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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A to Z of Adventure Travel: G is for Galapagos

26 02 2009

 blue-footed-booby2

                  “You’d be dancing too if your feet were this cold!” (Blue footed booby)

 

 

The Galapagos Islands were untouched by human civilisation until the early 19th century, but have more than made up for that since as a haven for those drawn by its wildlife, scenery, science and snorkelling.

 

Located in the Pacific Ocean 972 kilometres west of Ecuador, the world famous archipelago is comprised of 19 islands and more than a hundred islets and outcrops, although most visitors tend not to explore more than eight of them. The islands are of course legendary because of their role in Charles Darwin’s formulation of the Theory of Evolution and they remain a natural paradise to this day. The Ecuadorian government, while keen to allow travellers from all over the world to see this natural wonder, are also committed to ensuring that their trespass doesn’t adversely affect the very thing that people travel from all over the world to see – their unspoiled beauty. As a result, the numbers of visitors to the islands are limited and their movements and activities restricted. However, these constraints do not in any way detract from an incredible experience.

 

The vast majority of people who visit the Galapagos take a cruise around the islands. After a flight from the mainland, visitors are transferred to the harbour to board their vessel. Galapagos operators cater for all tastes and budgets from those seeking seaborne luxury and sparing no expense, to others with more modest tastes and more limited funds. Regardless of the price tag however, almost all boats have their own onboard naturalists who assist with the daily shore excursions and with general lessons in zoology, biology and oceanography to maximise visitors’ experiences and to provide them with the best appreciation of their trip.

 

Different islands in the chain offer different sights and experiences. Santa Fe is particularly renowned for its colony of sea lions with which it is often possible to swim. Espanola is home to red-billed tropicbords, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and is a nesting site to what is virtually the entire world’s population of waved albatrosses. Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and a nursery that caters for young tortoises. Bartolome boasts the rare Galapagos penguins while Floreana Island has a wooden barrel planted in the 18th century to be used as a post office for passing ships…and is still used by some visitors today!

 

Trips to the Galapagos vary from a few days to several weeks depending on how many islands the visitor wants to see. While almost all boats boast snorkelling facilities and many also offer scuba, there are also specialist operators catering for more experienced certified divers. But if you’re a bit of a landlubber and your sea-legs are as wobbly as a plate of Jell-O in a hurricane, there are also land-based trips that still explore the islands by boat but remain in hotels at night.

 

Although now connected to the outside world by direct flights from the mainland, the Galapagos remains as exotic and mystifying as the day that Darwin’s Beagle first explored the beaches, channels and volcanoes.

 

 

Photo by: Mariko Yuki     Post by: Simon Vaughan