How to Get to Rwanda
While on safari in Kenya, we took a side trip to Rwanda for two days to see the mountain gorillas. RwandAir offered a 5am departure from the Nairobi to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
The domestic portion of Nairobi’s airport isn’t anything to write home about. There was a bathroom without toilet paper, one café, and a small waiting area in the terminal. The gate area required extra security, and once inside water and toilets were unavailable.
As such, I wasn’t sure what to expect from RwandAir, whose slogan is “Fly the Dream of Africa.” Despite an hour delay due to weather, the overall experience on the 737, was normal. The polite flight attendants served breakfast which included a croissant, a roll, and a cup of yogurt within 50 minutes before our first stop in Uganda before we continued another 40 minutes in the air to Kigali.
A visa is required to enter Rwanda, which only costs $30 (less than other African countries) and may be purchased from the immigration officer in USD. After picking up our luggage, we met our driver, Kevin, who spent the next two days transporting us around Kigali and to Volcanoes National Park.
History and Current State of Rwanda
Perhaps due to all the unrest in Rwanda in the 90’s, I thought that Rwanda and its capital would be a dump. Boy was I wrong.
History of Rwanda
During the genocide, Kagame, a military leader who trained in the United States, led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels in attack against the Rwandan government to stop the mass murder of the Tutsi tribe.
In July of 1994, the post-genocide government led by the RPF took over. Kagame assumed the roles of Vice President and Minister of Defence under the new President Bizimungu, but became the “de facto” ruler of the country.
Over the next several years, Kagame fought rebel groups and ultimately brought peace to the country, though some say by oppression. In 2000, with most of the cross-border rebel threats reduced, Bizimungu resigned and Kagame took over as interim president through a parliament vote 81 to 3.
After the adoption of a new constitution in 2003 that allowed the citizens to vote for president, Kagame ran and won by a landslide. He served his first full 7 year term and was re-elected to serve another 7 year term in 2010. While his term limits should have been up in 2017, a petition with over 3.5 million signatures sought an extension for his presidency with another 7 year term and thereafter two 5 year terms!
Current State of Rwanda
I don’t know if the 98% approval is tainted, but I can say our driver, Kevin, seemed to like him as he described all the improvements to the country including better health care and education, and improved infrastructure including street lights and paved roads. Kevin says Kagame is striving to make Rwanda, which is growing at 8% a year, more like the USA.
Witnessed by my own eyes, the old dirt road to Volcanoes National Park is now paved with street lights. Kigali is remarkably clean too. We learned from Kevin, that on the fourth Sunday of every month, all stores close and the citizens pick up trash and sweep the streets. I was truly stunned by the cleanliness of a city home to nearly 1 million people!
While our main purpose for visiting Rwanda was to go gorilla trekking in the National Park, we spent a few hours visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial before making the three hour drive to the Virunga Mountains.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
The entry to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is free to all as it serves as a memorial to all the victims, but an audio-guided tour for non-residents costs $25 or 20,000 Rwandan Francs. For 1.5 hours, that seemed pricey, so we passed on the audio guide which also included a lapel pin, until the staff volunteered that we could enter for $15 if we didn’t take the pin.
With that, our group, Rootie, Rozy, Jake and I, entered with a laminated map and audio guide in hand. We started with a 10-minute movie and then meandered through the outside gardens and rows of mass graves on which we each laid a long-stem rose provided by the facility.
While we were here to learn about the genocide, many Rwandans come here to mourn their lost relatives, thus the free entrance. After respectfully meandering through the gardens and honoring the fallen, we visited the exhibits inside where we learned about both the genocide and the recovery of Rwanda.
Conflict Leading to the Genocide in Rwanda
Historically, the three major ethnic groups of Rwanda, the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa lived among each other peacefully. In the late 1800’s, however, Rwanda was assigned to the Germans who favored the Tutsi when providing administrative roles, as they felt them superior.
The favoritism continued with Belgium’s control over the country during World War I and in 1935, Belgium introduced identity cards which labelled each person as a Tutsi, Twa, or Hutu. By World War II, however, the Hutu’s emancipation movement grew with inter-war social reform and sympathy for the Hutu in the Catholic Church.
By 1957, the underprivileged Hutu grew to a powerful clergy and educated elite creating a counter balance in the political order. A group of scholars wrote the Bahutu Manifesto which was the first document labeling the Tutsi and Hutu as different races.
Rwandan Revolution and Civil War
A few years later, pro-Tutsi supporters attacked the Hutu sub-chief. As a result, the Hutu, who now had the backing of the Belgian Administration, retaliated. This was the start of the Rwandan Revolution. In 1962, Rwanda gained its independence with the Hutus, designated by the Belgians, in power. As a result, many Tutsi fled and remained in exile for the next 30 years.
The Civil War continued off and on through the 1980’s and 1990’s as Rwandan refugees formed rebel groups. On April 6, 1994, the current Rwandan president, Habyarimana, was assassinated when his plane was shot down. Though it is thought that the genocide had been planned for at least a year prior, this event sparked the mass killings and rape of the Tutsi.
While the genocide was organized by the Hutu elite, the killings were committed by both the army and civilians. Once friendly neighbors were now “macheting” people to death. From April to July of 1994, it is estimated that 1 million Tutsi (70% of the population) were killed while approximately 500,000 women were raped. As mentioned above, the genocide ended with the victory of the RPF led by Kagame.
Given entire families were murdered in the massacre, the exact number of deaths and names of victims are unknown. There were 400,000 children orphaned of whom 85,000 were forced to become the head of household. Furthermore, many of the women who were raped are now HIV positive.
Rebuilding Peace in Rwanda
Between 1994 and 2000, 120,000 suspects were arrested, though by 2006 only 10,000 had been tried. It is said the President Kagame, who some claim ordered the assassination when he was with the rebel forces, re-introduced Gacaca, for faster processing of cases. Gacaca is a village court system used in traditional Rwandan justice that encourages the community to heal and rebuild, thus creating peace among the tribes.
Without asking what tribe Kevin belonged to, I asked him if he lived through the atrocities as he looked old enough. I could see the pain in his face when he said he had 7 family members buried among the 250,000 in the mass grave at the memorial. I can’t imagine having to bring tourists to his family’s grave.
Café du Memorial
After 1.5 hours at the memorial, we were completely drained. That coupled with being severely jet-lagged and only getting a few hours of sleep before our early morning departure, we didn’t even have the energy to go anywhere else in the city. We settled for lunch at the memorial’s restaurant. The fruit bowl, peanut butter shake and chicken breast plate were quite good!
Drive to Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
The next three hours of our adventure included driving to Mountain Gorilla View Lodge located 15 minutes from the Volcanoes National Park at the base of the Virunga range. In a food coma, we all dozed off temporarily, but for most of the time we enjoyed seeing the countryside and the Rwandan way of life on a Sunday.
Villagers walked to church in their nice clothes, sold bananas on the side of the road, played soccer, and even pushed carts full of potatoes and sugar cane for miles all the way to our destination. Bike taxi’s, with a pad on the back, waited to provide rides as baboon’s ate bananas nearby.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
Upon arrival to Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, the staff greeted us with tea and coffee as we learned about the lodge, its services and the process for seeing the gorillas in the morning. Soon thereafter, we were escorted to our rooms, free standing cabins around the property.
Gear for Gorilla Trekking
Rootie and I shared our cabin complete with a covered porch, two queen beds, a large sitting area, and a bathroom with an open shower. We enjoyed our nice accommodations as we prepped our gear for trekking the following day. We filled our small day packs with three liters of water, some snacks, rain gear and garden gloves to protect us from the thistles.
As the skies unleashed with torrential rain, we rented gaiters from the lodge for $5 to cover our pants. Originally, I thought we were to use them for the rain and mud, but actually, they were for keeping the ants from crawling up our legs. It seemed ridiculous to me to wear gaiters for ants, until we completed a nature walk in the Masai Mara a few days later when I got attacked.
Now I have a full understanding of the phrase “ants in your pants.” It was all I could do to not just pull my pants of on the hike. I squirmed and tried squashing the ants with my fingers as the six bites radiated like wasp stings! It happened to Rozy too while in camp, and she ran directly to the loo to pull her pants down. Wow, they were vicious. But I digress.
Meals at the Lodge
With our gear prepared, we attended a great buffet dinner at the lodge. Typically, I’m not the biggest fan of buffets, but the tomato and avocado salad as well as the passion fruit custard were superb. Other options included made to order stir fry, pasta, ribs, veggies, chicken and the like.
We turned in early, partly due to lack of sleep since arriving to Africa and partly due our early departure to the park in the morning. After indulging in a buffet breakfast featuring a omelet station during another downpour, we loaded into our vehicle for the short 15-minute drive to Kinigi, the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains.
Along the way, we saw the preparations for Kwita Izina, the naming ceremony for baby gorillas that takes place the first Friday of September. Villagers freshened up the buildings with paint while workers constructed a giant gorilla for ceremony which attracts an international community including the namers who are world famous leaders like the Princess of Jordan.
Traditionally, Kwita Izina is an ancestral ceremony that has been used for centuries for newborn babies. The naming of mountain gorillas through Kwita Izina began in 2005 to raise awareness of the endangered species of which only 1,004 remain. For the three decades prior, rangers and researchers named the baby gorillas. This year 25 newborn mountain gorillas will be named.
Volcanoes National Park
Fortunately, upon arrival at the park, the rain subsided. I was surprised to find a coffee bar in a covered pavilion where a gorilla documentary was playing. The documentary featured the Agashya family of 24 gorillas along with our driver Kevin, who was insistent on trying to get us assigned to this special group.
Gorilla Family Assignments
He left us at the pavilion while he negotiated with the park rangers on our behalf. The gorilla families are assigned to permit holders based preferences for an easy, medium or hard hike.
The exception is the Agashya family, which actually means special. This family is reserved for clients who have purchased a $1,500 permit for more than one day.
Given the price, we only bought a one-day permit months in advance, but my friend Rootie had been several years before (when they cost $350), so Kevin argued that we qualified for multi-days.
Mountain Gorilla Information
Whatever he said worked, as Jake, Rozy, Rootie, and I joined four other hikers to visit the Agashya family for a medium trek which is around 3-4 hours, though not guaranteed as the gorilla family could have moved locations since the trackers spotted them earlier in the morning.
We huddled around the park ranger as he provided a briefing about mountain gorillas in general. We learned that over a decade ago, when Rootie visited, there were only 500 gorillas left as poaching continued. Now the poaching has stopped, and the population has doubled.
Of the 1,004 gorillas, 604 live in Rwanda while most the rest call Uganda home. Having said that, their terrain also includes the Congo, but given the war-torn area, my guess is neither the gorillas nor tourists spend much time there.
In Rwanda, there are 20 gorilla families. Twelve families are used for tourism, while the other eight are used for research. Trekkers, limited to eight per group, are allowed one hour with the gorillas once the first sighting has been made on the hike.
The Agashya Gorilla Family
Our family of 24, Agashya, is considered special because many years ago the head silverback (Mr. Special) left his five women in Rwanda, traveled through the Congo to Uganda, and along the way brought six more women back to Rwanda to have a large harem of eleven ladies. It was very unusual for a gorilla to travel so far and to have so many women.
Naturally, he neglected some of the ladies who left the troop over time, but he still kept five wives. The family also includes several males called the #2, #3, and #4 blackbacks who are subordinate to the silverback, so named for the silver patch on its back that comes with twelve years of age.
Blackbacks are eight to twelve years old. If the silverback dies, these males may become dominant or mate with the females. In addition to these males and females, the family includes children, one being a nine month old baby who will be named at this year’s ceremony.
The Trek Up
After our briefing, we all loaded into our separate trucks and drove through small villages and farmland to the edge of the forest. We met eight porters who could be hired for $10 to carry our packs. The porters are local farmers who carry bags for tourists about once a week.
Our group, armed with carved wooden walking sticks and with porters in tow, followed the ranger through the farmland for about thirty minutes until we reached the forest. In the forest, we discussed the procedures for approaching the gorillas. The ranger warned, “Don’t stare and if the gorillas express aggressive behavior with chest pounding, do not run away, kneel in place.”
Ready for a hike, we began by following a flat trail through a bamboo forest. The terrain changed quickly and within 20 minutes we climbed up a steep path through dense foliage to a rare open view where some buffalo grazed.
We continued past a handful of wildflowers while we more or less scrambled over steep sections of trail. After about one hour and 45 minutes, we met the trackers who carried guns to shoot in the air for scaring away elephants.
The trackers were about a ten-minute trek away from the gorillas. Only allowed to have our camera by the gorillas, we left our packs with our food and water with the porters and began bushwhacking to the troop.
Our first sighting was of one gorilla right by the trail. As we continued, we could see gorillas scattered in the ferns and thistle on the 45⁰ slope. From the pictures I have seen, I was under the impression they would be somewhat sedentary and sit by us. That was not the case.
They moved, stopped, and moved again as they foraged in the thick vegetation. The trackers and ranger hacked away ferns with a machete as we struggled to keep our balance on the underbrush while capturing photos of these amazing primates.
At rest, we watched the baby play as its mother looked on, Mr. Special and a female groom each other, and many munch on leaves while turning their backs to us. When they weren’t eating leaves, they certainly enjoyed picking their nose and eating their boogers. There was no shyness about that!
Mama Looking After Her Baby Playing
Munching on Leaves
Gorillas On the Move
On the move, they liked following our bushwhacked path, and they had the right of way. As such, we leaned into the brush and let them pass. Due to the thicket and steep terrain, we could be ten feet for a gorilla and not see it. Gorilla Video
Once I was on a lower “path” while much of the group was up above. I heard the guide tell these trekkers to move over for a photo. I thought they were looking at a gorilla sitting in the ferns. Little did I know a gorilla was barreling down the path. As it turned the corner, it came face to face with me!
I was not supposed to flinch, but I did out of surprise. Fortunately, it kindly waited for me to move off the trail, and it continued to join a few other members of the troop. Multiple times we leap frogged one another and occasionally as they whizzed by, they brushed a pant leg or shoe.
They didn’t show the least bit of fear or aggression. As such we were allowed within about ten feet of them when we positioned ourselves. Anytime we were closer, it was because the gorillas passed nearby.
The Trek Down
After an hour with the gorillas, we returned to our porters who fortunately moved to a lower elevation. As a result, we did not have to climb back up the mountain that we just trounced down while following the family.
Our descent which included a short break for a snack, took us a little over an hour. Along the way, we saw the biggest earth worms I’ve ever seen in my life! I should have taken the photo with some perspective. The curled up worm was the size of my foot!
We reached the farmland a little over four hours after we started, though it felt like closer to six after the exhilarating experience. Kevin took us back to the lodge for lunch. The staff removed our shoes and cleaned them while we ate and showered before returning to Kigali.
Return to Kigali
Again the drive took about three hours on the twisting road. I was impressed by the enterprising cyclist sneakily hitched a ride from a dump truck up the hill! Video.
We spent the night in Kigali before catching a flight back to Nairobi for the next part of our safari. At our Kigali hotel, Heaven, the staff greeted us with juice and a dance. Aside from a miscommunication about the breakfast start time, we had a wonderful stay.
The hotel with a nice lobby, pool, and open-air gym is part of a larger complex which includes The Retreat, a five-star luxury hotel, with two restaurants and another pool. The lovely accommodation is owned by an American couple who also wrote the book, A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Kudos to Kelvin at Absolute Vantage for finding us a spectacular oasis in the city.
With flights, lodging, transportation and the permit, our hour with the gorillas was admittedly pricey. An alternative and “cheaper” option is to trek in Uganda for $600 (soon to be $700), but it requires a one-way 8-hour drive. Facing an already travel intensive itinerary, the long drive didn’t appeal to us, thus our Rwanda visit. In the end, in my opinion, the once in a life-time experience was priceless.