Rwanda is sort of odd as a tourist definition. Its main city, Kigali, is a fairly clean, temperate, and orderly city by African standards, but it’s spread out over several hills and valleys with no tourist-friendly mass transit system. Of course, apart from the genocide museum, there’s not much to see in the city. It does have many quality hotels and restaurants (it even has a casino), but these mostly cater to the foreign ex-pats living and working in the country.
Rwanda’s main tourist attractions lie outside the central capital, in the further corners of the country. To the east is Akagera, the portion of the country most similar to Kenya and Tanzania and home to the elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, et al. that one would expect to see on a safari. To the southwest is the lush rainforest of Nyungwe Forest, and to the northwest Parc National des Volcans, which is home to Rwanda’s share of the volcanic range that runs through the Rift Valley section of middle Africa. (Rwanda’s volcanoes are all extinct, but some of the ones on the other side of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo remain active.) Meanwhile, running along much of the country’s western border is Lake Kivu, a sizeable lake separating Rwanda from the DRC. Several cities and towns dot the Rwandan coastline, including Gisenyi to the north.
Unfortunately I never made it to Akagera. By the time my schedule settled down it was too late to research and organize affordable transportation. (Nothing in Rwanda is more than a few hours away from Kigali, but unless you are prepared to take local buses or matatus, which still requires figuring out, the other options are to take an organized tour or organize your own transport. I think the latter, especially if you join up with others, makes the most sense. Private car rental may be possible in Kigali, but for sanity’s sake it probably is a better idea to hire a driver with a car.) But for the second weekend we headed to points west.
Our first stop was Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu has some unusual properties for a lake: because the region is volcanic, the ground produces a lot of carbon dioxide and other gases. In theory the carbon dioxide poses a threat to the region: in 2002 a carbon dioxide build-up in the bottom of a similar lake in Cameroon exploded up to the surface, saturating the local atmosphere with CO2 and suffocating all life in the area. No one knows if or when that might happen in Lake Kivu, or what can be done to prevent it, but meanwhile the country is looking to harvest the methane that’s also produced, which may help.
In the meantime, it’s a very nice place for a break, with a nice beach and several good hotels along its shores. We stayed in the Serena, which is part of a South African chain. It was probably a four or five-star quality hotel, costing $100-$150 per night. There are other hotels in the area too, which including the bizarrely sterile but otherwise well-regarded Gorillas Hotel, where we ate dinner, but the Serena may be the only one right on the beach. A small resort, it offers the rental of sea kayaks, sailboats, and windsurfboards, but I couldn’t help noting the unique waiver they made customers sign — it was the first time I’ve ever seen one that advised, “Do not sail to Congo.”
Because of all the gases the lake is supposedly bilharzias-free, so I went swimming. I once read about a program where swimming teachers went to Africa to teach locals how to swim, and as a 20+ year veteran swim teacher I’ve often thought it would be something I’d enjoy doing. Never followed-up on the idea, but splashing around in the lake I got a taste of it. A man was already in the water working on swimming skills with some women. I introduced myself as a swimming teacher and ended up taking over the lesson! One at a time I worked on front floating, back floating, and crawl stroke for him and the three women. Moreover, I did this all in French!
Linguistically Rwanda is interesting. Everyone speaks Kinyarwanda, and some, particularly in the east, speak Swahili. Those who have some education then speak either French and/or English. Traditionally, it would have only been French, but with the genocide and all the refugee waves pre- and post-dating it, many Rwandans ended up growing up in their English-speaking neighbors’ countries. (The current Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, for instance, grew up in Uganda and speaks no French.) But others grew up in Congo and Burundi, which are French speaking. Thus, visitors to Rwanda who speak no French can usually get by, but I found my ability to speak French conversationally enormously helpful — particularly for swimming lessons and cab rides…
After the swim, it was time to head towards the Volcanoes National Parc. The guesthouse we stayed in just outside was considerably more rustic (although it did have running water and electricity) but beautifully located on the gentle lower slopes of the volcanoes. I wandered out to the road to take in the scenery, where some local boys happened upon me. In the silly goofball way of 8 year old boys they tried out their tiny English vocabularies with me. Then they noticed my camera and started hamming up for the pictures. Normally I use a film camera, but on this trip I brought my mom’s old digital camera and was trying it out. Which ended up the perfect toy for the moment, because I could snap the pictures, then run around and show them what they looked like on the view screen.
But for the next day I decided to stick with my usual film camera because the digital one was sort of broken and I don’t really know how to use it. And I knew I’d want to take pictures, because this was the day we were going to see the gorillas. (The digital pictures are also tinting awfully grayish blue; although the sun was setting behind dark clouds, Rwanda was generally a much brighter place than the pictures would suggest.)
The gorillas are probably Rwanda’s biggest tourist attraction. There are only a few hundred mountain gorillas in the world, and most of them live in the Rwandan park. The genocide and related fighting has been hard on them, and today the Rwandans and gorillas find themselves in an interdependent relationship. While it might be better if the gorillas could be left to roam an expansive natural habitat in peace, if it weren’t for the tourism they would be hunted and their remaining habitat decimated. Because they are such an attraction and revenue source for the country (a permit to go see them costs $500) it is in Rwanda’s interest to protect them and their environment.
At 7am people with permits congregate across the street from the guest house to be divided into groups of eight. Each group then drives off to a trail head leading up to where a group of gorillas has recently been spotted. They don’t typically move too far in a day, and the park sends up trackers in advance to help locate where they are that day. Our group, the Umubano group, was on the lower portion of Mt. Bisoke.
This group is a fairly new group. Charles, the 18 year old silverback, had been a subordinate silverback in a different gorilla group. This situation didn’t serve his ambition, so he challenged the leading silverback and ran off with a woman to form his own group. He then raided other groups and got more girlfriends, and now lives with about a dozen gorillas.
After driving up an absurdly rough road we parked at the trail head. We crossed some fields of potatoes and chrysanthemums (their oil is used to make a natural pesticide) and then headed up the steep, narrow trail. It was a tough, though not impossible, climb. Sort of slippery, the biggest problem was that there were thorns and stinging nettles all around. I regret not wearing canvas workgloves, but even wearing long sleeves and long pants didn’t completely help. On my way down I slipped and my entire elbow landed on a stinging nettle plant, whose stinging nettles then got stuck in my shirt and continued to sting me until we finally got out of the woods and I could take it off. Fortunately, nature is balanced, and the sap from a different plant provided a balm to lessen the sting and deflate the wad of hives that had formed all over my elbow.
But after climbing about an hour and a quarter, suddenly we were stopped by the guide. The trackers had found the gorillas, and we began our final approach. There is no particular danger to seeing the gorillas, but the powerful silverback is basically the king of the group and it is basically his “court” we are petitioning to visit. The gorillas are habituated; they understand people and see them every day. But the silverback must still be appeased, and the guide will frequently emit a guttural growl to do so.
In this case Charles was busy lounging in his nest and not particularly put out by our visit. He was, however, pretty huge — and not even done growing. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, a mother was nursing and cuddling her two-month old baby. In between there were also some other kids, including a three year old that swung around in trees mugging for the cameras, and a two year old alternatively pounding and spinning in the dirt and play-fighting/testing the patience of his older brother.
My descriptions are not doing the experience justice, and the words inherently reduce the memory. In some ways it seemed completely normal to see the gorillas. They looked just like animatronics… (again with the Disney…) Charles looked like King Kong. But there definitely was the sense of being in the company of wild animals. And yet, they hardly seemed like animals. Darwinists are right; these are our relatives. Unlike other animals we have to anthropomorphize, it took no great feats of imagination to see their humanity. The baby grabbed at its mother’s hair, and the mother kissed it back. The gorilla swinging in the tree miscalculated the strength of the tree and comically came crashing down, at which point he studied his situation, and figured out how to climb back up. Charles groomed himself with his massive digits and opposable thumbs. And the brothers fighting and playing, except for the chest thumping and overall fuzziness, looked like any brothers you might find anywhere.