Land of a thousand hills

Imaduddin Ahmed delights in the charms of a transformed Rwanda

The Friday Times | July 05 – 11, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 21

View of Mt Mikeno in the DRC from Mt Karisimbi’s summit

Rwandans greeted outsiders well into the nineteenth century with hails of arrows. And who could blame them? The first European to the area – an officer of the British Indian army – propounded a racist theory that ensuing European colonisers used to favour one group over others; when independence was granted and democracy introduced, as Plato, JS Mill and MA Jinnah would have feared, the country saw the majority population play tyrant. And that’s how this country the size of Wales in the heart of Africa came to be known by that movie about an hotel.

Since ’94, things have moved forward. People now feel safer living in Rwanda than in any other African country, and muzungus such as I walk carefree at night in most parts. Visitors increasingly come to have harmless fun, and the hosts have correspondingly been welcoming, and well that they have, for this country has myriad treasures to offer, and an ever-pleasant climate.

I came to Rwanda not as a tourist, but for work: the government was looking for a financier to assist in negotiating power as well as other public-private partnerships. They found me in Mayfair. For my part, I was impressed by the country’s commitment to development. Having lived here a year, I recommend my compatriots – you, dear TFT readers – visit its tourist sites.

Mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park

Baby gorilla and mum of the Susa family. Photo credit: Shiori Oku

On the brink of extinction in the 1980s, mountain gorillas now number close to 900 in the Virunga range spread across Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. The largest family, the Susa, are descendants of the gorillas which Dian Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist fame, studied. They live in Rwanda.

Mountain gorillas now number close to 900 in the Virunga range

I was lucky enough to see the family with just two schoolmates and two park rangers, paying a visit, as we did, in the rainy season in early May. The rangers count 37, including an alpha male and beta male each with four partners, and a third mature male, who was caught cheating with one of the alpha male’s partners; he had a wound to show for his indiscretion. The adulteress, meanwhile, joined another band. The group includes two sets of (very cute) baby twins.

My friends will attest that the experience was well worth the USD 750 permit for non-residents. It took us two hours to first reach the Susa family, and another hour of trekking through forest alongside the at-times chest-beating cousins. Our rangers did a stellar job at pacifying the hairy ones with soft growls, and in landing us in an open patch, where, by the time the Susa had become accustomed to us, we were all but family. Gorilla after gorilla passed us by at arm’s length from every direction – from the pacified silverback males, to the barely-foot-high baby-twins clinging on or toddling behind their mothers.

A two-day hike up Mt Karisimbi

Other worldly vegetation up Karisimbi

It started out as a lark. Five lads decided on a Tuesday night that we’d hike-up the inactive volcano on the weekend. (USD 400 per permit for non-residents.) You don’t have to be a committed mountaineer to conquer the 2 km hike up to the 4,507 m peak. Come prepared with waterproof, non-cotton clothes. You must be fit. Two young European men didn’t manage to summit.

We were grouped with 11 others hailing from the USA and Europe. They looked better equipped than us, but, having boxed for a year, I wanted to see what my training was good for. I set myself the challenge of peaking first.

We began our march in rainfall through majestic Avatar-like forests at 9am. We reached base camp and set up our tents at 5pm. The night was filled with hearty-songs, instant noodle-soup heated on the campfire and banter with the soldiers accompanying us to ostensibly protect us from wild animals (and not wild people from across the border). Our hike resumed at dawn.

Star-Trek like views on Mt Karisimbi

90 minutes from the peak, and I had lost the lead as I watched with consternation my fellow-travellers ascend effortlessly the increasingly steep terrain covered with trees and secondary vegetation that wouldn’t have been misplaced in a William Shatner episode of Star Trek. But my porter and my ego fueled me on to continue placing one foot in front of the other. With the last 100m to the summit in sight, I pushed myself Mo Farah-style to accelerate and close the lead of 20m that the leaders had on me. I passed everyone, when the previous leader started racing. I scrambled with my final reserves of strength up the barren rocks. The former leader (an American) and I summitted Rwanda’s highest peak together. The Europeans followed. I celebrated to myself, humming the Pakistani national anthem. Was I the first to do so? (Whether it was the view or the race at that altitude that took my breath away, I’ll let you decide upon inspection of these photos.)

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu from the Cormoran Lodge in Kibuye

Volcanic islands rising out of Lake Kivu

Kibuye and Gisenye are perfect destinations for relaxing getaways among verdant hills and a lake with volcanic islands. Or not. You can also book entire hotels for 8-30 of your best friends in Kigali and end the weekend with juvenile-induced injuries. Kibuye is a safer bet than Gisenye at the moment, with the political situation across the border in Goma uncertain.

I’m often restless, so when I’m not chasing a friend around a campfire with another on my shoulders, I’ll kayak or go for a midnight swim. I haven’t yet contracted bilharzia.

You can also book entire hotels for 8-30 of your best friends in Kigali

If you’re less active, take a motorboat from Kibuye to Amahoro Island. Rest in the sand and admire volcanic islands that rise out of a lake whose depths reach 240 m and which, uniquely, harbours enough methane to power the country for several decades.

Safari park and rainforest

For USD 30, you’ll see zebras, hippos and graceful giraffes at the Akagera National Park.

Nyungwe is Africa’s largest protected mountain rainforest and home to 13 species of primates (apparently a world-record), including baboons, chimps and golden monkeys. It is also home to 280 species of birds and the sources of the Nile and Congo. The highlight for me at Nyungwe was the most stunning night-sky I’d witnessed. With no light emitting from the earth’s surface from our vantage point, the sky was a blanket of flickering stars. I saw for the first time the Milky Way’s star clouds as well as the Southern Cross.

Moto-polo by the airport

Author playing moto-polo. Photo credit Rieke Weel

Americans and Europeans battle it out for continental moto-polo supremacy after each umuganda, a morning of community service on the last Saturday of each month. My team has dressed in suits as the Reservoir Dogs. I’ve also dressed us in skull caps and Rwandese kurtas, attired to wage valiant jihad on Team America. Players wield their batons as their professional motorcycle taxi-drivers disobey orders to stop, start, turn left, turn right. No-one gets injured, unless they’re drunk and Irish. Europe doesn’t win.

Imaduddin Ahmed assists the Rwandan government in negotiating power & other PPP transactions. Follow him on Twitter @ImadAhmed.

The article appeared in The Friday Times under the headline Hotel Rwanda

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