Ruhengeri and Lake Burera

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.

Genocide Memorial in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Genocide Memorial in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Genocide Memorial in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Genocide Memorial in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Hotel Muhabura, the best brochetes in town, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Hotel Muhabura, the best brochetes in town, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Boats on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Boats on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Boats on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Boats on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Village on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Village on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Village on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Village on Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Mt. Muhabura, Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Mt. Muhabura, Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

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.

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

Rising early in the half light of dawn, I stumbled around my cabin on the outskirts of Ruhengeri, the closest town to the magical Volcanoes National Park. I hadn’t slept well, the night was filled with unusual noises and was surprisingly cold, but these weren’t the real reasons for my fitful night’s sleep. I was too excited to sleep: in the morning I’d have the chance to see Rwanda’s famous Mountain Gorillas. The excitement I felt as I tried to rustle up a cup of coffee can only be described as ‘child-like’.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

There are few animals on the planet that have captured the imagination in the same way as the Mountain Gorilla. In part, this is due to the work of controversial zoologist, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to the study and survival of the Mountain Gorilla. Fossey did much of her research in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and it was here in 1985 that she was murdered and buried. The film Gorillas in the Mist, staring Sigourney Weaver, made Fossey’s story – and the Mountain Gorillas she loved – world famous.

The Mountain Gorilla is still endangered. Approximately 880 survive in the wild, all of them wedged into a corner of East Africa which has seen decades of conflict, poaching and habitat loss. While gorilla populations in Rwanda and Uganda have stabilised, the lawlessness of the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen massive habitat loss and many gorillas killed by poachers. Half of all Mountain Gorillas live in Rwanda, and I had secured a US$500* permit from the Rwandan Tourist Board to visit one of the eight habituated groups.

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

The driver I’d hired to take me to the National Park headquarters was late, my initial frustration gave way to gratefulness when we stopped to pick up two National Park guards hitching a lift to work. We had a chat about their work and, when it came to sorting the assembled foreign tourists into groups (maximum of eight people per group), they sorted me into the Susa group with only three other people. The Susa group is the largest of all gorilla groups, with over forty members, including two Silverbacks and a pair of twins.

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Its a long drive to the volcano where the Susa group lives, and they’re often found high up the mountain – requiring a long and steep climb. The scenery en route up the volcano was glorious. We passed small farm huts and people working in fields of what looked like potatoes. Our guide said they were ‘Irish’ potatoes, a staple crop in this part of Rwanda. In the past, the gorilla habitat has been destroyed by farmers. Much work has been done with communities to reinforce the gorilla’s importance to the local economy, most are now supportive of the national park.

We reached the boundary of the park – little more than a wall – and suddenly we were walking through dense vegetation. It was a hot and sticky climb, but we got lucky, the Susa group was quite low down the mountain. After a surprisingly short walk – we’d been warned it could take five hours – we found them, along with the armed park guards who protect them.

Entrance to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Entrance to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

We heard the gorillas long before we saw them; several young gorillas were charging around chasing each other and play fighting. They were so oblivious to our presence that a young gorilla even ran into the legs of one of our group. That was unfortunate, but unavoidable. Typically, tourists have to keep a good five meter distance from the gorillas. Because of our shared ancestry, anyone with a cold or similar infectious disease cannot visit the gorillas for fear of transmitting human diseases, to which they have no immunity.

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

While we were watching the young gorillas playing, and taking in the sheer magnificence of these truly amazing animals, the dominant male Silverback made his entrance. I can say, without fear of exaggeration, I have never seen a more noble and commanding animal in all my life…he was so human in his attitude to his unruly family, casting a fatherly eye over the group, chastising the occasional miscreant and showing a remarkable amount of affection for such a powerful and intimidating animal. Basically, a model father.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

It was pure joy to watch this family of gorillas interact, to see the group dynamic and to see them at play in the safety of the national park…but more of that later…

* The price has been increased to US$750 in the last year

Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills

Perhaps the most bewildering thing about Rwanda, is just how ordinary and normal it feels when you travel around the country. It’s history, and the genocide which was perpetuated on its people, looms large everywhere you go. There are memorials to the dead in almost every village and hamlet in the country: inescapable reminders that, for Rwandans, there was no corner of their country left untouched by the brutality, no community or family that didn’t suffer death and destruction.

Yet, in this most exceptional of places, life continues to be lived in the most seemingly unexceptional way. That says a great deal about the resilience of Rwanda and Rwandans.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Rwandans don’t want to forget what happened in those murderous days in 1994, when a deliberate and terrible wave of violence was unleashed across the whole country. They certainly don’t want the international community to forget what happened here. The same international community which stood idly by, passively allowing the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people. Men, women and children, old and young, were slaughtered by the military and Hutu militias, many tortured and killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

If the genocide defines people’s perceptions of Rwanda, Rwandans also want the world to know that their country is much, much more than just that one catastrophic period in its history. Talking to people as you travel around the country is humbling, and every person I met had a thirst to know where I was from, what my life was like and whether I was enjoying my time in their country. Some people talked openly about the family members and friends they lost in the genocide, but mostly it seemed inappropriate to ask too many questions.

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

There is a wealth of information – news stories, academic research, biographies, histories, documentaries and films – detailing Rwanda’s history and descent into genocide. The film, Hotel Rwanda, is one of the more moving accounts; and the book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by General Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda, is a startlingly human account of someone forced to witness the genocide first-hand without the power to prevent it.

In Rwanda, its impossible to avoid the legacy and memory of the genocide, but this wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit. A friend had returned from Rwanda and her description of the country and its people fascinated me, made me want to understand it better. In the end, it was the opportunity to see one of the most iconic of all creatures on this planet, the Mountain Gorilla, that tipped me over the edge into booking my flights.

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

A couple of weeks isn’t a lot of time, but Rwanda is a small country with probably the best maintained roads in Africa. Travelling is easy and quick, although if you want to get to some more distant places, hiring a 4×4 is probably the best idea. The thing that struck me most about Rwanda, is just how beautiful and verdant the countryside is. Although it is hard to escape the fact that, in this tiny country with a growing population, almost all the available land is already used for agriculture.

This is important. Land rights were one of the hidden causes of the genocide, and competition for land and water could cause future conflicts. Its also important because some of the last remaining wilderness areas are under serious threat from agriculture. This is putting pressure on the habitats and animals which could be the source of a tourism boom; while the loss of trees for firewood and to clear land for crops, could severely effect the watershed.

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda is addressing these, and many other issues, with limited resources, but from my experience it is looking to the future with confidence. Although it’s involvement in the conflict and theft of natural resources in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, casts a long shadow over that future.

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Travelling around the country though, Rwanda struck me a stable, safe and welcoming. It certainly deserves the name the Ministry of Tourism has bestowed upon the country – Land of a Thousands Hills. There are hills everywhere, including the volcanic Virunga mountain range, home to mountain gorillas which roam across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It was a journey I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.