Rwanda’s Forests Thump, Quite Literally

Once a nation in turmoil, Rwanda is now an adored wildlife destination. There is courage in the its revival and grandeur in its beauty.  
Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Contributor/Christian Science Monitor/ Getty Images.
Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/Contributor/Christian Science Monitor/ Getty Images.

I froze in my tracks. As Muhoza walked towards me, my heart beat quicker. His steps were measured and graceful. He was sheer muscle; 200 kilograms of it. His fur gleamed as he turned his back. He’d found his spot. A silverback mountain gorilla, Muhoza munched on leaves. Standing in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the last remaining habitat of the mountain gorilla, I was his guest. His family—two juvenile males and the young female Gobito with a child on her back—soon ventured out of the bushes. The wide-eyed child regarded us with curiosity before snuggling back to its mother. Unlike a safari, visiting the mountain gorilla in Rwanda is a more intimate experience. There is no covered vehicle that gives you safe distance. I shared with Mohuza his living quarters.

Located in the volcanic Virungas Mountains that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Volcanoes National Park is one of the oldest nature reserves in Africa. Having worked here for over three decades, François , our guide, knew these parts well. Before our group of eight began trekking, he had warned us that this was going to be a tough climb. We had, I reminded myself, opted for the easy route. Of the 20 gorilla families that live in the nature reserve, only 10 can be visited by travellers. The others live deep in the jungle and can only be seen by researchers. François  had a clear set of instructions: We were the visitors here; the gorillas were free to do as they please, and if any of them approached us, which they did sometimes, we were to keep our heads down, be still and let them be. The message seemed clear—play it cool.

We’d crossed uneven fields and bamboo groves. Accompanied by armed patrol guards and expert trackers, we had made our way up the mountain. Though equipped with fat wooden hiking sticks and with porters to help us, each of us fell while climbing the barely discernible path. One of the trackers walked ahead, clearing the thicket with a machete, but there was no escaping the stinging nettles. I was short of breath, I was muddy, and then, when I least expected it, François  turned to us and said, “There he is.” Six feet away from me, partially hidden by a bush, there sat Muhoza.

Brushing past François , Muhoza entered an opening in the thicket. We followed him and his family. Suddenly, I was face to face with the family matriarch. She sat four feet away, finishing her morning meal. We crowded around, sitting on our knees. She had large hands, small nails, and a wrinkled face with the same structure as mine. I looked into her dark, keen eyes, but I couldn’t hold the gaze long. She deserved reverence. I saw Muhoza again. This time he was framed by the expansive rainforest, completely at home in surroundings where we struggled to find a foothold. Biting into thorny branches, baring his sharp canines, he looked like an intimidating disciplinarian. With one last look, I began my clumsy, watchful trek down. No wildlife encounter had left me so overwhelmed. I had stared into the eyes of nature, and then dramatically, those of the beast.

***

Genocide memorial Rwanda

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is also the resting place for 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Contributor/ Getty Images.

The first thing I felt in Rwanda was surprise. Standing outside my hotel in Kivoyu, Kigali, I looked out at the city. As dusk settled over the emerald treetops and the green hills studded with sloping red roofs, the city resembled a European town. Spotting the palm trees, though, I realised it wasn’t. I recalled the questions I had been asked when I told family and friends I was going to Rwanda.

“Where?”

“Why?”

“You mean Uganda?”

“Are you sure?”

I had shaken my head, even rolled my eyes. Yes, I was going to Africa. Yes, I was hoping to see gorillas. But no, I was not going to Uganda (or South Africa, or Kenya). I couldn’t fault my well-wishers their incredulity, though. The truth is I didn’t know much about this East African gem either. During my seven-hour flight from Mumbai to the capital Kigali, I was bracing myself—there was no picture I had in mind, and no definite idea of what to expect on the other side of the journey. To my delight, I found on the other side a dewy morning and a city bordered by lush greenery. It was also one of the cleanest cities I’d ever seen. The reason, I was told, was that every fourth Saturday, Kigali residents participate in community cleaning drives. This was surely not what I had expected.

While our group of Indian journalists were being ferried around the city, I noticed that Kigali was honouring the victims of history. All over the city, posters and lamps marked the hundred days of remembrance for the genocide of 1994. The brutal civil war claimed a million lives and in many ways, it is the canvas on which the story of today’s Rwanda is etched.

***

The Kigali Genocide Memorial—where 250,000 people who died in the genocide are buried—is a difficult place to visit. The ethnic conflict that first began when colonisers divided the people into ethnic tribes took the form of a bloody battle in April 1994. The majority Hutus were instructed by their leaders to wipe out the minority Tutsis, and in a span of just 100 days, about a million lives were lost. Hutu-led extremists slaughtered their Tutsi friends and neighbours, while a small contingent of UN soldiers tried to control the situation. The massacre finally ended in June 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Force, a militia of Tutsi refugees from Uganda, stepped in.

The Genocide Memorial is a building of peace for many Rwandans. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/ Staff/ Getty Images News/ Getty Images.

The Genocide Memorial is a building of peace for many Rwandans. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/ Staff/ Getty Images News/ Getty Images.

Today, the memorial not only documents history but is also a building of peace for many Rwandans. It is the only place where they can visit their families. Surviving members come to the mass graves, and leave behind wreaths, bouquets, saplings and notes. Some come to look at the photographs of loved ones. A room here has pictures of every child, man and woman killed. While people don’t identify as Hutu or Tutsi anymore, the story of the “war of 1994” is not easily forgotten, or left out of conversation.

“The memory I have is of a nine-year-old me, with a radio in one hand, holding my dad’s hand and going to the airport without knowing where I was going. I could hear gunshots in the far distance, but I couldn’t understand much. When I asked, I was told it was nothing to worry about.” I’d met Aschariya, a 30-year-old biotechnologist and her father Atma Prakash at a restaurant in Kigali during dinner. As we got talking, this was one of the first things she told me. Sixty-year-old Atma Prakash is from Kerala but he has lived in Kigali for 27 years now and he remembers his brother almost getting shot. It was that incident which made them realise how serious the conflict was.

Atma Praksh’s brother, along with many other South Asian families, left Kigali in a convoy of 97 vehicles that he and a friend had arranged. “My brother was shot at in front of our house. The bullet hole is still there in the house’s door frame,” he told me. “I remember we used tablecloths and made flags to make it seem like our car was of an important agency’s. We could hear gunshots, but from the inside, we couldn’t see anything. People encircled the vehicles, wanting to see who was inside.”

Atma Prakash went from Burundi to Kenya and then back to India to join his pregnant wife and his daughter, Aschariya. When the family returned, it was to a country that had been changed forever. Atma Prakash came back 14 days after the war had ended. “Our cosmetics factory had many Tutsi employees and half our workforce had been killed. We had to begin from scratch again.” While he was trying to build a new foundation, Aschariya didn’t want to revisit old ties. “So much had changed. I didn’t want to know about the friends I had left behind because I knew things would have changed. People became wary and lacked trust.”

Even today, the country carries the burden of its history. The genocide is the story of Rwanda that the world knows. But as you meet more people, you realise it is not Rwanda’s only identity. In fact, it is a reminder to grow stronger. In Aschariya’s words, “There was a motto—‘Forgive, but never forget’. Everyone believes that till date. The great thing is we expected trust to be born again and it did happen.” And trust they do. Every guide, every local I met mentioned the war as the starting point of change, the beginning of Rwanda’s new story.

***

Today’s Rwanda has its roots in its forests. The country’s wildlife conservation policies care not only for the forests, but also involve the local communities living around these forests. Thanks to revenue sharing schemes, wildlife protection acts and an environmentally conscious leadership, the people and the forests both benefit.

Ankole-watusi longhorn cattle are symbols of prosperity in Rwandan society. Photo by Rumela Basu.

Ankole-watusi longhorn cattle are symbols of prosperity in Rwandan society. Photo by Rumela Basu.

At Akagera National Park in the northeast, ankole-watusi longhorn cattle—with horns that are 30 inches long—cause traffic jams outside the gates. Fidgety impala and large groups of baboon welcome visitors into the savannah landscape. Sentinel-like hippos keep watch from the water, and zebras roam in hundreds. The hairy waterbuck and the large topi, with its brown legs and ridged horns, regard guests with unblinking eyes.

In the east, the centuries-old Nyungwe National Park’s evergreen treetops look like giant florets of broccoli from the 197-foot-high canopy walk. Bird and primate calls echo through the jungle and wild fern open to the skies as you soak in views of green rolling hills crowned by wispy clouds. Black and white colobus monkeys snooze on branches, and clutching their milky-white infants to their stomachs, they travel along the tea estates at the borders of the park.

Every guide, tracker and park employee I met at Akagera, Nyungwe and Volcanoes national parks has told me there is no animosity between man and beast today. The men who were once poachers are now porters and guides. There is now a peaceful coexistence.

Rwanda is a success story of revival, of people wanting to nurture that which is their own. From an ethnic war that shook its foundation to being one of the safest countries in Africa, it has been a long journey for this little nation. A week in Rwanda gave me many poignant stories—of resilience, of people, of foundations and new beginnings, of gorillas. And Rwanda has given me reasons to keep coming back.


ESSENTIALS

Orientation Rwanda is a landlocked country in east-central Africa, bordered by Uganda in the north, Democratic Republic of the Congo in the west, Tanzania in the east and Burundi in the south. The capital, Kigali, is in central Rwanda. The country’s higher elevation accounts for comparatively lower temperatures despite its tropical location.

Getting There RwandAir has non-stop flights from Mumbai to Kigali four times a week. Other airline carriers have flights from most major Indian cities to Kigali and include one or more stops in a Middle Eastern and African gateway.

Visa Indian travellers need a tourist visa to visit Rwanda. Visa applications can be made online. An Entry Facility letter is sent within couple of days of applying online and the traveller receives a visa on arrival. Applications can also be made in person at the Rwanda High Commission in New Delhi. The completed visa application form along with valid travel documents would be required. Travellers must take a yellow fever vaccine. (rwandahcdelhi.org; visa costs $50/Rs3,500)

Nyungwe National Park Nyungwe National Park is 200 km/4 hr southwest of Kigali and 300 km/6 hr southwest of Akagera National Park. There are over 15 guided nature trails and hikes in Nyungwe which offer different experiences, from primate spotting to views of a thundering waterfall (nature hikes from $40/Rs2,580 per person for one day, additional days usually cost 50 per cent of the regular fee, all activities are guided). Different primate tracking trails to see chimpanzees, blue monkeys and colobuses are available (chimpanzee tracking $90/Rs5,800 per person per day; other primate tracking $60/Rs3,875 per person per day; visitors below 16 years not allowed). The canopy walk takes about two hours to complete and offers a bird’s-eye view of the lush rainforest ($60/Rs3,875 per person per day; raincoats, boots and hiking sticks can be rented at park).

Chimpanzees are the stars among the primates of Nyungwe National Park. Photo courtesy: Rwanda Development Board | High Commission of Rwanda | RwandAir | Inspiration Unlimited

Chimpanzees are the stars among the primates of Nyungwe National Park.
Photo courtesy: Rwanda Development Board | High Commission of Rwanda | RwandAir | Inspiration Unlimited

Akagera National Park Akagera National Park is 100 km/2 hr northeast of Kigali. The 1,122-square-kilometre national park is located in the northeast of Rwanda along the border with Tanzania. Visitors can rent vehicles for game drives; each vehicle is assigned a driver and guide. It is also possible to go on self-drives in Akagera and one can ask for a park-employed guide or a freelance guide who are usually members of the local community (park entry $35/Rs2,250 per person per day, children below five free; charge per car $7.5/Rs485; safaris $175/Rs11,300 for 5 hr, $275/Rs17,750 full day; for self-drives park employed guides $25/Rs1,615 half day, $40/Rs2,580 full  day and freelance guides $20/Rs1,290 half day, $30/Rs1,935 full day). Boat trips on Lake Ihema are good for birding, and fishing trips are offered on Lake Shakani (boat tours are 1-hr long and scheduled four times a day, morning tour $30/Rs1,935 per person, sunset tour $40/Rs2,580; fishing trips $20/Rs1,290 per person per day with own equipment). The park also offers night game drives ($40/Rs2,580 per person, 2.5 hr) and a behind-the-scenes tour ($20/Rs1,290 per person, 1.5 hr).

Volcanoes National Park Volcanoes National Park is about 100 km/3 hr northwest of Kigali and 240 km/4.5 hr northeast of Nyungwe National Park. The mountain gorillas live within the Virungas Mountains of the park and each family lives at different altitudes. Hence, the trek can vary from moderately difficult to challenging. Trekkers must reach the visitor centre at the park entrance by 7 a.m. It is also advised to get a porter for trek; they can help in navigating tricky parts of the forest. Only one group of eight members visits one gorilla family for an hour every day (permit for gorilla trek $1,500/Rs96,820 per person; porters RWF8,000/Rs615; booking must be made at least 3-6 months in advance). Apart from the gorilla trek, Volcanoes also offers other trekking and hiking trails like the Dian Fossey Tomb Trail, a challenging hike to 9,843 feet on Mount Bisoke and a hike to the Ngezi Crater Lake (Dian Fossey Hike $75/Rs4,840 per person; Golden Monkey Tracking $100/Rs6,455 per person; Crater Lake Hike $75/Rs4,840 per person).

All activities can be booked via the Rwanda Development Board (rdb.rw; for reservations and permits write to reservation@rwandatourism.com).

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    Rumela Basu is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.

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