Standard pre-holiday office interaction:
Colleague: “can you do X,Y,Z for me next week?”
Me: “Sorry, I’m off on holiday for two weeks”
“Oooh anywhere nice?”, “Errr, I hope so, Rwanda and Uganda”…. Reactions then ranged from “Where?” and “Why?” to “Is it safe?” to the not very up to date “Isn’t there still genocide there?”. It’s fair to say the positive responses were a little thin on the ground.
Nonetheless, I had good reason for going and was optimistic that I would have a thoroughly nice time. The trip had come about as a friend of mine was working on a collaborative health care project in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Some friends and I decided to visit her and began exploring options to make the visit into a holiday. It had been a long held ambition of one of the group to visit the mountain gorillas. It turned out that Rwanda had recently increased the cost of a gorilla tracking permit to $1500, way beyond any of our budgets. However, some research revealed you can also track mountain gorillas in Uganda for the not quite so extortionate price of $600. Hence, a barebones itinerary began to come together.
This post is a taste of what we got up to along with some practicalities of planning the trip. I plan to cover a few of the more noteworthy elements of the trip in some more detailed posts over the next few weeks.
Kenya Airways deposited us safely and comfortably in Kigali just over 18 hours after leaving Bristol. We began the trip with 48 jam-packed hours of shopping, sightseeing, eating and catching up with our friend in Kigali. We were ‘most welcome’ in lots of lovely places including Heaven Hotel and Restaurant, Casa Keza, Inema Arts Centre, Inzora rooftop cafe and last but no means least Now Now Rolex. We also took in some cultural activities. Firstly with the sobering and well presented Genocide Memorial which should be every visitors first port of call in the country. To be able to even scratch the surface of current day Rwanda you have to attempt to understand some of its past. The Genocide Memorial explains factually and respectfully the last 100 years of Rwandan history which led to the genocide of 1994. It also touches on how Rwanda has moved forwards and its hopes for the future as a nation.
The vitality and warmth of today’s Rwanda was perfectly shown by a trip to Kimironko market. This large market has everything you could need for day to day life; fruit, vegetables, homewares, more potatoes than you have ever seen in one place in your life and fabrics every colour of the rainbow. Stall owners hustled and offered their wares but never in the intrusive way that you find in some other countries. A polite ‘no thank you’ was all that was needed to end any unwanted interactions. We had fabric on the mind when we visited the market and were delighted with the choice on offer. Good quality cotton was usually 5000 Rwandan Shillings for 2m (about £5). Some negotiation was possible but usually only by 500-1000 shillings depending on how much you were buying. We didn’t get any clothes made there but there were hundreds of tailors plying their trade. Shopping was also possible at almost every eating establishment we visited. You couldn’t get a coffee without handicraft temptation at every turn!
The rest of our time in Kigali was mainly spent eating! Little did we know that it would be some time before we experienced culinary delights to match those found in Kigali again…
Briefly here is an outline of the rest of our trip, more posts to follow soon where things get sweaty, rustic and, at times, down right terrifying…
When? Last week of March and first week of April (officially wet season) but only 2 days out of 14 where rain changed our plans slightly.
Where? RWANDA: Kigali – 2 nights, UGANDA: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (for Gorilla Tracking) – 2 nights, Kisoro (for climbing Mt Sabinyo) – 2 nights, Lake Bunyoni – 2 nights, RWANDA: Karongi (Kibuye) – 2 nights, Rubavu (Gisneyi) – 2 nights.
Kigali – Heaven Hotel western standard hotel with a lovely restaurant and small pool. Beautiful communal lounges and lots of local handicrafts for sale. Not cheap though.
Bwindi – Rushaga Gorilla Camp beautiful setting, lovely tree house style lodges, not much privacy in the bathrooms! Food a little limited for vegetarians, excellent packed lunch.
Kisoro – Travellers Rest basic rooms, lovely lounge area with open fire. Great history attached to hotel as Dian Fossey often used to stay.
Lake Bunyoni – Bushara Island Camp amazing setting, warm welcome, food a bit hit and miss. Pancake that looked like a victoria sponge for breakfast. Amazing bird watching.
Karongi – Home St Jean fantastic value at just £20 per room per night. Great location, very friendly and helpful staff and good restaurant.
Rubavu – Centre D’Acceil Saint Francois Xavier sister hotel of Home St Jean, a little more basic but again very friendly staff, guests a mix of locals and tourists which gave a really nice atmosphere.
How? The Uganda section of the trip wouldn’t have been possible without a car and driver. We organised the whole 6 day itinerary through Moses Uganda Tours who took care of all accommodation bookings, the car and driver and the permits required for Gorilla Tracking and climbing Mt Sabinyo. They were recommended to me by a friend who lived in Uganda for 6 months and I would recommend them to others and happily use them again. In Rwanda we traveled independently using local buses and the occasional special hire taxi.
We arranged an East African Tourist Visa before we left which cost $100. Alternatively visas were available on arrival in Kigali and at the Ugandan border where I think they would have cost $50 each. The East African Visa was multiple entry and made the border crossings straightforward. A yellow fever certificate was stated as essential but was not checked during our trip.
Why? Why not? We had a fascinating glimpse of life in a small corner of East Africa. We covered short distances for a trip this long but that enabled us to really get a feel for what life was like in the countryside, small towns and cities of this part of the world. The scenery was spectacular, the activities varied and the welcome was always warm.
Who? A 5 year reunion trip with friends who I met while volunteering in Costa Rica. From humble beginnings life long friendships have formed. Here’s to the next big trip!