Rwanda – In the Midst of Giants
With vaccinations in the USA, our key source market, at the point where all who want the jab, are now fully inoculated. This together with the strong pent-up demand for wilderness destinations after the past annus horribilis, as well as the ever-increasing popularity of gorilla trekking, I thought I would re-visit some notes I made when Lesley, my wife, and I visited Rwanda in July 2019 and write a more comprehensive trip report. We were invited to visit the highly anticipated opening of Singita Kwitonda.
We departed Cape Town on RwandAir, via Harare to Kigali – a very pleasant flight of about 6 hours with good service and friendly crew. Enhanced Covid-19 procedures are in place on arrival in Kigali, and all visitors need to take a PCR test with results available in 24 hours or less.
We overnighted at the Kigali Serena, located in a leafy suburb in the heart of the city. Cape Town is a pretty clean city, but we were amazed by just how clean the city was. My major pet peeve is litter, so the absence of any litter was an incredibly refreshing sight. More about that later ….
The following morning, we travelled overland for about 3 hours through the rolling terraced hills and quaint villages to Singita Kwitonda.
Rwanda is a small, but densely populated country with landscape reminiscent of a tropical Switzerland. Due to its elevation, the country enjoys mild temperatures. Annual rainfall averages 40 inches, but some areas get considerably more and this is concentrated in two seasons – February to May and October to December.
Kwitonda boasts a prized location at the foothills of Volcano National Park (Parc National des Volcans). The park is part of the Virunga Massif which extends into Rwanda, DRC and Uganda.
Singita Kwitonda, the newest addition to Singita’s portfolio of bespoke deluxe lodges was named after a legendary silverback gorilla. The lodge comprises seven villas, a two-bedroom suite (sleeps four) as well as Kataza House, an exclusive-use four-bedroom villa.
Service, cuisine and amenities were, as expected, incredibly impressive – as was the glorious in-room massage! As impressive as all this was, being somewhat of wine-lover, the ‘cherry on the cake’ was having a wonderfully personable and knowledgeable sommelier who taught us a great deal about wines unfamiliar to us, and offered amazing pairings with our dishes.
The lodge, the closest to the Volcanoes National Park, offers majestic views of Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes and shares a 1,2 km border with park. Currently, the lodge is some 0,4 miles from the rainforest, but intense plantings of indigenous vegetation between the lodge and forest have been undertaken with the hope to re-forest this area, and perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, guests will wake up to gorillas outside their window … Many of these plants are grown on site in the lodge’s impressive nursery and guests are free to wander through these gardens.
At the Volcano NP trekking headquarters (Kunigi), guests are allocated to one of gorilla trekking groups. On our day, there were 10 groups (the maximum) comprising 8 clients each. Visitors often ask as to how demanding the trekking is, and, as the guides have a pretty good idea where in the rainforest, a particular family is located, clients can generally chose a group based on the level of walking involved.
A similar number of gorilla families have also been habituated, but these are not for client interaction and are purely monitored and studied for research purposes.
We were (appropriately) allocated to the Kwitonda gorilla family and after leaving the vehicle, set off in search of these huge primates. We were accompanied by 2 guides, several armed escorts and a number of porters. The porters are on-hand at a nominal cost to assist with bags and photo equipment and well worth taking.
The lush slopes of the Virungas are home to roughly half of the world’s wild population of mountain gorillas. We had only walked for about 30 minutes, came around a corner and walked slap-bang into the group relaxing in a clearing on the edges of the rainforest. The group consisted of about 15 individuals – several adorable babies swinging in the trees and still quite clumsy on their feet, few mothers, teenagers, a Blackback and the head honcho, the Silverback.
Seeing these large apes, really is quite profound, and for me, staring into the recesses of those dark eyes, there really did seem to be a connection – almost an acceptance of one another’s place on this planet. Quite different to being in close proximity to a lion or leopard, or even the exceptionally smart elephant …!
Gorillas share about 98% of human genetic material, so that ‘connection’ is real. Gorillas are also susceptible to many human diseases, and it is for this reason, that additional precautions during these times have been implemented – a valid negative Covid test, recommended distance from gorillas is increased from 23 to 33 feet (but nobody told the gorillas this and they often come within inches), masks to be worn at all times whilst with gorillas and guest group size is now reduced from 8 to 6 persons.
Permits cost $1,500 per person and this gets you one hour with the gorillas. This time goes quickly and many clients book a second outing which invariable allows for a more relaxed and engaging time once all the photos and selfies are out the way. The permit funds support conservation, staff and infrastructure, and importantly, is used to buy back land from the local farmers in an effort to expand the gorilla’s rainforest habitat.
On our return to lodge, we were entertained by energetic troupe of traditional dancers whilst we enjoyed a delightful lunch. A few guests joined in on the activities and this turned into quite the festive occasion.
In the afternoon, an outing to the nearby town of Musanze was on the cards. Craft markets offer beautiful woven products and wooden carvings and provide a very insights into the daily lives of the locals. Bicycles in these rural locations are the main mode of transport and we were amazed at the size of the cargo these 2-wheelers carried – often as many as 3 big 80 pound bags of vegetables.
The following morning we ventured out in search of the Golden Monkeys. Passing beautifully manicured fields of cassava, potatoes and maize, we walked for about 1 hour to the bamboo forests – home to these monkeys. Very attractive, relaxed and curious, these primates are also most certainly well worth visiting. Permits cost $100 per person.
If primates are your thing, then a visit to Nyungwe Forest National Park is a must. This park is home to more than 13 species, including Colobus, Owl-faced and Blue Monkeys, Olive Baboons and Chimpanzees. This is primate utopia!
When departing Singita, a great option is a helicopter transfer, whether heading back to Kigali or exploring Rwanda’s others abundant and delightful attractions – Akagera or Nyungwe National Parks or Lake Kivu – to mention, but a few.
Definitely allow for a half day (minimum) in Kigali to visit the Genocide Memorial, wander around the local markets renowned for their custom jewellery, street food, teas and coffees. All this in squeaky clean surroundings, not unlike the streets of Singapore! In years past, the government declared a war on litter and every citizen was obliged, over weekends to clean the streets in their neighbourhood. Due to the communal nature of this activity, this in no longer encouraged during these pandemic times, but the consciousness and pride amongst its people has been instilled, and the streets in the cities and countryside remain remarkably free of any litter.
Trekking to see these giants, is truly one of the most thrilling and memorable of wildlife experiences. The country as a whole, has an enormous amount to offer, and is sure to grow into one of Africa’s tourism giants in the years to come.