Rwanda is a small East African country with a violently turbulent past. You may ask yourself why you would visit a country with this sad history...
One of our consultants travelled to Rwanda and here's her story:
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve dreamed of going to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, and my dream finally came true a couple of years ago. The weeks leading up to my trip to Rwanda were full of visits to the local travel clinic to get my yellow fever jab, malaria pills, hiking boots, and the usual unnecessary items you buy when you’re too excited for an upcoming holiday. The night before I departed I even spent a teary evening watching Hotel Rwanda as I was going to visit the infamous hotel in Kigali.
Fast forward two days and my boyfriend and I had landed at Kigali Airport. We met our guide in the arrivals hall who informed us that today was the last Saturday of the month which meant that it was clean-up day. As part of the reconstruction of the country in the last two decades, the government has implemented one day a month where the citizens all need to help clean the country to foster a sense of pride in the country. As we drove through Kigali I was in shock how tidy and manicured the city was, similar to a city you would find in Australia. We proceeded to drive another 2 hours through gorgeous rolling hills saturated with patchwork farming allotments until we reached the outskirts of Parc National des Volcans. We stayed at Volcanoes Virunga Lodge which is a little further away from the park headquarters, but is definitely worth it for the stunning views from the cottages and main area. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and taking in the views before enjoying a delicious communal dinner and hearing the stories of those who went gorilla trekking that day. Needless to say it was difficult to sleep that night!
At 5:30am the next morning we were woken up for breakfast before setting off for the park headquarters. When we arrived we were treated with a traditional dance performed by members of the local community while the guides and trackers split everyone up into groups for the different gorilla family groups they would visit. The eight people in our group were then assembled and briefed on the unique aspects and members of the family we would visit, before being driven by our guide to the point where we would start our trek. Even though we only had a little bag, we chose to hire a porter because most of the porters were former poachers and this employment is part of what convinced them to value the gorillas in life instead of the money they could make from their death.
As we started walking through the potato fields towards the rock wall marking the boundary to the park, our tracker was smiling like he knew something. As the wall came into view I let out a gasp as I could see several gorillas sitting on the wall! Our tracker laughed and said that, thanks to the rain the night before, they had come down to eat the bamboo at the edge of the park. So much for our epic hike!
As everyone says, the next hour that we spent with the gorillas went in the blink of an eye. There were 28 gorillas in the Agashya family we visited, including the youngest gorilla in the entire park who was only about 2 months old. The first 15 minutes we spent outside the park as some of the gorillas came into the potato fields to eat bamboo, but then we climbed the wall and went into the forest to see the rest of the family including the massive silverback. My favourite was watching the young males who were racing around, spinning upside down on vines, and just overall acting like young boys who have had too much sugar. At one point the silverback male mock charged us and beat his chest to remind us who was boss, which was fairly terrifying but also exhilarating. The mother with the 2 month old baby was very shy and was trying to keep her baby in her lap, but he kept climbing out and wanted to explore everything which was adorable. There were two teenage males who got into a play fight which frightened us until we realized it was harmless brothers playing together. And before I knew it our hour was up, and we were climbing back over the wall and through the fields back to our waiting guide and vehicle.
The following day we got up early to trek the golden monkeys which to be honest was a little bit of a letdown after the gorillas so I would recommend doing it first. The monkeys were cute and funny to watch for a little while but a whole hour with them was a little long. Once we got back to our guide we drove the 2 hours back to Kigali where he dropped us off at the Genocide Memorial for the afternoon. Without even realizing it we spent over 3 hours at the memorial, reading all of the stories, paying our respects at the gravesite where over 250,000 people are buried, learning about the causes, and reflecting in the beautiful gardens. The memorial is a must-see for anyone visiting Rwanda and is does a fantastic job of educating and remembering the terrible events 18 years ago.
In the end, the gorilla trekking experience and Rwanda as a country far exceeded my expectations. To see how much forgiveness and reconciliation has taken place in the short time since the genocide is so inspiring and reminds you of the power of the human spirit. To visit Rwanda for the gorillas while trying to ignore the country’s history is not only ignorant but also impossible because the genocide and its effects and entrenched in every person and institution. Today Rwanda is one of the cleanest and safest countries in Africa. I feel so privileged to have experienced the wildlife and people of Rwanda and hope to return when that 2 month old baby gorilla is leading a family of his own!