DESTINATION RWANDA – SO MUCH MORE THAN ‘JUST GORILLAS’
(The view to Paradis Malahide’s own private island across the water from the resort … idyllic, tranquil, serene)
A return to The Land of a Thousand Hills, aka Rwanda, is always an eye opener and unlike many other visitors, who come as one time tourists, or on business, my regular travels across the country has over the years shown me sides others rarely see, hardly know of and yet they miss some of the greatest sights the country has to offer.
FESPAD 2013 was my current assignment, and amply reported and tweeted about from Kigali, Rwamagana, Huye, Musanze and today from Gisenyi.
Few know for instance that the Institute of National Museums is located in Huye, offering visitors enroute to Nyungwe National Park an opportunity to gain a little insight into how life used to be in the Rwanda of distant days. A homestead constructed in the traditional way shows how Rwandans used to live in rural areas, where besides farming they practiced the craft of basket weaving and of pottery, helping to be largely self sustained in the often distant villages far away from the towns.
(A traditional homestead, basket weaving and a pottery, all seen at the National Museum at Huye)
While in Musanze earlier in the week to see FESPAD 2013 bring the concept of Take a Break – Dance to the enthusiastic locals, a quick visit to the Kinigi Park Headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park was a given. It was a return to friends and familiar sights of course, while my fellow scribes got a briefing on all they needed to know to bring them up to date with the park operation and the challenges faced by the rangers in their task to protect the gentle giants of Rwanda’s volcanic mountains.
(Seen here from left to right is the entrance to the park headquarters, the commemorative plaque which recognizes the ‘discovery’ of the mountain gorillas in 1902, the media briefing at the park offices and the sight across a sorghum field of one of the 5 volcanoes)
Enroute from Kigali to Musanze, one of the scenic routes across Rwanda, we crossed plenty of hills, making one doubt the statement of the thousand hills as falling way short of the real number one sees when travelling the country. The roads, in excellent condition, passed through farms and fields, showing that every available inch is used to grow food, to keep the 11 or so million Rwandans fed with a variety of crops, and mostly of course organically grown. Roadside eateries keep hungry travelers fed, offering roast maize or even roast potatoes, in case someone missed breakfast or else just feels peckish.
(Roasted maize, the fields which feed the nation, carrying heavy loads on the head and a maize store)
And from Musanze my journey took me, alone for a change, by regular bus service from Musanze to Gisenyi, at the very reasonable cost of 1.100 Rwandan Francs, or about 1.80 US Dollars. These busses, I used Virunga Express, run hourly and at times even at half hourly intervals during rush hours, connecting the key towns across Rwanda with Kigali. It was an opportunity to discover how backpackers, budget travelers and as seen, NGO workers and volunteers travel across the country, not in the back of a 4×4 – rarely needed anyway considering the excellent cross country road network – but by public transport means. I found the service acceptable though the bus was packed to the last seat, the driver sticking to speed limits and considering the cost involved surely a way which will make travelling across Rwanda affordable for explorers with even the smallest of budgets.
My destination for the night was an ‘old acquaintance, the Paradis Malahide Resort on the outskirts of Gisenyi, nestled under mature trees right on the beach of Lake Kivu.
The small resort of 6 cottages and 4 rooms is refreshingly unpretentious, but makes guests feel like friends as the staff are exceptionally friendly and accommodating and at their visitors beck and call. Since my last visit they installed wireless internet which extends across the public areas and offers high speed access, an added bonus to the private beach and they now also own and operate a lake boat. Bird watching along the shores or a visit to their private island right across the waters of Lake Kivu, either option is now offered ‘in house’. The guest commentbook shows the praise heaped upon the place by visitors, many of them NGO staff or volunteers often coming from across the border in Goma, to relax for the weekend or have one of the crunchy bottom pizzas which is one of the resort’s signature dishes.
I arrived in time to see the fishing ‘flotilla’ take to the lake at sunset and the fishermen’s songs echoed across the water, something worth watching on my YouTube account where I posted a short video of my impressions.
It got cooler after sunset and rain suddenly broke from the dark clouds overhead, but the staff swiftly lit a fire in the central fireplace of the lounge / bar / restaurant and brought me a blanket – without having asked for it actually – to wrap around me and keep warm, aided by a small charcoal stove place next to my little table at the easy chairs.
(The gardens at the Paradis Malahide, reflections of the sinking sun and ‘local heating’ when it got chilly)
Gisenyi, connected to Kigali also by daily RwandAir flights, has become the springboard to explore the nearby national forest reserve of Gishwati, but is also the starting, or ending point depending on one’s view point, of the Congo Nile Trail, which runs for 224 kilometres through the hills and along the shores of Lake Kivu all the way to Cyangugu. The best hotel in town is the Lake Kivu Serena, set in extensive gardens with access to a stretch of sandy beach, and being part of the circuit of regional hospitality leaders Serena offers all the hallmarks of fine hospitality.
The Congo Nile Trail can be completed by combining hiking, biking and using boats even, which permit to explore the rich birdlife along the shores of the lake and allows for stops on the many islands dotting the lake in Rwandan waters. And then there is of course Nyungwe Forest National Park, accessible from the ‘far end’ of the trail and reachable from Gisenyi within a few hours’ drive.
More and more visitors even make Gisenyi with its pleasant weather and scenic setting their base to go for gorilla tracking, as it takes just over one hour to Kinigi from where the tracking starts.
And for those with an even keener sense of adventure, there is the added option from Gisenyi to cross the border into Congo DR and climb up Mt. Nyirangongo, an active volcano notorious for its eruptions the last of which buried part of the Goma airport under lava and razed part of Goma city as nothing could stop the lava flow until it exhausted itself. The sight from the rim of the crater into the lava lake is said to be ‘awesome’ and worth the 5 hour hike up the steep slopes. Bookings can be done in Gisenyi and your hotel concierge or tour desk will be more than happy to assist. Crossing the border is relatively easy now even for foreign tourists, as they can obtain a Visa on site for 50 US Dollars per person, as long as they have booked a hike up the 3.468 metres high mountain.
Back to Rwanda though. In a few weeks will the Rwanda Development Board launch another range of newly developed tourism products, centered around the Gishwati Forest, which is best accessed from Gisenyi, adding further reasons to include this lakeside town in a visiting itinerary. More about those new activities in due course, very likely at the time from a trial run ahead of the formal launch as done 1 ½ years ago with the Congo Nile Trail.
(Fellow travelers in the RDB media bus)
Leaving the lake behind as the journey back to Kigali commenced made many in our bus look out the rear window of he bus showing signs of regret for having to part company with Lake Kivu but for sure it was for most, who had never been here, an eye opener of the variety of attractions and sights Rwanda has to offer. Way more than ‘Just Gorillas’, the country now has produced special maps covering Culture, Kigali City, Rubavu, Karongi, Akagera and Nyungwe over and above the Volcanoes National Park where tracking for gorillas and the golden monkeys is possible. Rwanda now offers a complete destination package and hopes to attract longer stays by visitors in the country, as they explore the added options instead of just doing a flying visit to the prized gorillas. Visit www.rwandatourism.com for more information on the destination and more details on three national parks but also the attractions outside protected areas.
RwandAir flies from all regional airports daily, at times as often as three times a day, to Kigali and so does Kenya Airways, Air Uganda and Ethiopian through their Nairobi, Entebbe and Addis Ababa hubs. International airlines coming to Rwanda are Brussels Airlines, KLM, South African Airways, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, giving plenty of options to reach the Land of a Thousand Hills.