As you trundle over the growing hills and across the Rwandan border, the countryside changes dramatically around you. The dry, flatter land of Tanzania gives way to rolling green hills, so fertile with rich volcanic soil that crops of all description bulge in size along the sides of the road. The biggest change is that everything is green. A change I welcomed with open arms.
Rwanda is a small country, and this meant that getting between ‘destinations’ was relatively short in comparison to what we had been doing. With lovely camping spots dotted around the country, travelling as a tourist was easy. This was a welcome change after travelling through Tanzania to get there, but I will get to that in a later post. We wanted to spend a few days in Kigali, the capital city, to get a feel for the place, visit the sights and see a friend who was in town on business. The truth is we actually raced through Tanzania to get to Kigali at the same time our friend was there; partly because she was bringing us some much needed supplies, but also because we were longing for a familiar face and some time with our people from home. She was worth racing for. After trying to convince so many friends and family members to join us on parts of our trip, and succeeding with none, finding a smiling face we knew waiting for us in Kigali was a moment of pure happiness!
We found Kigali charming. Immediately different from everywhere else we’d been in Africa. Aside from the obvious difference of no litter, beautiful streets and 21st century traffic lights, Rwanda also has no beggars on street corners or untrustworthy folk lurking around. It didn’t take long for us to pick up that Rwandans are very law abiding citizens. When normally a happy smile and friendly discussion about someone’s children, opens all sorts of doors, it worked no magic in these parts. Everyone is friendly, but everyone obeys the law. It was both frustrating, yet heart-warming to find in Africa.
With Rwanda’s Belgium influence, we were thrilled to find patisseries dotted all over the city, so the Wuth’s went to work helping the shops get rid of their fresh pastries. It was tiring work, but it gave us some reserves to head off to the rain forest and explore the mountains.
Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda’s South West province is believed to be one of a few places in the world that did not freeze over in the last ice age. This means there are an abundance of species in the forest, as many animals fled there to avoid the freezing, over 10 000 years ago. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the gorilla trekking, as kids have to be 16 years old (that, and it costs $1500 per person!!! …yikes), so we took the road less travelled and did a 6 hour hike through the rain forest instead. Being central Africa and not Southern Africa anymore, there were many bird and primate species we had never seen before. It was awesome! Magical in a way, only a thousands-of-years-old forest can be, and challenging – the sides of the mountains are steep! We spent the night camping in the forest, amongst the sweet little monkeys and the bright Turacos. We loved every moment of it!
Almost every inch of Rwanda is inhabited: if not preserved as national park, it is farmed. The area surrounding Nyungwe is at a high altitude and wet most of the year round; it is perfect for tea. With some mad skills, the locals manage to grow tea on even the steepest mountainsides, and the rolling hills are bright green with tea, bananas and rice paddies.
This continues northwards, up to the shores of Lake Kivu. The roads are windy, like a fluttering ribbon around mountain curves, but the views are magnificent, as you look across the lake at the Democratic Republic of Congo on the other side. There are small islands dotted around the lake and it is all too obvious that the area was once a volcanic wonderland. It is one of the more intriguing places I have ever been, and quite unlike anything else we had seen through Southern Africa.
The lake itself is heavenly. Perfect temperature, fresh enough to drink, and clear enough to snorkel in. We managed to camp at a hotel, on their beautiful green lawns, with the best view over the lake. It was one of the best camping spots we have had on this trip – and a fraction of the price of a hotel room.
Despite it being the rainy season, the weather was fantastic most of the time, with a storm blowing in every afternoon. As long as you were prepared for the storm – no problem. If you weren’t prepared, as we weren’t on one day, you end up hanging off the end of your awning (which isn’t pegged down), and being blown so high in the sudden gale winds that the van is almost blown over. All of this while the rain beats down, absolutely soaking you while you try and pull the thing back onto the ground, while the kids run and hide from the storm, one (thankfully) hugging a laptop to their chest (rescued off a drenched chair), and the other hugging a box of rusks.
So that was us. It was comical, if a little stressful, but thankfully we had some fellow overlanders who came to our rescue and helped pull Shaun back onto the ground, I clearly don’t struggle to throw my weight around as I had the other side on the floor, but couldn’t dare let go. Our helpers found our pegs and got the sides secured, amongst much laugher (ours and theirs), and the storm promptly blew over 5 minutes later. It was all rather a big soggy joke.
After 3 days swimming in the lake, being given complimentary boat cruises around the lake (because Rwandans are just like that), and enjoying the company of fellow travellers, we had to head on. As much as we wanted to hike in Volcanoes National Park, it was just too expensive, and we had to make do with the views from outside the park in a small town near Gisenye.
Gisenye (in Rwanda) and Goma (in the DRC) look like one large town, but are thankfully separated by a large border and vigilant military force. There is a live volcano in the mountains next to Goma and we hoped to be able to see the red glow at night, but the clouds meant we weren’t so lucky, even though we were camping within eyesight.
As we drove past Goma, we said a silent prayer of thanks that the Ebola virus hadn’t crossed the border to the side we were on. Even with all the beauty the DRC has to offer, all the travellers we met who had been brave enough to venture across the border, said the obvious violence against woman and general corruption was unbearable. With all the change that has taken place in Rwanda, maybe there is hope for its neighbouring country.
After good coffee, unbeatable views, delicious pastries and some magical countryside, we made our way back towards the Tanzanian border.
Incredibly un-African in its willingness to follow the rules, Rwanda defies so many norms we have come to expect in Africa. It certainly has its challenges ahead, but as it stands, it is leaps and bounds ahead of almost all on its continent. It is quite simply, superb.