Delve into Rwanda, Africa’s new seat of tourism

Watch endangered mountain gorillas play then take a dip in the rift lakes of Rwanda, Africa's new seat of tourism with its leaps in conservation and development after the 1994 genocide

The young mountain gorilla hangs from a branch, then falls to the ground. Not knowing what to do next, it sits atop the imposing head of its father, which is taking a siesta.

This playful scene unfolds just 3m from where I stand in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. Although the official guideline is to maintain a distance of at least 7m between human and gorilla, the limited space in the clearing allows a more intimate experience.

For about an hour, we observe the fascinating and familiar mannerisms of the gorillas and delight in the mischievous nature of the babies.

Every September, baby gorillas are named. The newly christened babies last month include Isuku (cleanliness), Uruyange (shiny flowers) and Inkeshya (mountain gorillas are stars). There is also Ubudasa (unique and remarkable), Inyange (handsome and smart) and, reflecting the Rwandan technology drive, Ikoranabuhanga (technology), among other names.

Kwita Izina, the gorilla-naming ceremony, is one symbol of Rwanda's ardour for the conservation of its natural world.

Kinigi, the village nearest Volcanoes National Park (www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com), is a drive of two to three hours from the capital of Kigali. And from my Belgian-owned La Paillotte guesthouse in Kinigi, it is only 10 minutes on the road to the park headquarters, where we are introduced to the etiquette of meeting the gorilla family that will soon fascinate us.

A baby gorilla playing and eating leaves in Rwanda. (Left) Four Rwandan children saying hello. (Above) Traditional Rwandan houses bordering Lake Kivu.
A baby gorilla playing and eating leaves in Rwanda. PHOTO: JOY SCAROLA

The mountains in the distance, lightly shrouded by mist, are an excellent backdrop for the traditional welcome Intore dance by the Rwandese dancers.

Arriving around 9am, the weather is cool with a burst of sunshine, and we do not need to wear our jackets.

Our guide paces the hike for us and when we reach the entrance to the park, one of the armed park rangers follows us around the gorilla's enclave. It is our lucky day as the gorillas are lounging very close to the park border.

The expedition is worth the permit fee of US$1,500 (S$2,045) that each foreign tourist pays. This goes towards the conservation of the endangered mountain gorillas in the vast park, which spans the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

Rwanda, a small African nation of just 26,338 sq km (in comparison to South Africa, which is a sprawling 1.22 million sq km), is a land-locked country bordering Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is about 40 times the size of Singapore.

  • GETTING THERE

  • I fly to Kigali via Dubai on Emirates (www.emirates.com), then transfer to RwandAir (www.rwandair.com) to the capital Kigali.

    One alternative is to fly Singapore Airlines to Johannesburg in South Africa and continue to Kigali on RwandAir.

    TIPS

    Gorilla tracking

    The permit can be reserved via e-mail by following instructions on the Rwanda Development Board website (www.rdb.rw/tourism-and-conservation/gorilla-trekking.html).

    After arriving in Kigali, pick up the permit at the Tourism and Conservation Department at Grand Pension Plaza in downtown Kigali.

    I hoped to have as my guide the legendary Rwandan Francois Bigirimana, who worked as a porter for Dian Fossey, the American primatologist who studied the behaviour of the mountain gorillas, protected them from poachers and penned the 1983 memoir, Gorillas In The Mist. Unfortunately, it is his day off.

    Where to stay

    I stay at Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel in Kigali (www.discoverrwanda.hostel.com).

    Other options around the Volcanoes National Park headquarters include Iby'Iwacu Cultural Village, where visitors can stay in cosy huts in replicas of traditional villages.

    Mountain Gorilla View Lodge (http://3bhotels.com/mountain-gorilla-view-lodge) offers a luxury option, but the budget traveller can consider a room at La Paillotte Gorilla Palace (www.lapaillottegorillaplace.com) or Kinigi Guesthouse.

    What to wear

    It is December when I visit and the weather is similar to Singapore, but less humid.

    A light sweater for the night is sufficient. Musanze, where I travel to before seeing the gorillas in the morning, is colder. While I wear my windbreaker most nights in Musanze and Kinigi (approximately 1,700m above sea level), I use it only on occasional nights in the capital Kigali.

    People

    Rwandans speak English and French, although everyone speaks the national language, Kinyarwanda.

    The people are friendly and approachable and it is not uncommon for fellow passengers on public transport, such as buses, to chip in to help when necessary.

With a disciplined and efficient government, it has developed rapidly, aiming to eradicate poverty and become a middle-income country by 2020.

Tourism is developing at a fast pace and the biodiversity attracts visitors from all over the world. Moreover, with the peace and stability that characterises Rwanda, conservation efforts have yielded great rewards and international praise for the country.

LEAVING THE PAST BEHIND

Kigali paints a serene picture, with romantic waves of rolling hills visible in much of the city.

Women dress in vibrant colours, complementing its greenery. At night, the sky transforms into Van Gogh's Starry Night. A view from the top of the hills makes the city look as if there is an endless burst of stars suspended not only in the sky, but across the land as well.

The spirit of the people here is that of eagerness for a prosperous future and the Rwandese encourage their children to obtain academic or vocational achievements for the betterment of their lives.

As we are strolling by the scenic twin lakes of Bulera and Ruhondo, my Rwandese friend and I meet a seven-year-old girl wearing a bright pink sweater. We ask her about her education and she shyly replies that she is in Grade 2 and is second in her class.

Since 2008, the government has ordered the language of instruction in schools to be English, attesting to Rwanda's ambition to establish business networks with global partners in Europe and Asia.

Today, Rwanda has gained international recognition for its efforts in poverty alleviation, environmental conservation (solar panels), cutting-edge technology (the KivuWatt energy plant on Lake Kivu), increased connectivity (fibre-optic cables laid and buses with Wi-Fi) and so much more.

This stands in stark contrast to common beliefs held about the country - that it is unsafe and unable to move beyond its tragic history. Between April and July 1994, hundreds and thousands of Rwandese - mostly of the minority Tutsi ethnicity - were murdered in the most rapid genocide. Most of the killers belonged to the Hutu ethnic majority.

The tragedy, however, seems to have spurred a desire for socio-economic progress, regardless of ethnicity.

It is this drive towards meritocracy, conveyed in a news article that dubbed Rwanda as the Singapore of Africa, that piqued my interest to visit the country in December last year.

Further research unveiled that Singapore and Rwanda share a good relationship that has borne fruit, including the Rwanda Development Board, modelled after Singapore's Economic Development Board, and vocational training institutes similar to the Institutes of Technical Education here.

We walk through the immaculate streets of Rwanda, paved and devoid of trash, with a dustbin on every corner. I have no trouble getting mobile broadband access, a luxury, I am told, that one cannot always count on in other African nations.

Modern life has definitely taken root in Kigali, which has a well-structured airport, law-abiding citizens and cosmopolitan fare. Apart from Asian restaurants such as Zen Oriental Cuisine and Asian Kitchen, there are also Western eateries such as German Butchery, Sole Luna and Trattoria, which also serve excellent African buffets.

Every September, baby gorillas are named. The newly christened babies include Uruyange (shiny flowers), Inkeshya (mountain gorillas are stars) and, reflecting the Rwandan technology drive, Ikoranabuhanga (technology).

The newest addition to the landscape is the Kigali Convention Centre, which can house 5,000 delegates and has played host to international conferences such as the World Economic Forum and the African Union Summit.

The dome-shaped building is modelled after the King's Palace in Nyanza and, when it lights up at night, it looks as though it is revolving. One can spot it at a distance while dining at Pili Pili (pilipili.rw), a restaurant atop a hill in the Kimironko neighbourhood, which serves the best African grilled chicken in Kigali.

LAKE PARADISE

Rwanda may be landlocked, but it has not let this get in the way of becoming a beachgoer's paradise.

Gisenyi is a town 21/2 hours west of Kigali, located at the doorstep of Lake Kivu, one of the Great Lakes in the Albertine Rift Valley. The area is peppered with hotels, including Lake Kivu Serena Hotel (www.serenahotels.com/serenalakekivu/default-en.html).

I chance upon it one morning while in search of a cup of coffee and a place to admire Lake Kivu from. When asked where the best vantage point is, the ever so hospitable staff go out of their way to set up a table on a private lakeside area.

From there, I see the vast expanse of the lake, estimated to cover 2,700 sq km. I cannot see the other side and, with the light breeze and sand beneath my feet, it feels as if I am on a tranquil beach.

I pillion-ride on a moto-taxi - motorcycle taxis are the main mode of transport here - to a brewery called Bralirwa (www.bralirwa.com/cms), where I take in the brewing process of the national beer, Primus, a pale lager.

Strolling down the road from the brewery, lined with small village huts, I see a fleet of fishermen on their wooden boats. The calm and soothing hymns from a nearby church can be heard as I greet the smiling villagers with "Muraho", which means hello in Kinyarwanda.

In that moment, I see Rwanda for what it is - a beautiful tapestry woven with myriad threads, telling the story of a nation that has emerged from its dark past to embrace modernity, without forgetting its roots and traditions.

• The writer is a history and social studies teacher.

• Antarctica part 2 has been held over. It will run shortly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'Delving into the green heart of Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe