Rwanda is also known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’, which is an apt description of the country’s rolling, hilly landscape. This relatively small country wedged between Uganda and Tanzania does house plenty of unique wildlife that live in pockets of jungle nestled within the country’s highland areas. While Rwanda’s poster child may be the majestic mountain gorilla, this small landlocked country is also home to a rich variety of African wildlife as well, making it a very convenient place to spot more animals in a smaller land area.
The country hosts three national parks, each with its own unique wildlife and safari experiences. The most famous is perhaps Volcanoes National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorillas, nestled in the misty mountains of the volcanic Virunga mountains.
In addition to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda has two other parks: Nyungwe National Park, which is home to chimpanzees and colobus monkeys; and Akagera National Park, a classic safari park that’s home to the Big Five.
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Volcanoes National Park, also known as “Parc National de Volcans” in Rwanda, is situated in the Virunga Mountains with its eight ancient volcanoes, along the border shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While a visit to the mountain gorillas is often at the top of the to-do list for any visitor, the dramatic landscape also offers thrilling hiking and visits to the fascinating golden monkeys.
When it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s hard to beat walking into a gorilla den, and spending an hour in the life of these magnificent creatures. Thanks to the effort and research by the late Dian Fossey, the plight of mountain gorillas has reached the world stage. These gentle, lumbering giants are now the poster children for tourism to Rwanda, home of some of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.
With a population of about 800 members scattered across Volcanoes National Park which extends into neighbouring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – an area that has sadly seen a lot human violence from which the gorillas have not escaped unscathed – visiting these gorillas requires an extensive trek through thick volcanic forest.
Volcanoes National Park lies to the north of Rwanda, about two hours’ drive from the capital, Kigali. Most visitors spend the night at Kinigi, where a number of lodges – including luxury options – cater specifically to gorilla trekkers. Located at an altitude of over 1,500m, nighttime temperatures can dip pretty low, so most of these lodges feature rustic fireplaces.
Tracking gorillas may take anything from 3 hours to a whole day depending on where they forage, and each hiking group is allowed to remain with the gorillas for up to 1 hour. Guides give a pre-trek briefing on specific protocols and rules for visiting the gorillas that live within an altitude of 2,500 and 4,000m.
Here, trekkers of all ages and abilities are segregated into groups of 8 hikers per guide, each assigned to one of 10 gorilla families which they are guaranteed to see. Each family of gorillas is unique; the Susa group has the most members at 38, while the 17-member Sabyinyo group – the easiest to find – is led by the park’s largest silverback, Guhonda who weighs 220kg. Then there’s the Amahoro group, with 19 members led by a gentle giant called Ubumwe.
Groups are then driven to their respective trailheads (each gorilla group inhabits a different mountain area) accompanied by two armed guards to protect from wild elephants and buffaloes (encounters are rare). Porters can be hired at the trailhead (US$10) – in addition to pack-carrying, they help identify stinging plants which you’ll want to avoid.
The terrain consists of thick jungle, open grassland, shady bamboo groves, dotted with stinging nettle bushes. There are no real trails – most of the time, rangers would hack a jungle path with machetes.
Each gorilla group has a team of dedicated trackers who spend much of their time in the presence of their charges, protecting them from potential poachers, and informing guides of their locations.
As gorillas love eating bamboos, it’s no surprise that they can be found in thick groves. The park guides will lead groups right into the heart of a gorilla den where you can spot gorillas of all ages everywhere you look. They may be grooming, sleeping, feeding, or simply playing around.
All the gorilla groups in the park are semi-habituated to human company, making it safe for visitors to gawk at them up close. While you can get close (the rule mandates a 7m distance), touching them is strictly prohibited.
Young males boast their strength by snapping tough bamboo stalks as easily as you’d snap a toothpick. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a drunk young male gorilla charging towards you from the bushes as he thumps his chest. Apparently, when gorillas eat bamboo, they get into a drunken state. This is where the experienced trackers come in handy.
At times, you may find huge silverbacks charging at each other to assert dominance – it’s adrenaline-charged moments like these that make the encounter so special. Thankfully, no visitor has ever been harmed by gorillas in the 20+ years they’ve run this gorilla trekking programme.
You can trek with gorillas year round, although during the wet season the terrain becomes a series of muddy trails. In addition to sturdy hiking boots, it’s recommended to wear long trousers and shirts when hiking to avoid nettle stings (it’s a common occurrence).
A gorilla trekking permit (US$1,500 per person) requires booking in advance, as only 80 hikers are allowed per day.
Once you’ve done the gorilla programme, you can also hike through airy bamboo forests to find the charming Golden Monkey (cost: US$100), or take a beautiful yet challenging hike to 3,000 meters up the slopes of Mount Bisoke along the ‘Dian Fossey Tomb Trail’ (cost: US$75).
The term ‘silverback’ only applies to male gorillas when they reach the age of 13 when the hair on their backs turn white, hence the term. When you have a number of silverback males in a group, it’s inevitable that there would be a fight to be the top, or a fight to take a handful of females to form a separate group.
This is how many of the gorilla groups have formed – with males separating from their former packs to form their own group of 10 or so apes.
As each group is heavily monitored, newborn gorillas are celebrated annually at the park, during a ceremony called Kwita Izina (held in September) when they are given official names.
NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK
In the southwest corner of Rwanda, Nyungwe Forest National Park is a vast untouched tropical rainforest with a high, dense canopy. It is a vast tropical rainforest that includes the largest swathe of remaining montane forest in East and Central Africa. This dense forest is filled with tall mahoganies, ebonies and giant ferns harbouring a spectacular biodiversity including hundreds of bird species, and over 75 different species of mammals – including 13 primates (about a quarter of all Africa’s primates).
To get a real sense of the scale of Nyungwe, try East Africa’s highest Canopy Walk (Cost: US$60 per person) with a metal bridge suspended 50 metres above the forest. You can go hiking or even biking the beautiful terrain, tracking chimpanzees, spotting beautiful birds, or simply relax by the waterfalls.
While there are 13 species of primates here, the most popular are the chimpanzees. Nyungwe is home to one of East Africa’s last intact populations and boasts two wild chimp communities that welcome guests (one in Cyamdungo and other around Uwinka).
Tours start very early, with chimps tracked in groups of 8 hikers, and one hour is allotted with these primates once they’re found. Chimps are harder to track than gorillas, as they often remain in dense forest; however it’s slightly easier to find them during summer when the park’s trees are in full bloom.
Other primates include the l’Hoest’s monkeys, which can be seen ambling along the roadside on the way into the park. You can also go trekking to see grey-cheeked mangabeys and the Rwenzori colobus monkeys, which can be found in troops of hundreds. The black-and-white colobus monkeys favour the forests surrounding the tea plantations that the park borders.
Forest Hiking and Birdwatching
The Park has over 130kms of hiking trails that last anywhere from one to eight hours. These include the 1-hour Igishigishigi Trail that leads to the Canopy Walk, and the 6-hour long Bigugu Trail that leads you to the park’s highest mountain at 2,950m.
With over 300 species, it’s not too difficult to spot the park’s birdlife, including giant hornbills, great blue turacos, and the red-breasted sparrowhawks. There are 27 birds endemic to this section of the Albertine Rift Valley.
Park entrance fees into Nyungwe National Park are US$40 per person per day, with chimpanzee tracking fees at US$90 per person.
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK
Akagera National Park is located in the north east of Rwanda along the border with Tanzania. Complementing the habitats of Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe National Park, Akagera is the only protected savannah in Rwanda. Bordered along Lake Ihema, the park consists of scattered grassland, swamp-fringed lake, and rolling hills of acacia and woodland.
The park is the only refuge for plains game, including the savanna elephant, zebra, giraffe, impala, topi, oribi, and eland. Primates like olive baboons and vervet monkeys are common, while the blue monkey is more secretive.
In addition to wildlife watching, visitors can also take part in sport fishing on Lake Shakani where you can spend a relaxing day fishing off the lakeshore and then cook your catch over an open fire at the campsite.
Akagera is the only home in Rwanda for the Big Five, featuring the world’s biggest mammals which were historically sought after by traditional hunters for their meat, hides, and skins. The Big Five include elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions, and leopards; seven lions were introduced in 2015, and 18 eastern black rhinos were re-introduced in May 2017.
There are 2 main ways to explore the park: a game drive and a boat trip. The park management has vehicles available to hire for game drives that come with their own driver and guide, and a choice of half day or full day drives. You can also go on a self drive around the park – guides are available for hire to accompany your drive. The game drive will take you across the park, crossing a variety of habitats where you can catch sight of a number of antelope species, as well as zebras and elephants.
One elephant in particular is well-known across Rwanda: Mutware is the grumpy old man of Akagera – at 50 years old, he can be calm but can also be anti-social and your guide is likely to change direction should you encounter him on a drive.
Night drives yield sightings of bushbabies, while birding safaris are tailored to birdwatchers who may spot up to 500 bird species – especially waterfowl – that call this park home.
Boat trips on Lake Ihema take you past hippos and large waterfowl colonies, making it the easiest way to spot cormorants, maribou storks, cranes, and fishing eagles. It’s definitely a must for birdwatchers – you may also spot the elusive shoebill stork. It is, however, not difficult to see hippos taking a dip along the lakeshore.
Entry fees for the park are US$35 per person per day, and US$7.50 per car for a self-drive safari. Guided safari drives – which includes the vehicle, driver and guide – cost US$175 for a half day (5 hrs) and US$275 for a full day. A one-hour boat trip on Lake Ihema costs US$30 (US$40 for evening ride).