Most people visit Ruhengeri (which is also known as Musanze) because it’s a convenient place to base yourself before heading into the Volcanoes National Park for gorilla tracking. While the town itself isn’t particularly attractive, and has little in the way of attractions, it’s a friendly place to hole up for a few days and to use as a base for exploring the surrounding area. Like everywhere else in Rwanda, the region suffered during the genocide, and there is a graphic memorial to the dead set amidst a peaceful garden.
My plan had been to get a permit to track rare and beautiful Golden Monkeys, which live in the National Park. As well as being truly odd looking, the Golden Monkey is also one of the most endangered primates in Africa. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, but that was before I encountered Rwandan bureaucracy. Despite visiting the National Park offices and the RDB tourist office, I couldn’t find anyone who could tell me how to get a permit.
After wasting a morning in a fruitless search for a permit, I decided to hire a car and driver to take me to Lake Burera. I’d been told by a friend in Kigali – and my Bradt guidebook was enthusiastic as well – that the area around the lake was one of the most beautiful landscapes in Rwanda. If anything, that is an understatement, and it went a considerable way to making up for missing the Golden Monkeys. The road around the lakeshore zigzags around bays and inlets, up and down hills. Almost every time you turn a corner you’re presented with breathtaking panoramic views over the lake.
At its northern tip, Lake Burera is less than a mile from the border with Uganda, and theoretically it is possible to do a 120km circuit around the lake – which I was planning to do. The road leaving Ruhengeri is paved and in good condition, but as soon as you turn towards the lake the road becomes a dirt track. After about 30km we reached a small and bustling fishing village on the edge of the lake; we stopped for a drink and my driver, Jean Baptiste, asked around about the condition of the road south of the village.
According to villagers, the road was in a bad condition further south. Jean Baptiste was understandably reluctant to put his car (and livelihood) at risk. We travelled several kilometres further before the road became too muddy and rutted for our small car. We did a quick u-turn and headed back the way we had come. It was disappointing not to be able to complete the full circuit, but the scenery was still magnificent. On the way back every vista was dominated by the conical volcano, Mt. Muhabura, which straddles the border between Rwanda and Uganda.
There is very little tourist infrastructure around Lake Burera, and the area only receives a small number of visitors, which might account for the reception you receive from local people. We stopped near a school at one point and, after being surrounded by dozens of pupils, I found myself having an informal English discussion class with a couple of the teachers. I suspect the area will slowly develop for tourism, but at the moment there is no easy way to visit without your own transport. Even then, you really need a 4×4 to do the trip.
We arrived back to Ruhengeri just in time to see the sun set behind the volcanic chain of mountains, which form the core of the Volcanoes National Park. It was a good way to end my time in Ruhengeri, the following day I would set off for Lake Kivu and the relaxed lakeside town of Gisenyi.