Rwanda – The Last Outpost Of Mountain Gorillas And Africa’s Top Ecotourism Destination
From a geographical map, Rwanda, the tiny east-central African country appears to be almost chocking from a collective grip by the giant neighbors surrounding her. Uganda is squeezing from the north, Democratic republic of Congo pressuring to the west and Tanzania pulling from the east. On the southern side of the country lies Burundi, a neighbor more or less like a twin-sister, considering their physical size and shared history.
Rwanda is a perfectly beautiful country. It is characterized by steep, rolling hills, deep valleys, mesmerizing savanna. The landscape is simply stunning!
A pygmy hunter-gatherer people are said to have been the original settlers to this region. These are the ancestors of the Twa people. Descendants of this aboriginal group currently make up mere 0.25% of the whole population of Rwanda, estimated at around 9 million people.
Different Bantu-speaking groups later joined the Twa, arriving at different times. These latter groups are the descendants of the better-known Hutu and Tutsi. Because of the terrible conflicts and the apparent rift between the Hutu and Tutsi, many have come to take it for granted that they are different ethnic groups. However, the Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language; this is besides the fact that they share many social and cultural practices. In fact, social scientists differ in opinion on matter as to whether they are actually different ethnic groups. The most significant distinction appears to be have been on the basis of one’s occupation and social class rather than one’s ethnicity. In their earlier days, those who tilled the land practiced agriculture were the masses and were considered the Hutu, whereas the pastoralist who kept cattle, were the elite and were identified as the Tutsi.
In the earlier days, everybody paid pledged loyalty to the same king and the identity as either Hutu or Tutsi was not fixed. For example, a person considered Tutsi would lose his cattle (wealth) from some disease. This lose of wealth would revert his status to Hutu. And likewise a Hutu who worked harder and acquired cattle would gain status and climb up the social ladder to become Tutsi. That was then. This harmless social distinction ended with the onset of colonization. It began to change into a fixed ethnic label to the extent that physical characteristics separating the 2 groups were sought.
After the Berlin Conference of 1885, Germany colonized Rwanda. A little later, in 1918, Belgium took over after winning a League of Nations mandate. Unfortunately, and as with many colonial powers of that time, the philosophy of divide and rule was an attractive tool. The Belgian style of indirect rule meant they had to divide the general population to rule easily. Therefore they sought to magnify the differences between the groups. The ethnicity label provided a perfect chance. For example, in 1933 identity cards were introduced. These cards classified one according to ethnic group. Besides being an identity tool, it served only to widen the already-existing gap between the groups.
Rwanda attained political independence in 1962, with Gregoire Kayibanda as prime minister. But the ethnic tensions did not end. Only a year after independence, in 1963, clashes broke out, leading to thousands of deaths – of mostly Tutsi civilians. Many others fled as refugees into the neighboring countries.
Despite the social and political instability, Rwanda was able to struggle past the challenges of being a modern state and make progress. As a travel destination, Rwanda was able to claim its rightful place in the tourist map. Gorilla tracking in the Virunga Mountains was Rwanda’s main tourist attraction. And until the early 1990s, Rwanda remained firmly in the travel supplement of major travel magazines and travel agents brochures.
The year 1994
Rwanda grabbed world headlines in a nasty way in the early months of 1994. The plane that was carrying both the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi crashed mysteriously, killing both of them. This triggered what has come to be known as and Rwanda genocide of 1994. Between April and July of 1994 almost 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi were killed. Finally, Tutsi-dominated rebel group captured the capital and installed a new government
The past is behind, the future lies ahead
Since 1995, Rwanda has made tremendous steps of recovery – slowly, steadily and amazingly. And in terms of travel, tourists are streaming back to watch the mountain gorillas of Virunga Mountains and the elephants of Akagera National park. Currently, about 40,000 tourists visit Rwanda annually.
Top on the list of Rwanda’s tourist attraction is the mountain gorillas. The gorillas share 97% of their genes with humans. Those who have had the opportunity to view the gorillas find no words to describe the feeling. No wildlife guide-book or study can ever prepare one for this poignant experience. The gorillas are huge. The male can be three times as big as the average man. Yet, in comparison, they are so remarkably peace-loving!
‘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 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas’. These words were written by Dian Fossey. The story of Virunga mountain gorillas is not complete without that of Dian Fossey. She lived amongst the gorillas and died trying to protect them. In fact, the few mountain gorillas that we have today, survived because of Dian Fossey’s efforts.
Dian Fossey left her home in Kentucky to go and live amongst the gorillas in Rwanda. She wanted to understand them and preserve them. She argued for the protection of the mountain gorillas from the hunters who killed them for their skin, hands and head. In doing this, she became the enemy of the hunters. In 1985, she was murdered in the park. She is buried at Karisoke, the primate research centre she had set up at the Virungas.
Fossey’s effort and subsequent death were not in vain. The Virungas remain the last outpost for the mountain gorillas. It is estimated that half of the world’s population of mountain gorilla – currently at 740 – resides at the Virungas. Before her death, she wrote a book – Gorillas In The Mist. It was published in 1983. A biographical film based on her story and this book was released in 1988. The film generated positive publicity that helped the case for the conservation of the mountain gorillas. International awareness on the plight of the rare mountain gorillas was raised.
There are 5 habituated gorilla groups that can be viewed by tourists. Each group can be visited by a maximum of 8 people per day and the visit lasts only 1 hour. The trekking can take from 1 to 6 hours and climb to altitudes in excess of 7,500 feet. The terrain is rough and at times muddy. Although the hike is physically demanding the beauty of the forest and surrounding scenery make the trekking worthwhile and fun. Once the gorillas are located, all fatigue is forgotten, as the experience is often described as being the most profound natural history experience in the world. Cameras and plenty of fast speed film are recommended. It can rain at a few minutes notice; hence waterproof clothing is a good essential including zip lock bags for cameras and film. It is important to take plenty of water. Note also that the minimum age for gorilla tracking is 15 years.
The permits are issue by Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN)/ The Rwanda Tourism board, in Kigali or Ruhengeri.
Besides hosting the mountain gorillas, the Virungas themselves are a spectacle to behold. As you walk through the foothills of the mountains you have for yourself an all round view that is simply breath-taking.
Akagera National Park
The next park in terms of prominence is the Akagera National park which is located on the eastern side of Rwanda, on the border with Tanzania. The park holds swamps and lakes that follow the course of the Akagera River, which is part of the source of the Nile.
The park has big game. Elephants and buffalo are easily seen wandering to the lakes for a drink. You will also see giraffe and zebra in the savannah and a variety of antelopes. Notable among the antelopes is the world’s largest antelope, the Cape eland. If lady luck smiles at you, it won’t be difficult to see the leopard, lion and spotted hyena. And with the lakes and swamps, hippos and crocodile complete the list of residents.
Nyungwe National park
Nyungwe national park is the single largest montane forest in the whole of east and central Africa. The park extends for over 1000 square kilometers across the hills of Rwanda on the south-eastern side. This park has a very rich and unique diversity in terms of flora and fauna. The forest has more than 200 different types of trees.
Nature-lovers are drawn to Nyungwe by is the primates and birds. The forest is home to 13 species of primates, including the Chimpanzee – our closest living relative. It is here at Nyungwe also, that you will find over 300 species of birds. The pleasure of visiting Nyungwe is enhanced by a network of well-maintained walking trails that allows the visitor to enjoy the beauty of the forest. The trails lead to the waterfalls and viewpoints. There is a rest-house and a campsite along the road too. Although Nyungwe can be visited as a day trip, it is recommended that you allocate at least 2 days of your itinerary so as to get the real feel.
Lake Kivu is an inland sea which is enclosed by steep terraced hills along the border with Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the largest of the numerous freshwaters bodies that abound in the valleys of Rwanda. Three towns, Gisenyi, Kibuye and Cyangugu are lined up along the length of the lake. Gisenyi being the most developed for travelers, lies less than 1 hour from Parc des Volcans. Kibuye lies to Gisenyi’s south and Cyangugu on the southern-most tip of the lake is very close to Nyungwe forest. All the 3 towns are connected by a road. There is also a charter boat service on the lake connecting the 3 towns.
Kigali is the capital city of Rwanda. The city is located right at the centre of the country. It is also most important business centre and port of entry. There is an efficient international airport and the road transport connecting it to the neighboring countries is reliable.
Kigali boasts a range of hotels that cater for all tastes. It is amongst the safest African capitals and is blessed with a moderate high altitude climate. It is centrally located such that most tourist sites are utmost 3 hours drive from Kigali.
The main form of public transportation in Kigali and Rwanda in general is shared taxis linking the different towns and villages within the country. For long distance road travel to the neighboring countries, coach services are available.
Butare was the largest and most important city in Rwanda prior to 1965, when it lost out to the more centrally located Kigali, 135km to its north, as the capital of independent Rwanda. Today it is the site of several academic institutions, including the country’s largest university. It still regarded as the intellectual and cultural pulse of Rwanda.
However, the most prominent tourist attraction in Butare is the superb National Museum, which houses perhaps the finest ethnographic collection in East Africa
When is the best time to visit Rwanda and track the gorillas?
Rwanda is an all-year-round destination. However, gorilla tracking and other forest walks are less demanding when undertaken during the drier months – June to September. The European winter is the best time for bird-watchers, as Palaearctic migrant birds supplement the resident species to create a paradise!