Rwanda is a pristinely clean country, full of lush green hills contrasted with rich auburn soil as far as the eye can see - the mille collines as they are affectionately called. It is a country full of compassion, pride, and progress and our time here was one of learning as well as wonder and enjoyment.
For a country that has gone through an abhorrent (and recent) history, we were...relieved, perhaps amazed, at the unity of its people to move forward in a forgiving and prosperous manner. The Rwandan Genocide deeply impacted all Rwandans. One million people were killed in one hundred days, while the international community largely stood still. Rwandans have taken it upon themselves to pick up the pieces and rebuild their national unity as one peoples.
We were humbled and grateful to be able to talk openly with our guide about the genocide, as well as learn firsthand from the impactful and somber Genocide Memorial Centre. We left the capital city of Kigali with many questions but with a better understanding of the country's history and its people, and headed to one of the nation’s pride: the Volcanoes National Park to visit the mountain gorillas.
The road to the Volcanoes National park meandered through the many hills and valleys with nearly every square inch of land reserved for agriculture. We were amazed by the number of people walking along the streets in single file fashion. Women, children, and men carried everything on their heads, from 5 L jugs of water to 50 kg sacks of potatoes, with grace.
As we arrived at the Volcanoes National Park, we were encouraged to learn (and see!) the direct and positive impact tourism has on the region in three main areas. The first and most obvious one was in support of guides and porters, many of whom were former poachers. The second is the funding of schools, hospitals, and community centres in nearby communities. And the third is the safeguarding and conservation of this endangered species by preventing farming and village encroachment into the mountains. Today, there are over 880 mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains, up from 480 in 2010.
The trek itself to find our gorilla family was like something out of a Jurassic park movie. Enormous and vibrantly coloured trees, bushes (among them stinging nettles!) and vines decorated our close-to-four-hour jungle trek. As we approached the family of gorillas inclusive of two silverbacks, our guides began to communicate with the family. To our amazement, the careful study of these complex and social creatures, with a significant contribution from Dian Fossey, has led to rudimentary communication grunts signifying different messages like ‘friendly welcomes’ or ‘anxious annoyance.’
Our first encounter with a big family was one of peaceful enjoyment. We observed the family laying down to rest, young gorillas swinging in the vines, and the ‘number two male’ getting jiggy jiggy (as our guide coined it) with a female while the Alpha slept. In contrast, our second day’s encounter with a different family was exhilarating. We learned that most of the family was off fighting another troupe and the remaining members were females with babies and the Alpha.
Little did we know, as we gazed at one of the females eating, the Alpha quickly approached us from behind, catching us in-between him and the female. Shook by all the fighting, the Alpha showed us his dominance through his powerful stance: squarely on all fours with an accompanying piercing look. Our guides yelled “submit” and we quickly crouched down. (Luckily they had briefed us on this earlier). With our hearts pounding, our respect for nature and these creatures escalated rapidly. The trackers continued making the ‘friendly noises’ and before we knew it, the Alpha shifted into a resting and thoughtful pose, and then welcomed us by replying the same happy grunts. We slowly relaxed, half-crouched down with stinging nettles poking our bums, looking intensely into the pensive gaze of this majestic 250 kg silverback gorilla.
The sheer size and human-like personalities and characteristics of the gorillas were awe-inspiring. As we locked eyes with our distant relatives, time slowed and we were reminded of the innate curiosity and playfulness inside of us, and them. The limited one hour with the gorillas goes by quickly, making the experience that much more special. It forced us to turn off our cameras (only after snapping a thousand shots of them) and enjoy the moment.
Rwanda was our first stop on our yearlong trip and will hold a special place in our hearts for its beauty and for teaching us in no uncertain terms about the consequences of divisiveness and unity; inaction and progress; crimes against humanity and forgiveness; and of perspective above all else.
- Airbnb in Kigali. Catherine's home is gorgeous and in an ideal location. Request her breakfasts - they are to die for!
- We had a wonderful stay at the Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel. It was close to the park, the meals and service were great, and the rooms were very comfortable. We also enjoyed the hot water bottles in our beds at night and the complementary boot cleaning service after our treks.
- If you’re looking for something more upscale, we had a drink at the Virunga Lodge and the view of the volcano mountains was stunning.
- Book a tour with the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre in Kigali. The centre provides education and skills training to disadvantaged women so that they can gain better opportunities for employment. It offers three tours: a walking tour through the historic Nyamirambo neighbourhood, a traditional basket weaving tour, and a local cooking class.
- Visit Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali where the movie Hotel Rwanda took place. This is also a high-end hotel with a beautiful pool. Ordering a drink and exchanging a smile may get you access to it, too!
- Spend an afternoon at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre
- Gorilla trek in Volcanoes National Park. It was one of the most expensive things we’ve ever done and will likely ever do in our lives (at $750 USD per person per day), but it was worth every penny. If you can afford it, we recommend doing two treks. You’ll spend the whole time snapping pictures on your first day and the second day will give you the opportunity to live in the moment. Each family is quite different too, so you’ll experience something new! Mike Haines from Safari and Co. helped us arrange the trip. We’d highly recommend his services! The accommodations, our driver, and guide were fantastic!
- Heaven in Kigali. Although expensive, the food is delicious, and the service is excellent. We loved the plantain chips! The restaurant also helps support artisan cooperatives throughout the country.
- Learn how to say a few words in Kinyarwanda. You’ll see the locals' faces light up over your effort.
- Get a porter for your gorilla trek. You may not think you're carrying much, but you'll appreciate the lessened load during the challenging hike. Some porters will even lend you gloves to spare your hands from the stinging nettles! Unlike the guides, the porters only earn tips, which means you will have a direct impact on the community.
- Bring gardening gloves and waterproof pants, if you can. Although the pain from a stinging nettle doesn’t last too long, gardening gloves and waterproof pants will make getting through the thick brush and potential for rain a painless breeze.