We are open tomorrow from 9:00 am. Call 020 7590 0610
Gorilla, Virunga National Park. Rwanda

Trip report: Rwanda

An in-depth account of the land of a thousand hills

Article content

13 July 2023 by Alison Nicolle

As my Rwandair flight from London touched down at Kigali International Airport, my mind was occupied with the many preconceptions I held regarding the small East African country of Rwanda. The country is known principally for three things – the terrible events of the 1994 genocide, its majestic mountain gorillas, and most recently the UK government's controversial migrant policy. But, as I was to find out, there's so much more on offer in this extraordinary country.

Rwanda's gleaming capital

It didn't take long for my preconceptions to be dispelled. No sooner had we set out on the road through the hectic Kigali traffic with the many red helmeted motorbike riders, I was struck by several things. Most notable was the quality of the roads and overall infrastructure of the city, largely due to the country having received huge amounts of UN investment in the past few decades to aid the country in its recovery from the 1994 genocide. The other thing I immediately noticed was how clean and tidy the city was. An extremely progressive policy of a complete ban of single-use plastics has led to a country almost entirely devoid of litter. Everywhere you look you see people tidying and sweeping the pavements and roadsides and lovely vegetation and floral displays line the roads.

We travelled for about 30 minutes through the city before arriving at our hotel for the night – the Kigali Marriott Hotel – one of the most modern, contemporary and high end hotels in the city. My room had a huge balcony overlooking the city which spread out below over the hilly landscape. After settling in, our lunch was at the lovely Nyurah restaurant, a tasty fine dining experience. The cuisine was excellent and a great example of haute African cuisine with a contemporary twist. On the whole, the food was delicious; and this would prove very much the case throughout the country, with exceptional standards of service and quality.

In the afternoon we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. A visit here is an important starting point for any trip to this once troubled country. It is at once both a harrowing and moving experience as the exhibition takes you through the terrible events of the 1994 genocide, something which has drastically shaped present-day Rwanda. Still reflecting on what we had witnessed we then made our way to the Nyandungu eco-park for a peaceful sunset walk through this newly reclaimed nature park with its beautiful flora and fauna. Whilst walking and observing young children playing happily by one of the lakes, it was impossible not to think of the many children who had lost their lives so tragically in the genocide. Our visit also happened to coincide with Kwibuka 29 which is the annual anniversary of the genocide and everywhere we went we witnessed children taking part in “the Walk to Remember” – an important part of how the country has rebuilt as they come together to renew, remember and reunite now with everyone as one Rwandan people.

Big Five in Akagera National Park

Early the next morning we left the city towards wild eastern-most Rwanda and the Akagera National Park. Straddling the border with Tanzania, the protected area is around a 3-hour drive from the city, the highlight of which was a short pit stop at the impressive Imigongo art gallery where we sampled a first taste of wonderful Rwandan coffee. On arrival, our hotel for the night was Akagera Game Lodge, a beautiful eco-lodge standing on a hill at the southern tip of the park, elevated above the savannah. A delightful lunch was accompanied by unparalleled views of Lake Ihema. Later, we were offered a fascinating behind-the-scenes experience of the park, learning how the wildlife is closely monitored and protected by anti-poaching units. 

The next morning we took an early morning boat ride out on the lake. Sadly, the heavens had opened, somehwat limiting our viewing prospects. However, it was still beautiful and we did manage to spot plenty of hippos, a crocodile, as well as some of the many bird species which reside in the park. Later on, we set out on a full game drive through the length of the park from the south to the north exit, stopping off for a site inspection at the stunning wilderness property – Magashi tented camp – with its charming rooms overlooking the lake. We were certainly in luck here, as we spotted three of the Big Five on our drive – a couple of lions, a herd of buffalo complete with Egrets on their backs, and even a pair of rhino. Following a packed lunch, we left the park for a journey back to Kigali.

Chimps in Nyungwe National Park

An early departure towards Nyungwe National Park – one of the oldest forests in Africa – proved to be worth it, giving us a chance to stop off en-route in Nyanza for a tour of the Kings Palace Museum. After our visit and a packed lunch in the grounds we continued on our way to Nyungwe, past verdant rolling hills and farms and villages and towards the location of our Canopy Walkway Experience, reached by a beautiful trek down through the mountainous rainforest. Once there, you're faced with the highest canopy walk in Africa. If you dared look down, you could see deep into the forest below, and, if you looked into the trees around you they were full of silver monkeys that live in the forest. It was a truly memorable experience, above one of the most beautiful and pristine forests I have seen anywhere in the world.

We stayed the night at the Kivu Marina Hotel a clean and comfortable modern hotel, most memorable for its huge pool overlooking Lake Kivu. It felt a somewhat surreal experience to be taking my morning swim overlooking the Democratic Republic of the Congo just on the other side of the lake. You could quite literally have swum across the border here!

Another early morning start had us drive to Cyamudongo for our Chimpanzee trekking experience. We drove through beautiful forest scenery to the start point and just as we pulled up ahead of us on the road was a lone Chimpanzee walking on all fours back towards the forest. We thought to ourselves this was all going to be too easy! However, as this lone individual disappeared back into the forest, we set out on what turned out to be quite a steep and slippery trek, following the occasional calls of the chimps in the fruit trees high above. Eventually we came across and observed around seven individuals, including one baby who kept appearing out of his nest high in the canopy of a fig tree. It was a beautiful experience listening to their antics in the trees above with the occasional noisy interaction with a group of equally rare grey-cheeked mangabey monkeys – Rwanda's only population live in Nyungwe.

After our morning trek, we proceeded for lunch and a site inspection of the beautiful One & Only Nyungwe House. We turned up with rather muddy boots after our trek, but these were immediately replaced with flip flops whilst our boots were taken away to be cleaned. This is all part of the service at this luxury resort. The rooms are spread around the surrounding tea plantations and are beautifully landscaped to provide many intimate and unique dining experiences. We were served a fine lunch overlooking the tea bushes and the forest behind. The afternoon brought more action as we headed out on to the lake for a spot of kayaking and paddle boarding.

Wildlife & activities in Lake Kivu

After a further couple of nights and more treks and wildlife sightings, we drive back towards Lake Kivu and proceeded north up the lake, towards Cleo Kivu, arriving just as the sun was setting on this spectacular hotel. This serene hillside hotel is brand new and overlooks one of the most beautiful parts of this vast lake, where fishermen who spend the night out fishing on the lake pass by in front or the terrace, singing their traditional songs as they do. The rooms are huge, delightfully contemporary and come with plush free-standing baths overlooking the lake. The balconies are great to sit and relax, enjoying the gorgeous scenery of the lakes and mountains which surround. From here, you can enjoy some of the many activities on offer, such as kayaking, boat trips, island tours and even swimming in the lake.

We spent the next day on a beautiful boat ride up the lake to Kinunu where we spent a morning learning about the production of Rwanda's famous (and very strong!) coffee with a full bean-to-cup experience. Afterwards, we took a long windy drive up a bumpy road towards Gishwati Mukura National Park. Sadly, there was no time for a trek but we admired the fine views over the forest and had an interesting briefing on the park and its inhabitants, which include some of the rare golden monkeys – another of Rwanda's famous primates of which there are 16 types in total, making this a key destination for primate lovers.

Next, we continued up the lake to Rubavu a waterfront town – a good stopover on the way from Nyungwe to Volcanoes National Park. It’s a beach resort and a bustling city, very close to one of the official border crossings to the D.R.C. We spent the night at the Serena Lake Kivu which provided a small oasis of tranquillity in this busy spot. The hotel has its own private beach on Africa's sixth largest lake, providing modern and comfortable accommodation and facilities. Dinner was served on the terrace looking out over the lake on a warm and pleasant evening.

Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is perhaps the most famous of the country's protected areas. It protects the Rwandan side of the Virunga mountains that include six extinct and three active volcanoes. We spent a busy afternoon checking out some of the area's many hotels at which you can be based for the big draw of the area – gorilla trekking. Bishop's Court – where we enjoyed a lovely lunch in a courtyard by a heart shaped swimming pool, is a charming, boutique option in the heart of the town. The One & Only Gorillas Nest Lodge is the upmarket ultra-luxury option for those with the right budget, boasting large chalet type rooms, spread out around the beautiful grounds, each in its own secluded setting in the flower laden forest. My personal favourite was the wilderness property Sabyinyo Lodge – a quietly luxurious community-owned lodge offering unforgettable views out towards the surrounding volcanoes from lovely individual chalet rooms.

We just had time for a look around the recently opened Ellen Degeneres Campus. It is a lovely modern facility providing a fascinating insight into the conservation work of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Here, you can learn about the legacy of her work in protecting the rare Mountain Gorillas. Half of the world's population live in this small country, so the work is vital to the preservation of the remaining 700 or so who still live in the wild in these beautiful volcanic mountain ranges where they face many challenges to their survival, from poaching for bush meat to illegal logging to the spread of human habitation and charcoal burning in the forests. The visit left us feeling excited for our next days trek where we hoped to come face to face with these rare and majestic forest creatures. We spent the night at the Virunga Inn Lodge, where despite a heavy downpour (it is a rainforest after all!) we were treated to a cultural display of dancing and singing around a campfire.

It was our final morning, and we made another early start in the hope of being assigned the gorilla group of our choosing. Coffee and tea were available as we were allocated with a medium difficulty trek to the Igisha gorilla family. This was excellent news as it is a large family comprising of about 30 individuals including four Silverbacks, and quite a number of juveniles which I had been hoping for. After approximately an hour through bumpy road, we finally arrival at the edge of the forest. Armed with walking sticks and having engaged a team of porters we walked through a couple of fields until we came to a gap in the wall which we climbed over and entered the thick forest. From this point, we trekked ever upwards, often stooping low to make our way through bamboo tunnels ever deeper and higher into the forest. After an hour or so of climbing, and with light rain beginning to fall, suddenly we were told to put down our bags and walking poles and don our face masks, which since Covid are now compulsory whilst spending time with the gorillas.

We continued in the direction the rangers and trackers were pointing to, when suddenly we were met with the awe-inspiring sight of a huge silverback, sat half asleep with his arms wrapped around his body near to the path where we were stood. Behind him, a juvenile was snacking on leaves while rolling and somersaulting playfully through the bushes. We spent our allocated hour with the family while they went about their business of feeding, sleeping and whatever else it is gorillas do as part of their morning routine. We watched as they interacted with each other, seemingly only half aware and not particularly interested in our presence. One mother walked straight past us with a very young baby tucked under her arm. If they did look up, the rangers calmed them with soothing “gorilla language”.

All too soon it was time to leave the gorillas to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this beautiful forest alone. As we headed back down the mountain we were revelling in the memories of the experience we had enjoyed, and knowing that visiting these rare mountain creatures were both contributing to their protection in the wild and also supporting the local community who provide all of the trackers, porters and rangers, all of whom come from the local area. This is vital in the battle to save these enigmatic and rare forest dwellers.

It had been quite a tough trek, so my advice to anyone planning on going to see either the chimps or the gorillas would be to try and get a bit fit before travelling in order to be able to fully enjoy the hiking. That said, there are easier treks which can be requested for those less able to hike too far, and teams of porters are always available should you need assistance.

Our time in Rwanda was truly memorable. We had headed east, then west, south then north to take in all three of Rwanda's magnificent national parks and boundless nature. We covered many miles of beautiful countryside and lush green rolling hills. The country isn’t known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills” without good reason, and I felt as if I had walked up a fair few of them so I returned home feeling fit and invigorated from my experience and with fond memories of this clean, friendly and welcoming country that has come so far, and is still looking to progress yet further in terms of its path towards a future combining both high end tourism and wildlife conservation.

Related offers

Gorilla, Rwanda

Highlights of Rwanda: Gorillas and Chimpanzees

9-day tailor-made holiday from £6,000 pp incl. flights

This spectacular tour sees you explore Nyungwe National Park where you'll track chimpanzee. Then, relax on Lake Kivu before trekking with gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, deep in the jungles of Rwanda.

Chimpanzee, Uganda

Best of Uganda and Rwanda

14-day tailor-made holiday from £15,330 pp incl. flights

This in-depth independent tour takes in the the highlights of Uganda and Rwanda, offering several chances to meet the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Gorilla, Bwindi Forest

Gorilla and Chimpanzees with Volcanoes Safaris

9-day tailor-made holiday from £10,355 pp incl. flights

An encounter with Rwanda's mountain gorilla's is a truly life-changing experience. Trekking through the jungle of the Parc National des Volcans for an audience with these magnificent creatures is something that will certainly live long in the memory. It's all wrapped up in a luxury tailor-made tour.

One&Only Gorilla's Nest

Rwanda in Style with One&Only

9-day tailor-made holiday from £11,740 pp incl. flights

Track gorillas and chimpanzees deep in Rwanda's verdant rainforests, with stays at some of Rwanda's most luxurious lodges and hotels.

One&Only Gorilla's Nest

One&Only Gorilla’s Nest

Contemporary lodge

This stunning sanctuary, nestled at the foot of the Virunga Mountains, is a wonderfully luxurious base from which to experience one of the world’s great wildlife encounters – a meeting with Rwanda's mountain gorillas.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Contemporary lodge

This stunning hotel is the first ever community-owned lodge in Rwanda, perched on the edge of the stunning Parc National Volcanoes, the gateway for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of tracking mountain gorillas.

Aerial view, One & Only Nyungwe House, Rwanda

One&Only Nyungwe House, Rwanda

Contemporary lodge

This spectacular lodge is located within a primeval rainforest and perched atop a working tea planation, offering direct access to Rwanda's fascinating wildlife and culture.

Virunga Safari Lodge

Virunga Lodge, Volcanoes National Park

Traditional lodge

The magnificent Virunga Safari Lodge, set on a stunning hillside, has eight bandas with a panoramic view of the Virunga volcanoes and the lakes Ruhondo and Bulera. The terraced gardens on this high ridge are now well established, with a magical sunken paradise garden as their focal point. Aside fro…

Why book with Wexas Travel?

At Wexas, we specialise in bespoke travel experiences. Our itineraries are just samples of what we can arrange, and can be changed depending on your precise needs, finances and ideas by our experienced destination specialists.

Contact one of our consultants on 020 7590 0610 to discuss how we can tailor your holiday.

Learn why Wexas is the leader in creating luxury holidays. What is tailor-made travel?

Expert advice & support

Visit us in our London office

Let our travel specialists curate the perfect holiday:

  • Inspirational ideas based on experience
  • Established for over 50 years
  • Tailor a holiday to your precise requirements
  • Personalised quotes and documentation

Every step of the way

Every step of the way

Our services are with you from start to finish:

  • Dedicated personal consultants
  • Free airport lounges on qualifying bookings
  • Care and guidance pre, post and during holiday
  • Full financial security: ABTA & ATOL protected