A BIT OF BACKGROUND
We primarily went to Rwanda because it is one of only two countries where it is possible to see gorillas and is safe for tourists, the other being Uganda; the Democratic Republic of Congo also has gorillas but is not really recommended as a tourist destination.
Prior to going I read several books about Rwanda and most concentrated on the time of the Genocide in 1994 so I wasn’t sure what to expect on arrival. I have an old school friend who works for the Red Cross and he said he had been several times in the last few years and found it a really safe place compared to some countries he has been. In fact he said he felt safer walking around Kigali at night than he did in Derby!
Rwanda is a small land locked country surrounded by Uganda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania so obviously has no access to the coast at all. It is entirely dependent upon air or road for transportation and import and export of goods.
Despite the horrific numbers killed in the genocide of 1994 Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country and today over 8 million people live in this small country. Our guide told us that they have been strongly encouraged to restrict their family size to three children and there is a big education programme encouraging this. I am not sure what happens if you have more as he didn’t elaborate on this. Rwanda is still very much a subsistence economy heavily dependent upon small farming communities. It is building up its tourist industry particularly people coming to meet the gorillas. It also produces tea and coffee and exports cut flowers and pyrethrum for natural insect repellents. Growing Sugar cane and producing sugar as well as fishing in the inland lakes are also local activities.
Although Rwanda is in the area known as the tropics the fact that it is actually quite high in altitude makes for a very temperate and pleasant climate all year round. The temperatures range from a very high of 30°C to the very lowest of 3°C at night. The rainfall is pretty average all year but the wettest months are February to May so we avoided that time!
Apparently Rwanda has the best roads in East Africa and having driven on those in Kenya they are certainly far better than that on the main roads but once off these the side roads can be a bit ‘interesting’ and require very careful driving in a 4x4.
HEALTH WARNINGS AND CONCERNS
Rwanda does have malaria so anti malaria pills are needed. You should also wear long trousers and long sleeved shirts when out which wasn’t a problem when we were there as it was not exactly hot. You also need a yellow Fever injection and certificate but you do get good value from those as they last ten years. Tetanus and cholera are also recommended as well as hepatitis so you feel a bit like a pin cushion in the weeks before you travel. Aids is widespread so I really don’t need to state the obvious but .... avoid casual sex.
As well as the injections other precautions are obvious if you are visiting any country with limited facilities. NEVER drink the tap water, do not even clean your teeth in it unless you have treated it with water purifying tablets first. We use tablets for teeth cleaning water and buy bottled stuff to drink. It is a good idea to avoid local ice cream and yogurt and milk and always wash (in purified water) and peel all fruit before eating it.
Take wet wipes and hand sanitising gel and use it regularly, after shopping, visiting sights, before eating and drinking, after visiting the bathroom etc. You cannot be too careful; apparently handling money is one of the easiest ways to pick up tummy bugs.
If you are going for a gorilla or chimp trek then avoid bright coloured clothing and also avoid camouflage patterns as they are worn by the army and National Park guards. Blue and black clothes should also be avoided as they attract tsetse flies, so light coloured beiges and browns are best. Shorts are rarely worn in towns and cities and should never be worn on treks. It does get cold and may well rain so light layered clothes and waterproofs are best. You will need decent walking boots as the terrain is uneven and can be very wet and slippery if you go on a trek.
Film, tapes and batteries are not widely available so make sure you have enough for your trip. For the gorillas you get pretty close so we found that you didn’t need a powerful zoom lens and it actually got in the way.
If you are taking private video of the gorillas there is no charge but if it is for commercial use then you need to pay US $2000 – US "5000 per day.
Most lodges have electricity for part of the time to charge batteries but this may not be the case in some places so take spares. Our lodge had electricity for part of the day and for a short time in the evening so we had to make sure we used the power then to re-charge our stuff.
It is forbidden to photograph government buildings and military places so be very aware and do not do this.
Rwandans do not like having their photo taken without being asked. You will then have to pay a tip of about 100 -200 (about 10p or 20p) Rwandan shillings depending on the situation.
The currency is the Rwanda franc which is worth about 600 to the US$ or around 950 to the £. The US$ is the favoured currency though it is wise to change some to local currency for small tips and local purchases. There are currency exchange places in Kigali which offer a better rate than the airport.
Travellers cheques are difficult to change so don’t bother as you also get a poor exchange rate. The hole in the wall is not an option so do not rely on using those. Credit cards seem to always have a 5% surcharge and are not widely accepted except in bigger hotels.
There standard is 240 volts and the plugs used are the continental 2 pin sort. Electricity is usually only on for part of the day and early evening.
TELEPHONE AND INTERNET
Mobile phone coverage is pretty good but obviously if you are using a UK phone the cost will be high. You can get a local sim card if you are staying for a longer period but not really worth it if you are only there for a few days.
There is limited wifi but there internet cafes in the towns and cities. You cannot rely upon the internet out of Kigali and there was none up near the Gorilla Mountain view lodge where we stayed.
We found that the service in places like restaurants and cafes was a bit lackadaisical. They were always very pleasant but a bit slow and often brought the wrong thing. The guides were all delightful and very knowledgeable. We were advised that we should tip our safari driver/guide about $5-$7 US per day, the National Park guides around $2 -$5 per person so a couple would double that amount, and the waiters etc about 10% of the bill.
IS IT WORTH VISITING?
Yes indeed. The gorilla treks may be expensive but they are one of those once in a life time experiences. Despite the awful recent history in Rwanda we found the place to be delightful and very welcoming. Everyone was busy. Everywhere we drove there were people walking along the roads carrying stuffon bicycles or on their heads . They may not have been well off but everyone worked even if only to feed the family and get a roof over their heads.
I read a lot about the genocide before I went and since I have been back and it still horrifies me to think of those lovely people doing that to each other. It is not a pleasant visit but it is one that is educational and I do think it is almost a way of paying your respects to visit one of the many genocide memorials either in Kigali or one of the other towns.
If after visiting you are inspired to donate some money to the country and its survivors then either diva which offers loans to help people start businesses, or the SURF (Survivors Fund ) or the Forest People’s Project are all worthy and responsible charities helping those in Rwanda.