A to Z of Adventure Travel: R is for Rwanda

15 05 2009

Gorilla 4a mwIn April 1994, the aircraft on which Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were travelling was shot down by a missile while landing at Kigali airport. The two leaders were returning to the country from peace talks in Tanzania implemented to put an end to the Hutu-Tutsi fighting that had long plagued both countries. Sadly, the assassination of both leaders instead lead to a genocide in Rwanda that resulted in the slaughter of as many as one million people in just 100 days – or more than 15% of the entire population.

Rwanda is a small country that sits just below the equator in east Africa and is bordered by Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although picturesque, Rwanda would likely have been overlooked by mass tourism except for one attraction: the mountain gorillas.

One of only three countries that is home to the mountain gorilla, Rwanda has always been a popular place for those travellers willing to trek their way through thick jungle to see these magnificent creatures. As the entire Great Lakes Area has always been unsettled and troubled, travellers have invariably had to alternate between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to get their glimpse of these endangered great apes. After the genocide, Rwanda was off-limits to all but the most intrepid of travellers for several years. Today, tourism has recovered sufficiently to now account for more than USD$200 million a year in revenue.

Gorilla visits are strictly controlled by national parks authorities and every trekker must obtain a permit. These permits are snapped up many months ahead of time, although it can sometimes be possible to obtain one on site if there are cancellations. If permits have not been pre-purchased, it is advisable to be able to spend several days in the area awaiting an opportunity. Alternatively, many tour operators offer packages that include permits. All trekkers are accompanied by a guide and trackers and although there is never a guarantee of being able to see one of our closest genetic relatives, the chances of success are generally quite good. The forests of Rwanda are also a good place to see chimpanzees.

Although the gorillas are still the main draw for visitors to the country, ironically the genocide has attracted some travellers of its own. There are several sites around the country that mark the massacre and remember the victims, the most moving arguably being the Murambi Technical School, now known as the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre. It was in the school that some 60-70,000 Tutsi took refuge at the height of the slaughter. It is estimated that at least 45,000 were murdered there by Hutu Interhamwe. The museum offers a background to the genocide and memorials to those who died there. It is a sombre place that puts faces and names to the statistics and brings the horror of mass murder to life.

Rwanda can be reached by international flights into its capital city, Kigali, or overland from its neighbouring countries. Many companies offer tours just to see the gorillas or that include other sights. A number of overland companies include visits to Rwanda on trips to Uganda and or Tanzania.

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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