Paradoxically, planning a holiday can add further stress into your life, and people chose the relatively safe and easy options of Italy, Thailand, Australia and so on. Unfortunately, in our haste, we often overlook some of the more interesting destinations. Visa complications make getting to Russia and China a bit more work, Mexico is often seen from the inside of some tourist resort, and the whole of Africa is swept into the category of ‘too dangerous’.
Rwanda, for example.
Just reading the name, it’s safe to assume that the next word that comes to mind for many is genocide. Why would you visit a country with a history of genocide? Or perhaps the more pertinent question is, why is there this stigma about Rwanda, and not Germany, Brazil, or Cambodia – all incredibly popular tourist destinations? In fact, The Telegraph published an article in 2017, backed by data from WEF, stating Rwanda as the ninth safest country in the world, high above the likes of the UK and Spain. It turns out in the aftermath of the mid 90s atrocities, the country pulled together as one, rather than falling apart.
Why would you visit a country with a history of genocide?
Spread out over the hills of Rwanda, the rapidly developing capital city presents the country’s first opportunity to quell your anxieties and misplaced preconceptions about the place. If you walk down Main Street in Gibraltar on a Wednesday afternoon and there’s a high presence of police and security, you’d be forgiven for feeling slightly alarmed. In Kigali, they have the opposite effect. Kigali has plenty of bars and restaurants for you to explore, but make sure to check if the place you want to go to still exists before showing up, with restaurants disappearing and opening up at the speed of a Gibraltar Government worker leaving the office at 3pm. There are also, of course, several memorials and museums over the city, the biggest of which is the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. This is where to get all your info on the genocide as, understandably, the locals don’t really like to talk about it.
The main reason you find yourself in Rwanda isn’t to sample to Belgium-inspired cuisine (although with an abundance of local produce, it will be a highlight). This part of the world is one of very few where you can safely view a real-life mini King Kong in his natural habitat. Unlike other seasonal destinations around the world, where you are forced to book over the summer to guarantee nice weather, or in January to ensure you have enough snow, I think we can all agree there’s never a bad time of year to go and have a look at some mountain gorillas. Having said that, they do like to hang out in the rainforest, so if you want to stay dry, it’s best to visit around January/February or July/August. Having said ‘having said that’, the air is perfectly clear during the wet season, so you’ll be able to enjoy those crisp views over the mountains and volcanoes as you wring out your T-shirts.
Parc National des Volcans is the stop to sate your mountain gorilla viewing needs and the setting in which Dian Fossey dedicated much of her time with conservation efforts. Her opposition to wildlife tourism and poaching is credited with saving the gorillas from extinction. Unfortunately, these efforts weren’t appreciated by everyone, and she was brutally murdered in her remote camp cabin in the 80s. Probably by poachers. Despite her opposition to tourism, nowadays the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International promotes tourism, claiming that it helps the vital work they do in preventing the gorillas falling into extinction. This should put your worried mind at ease, knowing that the cost of the permit to view these majestic creatures is being used to save them. If the fund is to be believed, it’s almost rude to not go and see them.
She was brutally murdered in her remote camp cabin. Probably by poachers.
The buzz of the city followed by the thrill of the wild rainforest should be followed by some good old-fashioned relaxing, and Lake Kivu is the place to do just that. Rubavu and Karongi are the two main destinations of the lake, both of which can be used to sit idly on the sandy shores watching the fishermen reflecting off the water in the setting sun. Each place does hold its own personal plus point that could prove to be key in the process of your decision making. Rubavu’s pulling power lies in its proximity to coffee plantations, of which you can take a tour and drink coffee until the cows come home. Speaking of cows… As you kayak towards one of the islands off the shores of Karongi, looking back across the sparkling water towards the pines and eucalyptus surrounding the lake, you may struggle to think how life could get any better. Then a cow swims past you, followed by another. A whole herd of cows regularly swim to an island here to graze in peace. Who knew cows could even swim? So, to aid your relaxation in Lake Kivu you’ll have to choose between Rubavu’s coffee or Karongi’s swimming cows. You decide.
After relaxing at the lake for a few days, you’re probably starting to miss standing in a luscious mountain rainforest, with light streaking through the thick canopy, looking at primates. But you can’t go and see the gorillas again, can you? You can. But another option is to head down south to the Nyungwe forest where you’ll find chimpanzees and a harem of other primates monkeying around. The 130km of trails through the fairy tale forest should be more than enough to acquaint you with its inhabitants. While tracking monkeys, stop to appreciate the hundreds of species of birds and butterflies, wishing you could be among them, free to fly and see the world from up high. And you can, kind of. The canopy walk takes you 50m off the ground and into the treetops for a unique vantage point of the continents best preserved rainforest. It’s quite a short experience, being only 90m long, but definitely an experience not to be missed. Nyungwe is nature at its most extravagant; luxuriant flora and diverse fauna pepper the lush green, with cool evening mist adding to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Who knew cows could even swim?
By now you’ve probably put two and two together. Temperate climate + fertile volcanic soil = perfect conditions for growing tea. Just outside the Nyungwe forest are stretching green hills contrasting against the bright blue sky. You can visit these plantations, take a tour, whizz around on a mountain bike, or sit around all day drinking tea. The Gisovu Tea Estate offers accommodation, so you can decide how many days you want to sit in rows of tea with a disparate backdrop of the wild National Park just beyond.
Spread the word. Rwanda is the new up-and-coming safari destination. With rhinos and lions being reintroduced into the wild in the last few years, Akagera National Park can now claim to be a ‘big five’ destination. The tour on the ground will allow you to feast your eyes on elephants, buffalo, antelope, and zebra, to name a few, and a boat out on the water floats past hippos and crocodiles. Being a massive reserve that’s not on everyone’s bucket list, you definitely won’t find yourself surrounded by a hundred other vehicles all hoping to catch a glimpse of a speeding leopard.
Something to note before you put down the magazine and start packing your bags is that the cost of going somewhere different like this can be quite high. In Kigali, imported goods are very expensive, so it’s best to stick to local produce where possible. But it’s also the type of place where you can haggle for everything. To preserve the natural beauty and habitat of the gorillas in the volcano park, a whopping $1.5k permit must be acquired. Although, there are a couple of knock-off tours available for a fraction of the price, but you won’t be allowed to take any photos of Harambe’s cousins.
Despite this, as you fly home with this wonderful experience stored in the most sacred part of your memory forevermore, you can arrive back in Gibraltar safe in the knowledge that you’re almost definitely going to win the next game of Holiday Top Trumps. You can’t put a price on that.