New Rwanda Safaris
Text and images by Jenna Sy
Africa has become a popular travel destination, but Rwanda isn’t high up on the bucket list of some wanderlust travelers. I have been to Africa to visit Morroco, Kenya, and Zambia, but for this trip, I decided to head to Rwanda for 11 days.
The hesitation to travel to Rwanda is perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to our assumption about the country. We tend to think of Rwanda as one ravaged by war and genocide, and it was, just a little over two decades ago. But as soon as I stepped out of the plane and into their country, I was impressed to find that it is recovering well from its past tragedies, one step at a time. I felt safe. It was peaceful, and the people were even more lovely and welcoming than I had hoped.
Meeting a friend the author beside two male gorillas
Going on a Safari, Rwanda-style
You can’t go to Africa without going on a safari, and Rwanda’s landscape offers a very unique experience for safari enthusiasts. The focal point of those traveling to Rwanda is usually to visit the endangered mountain gorillas that reside in the bamboo forests of Volcanoes National Park.
The country’s gorilla safari came to prominence in the ‘80’s because of world-renowned American primatologist Diane Fossey. She was also the author of the book Gorillas in the Mist, which was adapted into a film. Fossey devoted her life to studying Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.
Tracking these rare gentle giants—with only less than 700 living today!—through the misty Virunga Mountains was one of my most memorable wildlife experiences ever. I saw seven out of 10 gorillas from the Kuryama gorilla family, including the silverback (their leader), mother, sons and a four-month old baby girl.
The politics of getting a good gorilla family is a bit tricky, and your driver plays a big role in it. The driver fetches you at 6:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. registration (permits to be bought in advance). Remember to bring your passport, because you’ll need it to register. Then, the drivers will meet and talk about which set of tourists will go to which gorilla family. Plus, the Rwanda Development Board (who manages the gorilla safaris) only issue 80 permits a day for the 10 habituated mountain gorilla families. Meaning, there can only be eight tourists per gorilla family per day, and not all gorilla families are nearby.
There are three different routes to choose from—easy, medium, and difficult. They say the most number of gorillas you can see are in the difficult routes, though nothing is guaranteed. Sometimes, the difficult routes get canceled, and the easy routes become difficult, when the gorillas move far and deep into the forests. I asked my driver for an easy route, but I was even luckier with the medium route he chose for me because it had fewer people. I didn’t quite understand this initially, but I have realized how much better it is to have fewer people, because it means more personal time with the gorillas. Every visit to the gorillas is only limited to an hour, and you don’t want seven other people pushing you around for the perfect spot to take their professional (or serious amateur) photos.
And even if we were reminded more than once not to get too close to the gorillas, keeping at least a seven-meter distance away from them, I was able to get as close as merely a meter away from an entire family! They were eating breakfast and playing when we came, and I was able to lie down beside them during their siesta!
Aside from the mountain gorillas, I was also able to track the golden monkeys, and I found them while they were feeding on bamboo leaves.
While majestic volcanoes surround the Volcanoes National Park in the north, the Nyungwe Forest National Park in southwest Rwanda offers stunning views of the rainforest and waterfalls. It is also where I tracked chimpanzees and the colobus monkeys.
I was surprised to find out that tracking chimps was a much different experience from tracking gorillas. Chimps hang on trees and move a lot faster. Though it is difficult to track the chimps in the hilly rainforest, the experience is so much more unique than any game drives I have been to in Africa. There is a rare possibility of spotting chimps in a 4×4 game drive in other African countries, but tracking a family of chimps in a rainforest, in their very natural habitat, and seeing how they live is something else!
If chasing down the chimps was difficult, the opposite goes for the colobus monkeys. These habituated, black-bodied, white-whiskered, and tail-tipped monkeys were very friendly, so friendly that you could get up close and personal with them!
If you want to get a feel of what it’s like to “hang out” with the chimps and monkeys as they’re way up high on trees, go for the canopy walkway. It’s the first one in East Africa—it’s about 165 meters long and 75 meters above the forest floor.
Take a Hike
There are different types of safaris being offered in Africa, and the most common is the game drives. Unlike the regular game drives on 4x4s, primate safaris in Rwanda will require you to hike on their hilly landscape.
The day usually starts at 6:30 in the morning, so that you can catch the primates eating breakfast. You’ll also be able to see them in their natural habitat, as they move and roam around the forests. There will be trackers locating and staying with the primates, and coordinating with your guide as to where they are.
Porters are available for hire at the starting point to help trekkers get around the steep and sometimes muddy forests. It is very important to be prepared and bring good hiking shoes, and long trousers and gloves for protection against stinging nettles, although you can always rent and borrow.
It is also advised to bring snacks and water for energy and refreshment as some trails are tough, and it can be hot and humid.
Another thing to consider is the altitude. Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is 1,600 meters high. Manila’s elevation is only 16 meters, so you can just imagine how high up it is, and how it took me a while to get used to Kigali’s altitude. Match the high altitude with how hilly the city is, so going around will definitely give you a workout. The altitude of Nyungwe Forest is between 1,600 meters and 2,950 meters, making it bearable. It perhaps helped me acclimate quicker when I was in Musanze, where the Volcanoes National Park is located. Musanze’s altitude starts at 2,500 meters, and I found myself catching my breath and my ears clogging and popping throughout my stay. Elevation can reach up to 3,500 to 4,500 meters when on the road tracking the mountain gorillas, or hiking in the mountains. I only hiked up the volcanoes for the primates, because I wasn’t ready to go through all the volcanoes.
Love for the People
Rwanda was one of the safest places I’ve been to, but what stood out more was the warm welcome and the genuinity of the Rwandis. I’ve met children in the villages going out of their houses just to say hi to me, locals smiling and replying “maneza” when I greet them “amakuru”(how are you), and villagers welcoming me to their homes and proudly showing me their traditional practices, such as weaving, beehive making, dancing, banana beer making. Not only did I have an exciting safari experience, I also created wonderful memories with the locals.
Africa to me is about great safari adventures and its colorful cultural identity. The stunning landscapes, the natural phenomenon of the circle of life, and the fascinating animal encounters take my breath every single time. But more than anything, it’s not difficult to fall in love with its rich history, culture, and people. Rwanda has become very special to me.
Tips for the Tourist
Rwanda requires a yellow fever certificate for people entering the country, so you will need to get a yellow fever vaccine (at P1,500) from the Bureau of Quarantine in Manila. I came at eight in the morning, and it only took me 30 minutes for the whole process.
Visa application is online. You will need a “sponsor” (i.e. your travel agent/tour operator) to write a letter that will be submitted when you’re applying for the visa. The Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration will send you an email within 48 hours informing you that you will receive your visa at $30 at the entry point.
All the necessary documents were checked in both Philippine and Rwanda airports. The visa payment (for Philippine passport holders), however, was waived when I entered Rwanda!
Getting around Rwanda:
You don’t necessarily have to book through a tour operator for the accommodations and the permits (for the primates), but it’ll be more convenient if you do. Rwanda isn’t as touristy yet. You will be needing a driver to get you around the country, and help you with the treks.
I have met tourists who booked their own accommodations and permits, but forgot to consider that the registration of every primate safari was far (about 25 minutes away) from the actual starting point of the hike, and had to worry about their transport.
Others who did more research booked their accommodations and permits themselves, and just hired a driver and vehicle through an operator. Either way, a driver-guide will be very helpful to get you around, especially with the gorilla safari.