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.
The area was very humid; a little like walking in a cloud. The mossy trees made me think this was probably not unusual weather on top of the volcano.
Of course, for the normal tourist, this sucks. Here is a picture of me on the rim of Bisoke Volcano, with the beautiful crater lake behind me. Fantastic picture.
I did hike down the crater to confirm that there is indeed a lake there, but that did little to diminish my disappointment.
On the way back we had the surprise of discovering the largest earthworm I have ever seen. You could fish for shark with this monster!
After a couple of days in Musanze, I headed for Muhanga (formerly Gisenyi, although in this case the new name does not seem to be used much). The town is adjacent to the Congolese city of Goma. I had hoped to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo, only to visit the lava lake of the Nyiragongo volcano. This would have been my second visit to a lava lake, after seeing one in Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert last year. By any measure, the DRC is not safe, but I did my homework. Several times in the past I have ignored travel advisories and visited places like the Danakil or Yemen because I figured my specific itinerary was safe. In this case, I found out it was not. Goma is relatively safe and the volcano is only about 20-30 km from it, but that specific area was occupied by M23 rebels at that time.
The big villas or hotels in the picture are in the DRC, but they are probably not representative of the city, rather an oasis of costal luxury in a much less beautiful city.
My hotel was located about 100 m to the right of this Google map capture. On the right, the nicely planned streets and the houses of Rwanda. On the left, chaos and the shacks of Goma. I didn’t cross.
Despite all the troubles in the DRC, a lot of commerce is done between the two countries. These trucks were all lined up early in the morning, waiting for the border post to open. I got close to the post, but the soldiers/police/whatever there seemed a little on the nervous side, so I avoided taking pictures.
Finally, I took this picture in front of my hotel, and I think it illustrates perfectly the care for urban planning and order that one finds in Rwanda, but not in its neighbours. This is a proper boulevard, with a row of trees as a divider and one-way traffic on each side. There is no money to pave it, but when there is, it will look like a proper boulevard.
And that was it for my short visit to Rwanda. Honestly, for that length of a visit, I didn’t do much. I had a little cold that week and that made me somewhat lazy.