LAND OF A THOUSAND HILLS - JSE MAGAZINE

LAND OF A THOUSAND HILLS

Rwanda has an abundance of amazing natural diversity – not least its resurgent gorilla and chimpanzee populations, which add a new dimension to viewing traditional wildlife

LAND OF A THOUSAND HILLS

As little as two decades ago, the tiny landlocked nation of Rwanda was in the news for all the wrong reasons. 20 years after the horrific genocide, however, it’s making headlines of an altogether more positive nature. Year-on-year growth is hovering at an impressive 7%, tourism is booming and Kigali boasts regular direct flights from Johannesburg, Amsterdam and Istanbul – not to mention most major African capitals.

While the legendary mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes national park may be the main tourism act, Rwanda’s supporting cast includes several other wildlife highlights, diverse landscapes ranging from dense equatorial forests to azure lakes, and an up-and-coming capital that buzzes with potential.

The Virunga mountains, which straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC with scant regard for political boundaries, are home to an estimated 480 mountain gorillas – more than half of the global population. It was in the Rwandan Virungas that Dian Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) spent most of her life, and it is there that the current generation of her beloved Susa group still resides.

Gorilla treks are strictly regulated and group sizes are capped at eight people, which makes encountering these gentle giants in the wild all the more memorable. Mountain gorillas rarely display aggression and their diet is strictly vegetarian but it is still well-nigh impossible not to feel intimidated by a 6 ft tall, 200 kg adult silverback at close quarters. In theory, visitors must stay at least 5m away from the animals but the gorillas regularly flout this rule. Incredible though they may be, the gorillas are not the only reason to visit the Virungas. The Volcanoes national park is also the best place in the world to see troops of endangered golden monkeys, a highly active and vivid species that is known for gambolling about in the treetops.

Both of the park’s habituated troops number at least 80 individuals, which makes for a frenetic showing. Trekking to the graveyard where Fossey and many of her favourite primates are interred is another popular – albeit more sombre – attraction.

The Virungas are a hiking destination in their own right, and summiting one of the lofty peaks should be looked back on with pride. As Fossey herself said: ‘In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great old volcanoes towering up almost 15 000 ft, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas.’

Rwandan capital Kigali is one of the most fetching cities in Africa – not to mention one of the cleanest and safest too. Its lush hillsides, resplendent trees and winding boulevards are an elegant backdrop to the multitude of ambitious building and rehabilitation projects the city has seen in recent years. Despite the developments, Kigali retains a certain French charm that sets it apart from its anglophone neighbours, and it boasts a surprising number of fine restaurants, cafés, nightclubs and museums.

Among the latter is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which bills itself as a ‘place of remembrance and learning’. The memorial’s numbing exhibits take visitors through the atrocities that occurred in 1994 and – by placing them in the context of other genocides that have occurred around the world – articulate one crystalline message: never again. It also features a mass grave where 250 000 souls rest, a wall of names and a serene series of gardens of reflection.

Foremost among the capital’s other highlights is the privately run Inema Arts Centre, which opened in 2012. The gallery exhibits the work of 10 resident artists and every day new paintings are displayed.

In addition, there are frequent shows by visiting artists from all over the world, and the centre also sees regular dance, music and poetry shows.

Perched on a hillside with sweeping views of Le Pays des Mille Collines (Land of a Thousand Hills), the natural history museum features a small yet fascinating collection reflecting Rwanda’s fauna, flora, geology and biological history. Perhaps more notable is the fact that is housed in the home that German explorer and philanthropist Richard Kandt built for himself when he established the city of Kigali around 1907.

One would not normally venture all the way to a landlocked, mountainous nation to enjoy a beach holiday but the cerulean waters of Lake Kivu in spectacular Albertine Rift valley make this a very real possibility. Formed a ‘mere’ 20 000 years ago, Kivu is one of the deepest and most voluminous lakes in the world, described by one colonist as ‘the most beautiful of all the Central African lakes, framed by banks that fall back steeply from the rugged masses of rock, while at the rear the stately summits of eight Virunga volcanoes loom’.

The laidback towns of Gisenyi and Kibuye on the lake’s surprisingly sandy shores may not compare with Mauritius or the Maldives but several sophisticated and serene lodgings in the area make the lake the ideal interlude to the country’s wilder regions.

Among these are the Nyungwe Forest national park, in the south-west. The park encompasses vast tracts of primeval equatorial rainforest that survived the last Ice Age. Nyungwe’s age coupled with its wide range of altitudinal bands means it’s a veritable ‘lost world’. With 13 types of primates, 1 000 species of plants and a staggering 120 varieties of butterfly, Nyungwe is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. It’s also one of a handful of places on the globe where one can track chimpanzees, and it harbours the world’s largest troop of Angolan colobus monkeys (more than 400 at last count) – medium-sized animals with long dexterous tails and silky white hair that is in stark contrast to their thick black fur.

Chimpanzees – our closest relatives – form complex communities that break up into smaller units to forage for food during the daytime. They are far more energetic and wide-ranging than their larger cousins – the mountain gorillas – and tracking them can entail quite a bit of walking. That said, sightings are still virtually guaranteed and the natural beauty of Nyungwe more than justifies the extra effort.

Kigali may be Rwanda’s most famous city but the university town of Huye (often called Butare) is its most historic. While the city itself is not a bona fide tourist destination, the exceptional National Museum of Rwanda most certainly is. The museum houses one of the best ethnological and archaeological displays in the region, and it’s also the premier spot for mesmerising Intore dancers and drummers.

The Akagera national park in the east offers safaris of a more conventional stripe. The civil war took its toll on the park’s wildlife populations but numbers are on the up, and the recent reintroduction of lion means that the park is on the verge of once again being a big five destination, while the opportunity for boat-based game-viewing on Lake Ihema adds a different dimension.

There are no two ways about it. Whether dutifully ticking the top tourist attraction boxes or meandering from the beaten path, Rwanda’s breathtaking vistas, incredible animal interactions and rich plethora of history and culture are bound to leave an everlasting impression.

By Nick Dall
Images: Gallo/GettyImages