Nyung Forest National Park
While the Volcanoes National Park in the north west of the country is home to the mighty mountain gorillas, there are chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and rare golden monkeys vying for attention in Nyungwe to the south.
Nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Hills, this central East African country may be tiny but it manages to cram an awful lot in.
The start of the canopy forest walk is only 125 miles from the capital Kigali but, thanks to all those hills and continuing road upgrades, it takes about four hours to get there. This ancient rainforest is home to 300 bird species, dozens of orchids and butterflies, as well as 13 primates.
With 80 miles of trails across its 386 square miles, it’s easy to spend a few days here, exploring the verdant valleys and steep mountainsides, trekking to waterfalls, spotting the elusive Rwenzori turaco bird, tracking chimps or swaying from suspended canopy walkways.
We were ferried here in the comfort of Toyota Land Cruisers, and there’s never a dull moment as you pass through undulating tea plantations, subsistence farms with ubiquitous banana trees, scattered colourful villages, vast lakes and pristine forests.
On the side of the roads is an endless procession of people walking to and from markets balancing produce piled high on their heads, or pushing bicycles heaving with bulging yellow jerrycans of potent banana beer or buckets of precious drinking water drawn from wells in the valleys.
Children are in charge of little flocks of goats and sheep, or tend to the prized family cow, shouting “mzungu!” (a friendly term for a foreigner) with a wave and a smile as we chug past.
Rural schools have staggered class times for older and younger kids so there’s always someone available to take care of the animals.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda
Everywhere I go I am constantly in awe of the people of this country. Just 24 years ago a million of them were slaughtered in one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. But in a remarkable triumph of the human spirit they have rebuilt their nation, turning it into an African powerhouse.
Nobody refers to themselves as Tutsi or Hutu, they are simply Rwandan. As my new friend Jullesse told me over a Mutzig lager at the Cocobean club in Kigali: “We learnt the hard way that unity is our only option.”
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a harrowing experience but it’s an essential part of understanding what makes this country tick.
More than 250,000 people are buried in mass graves here and the children’s memorial is particularly disturbing. But this is no voyeuristic “dark tourism” site. The focus here is on “education and peace-building”.
You will leave horrified at what humans are capable of doing to each other but the attitude of the lovely Rwandan people you will meet on your travels around this wonderful country will restore your faith in humanity.
A visit to Kimironko market in Kigali, Rwanda is a magical experience
Kigali itself is a revelation. I have never seen a cleaner city anywhere in the world. No litter, no graffiti, no rubbish. Plastic bags are banned and regular car-free days are held. Wi-fi is available everywhere, foreign aid and investment is pouring in and big hotel chains are popping up. We stayed at the grande dame of Kigali, the Serena. Its spectacular breakfast overlooking the pool is a great way to start any day.
But despite the flash new convention centre and glamorous shopping malls, this pretty little city retains its charm in places like the chaotic Kimironko market. Come here to get colourful kitenge clothes made, buy traditional imigongo paintings, and stock up on explosive Akabanga chilli oil.
Coffee drinkers should head to Question Coffee for a delicious cup from a co-operative that buys from small-scale farmers, paying them properly and ensuring they take their beans to local washing stations so they don’t have to travel too far carrying produce.
The old Kigali neighbourhood of Nyamirambo has a laid-back charm during the day and is hip and happening at night. But it’s the peace of the countryside that kept pulling me back. Lake Kivu runs down the west side of Rwanda forming a natural border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
By far the country’s biggest lake, it is dotted with fabulous resorts all along the coastline. Some, such as Gisenyi in the north, are on beautiful beaches. Many of those “thousand hills” surround the lake, making it a rather tricky stage for cyclists during the annual Tour du Rwanda.
Golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti) with young in a grassy clearing in bamboo forest
Rwandans beer served temperature to specificold brew Mutzig, or One of my favourite places on the lake was Kibuye, about halfway down. We stayed at the brilliant Moriah Hill Resort right on the water. I bagged a room on the top floor for a spectacular sunrise from my balcony.
But the highlight was the evening before, when we were treated to the lake’s famous singing fishermen. At dusk each night, the three-hulled boats set off, paddled by the fishermen (and women) who sing in time to their strokes as they head out to catch sambaza and tilapia by lantern light.
In the south, right on the border with the DRC, is another great place to stay; the Emeraude Kivu Resort in Kamembe makes for spectacular sunsets and is a good place to chill out after all that hiking in Nyungwe.
Leaving behind the lakes and hills of the west, we headed cross country to the far east to explore another of Rwanda’s great success stories, the Akagera National Park. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1932 but in 1997 the size of the protected area was halved as returning refugees who had fled the genocide were resettled here.
Tip like their at room – you have cally ask for a in bars. Try Primus Virunga Poaching saw the wildlife of the park collapse until a major public/ private enterprise was launched in 2010. In an amazing comeback that reflects the turnaround of the country as a whole, the park has bounced back. There were just 4,000 animals left in 2010, there are now 12,000.
Lions, rhinos and leopards were reintroduced and it is now a fantastic Big Five destination; with none of the heavy traffic you see elsewhere in east and southern African parks. As well as the dedication of the wonderful conservationists, the key to its success is the involvement of the local community.
Gisenyi, on the north shore of Lake Kivu in Rwanda
Poaching is negligible as they benefit from jobs and investment, so they realise the animals are worth more alive than dead.
The croc and hippo-filled wetlands of Lake Ihema in the south of the park are a bird-lover’s paradise. On a boat trip we saw fish eagles, darters, kingfishers, herons, storks, as well as a soaring bateleur eagle and (my favourite) iridescent lilac-breasted rollers.
After a chilled-out night at the Akagera Game Lodge overlooking the lake, an early-morning game drive yielded lions, elephants, hyenas, warthogs, Masai giraffes, zebra, buffalo and antelope.
Rwanda’s only Big Five game reserve certainly delivered.
I was sad to leave this unspoilt wilderness but perked up when I realised the undeniable highlight of this fantastic country was still to come… trekking to see those mighty mountain gorillas.
Red Savannah (01242 787800/ redsavannah.com) offers six nights in Rwanda from £5,999pp various board basis. Price includes return flights from Gatwick to Kigali, two nights at Wilderness Safaris’ Bisate Lodge, two nights at the One&Only Nyungwe House, one night at Ruzizi Tented Lodge and one night at the Marriott Kigali. Included are visits to Akagera and Nyungwe National Parks, Lake Kivu, one gorilla permit per person and all transportation within Rwanda.
Rwanda tourism: visitrwanda.com