With a new direct flight to Rwanda gorillas and zebra are even closer. But Africa’s safest and perhaps cleanest country has much more to offer.
It’s a Saturday morning in downtown Kigali and the streets are curiously empty. There are no cars roaring along the smooth Tarmac roads, and only a few people milling in the manicured parks.
Crucially, there’s not a spot of litter – no tumbleweed plastic bags rolling through the city (Rwanda was the first country worldwide to ban them in 2008) and no splats of chewing gum underfoot. Not exactly what you’d expect in an African capital city, but Rwanda is full of surprises.
Just 23 years after genocide devastated the country, reducing the population of seven million by almost a third, the small east African nation has lofty sights set on progress. A flashy new Radisson Blu convention centre looks beyond the 21st century, its modern design inspired by traditional Rwandan basket weaving, and national carrier RwandAir has invested in a fleet of sleek new A330s to operate the first direct route between London and Kigali.
Then there’s the commendable commitment to conservation, bound up, perhaps, with a desperate longing for order. Umuganda, the obligatory monthly street clean-up I’m witnessing, is all part of that. But one of the biggest surprises came last month, when the Rwandan Development Board announced the price of gorilla permits would double to $1,500.
Gorilla treks make up the bulk of the country’s tourism revenue, and while the decision to keep visitor numbers at a sustainable level and increase investment into communities surrounding the national parks is admirable, there’s a risk tourists will simply switch to neighboring Uganda, where gorilla permits are less than half the price.
I’ve come to Rwanda to find out where the money is going and why a holiday here is worth the extra spend. Leaving the civilized streets of Kigali, we drive 60 miles east to Akagera National Park on the border with Tanzania.
Gazetted in 1934, it’s Rwanda’s oldest park but years of poaching and conflict between community and wildlife as a result of cattle grazing left it withering.
Seven years ago, the government invited African Parks to restore the park, with a recent translocation of 18 black rhino from South Africa giving it Big Five status (lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards and rhinos).
As part of the new gorilla permit-pricing scheme, tourists will receive a 30 per cent discount if they stay three or more nights in Akagera – an incentive to get people exploring more of the country.
Although lacking the near-guaranteed drama of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, Akagera does benefit from far fewer crowds and lower prices. The fully solar-powered waterside Ruzizi Tented Lodge costs from just $195 per person – an equivalent across the border would be three times that price.
Getting the community onside has been instrumental in restoring the park, says Sarah Hall, tourism manager for African Parks, a non-governmental organisation. After the genocide, the government granted half of the land for public cattle grazing, and an electric fence (again, fully solar powered) was installed in 2013.
Projects are also under way to help local people reap the benefits of tourism. Godefroid, one of 18 community freelance guides working in the park, takes me to the nearby village Kageyo to take part in one of several new tourist experiences. “People know Rwanda for two things: gorillas and genocide,” he laments. “But we want them to learn more about our country.”
This morning, I’m going to do just that with an introduction to cow milking. Fittingly, we’re on land once belonging to the park. As a gesture of hospitality, I’m invited to cup my hands around the bowl of warm, frothing liquid and am later shown how to transform it into yogurt.
Of course, most visitors will come to Rwanda wanting to see mountain gorillas, so I end my trip with a stay in the highlands of Volcanoes National Park.
Day and night, a continuous stream of villagers frames the main road, corkscrewing skyward. Women wrapped in bold prints balance bales of eucalyptus branches on their heads, and spindly men do a remarkable job of heaving bikes laden with 50kg panniers of bulging potato sacks. It’s a hard but happy life.
My base is the ridge-top Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge, made up of 10 bandas, which easily has the park’s best view; at 5am, I wake up to a thousand hills draped with a fine spider’s web of mist, drifting into Lake Bulera below.
After a reassuringly easy trek to see golden monkeys at close hand, I visit the Iby’lwacu Cultural Village, a charming series of live tableaux set up to provide an income for ex-poachers. Along with the many schools, health centres and public herb gardens (designed to discourage people from foraging within the park) it’s one of several projects benefiting from a revenue-sharing scheme.
Undeniably, tourism is supporting the local community, a message relayed by ebullient, muddy-faced children screeching “mizunga” (whitey) as we embark on our gorilla trek to see the Pablo family, one of 11 habituated groups.
Led by 20-year veteran Diogene, who’s had the honour of guiding David Attenborough, we scramble uphill for two and a half hours on a muddy trail of dense bamboo forest and nettles. All pain and discomfort evaporate when we find our gorillas, munching on leaves, tumbling over toes, and locking our gaze with stirringly human eyes.
There are undoubtedly still some rumblings about the new permit costs – not least among the actual community who are worried the mizungas may no longer come.
But just like my trek to see Pablo, fraught with difficulty and at times near impossible, let’s hope any concerns about the controversial price hike are, with time, surmountable.