It is an African country whose name will always be tinged with tragedy – but which is also known as a fabulous destination for wildlife and adventure. Better still, as of now, Rwanda is more accessible from the UK than ever before. Reasons to go? Try...
(1) You can fly direct from Britain
With a role-call of neighbours that includes one of Africa’s best-loved safari destinations (Tanzania, to the east), but also a trio of countries which perhaps fit the description “off the beaten track” (Burundi to the south, Uganda to the north, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west), Rwanda could be regarded as one of the more unreachable areas of a continent that is not known for ease of travel. However, last week, this little nugget of a state (it amounts to just 10,169 square miles – which makes it the fourth smallest country on the African mainland, behind The Gambia, Swaziland and Djibouti) became directly linked to the UK. May 26 witnessed the arrival at London Gatwick of the first RwandAir service from the national capital Kigali. This nine-hour air bridge will operate three times a week, with return fares starting from £368 (01293 874 922; rwandair.com).
(2) It has very big and very famous animals…
In popular perception, the key reason to visit Rwanda is its mountain gorilla population. And rightly so. These glorious creatures haunt Volcanoes National Park, in the far north-west of the country (where it rubs up against Virunga National Park in the DRC and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda to create one colossal cross-border expanse of wildlife and wonder). Access is, of course, carefully controlled – but, as of 2015, 10 gorilla groups can be glimpsed by tourists, with 80 passes available per day. These are not cheap – £990 per person, bookable through the Tourism and Conservation Reservation Office of the Rwanda Development Board (00252 57 65 14; [email protected]) – but the experience is inimitable.
(3) …but there is more to the mountains than primates
As its name suggests, Volcanoes National Park also knows a thing or two about vast fire-breathing peaks. To be exact, it incorporates five of the eight volcanoes which give the ridgeline of the Virunga Mountains a lava-born grandeur. Mount Karisimbi is the highest of these behemoths – tall enough, at 14,787ft (4,507m), for snow to be present on its summit during the annual dry season of June-August (indeed, its name loosely translates as “snow” in the local language, Kinyarwanda). For all this, it can be conquered on foot (thankfully, the volcano is regarded as inactive). The hike upwards – which takes two days, and is described as “strenuous yet rewarding” – is detailed in full at the national park website (volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com/activities/mount-karisimbi-hike.html).
(4) Here be lions, too
Rwanda is rarely considered a classic safari destination, but for those seeking things that roar and growl in the night, Akagera National Park (akageranationalpark.org) is home to a full quota of the Big Five (lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard). Spreading out on the east flank of the country, shaped by the border with Tanzania and the River Kagera, this verdant enclave of savannah and wetland suffered during Rwanda’s turbulent Nineties, when poaching and subsistence hunting robbed it of most of its inhabitants. But it has regathered itself considerably since 2009, when it was taken under the wing of rescue and rehabilitation group African Parks (see african-parks.org/the-parks/akagera). Seven South African lions were introduced in 2015, and 20 black rhinos were brought in as recently as last month. These are still faltering baby steps, but Akagera is walking a road to recovery.
(5) The treeline is alive with the flutter of feathers
There are further members of Rwanda’s National Parks club. Pinned to the south-west of the country, where it brushes the border with Burundi, Nyungwe Forest National Park (rwandatourism.com/destinations/nyungwe-national-park) is an example of Africa at its most raw – a dense patch of pristine jungle where chimpanzees leap from branch to branch, and more than 300 bird species caw and call in the upper leaves. This is a remote and undeveloped realm – though not so undeveloped that tourism steers clear. A canopy walkway ebbs through the treetops some 60 metres above the ground (tours US$60/£47).
(6) The country has moved on from its darkest hours…
And they were dark indeed. The 1994 genocide against Tutsi was one of humanity’s most desperate episodes – a horrifying period of bloodshed when more than one million Tutsi p were killed by during the period of 100 days. The city’s Genocide Memorial Centre (kgm.rw) cradles the remains of some 250,000 victims of genocide , and makes as difficult and as disgusted a statement on man’s inhumanity to man as any similar landmark amid the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia or the concentration camps left behind by Nazi Germany. That said, while what occurred in Rwanda 23 years ago will always cast a shadow, it is not a dominating factor of life in a country that has certainly found its feet in the subsequent two decades. Since the turn of the millennium, average life expectancy has risen from 47 to 60 years.
(7) …and is also pretty safe
While travellers in sub-Saharan Africa should always take the standard precautions when it comes to drinking water, personal security and other such fragments of common sense, Rwanda is a country which can be explored with reasonable confidence. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a few words of warning on parts of the borders with the DRC and Burundi, but otherwise reassures would-be visitors that “Rwanda is generally safe and crime levels are relatively low.” Full details via gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/rwanda.
(8) Its capital is an intriguing place for a day or two
Pitched roughly at the geographic centre of the country, Kigali could probably be called a work in progress, fanning out, in that sprawling fashion of major African cities, across hillsides and slopes. With a population of more than a million, this is no tiny conurbation, but it reveals its charms gracefully. Both the central districts of Kacyiru and Kiyovu have lively restaurant scenes, and the Serena Hotel (serenahotels.com/serenakigali) offers five-star accommodation and a refreshing courtyard swimming pool.
(9) There is no sea, but there is plenty of water
Defiantly land-locked, and kept away from the life-giving depths of Lake Victoria by 100 miles of Tanzanian landscape, Rwanda nonetheless has a shoreline to call its own. This is on Lake Kivu, which defines some of the frontier with the DRC. While this is ranked as the second smallest of the African Great Lakes – just 56 miles long by 31 miles wide at its fullest dimensions – this liquid-blue puddle on the map is worth an afternoon or several of any traveller’s time. It makes for a perfect place to pause en route between Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Parks – perhaps in the town of Gisenyi (also known as Rubavu), where resort hotels dot the water’s edge, and broad sunsets await each evening.