One of Africa’s smallest countries is now one of its biggest stars, thanks to stunning landscapes, its legendary mountain gorillas and more, says Lauren Jarvis
I’m sitting eye-to-eye with a brooding, 150kg black mass of wild mountain gorilla, crouched in a thick tangle of forest in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains.
Behind him, baby gorillas tumble and play as their mothers languidly strip bamboo. It’s taken three hours to reach the Susa family, one of 10 gorilla groups that can be seen on a guided trek in Volcanoes National Park.
For their protection, we can only stay for an hour, and must keep a distance of seven metres. But mighty Manzi has other ideas. Breaking our face-off, he suddenly ‘bluff’ charges a ranger, before squatting hairy-back-to-back against my alarmed, although exhilarated, travel companion.
With close-up enounters like this, it’s no surprise that gorilla trekking tops so many travellers’ bucket lists.
Kings of the jungle
Gorillas are also found in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo but they're the jewel in Rwanda’s crown and the country has done much to preserve them.
In July 2017, the government doubled the cost of a tourist trekking permit from $750 to $1,500, to boost revenue for conservation and community projects. The price hike has not deterred trekkers, with the number of UK visitors up 21% last year. Almost 25 years after the dreadul genocide (1994), Rwanda is now a stable and exciting destination and one bent on a sustainable future (plastic bags are already banned).
Its capital, Kigali, is a clean, modern gateway and business hub, with several big-name hotels, including Radisson Blu, Marriott and DoubleTree by Hilton; a rising number of smaller, boutique properties such as Heaven (heavenrwanda.com) and some top-notch restaurants and bars.
Beyond the city, ’The Land of a Thousand Hills’ is an adventure playground, with miles of mountain-biking paths, including the epic Congo Nile Trail; immense Lake Kivu and croc-free rivers for canoeing (kingfisherjourneys.com); and the pending launch of paramotoring, which will offer a bird’seye view of Rwanda’s volcanic peaks (rdb.rwor email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Africa’s largest protected wetland, Akagera National Park (africanparks.org), has been home to the ‘Big Five’ since black rhinos and lions were reintroduced in successful conservation programmes, while Nyungwe National Park (rwandatourism.com) is a hot-spot for chimpanzee trekking. Golden monkey trekking is a cheaper alternative to seeing gorillas in Volcanoes National Park (volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com).
Here visitors can also hike to the grave site and former research camp of renowned primatologist, Dian Fossey, at Karisoke (gorillafund.org).
The Cultural Heritage Corridor includes the King’s Palace Museum and Ethnographic Museum (museum.gov.rw); a historic Catholic mission, Save; and the moving Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre (kgm.rw). Learn about traditional Rwandan life at Kinigi’s Gorilla Guardians village (cbtrwanda.org).
One&Only Resorts’ Nyungwe House, near Nyungwe National Park, will open its doors next month. Gorilla’s Nest, in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, will follow next summer (oneandonlyresorts.com).
Following the launch of Bisate Lodge near Volcanoes National Park in 2016, Wilderness Safaris will open its luxury, six-tented Magashi Camp this December in Akagera National Park (wilderness-safaris.com).
Singita Kwitonda Lodge will open in Volcanoes National Park in late 2019.
da.singita.com), while Governors’ Camp’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was extensively refurbished this year (governorscamp.com).