IN OTHER WORDS
Waldimar Pelser, journalist, Cape Town “I went to Kigali for work purposes – I wanted to interview people to find out how Rwanda uses state power to keep the peace. I only had a week, and I also wanted to see some of the country. “I flew direct from Joburg to Kigali with RwandAir, then I hired a car with a driver to take me to Nyungwe National Park. The road was long and windy, but the scenery was amazing. “Nyungwe’s hiking trails were great and there was plenty to see. I also spent a night on a houseboat on Lake Kivu and went north to Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas. For an hour, I watched as they played, napped and scratched their heads. They weren’t bothered in the least by the presence of my group. “A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is essential. Rwanda is an expensive country to visit as a South African, but it’s worth it. You can’t compare it with any other destination.” We drive into the park early the next morning. The park office is bustling with tourists and operators filling in permits and paying fees. All paid up, we find our group outside, one of a handful of similar groups scattered around the garden being briefed by their guides. “Face time” with gorillas and monkeys is limited to one hour, and visits must follow a strict protocol. After loading up on monkey facts – they keep to altitudes of 2 400 – 2 900 m; they love snacking on bamboo shoots and they can live for up to 20 years – Alice and I get into our Fortuner and drive a short distance to the trailhead. The rest of our group follows in other vehicles. We park on a narrow gravel road in a village where curio sellers display intricately carved gorilla statuettes, polished to a deep shine. Then the walk starts, first through steep fields where white pyrethrum flowers grow. These flowers, part of the chrysanthemum family, are picked twice a month and used to make a natural pesticide. The setting is peaceful, like a Tolkieninspired platteland: An old lady sits on the ground making a broom of fine twigs; children herd a rag-tag flock of sheep; a bush pick is lifted into the air where it hangs for a moment before being slammed into the ground. Eventually we reach a mossy stone wall that marks the border of the national park. We bend down under a low gate, jump across a ditch and suddenly we’re in another world. Bamboo forest shuts the door on the land of humans and we enter one of the last remaining islands of African jungle wilderness. Group chatter quietens as guide Ellissée Mokamanzi Agnes gets our attention, imploring us to listen. We hear nothing, but Ellissée is onto something. This way, he indicates, and we follow. The forest blocks out all landmarks – you can get lost in here in no time. Suddenly Ellissée stops and points to the canopy. There they are, two golden monkeys catching a bit of sun. For the next hour we shimmy this way and that through the bamboo stems. They bend like giant straws under the occasional weight of a monkey in a hurry. We follow movement, sound and smell, looking for a gap in the foliage to snap a good photo. Alice has the camera and I whisper to her to look back at me so I can take a cellphone pic of her with a monkey in the background. She’s got a big smile on her face.
Lake Kivu’s calm waters
Rwanda has several small lakes and all are worth a visit. If you have limited time, however, choose Lake Kivu – also on the border between Rwanda and the DRC. Because most of the lakeshore is mountainous, the scenery is stupendous. An added bonus is that the main road along the Rwandan shore is currently being tarred. When it’s done, you’ll be able to drive the whole scenic route in a normal car. We depart Gisenyi on the northern tip of the lake one bright morning. Big white clouds are parked in the sky like a convoy of caravans. We stop to photograph a tea plantation, where women carry bulging bags of leaves from down in the valley up to the road. Here in the tropics, the weather can turn quickly. And when it turns, it turns properly. The heavens open and the road, still under construction, becomes a mud bath. Suddenly the barrier-free drop on my side of the Fortuner is terrifying. On Alice’s side, the unsupported cuttings seem to quiver like a mudslide waiting to happen. At one point the road is blocked by a small truck, stuck in the mud. The men in the back jump out and push it free. Further along, a bulldozer shoves a wall of mud out of our way. It becomes an afternoon during which the Fortuner earns its 4x4 credentials. The slow going means we only reach Kibuye, about halfway down the lake, after dark. Luckily I already know where to go: Hotel Béthany, where I stayed when I was last in the country. Back then I hitch-hiked to Kibuye and pitched my tent on their lawn. Today I want a room. When morning comes, the coast is clear. So to speak. We eat breakfast on the veranda of the restaurant, the lake stretched out like a mirror. Some islands jut from the water – one is called Napoleon’s Hat. I even spy a posse of otters. We stay in Kibuye for two nights, exploring the town at leisure, otherwise just chilling at the hotel. This place is paradise.
This is what I remember about Nyungwe Forest: soft raindrops falling from a canopy of impossibly tall trees; damp and mossy footpaths; ferns and fungi dotting the mulchy forest floor. I also remember the campsite being exquisite, tucked into the breast pocket of the forest, high