When you hear Rwanda, two things come to mind… Mountain gorillas and the 1994 Genocide. From one extreme to the other; beautiful living creatures and human killings. Indeed, there is more to this lush mountainous country; gorgeous landscapes, beautiful wildlife, and very welcoming and friendly people.
As with many other people I’m sure, my desire to visit Rwanda to experience mountain gorillas has been on my “Must Do” list since I first watched Gorillas in the Mist movie with Sigourney Weaver. I was in high school when I watched the movie and instantly gained a profound love for the endangered species, to the point I even looked to become a zookeeper for mountain gorillas, yet it wasn’t to be.
Of course, the gorgeous mountain gorillas were the drawing card for me to visit Rwanda, yet I was pleasantly surprised I fell in love with more than the majestic beauties themselves.
Upon arriving at Kigali international airport, I headed to the Genocide Memorial, located within a 15-minute drive from the airport. I am always apprehensive of attending such memorials; I want to pay my respects to those who lost their lives during the 1994 horrific murder of approx. 800,000 people, yet it always brings me sadness and tears to my eyes as I feel those affected during the brutal times, especially the young and innocent children.
Even though the memorial can be emotional, I still encourage everyone to visit the memorial to read the stories by the survivors, witness the images that were encountered at the time across the country, and pay your respects in the Burial Place and Garden of Reflection. A visit to the Memorial will provide you with a greater understanding of the country’s history and the background of how the traumatic experience affected the Rwandan people.
I based myself at Kinigi Guest House, boarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo and near the entrance of Volcanoes National Park for my multiple Gorilla treks days. I felt it would be a lovely location on the side of the mountain to encapsulate the lush landscape surroundings, which I wasn’t disappointed about the location. I was looking forward to some time away from technology with no phone and internet reception; it was time to gather my thoughts and reflect, which I was well overdue for.
While driving up to my accommodation, I noticed that most 4WD’s driving past were full of tourists and didn’t seem to stop along the way; they were simply transiting from the airport to their respective lodges, which is always disappointing to see. Why people don’t venture outside the mainstream tourist attractions and their accommodation always baffles me. Surely exploring a destination in all forms provides a better holistic understanding of a destination; the people, food, culture, landscape and overall environment.
Explore the Area by Foot
One afternoon after trekking to experience the mountain gorillas, I advised my guest house manager I was looking to walk down into the town of Virunga, to which they said no guests had ever walked into town before; if I needed something they’d drive into town for me. I explained nothing was required, except I was looking to meet some locals and see how the families and the community lived. The guest house manager seemed surprised, yet recommended if I do opt to venture walking down into town, then I was to ensure to return to the guest house by dark, for safety reasons.
Now the walk mind you is only 12 km in length, so we’re not talking about an all-day trek; it is merely a stroll along the roadside, whilst a consistent decline on into town. The walk was exactly what I was looking for. Instantly I was drawn to the breath-taking scenery of the green mountainside, capturing me as I walked my way down along the winding road. It was so peaceful, listening to the birds chirping in the nearby trees.
Meeting the Locals
Most locals’ mode of transport was walking as they only seemed to need produce and supplies from Virunga town; other than that, there didn’t seem to be a need for them to own a vehicle unless for business purposes. As I was walking down the hill, locals approached me as they walked up the hill heading back to their respective homes. They gave me a friendly welcome and a hesitant smile to suggest what are you doing walking along the roadside. I reciprocated with a beaming smile, nodding and saying muraho (hello).
School-aged children on the other hand, having the inquisitive nature that they do, approached me laughing, calling me Mzungu, meaning white skin, and asking me in English where I was walking to, where I was from, as they noticed my camera in my hand. I am always respectful when taking photos of people and only do so if I have their permission to do so. I took a few photos of the children and showed them the images on the back of my camera, which they were very excited about. Having a laugh and giggling with their friends. Something simple like a camera, I can take for granted on occasions, yet it brought the children so much joy that afternoon. That experience alone brought me so much happiness, just like it had brought the children. Some children I met walking down the hill even joined me walking part of the way. It was lovely to share that time with them.
When I came across a local barbershop along the roadside that was open, the barber was in the middle of cutting someone’s hair; I approached and was allowed in to have a look inside. The clan of children I had gathered along my walk were laughing as I walked inside; they surrounded me inside the tiny shop, wondering what I was finding so fascinating. As with any country I visit, what may seem like simple everyday services or functions such as a barbershop, can be different around the globe. I like to witness how others carry out their day-to-day work using local knowledge, customs, equipment, and materials. It puts another perspective on the service and can give you more appreciation for such services. I was pleasantly surprised to see American style 90’s posters pinned up on the walls of Hollywood actors striking a pose, guessing for inspiration for clients whilst getting their haircuts of styles to choose from.
After my two hour walk down the mountain, I arrived in the centre of Virunga. I ventured into the local market selling usual fresh produce, local hardware items, and colourful fabric by the metre. However, I was curious to see that around 40 people were working on sewing machines making various clothing items towards the rear of the stalls, being a mixture of men and women. Seeing people working on sewing machines in a local open market was not a sight I was expecting at all, as I had never experienced this in my travels previously. There were also men walking around with fabric scissors, ready to prepare styles and shapes as the customers required. I remembered the conversation with my guest house manager by this stage, suggesting I return by dark. I was running out of daylight hours, so I decided I would return tomorrow to purchase some material and have one of the tailors make a piece of clothing for me. Which I did the next day.
Hitchhiking Back to My Accommodation
As I wasn’t prepared on how I’d venture back up the hill to my guesthouse, I asked a few locals what my options were. A couple of people suggested I head to the local “bus station” consisting of rundown vans that crammed people in, which I could see if they were heading up the hill; most shook their heads. I then asked a passing driver in a local Airtel telecommunication van for his suggestions; he offered me a lift. Yet, it would only be part way as he was heading another direction at Kinigi town. I accepted the offer, as it was the only option at that stage. We had a basic chit chat during the 5-minute drive; I offered to pay, although he insisted the lift was for free. I thanked him then went looking for my next ride around Kinigi.
I discovered locals providing transport at the front of the Kinigi market, although this time instead of the public transport being vans, they were scooters. Riding on the back of a scooter didn’t bother me, as I’ve rode motorbikes in the past. Although this time the helmet didn’t have a chin strap so as we rode off up the last 3 kms of the mountainside, I had one hand on the helmet, the other on the rear of the scooter. I was bouncing off the seat every time we hit a bump in the road, cautious not to throw my weight in the wrong direction upon landing back on the seat, not to make the journey for the rider more difficult.
I soon discovered that riding out of town at night must be a rare occasion, as the road was very dimly lit by the scooters single headlight guided us. I think a candle may have been brighter! Thankfully we didn’t come across any oncoming pedestrians or other obstacles, as not sure how we wouldn’t have seen it approaching, nor how we would’ve stacked up against it. Upon arriving safely back to my accommodation, I paid my rider $5 US for the trip, thanked him and walked inside the gate to a quiet night taking in the starlit sky above me.
Along with the highlight of my visit to Rwanda being the mountain gorillas, I wanted to visit the habitat of the less commonly known primate being the endangered golden monkeys. I jump at any opportunity to observe wildlife in their natural habitat, Rwanda was no different.
The process in viewing the golden monkey’s is the same as the mountain gorillas, in that restricted daily passes are given out to minimise the impact of tourists to the area, and the one-hour maximum time is granted upon spotting the monkeys, which is entirely understandable.
The trek to the monkeys was similar to that of the gorilla’s although it only took an hour for our first encounter; although we had to trek through more dense vegetation of bamboo, which the monkey’s diet consists of, plus much muddier terrain. Although the monkeys’ didn’t seem to fuss that we were nearby, as they were too busy feasting on the vegetation, they did move around quite quickly, so we had to follow them as they moved up and down the bamboo. Jumping along the ground or jumping from branch to branch, the monkeys were very nimble and seemed to get bored quickly if sitting on a branch for too long.
Besides the rustling of the vegetation as they bounced around, the monkeys were peaceful animals, with a tranquil nature, only making a very slight squealing noise every so often, which usually I am used to hearing some form of communication between their communities with other monkey species.
If you do venture to Rwanda to experience the mountain gorillas, I recommend seeing the golden monkeys too in their natural habitat. Plus the day pass is substantially cheaper too!
I generally don’t have expectations when exploring destinations; otherwise, you could easily be disappointed; however, Rwanda exceeded what I envisaged before arriving and will be sure to venture back at some stage.