Reconciliation. Resilience. Rebirth…Rwanda. The ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, Africa’s smallest country, was decimated by genocide 26 years ago, and wracked by colonially induced ethnic conflict long before. A million people died and millions more were displaced. Today, though the ghosts linger, Rwanda is one of the most thriving, safe, and united countries on the continent. And heartbreakingly beautiful – its landscapes, its people, and of course its star wildlife attraction, the mountain gorillas.
I’ve been there once, on assignment in late 2018, and long to return. First impressions start with Kigali, Rwanda’s capital nestling among those legendary verdant hills; as our guide said upon an introductory drive, ‘If you’re not going up you’re going down’. Renowned as Africa’s cleanest city, Kigali’s grass is swept by women with traditional brooms; we saw no billboards, or animals on the streets; plastic bags are banned; even the traffic is orderly. It’s at least two cities: the modern, futuristic city under fervent, ongoing construction, skyscrapers rising, more and more hip coffee houses opening, and the older city, Nyamirambo, where most of the city’s Muslims live, in ochre houses on winding dirt roads, home to outdoor markets, bustling community enterprises and NGOs.
But there’s also the ghost city – remnants of the horrors of those 100 days during April-July 1994. Graphically confronted, and commemorated, at the unmissable Genocide Memorial, where more than 250 000 genocide victims are buried in a lush garden visited by their families. Where the genocide is narrated and interrogated in a world-class exhibit, imperative to see, but shattering. Not far away sits the Hotel Mille Collines, made famous in the film Hotel Rwanda (though the film used a replica constructed in South Africa), where hundreds of Tutsis were sheltered and saved. We had lunch by the pool there – which the refugees ultimately drank when they ran out of water.
Relatives of victims and genocide survivors regularly visit the gardens of the Genocide Memorial, where a wall is inscribed with the names of those lost.
Just over 100 kilometres north-west of the capital, via a road twisting through misty valleys and countless emerald hills, past field after field of potatoes and other crops and small villages, lies Volcanoes National Park (VNP) – the prime destination for most visitors to Rwanda, on the doorstep of Wilderness Safaris’ luxury Bisate Lodge. More than a third of the world’s mountain gorillas, now numbering just over 1 000, live in the park’s 160 square kilometres of rainforest on the slopes of five dormant volcanoes, part of the Virunga massif: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. Gorilla trekking in the VNP – a one-day permit allows you to spend an hour with a troop and nearly all funds go back to the park for conservation – – is undoubtedly the ultimate experience in the trifecta of VNP hikes that I did over three consecutive days. But it’s worth doing all three – and if you’re really fit, also the hike to Bisoke’s summit.
Day #1, Hike #1: Golden Monkeys. Endangered and endemic to the Virungas. I’d never heard of golden monkeys before we embarked on the two-hour trek, but we soon saw them. As we climbed Bisoke’s lower slopes, rocky and muddy, onto a vast potato field heading up to the park boundary, marauders descended from the forest, dozens vigorously excavating and munching on the tiny spuds. Poor farmer, I thought – but a lot of your permit dollar goes towards compensating farmers whose fields are raided so they don’t shoot the thieves. The monkeys – seemingly wearing fancy dress with their gilded fur – are surprisingly tame; I watched one huge and hungry fellow, a metre away, gorge on at least 30 potatoes, oblivious to me. Not much effort to encounter them required on your part – especially if you’re standing in a potato field.
Day #2, Hike #2: Mountain Gorillas. Not so with the gorillas; it can take hours, and considerable effort, to find your assigned gorilla group. Led by trackers up ahead relaying messages back to our guide’s cellphone, our five-hour trek – three hours to the gorillas and two back – amounted to bundu bashing through bamboo forests, then rainforests of Hagenia trees, the infamous stinging nettles, and a jungle of other unrecognisable greenery. The slope was steep and slippery; bringing up the rear of a much younger group, I imagined myself sliding down the volcano unnoticed. But my resolve went into overdrive when I spotted the first gorilla, an adolescent half-hidden by giant leaves, sitting and chomping on mountain celery.
My heart stopped. When a minute later we came upon the rest of the troop in an open glade, some chewing on celery stalks, a mother nursing her baby, youngsters playing in the trees, I stood just above Neanderthal-browed Agashya, the troop’s dominant silverback, incredibly chilled and preoccupied with his celery. As I teetered in my gumboots on the tangled undergrowth, guide Fidel tapped me on the shoulder, whispering ‘Look behind you’.
Guide Francois Bigirimana – a legend who used to work with Dian Fossey – checks out the trail ahead on the gruelling hike to Fossey’s grave and former research station, Karisoke.
There sat Gusangira, a giant blackback transitioning to silverback, staring at us with a goofy smile for a few moments before he lumbered off. I was charmed. But best of all was meeting Agasaro, a bright-eyed youngster who proved a natural for the camera, engaged in various gymnastics and followed me sheepishly out of the glade when our hour was up. Again at the end of our single file, disconsolate we were leaving, I sensed a presence behind me. I turned and there he was, two metres away, averting his gaze, coy. You’re not meant to look gorillas in the eye, but when you accidentally do, it’s magic. Profound.
Day #3, Hike #3: Dian Fossey Gravesite and Karisoke ruins. This was a pilgrimage to honour the fiercely brave primatologist murdered in her fight to save the mountain gorilla. We started off on a sunny, cool morning for the ruins of Karisoke, Fossey’s research station from 1967 till her death in December 1985, and her grave there alongside ‘her’ beloved gorillas. My guide was the legendary Francois Bigirimana, who worked with Fossey in the eighties and today is President Paul Kagame’s guide of choice, known as ‘the silverback’ and renowned for his gorilla vocalisations. ‘I liked Dian’, he confessed. ‘Though she liked gorillas more than people’.
Francois took these two young Rwandan women under his wing halfway up the Fossey trail; they’d given up climbing Bisoke volcano with another group.
Accompanied by three armed soldiers and a porter, we started the steep ascent, a rocky path quickly turning into the forest’s formidable, trenchlike muddy one. Halfway up, at roughly 1 500 metres, we picked up two young Rwandan women who’d abandoned the strenuous Bisoke hike. Each following the person in front of us, stepping into their deep, mucky bootprints, we finally made it to what was left of Karisoke – in the saddle between Karisimbi and Bisoke, hence the name. The air was thin, the ruins in the jungle haunting.
Murdered in December 1985, Fossey lies buried alongside gorillas killed by poachers amidst the ruins of Karisoke, destroyed in the civil war leading up to the genocide in 1994.
The place was destroyed and ransacked, Francois said, in the civil war leading up to the genocide. The soldiers reverently swept the leaves off the gravesites, and we placed yellow wildflowers on Fossey’s grave – next to her most beloved Digit, slaughtered by poachers on New Year’s Eve in 1977. On our gruelling descent, I virtually mudboarded, using my walking stick as a catapult, repeatedly falling. Miraculously, after more than seven hours battling the mountain, mud, and altitude, I made it. ‘You are very strong’, Francois said over and over, appreciating my being his senior at 65. ‘You are Nyiramachabelli’, calling me what locals called Fossey in admiration of her strength, her courage: ‘the woman who lives alone in the forest’.
A young Rwandan woman places wildflowers on the grave of Digit, Fossey’s most beloved gorilla, slaughtered by poachers on New Year’s Eve, 1977. He lies next to Fossey.
Another park in Rwanda confirms that the country is more than ‘the two Gs’, ie Gorillas and Genocide. Akagera National Park, on the border with Tanzania, tells a story of hope and healing. Home to Magashi, Wilderness Safaris’ newest camp in Rwanda, Akagera was ravaged by poachers, civil war, and returnees coming back after the genocide and settling there with their cattle. But today it boasts iconic African wildlife; land and water-based game viewing; lovely, gentle hills and rolling savannah; lakes and wetlands; a wide range of game; and a sensational variety of birds. Thanks to a joint rehabilitation programme between the Rwandan government and non-profit partner African Parks, over the last ten years Akagera has reintroduced lion and rhino, roaming the park along with other plains game; it’s become known for its predator sightings. Hailed internationally, Akagera is considered a model of regeneration – much like Rwanda itself.
BEFORE YOU GO (hopefully pairing Bisate Lodge/VNP and Magashi/Akagera): I read the following books prior to my visit, which may also enhance your experience:
Land of a Thousand Hills (Rosamond Carr’s lyrical memoir about living there and through the genocide);
Gorillas in the Mist (Dian Fossey’s study that became the film);
Shake Hands with the Devil (Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire’s heartbreaking account of the world’s turning its back on Rwanda);
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (Philip Gourevitch’s moving collection of testimonies from genocide victims and survivors);
and A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (journalist Gil Courtemanche’s beautiful, tragic novel, a love and war story).
Written and selected images by Melissa Siebert
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