Suspended 200ft above Rwanda’s forest floor, I felt on top of the world. The towering trees and dense jungle of the Nyungwe Forest National Park stretched out below me in all directions as I swayed on the walkway, at eye level with the monkeys and the birds.
While the Volcanoes National Park in the north west of the country is home to the mighty mountain gorillas, there are chimpanzees, colobus and rare golden monkeys vying for attention in Nyungwe to the south.
Nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Hills, this central East African country may be tiny, but it manages to cram an awful lot in.
The start of the canopy forest walk is only 125 miles from the capital Kigali but, thanks to all those hills and continuing road upgrades, it takes about four hours to get there. This ancient rainforest is home to 300 bird species, dozens of orchids and butterflies, as well as 13 primates.
With 80 miles of trails across its 386 square miles, it’s easy to spend a few days here, exploring the verdant valleys and steep mountainsides, trekking to waterfalls, spotting the elusive Rwenzori turaco bird, tracking chimps or swaying from suspended canopy walkways.
We were ferried here in the comfort of Toyota Land Cruisers, and there’s never a dull moment as you pass through undulating tea plantations, subsistence farms with ubiquitous banana trees, scattered colourful villages, vast lakes and pristine forests.
On the side of the roads is an endless procession of people walking to and from markets balancing produce piled high on their heads, or pushing bicycles heaving with bulging yellow jerrycans of potent banana beer or buckets of precious drinking water drawn from wells in the valleys.
Children are in charge of little flocks of goats and sheep, or tend to the prized family cow, shouting “mzungu!” (a friendly term for a foreigner) with a wave and a smile as we chug past.
Rural schools have staggered class times for older and younger kids, so there’s always someone
available to take care of the animals.
Everywhere I go, I am constantly in awe of the people of this country. Just 24 years ago a million of them were slaughtered in one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. But, in a remarkable triumph of the human spirit, they have rebuilt their nation, turning it into an African powerhouse.
Nobody refers to themselves as Tutsi or Hutu – they are simply Rwandan. As my new friend Jullesse told me over a Mutzig lager at the Cocobean club in Kigali: “We learned the hard way that unity is our only option.”
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a harrowing experience, but it’s an essential part of understanding what makes this country tick. More than 250,000 people are buried in mass graves here, and the children’s memorial is particularly disturbing – but this is no voyeuristic ‘dark tourism’ site… the focus here is on ‘education and peace-building’.
You will leave horrified at what humans are capable of doing to each other, but the attitude of the lovely Rwandan people you will meet on your travels around this wonderful country will restore your faith in humanity.
Kigali itself is a revelation – I have never seen a cleaner city anywhere in the world.
No litter, no graffiti, no rubbish. Plastic bags are banned, and regular car-free days are held. Wi-fi is available everywhere, foreign aid and investment is pouring in, and big hotel chains are popping up.
We stayed at the grande dame of Kigali – the Serena. Its spectacular breakfast overlooking the pool is a great way to start any day.
But despite the flash new convention centre and glamorous shopping malls, this pretty little city retains its charm in places like the chaotic Kimironko market. Come here to get colourful kitenge clothes made, buy traditional imigongo paintings, and stock up on explosive Akabanga chilli oil.
Coffee drinkers should head to Question Coffee for a delicious cuppa from a co-operative that buys from small-scale farmers, paying them properly and ensuring they take their beans to local washing stations so they don’t have to travel too far carrying their produce.
The old Kigali neighbourhood of Nyamirambo has a laid-back charm during the day, and is hip and happening at night.
But it’s the peace and tranquillity of the countryside that kept pulling me back. Lake Kivu runs down the west side of Rwanda forming a natural border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By far the country’s biggest lake, it’s dotted with fabulous resorts all along the coastline – some, like Gisenyi in the north, are on quite beautiful beaches. Many of those ‘thousand hills’ surround the lake, making it a rather tricky stage for cyclists during the annual Tour du Rwanda.
One of my favourite places on the lake was Kibuye, about halfway down. We stayed at the brilliant Moriah Hill Resort right on the water. I bagged a room on the top floor for a spectacular sunrise from my balcony. But the highlight was the evening before, when we were treated to the lake’s famous singing fishermen.
At dusk each night, the three-hulled boats set off, paddled by the fishermen (and women) who sing in time to their strokes as they head out to catch sambaza and tilapia by lantern light.
In the south, right on the border with the DRC, is another great place to stay – the Emeraude Kivu Resort in Kamembe makes for spectacular sunsets and is a good place to chill out after all that hiking in Nyungwe.
On the way back to Kigali we stopped off in the former royal capital of Nyanza, home to the fascinating King’s Palace Museum complex. Here there are replicas of the homes of the kings in the 1800s, as well as their beer brewing huts and dairies.
You can also visit the home of King Mutara III Rudahigwa, who ruled from 1931-1959 – the monarchy was abolished just two years later. Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, and Kigali became the capital.
You can also get up close to the royal herd of inyambo sacred cows – these beasts may look fearsome with their magnificent horns, but actually are really placid and love it when their keeper sings to them!
Leaving behind the lakes and hills of the west, we headed cross country to the far east to explore another of Rwanda’s great success stories – the Akagera National Park. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1932, but in 1997 the size of the protected area was halved as returning refugees who had fled the genocide were resettled here.
Poaching saw the wildlife of the park collapse until a major public/private enterprise was launched in 2010. In an amazing comeback that reflects the turnaround of the country as a whole, the park has bounced back – there were just 4,000 animals left in 2010… there are now 12,000 at last count.
Lions, rhinos and leopards were reintroduced and it is now a fantastic Big Five destination – with none of the heavy traffic you see elsewhere in east and southern African parks.
As well as the dedication of the wonderful conservationists, the key to its success is the involvement of the local community. Poaching is now negligible as they benefit from jobs and investment, so they realise the animals are worth more alive than dead.
The croc and hippo-filled wetlands of Lake Ihema in the south of the park are a bird-lover’s paradise – on a boat trip we saw fish eagles, darters, kingfishers, herons, storks, as well as a soaring bateleur eagle, circling vultures and (my favourite) iridescent lilac-breasted rollers.
After a chilled-out night at the Akagera Game Lodge overlooking the lake, an early-morning game drive yielded lions, elephants, loping hyenas, warthogs, Masai giraffes, zebra, buffalo and plenty of antelope.
Rwanda’s only Big Five game reserve certainly delivered.
I was sad to leave this unspoiled wilderness, but perked up when I realised the undeniable highlight of this fantastic country was still to come… trekking to see those mighty mountain gorillas.
Book the same holiday
BOOK IT: Local operator Amahoro Tours’ 10-night Rwanda On The Spot includes Kigali, chimp tracking in Nyungwe, Lake Kivu and gorilla trekking – from £1,830pp sharing, plus $1,500pp (£1,155) for permit. Staying B&B in guesthouses and hostels, hotel upgrades available. Flights extra.
For tailor-made wildlife trips from the capital, Heritage Safaris is brilliant.
For high-end luxury, Red Savannah (redsavannah.com) has six nights’ B&B from £5,995pp, including two nights at Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge (wildernesssafaris.com), RwandAir flights, visits to Akagera and Nyungwe, Lake Kivu, trek permit & transport.
GET THERE: RwandAir flies three times a week from Gatwick to Kigali from £466.
TOURIST INFO: Find out more at visitrwanda.com.
TOP TIP: Rwandans like their beer served at room temperature – you have to specifically ask for a cold brew in bars. Try Mutzig, Primus or Virunga
Extra travel tips
- The population is around 12 million and the main language is Kinyarwanda, but everyone speaks English and/or French.
- The currency is Rwandan francs, but everywhere accepts US dollars. ATMs and bureaux de change are easy to find.
- Wi-fi is widely available – and usually free. Expect to pay UK prices in the top hotels – things get a lot cheaper when you go local.
- Despite being just south of the equator, the country’s altitude (mostly over 5,000ft) means the temperature is comfortable all year round.
- Enjoy local dishes of agatogo – plantains with meat, potatoes and peanuts – and dodo, a type of spinach with onions.