Let’s face facts: if we’re talking about which country to visit next, we probably wouldn’t put Rwanda - an African nation whose name will always be tinged with tragedy - at the top of the list. But we’d be wrong. For there’s more to this tiny state - measuring a mere 10,169 square miles, Rwanda is the fourth smallest country on the African mainland, behind The Gambia, Swaziland and Djibouti - than genocide and gorillas.
Here’s seven reasons why the Land Of A Thousand Hills should be top of your travel bucket list this winter…
Getting there is now a doddle
Reaching Rwanda hasn’t always been easy. Bordered by Burundi to the south, Uganda to the north and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west - three destinations best described as ‘off the beaten track’ - the country could be regarded as one of the more unreachable areas of Africa.
Fast forward to 2017 and it’s all change: RwandAir - Rwanda’s national carrier - now flies direct from London Gatwick to Kigali three times a week meaning that reaching Rwanda has never been more accessible or affordable. The flight takes approximately nine hours, with return fares starting from a reasonable £368. (01293 874 922; rwandair.com).
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“Isn’t that where they had the genocide? It isn’t safe,” they asserted.
This conversation was repeated many, many times in the run up to my trip to this little African nugget. Even as I left for the airport, the last thing everyone said to me was: “Stay safe.” Clearly friends, family and work colleagues were all sceptical of my most recent travel plans.
Happily I’m here to tell you that their fears and concerns were misplaced.
Sure you should always exercise caution and common sense when travelling in sub Saharan Africa - for example, don’t drink the water - but Rwanda is one of the continent’s safest destinations.
What’s more it’s capital, Kigali, is not only free from danger it is - unlike most big cities - astonishing well kept. Plastic bags are banished and on the last Saturday of each month, every single citizen is required to spend half a day cleaning the streets. Subsequently not only do the streets sparkle, but there’s an onus not to litter in the first place.
Bottom line? Rwanda can be explored with confidence. But don’t just take TNT’s word for it. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office claims that “Rwanda is generally safe and crime levels are relatively low.” For more information visit www. gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/rwanda.
Gorillas in our midst
There’s only one place in the world where you can look a mountain gorilla in the eye and that place is the Virunga Mountains - a chain of volcanoes which runs along the north of Rwanda, the south-west of Uganda and a stretch of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Here - if lady luck is on your side - you’ll find around 800 mountain gorillas. (www.virunga.org.)
One caveat: getting up close and personal with the mightiest primates doesn’t come cheap as the Rwandan government doubled the fees for gorilla encounters from US$750 to US$1,500 a head earlier this year.
However should the steep price prove perturbing, keep in mind that the money you are shelling out goes towards safeguarding the gorilla population (10 years ago, Rwanda was home to fewer than 60 gorillas).
More than this, you’re guaranteed a moment that you’ll remember for the rest of your life - something the great Sir David Attenborough can attest to. The veteran broadcaster and naturalist famously recounted in his 1978 Life On Earth series that meeting Rwandan gorillas was “one of the most exciting encounters of my life. There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.”
Book your pass (80 are available per day) through the Tourism and Conservation Reservation Office of the Rwanda Development Board (00252 57 65 14; firstname.lastname@example.org).
credit: Guenter Guni
Rwanda maybe famous for its gorillas but it’s also the place to gawp at golden monkeys - another species found only in the Land Of A Thousand Hills.
Stir into the mix the full quota of the Big Five (think lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard) plus crocodiles, hippos, zebras and giraffes - all of which can be spotted at Akagera National Park (www.akageranationalpark.org) over on the east flank of the country - and you have an unsung safari destination.
Meanwhile bird lovers will want to make a beeline for the Nyungwe Forest National Park (www.rwandatourism.com/destinations/nyungwe-national-park) to see more than 300 species of birds. Covering over 1,000 square kilometres of pristine mountain rainforest, the park is also home to East Africa’s only canopy walkway that will bring you face to face with Rwanda’s wonderful wildlife.
Rwanda is an African success story
Case in point? A record 64 per cent of Rwanda’s MPs are women, the highest percentage of any country, helping make Rwanda one of the most gender-equal nations in the world.
That’s not all… Rwanda has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has emerged as one of Africa’s leading business tourism destinations.
Just last month the architecturally splendid new Radisson Blu Convention Centre – whose design was inspired by traditional Rwandan basket weaving – hosted no fewer than three prestigious events. Step forward leading hotel investment conference AHIF, AviaDev Africa - a unique event bringing together airports, airlines, governments, industry suppliers and tourism authorities - and World Travel Awards (aka the travel industry’s leading awards programme) Africa Gala Ceremony 2017.
Serena Hotel, Kigali credit: Kaye Holland
Serena Hotel, Kigali credit: Kaye Holland
Until now those visiting Rwanda have had to hunker down in clean but basic, simple places to stay. But just because it was, doesn’t mean it is…
In Kigali, seek out the Serena Hotel (www.serenahotels.com/serenakigali) which opened its doors earlier this year and serves up five-star accommodation and a refreshing courtyard swimming pool.
Further afield Wilderness Lodges - famed for its gorgeous accommodation in seven other African countries - has opened a jaw dropping six bedroom lodge called Bisate. The lodge has been built on land bought from farmers and is embedded in the local community: expect to wake in your room (all of which boast spectacular views of Mount Bisoke, an active volcano) to the sound of a goat or cow. (www.wilderness-safaris.com/camps/bisate-lodge)
While in Kigali - Rwanda's modern, bustling capital city - do take the time to visit the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre (a collective that runs walking tours, hair braiding and basket-weaving classes, www.nwc-umutima.org). Follow this up with a trip to the Niyo Cultural Centre which displays local art and teaches traditional Rwanda dancing and drumming to street kids. (www.niyoculturalcentre.org)
Then make for the Kigali Memorial Centre to confront the horrors of the genocide - which saw an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus butchered during 100 days of madness in 1994. The memorial is movingly done and genuinely unmissable - not only out of respect for the victims of the genocide who met their fate as the rest of the world watched, but out of necessity.
Or as the great philosopher, George Santayanas, once said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (www.kgm.rw)