After spending some time in Kigali, comparatively so much more enjoyable than the region’s other capitals, such as Kampala, Nairobi and Bujumbura, I headed north to the city of Ruhengeri, now known as Musanze. This double set of names was a little confusing and common throughout the country. According to someone I asked, the government has broken down large municipal administrative divisions, resulting in the central neighbourhood of cities becoming new, independent cities, under new names. The explanation was a little vague so I took it with a grain of salt.
Musanze is the gateway to the Volcanoes National Park, which attracts a large portion of Rwanda’s emerging tourism market. The area around the natural reserve, like most of the country, is very hilly, yet cultivated in every possible place. Hills much steeper than this one are planted and harvested all the way to the summit. Since the mid-1980’s, the entire surface of the country, with the exception of the national parks, has been cultivated. This very high population density is suggested by some as having contributed to Rwanda’s violent past.
In order to prevent wild animals from entering cultivated lands, a surprising 76 km stone wall was built. Rather than having a large crew build the whole thing, each adjacent community around the park was responsible for the construction of a segment. This also served as a “make-work” project for this impoverished area of potato growers.
Despite the area’s poverty, my travels in Africa always end up costing me more than I had expected. This excursion was a perfect example. I paid about $2 or 3 for a two hour bus ride from Kigali, but to get to the National Park, I paid $80 to rent a 4×4 and driver. The reality is that most touristic attractions are focused on natural reserves and since people are not allowed to live there, there is obviously little public transportation – or roads – leading to them. Tourism is also not developed enough to have organized day trips where you get paired up with other interested travellers to save on transportation costs.
As far as the cost of climbing the Bisoke Volcano, I was quite happy about the $75 fee. The muddy trail was partly covered with these earth bag stairs and the ranger/guide was very knowledgeable. The best was that we ran into a group of mountain gorillas who happened to be feeding near the trail. A permit to go gorilla trekking in Rwanda costs $750 and I am absolutely not interested enough in primates to pay that kind of money. But, seeing them for free was OK! Unfortunately, we could not linger or take pictures. The high fees are an obvious easy source of revenue for the Rwandan Government, but the limitation of the offer is also intended as a sound conservation measure. Each gorilla group is only exposed to one group of tourists or two a day, of limited size, and for only an hour a day. Strict rules are also enforced about eating, drinking or making noise in front of them. Not being able to take pictures during our quick encounter was probably to avoid upsetting people paying ten times the amount for the same experience.
The park fee also included the company of four soldiers, apparently there to protect us against unwanted encounters with angry buffalos. It’s not always the scariest looking animals that are the most dangerous. Continue reading