around, watching them leap between the trees and munch on their leaves. They have very beautiful faces with big bushy cheeks that make them look a bit like hamsters.

After our monkey tracking experience, we went back to the lodge for lunch and to pick up our bags. Before the drive to Kigali we had one last stop at the Karisoke research center, where we received an interesting tour of their work.

The drive to Kigali took about two and a half hours. Kigali is the capital of Rwanda and its main political, economic and cultural centre. It has a population of just over 1 million. It is quite a beautiful city built across several hills and valleys and with lots of green spaces in between.

On the way into town we stopped for a short break at the Hotel des Mille Collines which was the real life 'Hotel Rwanda', where the manager saved the lives of 1,200 people by sheltering them inside the hotel.

Most other people in our group had a flight out that evening, so we drove to the airport to drop everyone off there. This was such a fun group and we all got so close in our 10 days together that it was a bit sad having to say goodbye to everyone.

The Genocide Memorial and Museum
Lara and I stayed one more night in Kigali since we had an afternoon flight to Doha the next day. We stayed at the very luxurious Kigali Serena hotel. And we decided to visit the Rwandan Genocide Memorial and Museum in Kigali the next morning.

Massacres between the Hutu and Tutsi populations had been a fairly frequent occurrence during the second half of the 20th century. The tensions and a civil war that started in 1990 escalated into the Rwandan Genocide, which started in April 1994 and in a space of less than 100 days somewhere between 500,000 and 1.3 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the most brutal ways, many by their own neighbors using machetes. It is one of the most gruesome chapters of the 20th century, and an event that the rest of the world and the UN let continue without interfering for far too long. Our Ugandan guide told us that people in Uganda only found out about what was going on in their neighboring country when large numbers of dead bodies, which had been dumped in the rivers in Rwanda, started to appear floating in Lake Victoria. Visiting the memorial, where an estimates quarter of a million people are buried in mass graves, is a very moving and sad experience. I thought the museum exhibition was very well done.

It is remarkable how well the country has recovered from the genocide 22 years ago, helped by a concerted effort for reconciliation and justice. The Rwandan economy, its Human Development Index and average life expectancy have grown rapidly since 2000. Rwanda is now one of the safest and fastest growing countries in Africa. One of the main reasons Rwanda is outperforming most African countries economically is the low level of corruption particularly compared to its neighbors. Even though there is almost no one who does not have close family members who were either killed or were killers themselves, the country appears remarkably united and peaceful. It is in fact now illegal to label yourself as either Tutsi or Hutu. Everyone is just Rwandan.

Following a short city tour by car we were dropped off at the airport for our afternoon flight to Doha, which ended what was truly one of the most amazing, spectacular and enjoyable trips I have ever taken.

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  1. Very nice account of the trip, one of my favorite itineraries!

    1. Thank you very much for our kind words.