The EA guide to Rwanda safaris

A Rwanda safari has so much to offer, from chimpanzee tracking and birding safaris, to the ultimate Rwandan experience: gorilla tracking.

There are three main wildlife destinations in Rwanda: Volcanoes National Park, Nyungwe Forest National Park and Akagera National Park. They all offer incredible birdwatching opportunities, but when it comes to wildlife, the options are very different.

In Nyungwe Forest National Park, one of Africa’s oldest forests, there are 85 mammal species, but the main drawcard is 13 different primate species. Chimpanzees, golden monkeys, olive baboons and grey-cheeked mangabeys are just some of the primates you can see here.

All of the Big Five can be spotted at Akagera National Park, along with numerous other species that live in the park, one of the largest protected wetlands in central Africa.

But seeing the mountain gorillas is the most coveted of all experiences in Rwanda.

There are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world: One population lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. The other lives in the Virungas, a chain of forested volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Rwanda, the Virungas gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans).

Because mountain gorillas can’t survive in captivity, the only way you can see these critically endangered animals is to see them in the wild. And because they live in remote, dense forests, it means you need to go on a trek in order to reach them. In some cases you might reach them in less than an hour; on other days you might need to hike for up to eight hours. The scenery’s beautiful, and you’ll have friendly guides and porters who will help you get there!

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The best time to safari in Rwanda

Rwanda safaris can be enjoyed year-round. For most people, however, the best time to visit is during the dry seasons – the short dry season from December to February, and the longer dry season from June to September. The lack of rain encourages animals to congregate at waterholes, meaning it’s easier to spot them when you’re game-viewing in Rwanda’s national parks. The roads are also easier to navigate when they’re dry, and there are fewer mozzies.

The dry season is also definitely the preferable time to visit if your sole purpose of visiting Rwanda is to go on a gorilla trek. The weather is more pleasant during this time and the going is easier. You can track gorillas year-round in Rwanda – don’t let the “long rains” of March to May or the short rains of October to November put you off – this is the time when the gorillas venture down the mountains to get closer to food sources and escape the cool weather, so hiking time is less. But both can bring persistent heavy rains, which make tracking more difficult – and a lot muddier! If you don’t want to see gorillas in the rain, definitely try to avoid going during the long wet season. If you want to track chimpanzees, however, the rainy seasons offer the best chance for success.

Wildlife in Rwanda

Without a doubt, Rwanda is most famous for its population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. They live in Volcanoes National Park, which is also home to, among others, the golden monkey, elephant, buffalo, giant forest hog, bushbuck, black-fronted duiker and around 200 bird species. Elsewhere, if you’re lucky, you can see all of the Big Five at Akagera National Park, as well as Maasai giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, warthog, olive baboon, vervet monkey, hippo, all sorts of antelope and around 480 bird species. There’s also a fantastic range of creatures that can be spotted on a night drive, including genet, civet, white-tailed mongoose, bushbaby, elephant-shrew and various species of owl and nightjar. Bird lovers will also want to visit Nyungwe Forest National Park, one of the top forest ornithological sites in Africa. It’s also home to 85 mammal species, including (rarely seen) leopard, antelope, tree hyrax and 13 primate species, including chimpanzee, olive baboon, owl-faced monkey, Ruwenzori colobus, vervet monkey, L’Hoest’s monkey and silver monkey.

Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park offers one of the most rewarding wildlife experiences on the planet: trekking through stunning rainforest to get up close to mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.

Located in the northwest of the country, Volcanoes National Park spans 160 square kilometres of the Virunga Mountains. Set deep within the mountains but only about two hours’ drive from Kigali International Airport, this is the most accessible national park in the world where you can experience a life-changing adventure with the critically endangered mountain gorillas. There are only around 1,000 of these magnificent animals left in the world – and around 480 of them live in Rwanda. Spending time with these magnificent animals in their natural environment is a precious, unforgettable experience that few people will get to cherish.

Tracking the gorillas can be done all year-round in Rwanda, but there’s a limited number of permits, so be sure to secure your booking early as demand is usually high. There are 10 habituated gorilla troops in Rwanda and eight permits allocated per group, making 80 permits available per day. Permits are more expensive in Rwanda than they are in Uganda or Democratic Republic of the Congo, but on the plus side the forest is usually easier to navigate here. You don’t need to be super-fit to hike, but it’s hot and humid, the forest is quite thick and it can get steep in parts. However the pace is slow and steady, so it’s “do-able” for most people – and there are always porters available to carry you up and down if you really need some help! Depending on where the gorillas are on the mountain, you could trek for just an hour, or for as long as seven or eight hours.

Besides gorillas, Volcanoes National Park is also a home for the golden monkey, elephant, buffalo, spotted hyena, black-fronted duiker, bushbuck and giant forest hog, as well as around 200 bird species and a variety of reptiles and amphibians.

There are other amazing activities to enjoy in the park, including visiting the magnificent, oh-so-photogenic twin lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera; and hiking Mount Karisimbi (3,800m) and Mount Bisoke (3,711m), two of the park’s five spectacular volcanoes. Mount Bisoke, also known as Visoke, is an extinct volcano that offers a tough hike along steep slopes covered with dense equatorial rainforest and alpine meadows. The excursion, which takes five to six hours, is worth every moment. The summit is often shrouded in fog and when it clears, the views of Mount Bisoke’s crater lake are phenomenal.

Hardcore hikers can also pay homage to famous mountain gorilla researcher, Dian Fossey, by making the pilgrimage to her remote grave. It’s located high in the mountains, at the former research station where Dian worked. She was murdered here in 1985 and is buried next to the grave of her favourite gorilla, Digit. It’s very off the beaten path and few visitors make the challenging, long (about five hours) and extremely scenic hike to get here. Those who do will find a simple monument inscribed with the words: No one loved gorillas more. Rest in peace, dear friend.

If you’re lucky enough to experience an unforgettable primate safari in Rwanda, make sure you take good walking shoes; wear gardening gloves and cover up to protect yourself from the stinging flora; and pack a waterproof jacket, as it’s often muddy and wet. And don’t forget a small waterproof backpack for your camera.

Lake Kivu

About half of Rwanda’s western side is bounded by Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes. It’s the largest lake in Rwanda, and the sixth-largest lake in all of Africa. Lake Kivu actually lies on the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is one of a string of enormous freshwater lakes that lie along Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

A visit to the lake is a welcome respite after a gorilla trek and time spent hiking in the mountains of Rwanda. There are three main towns along the lakeshore – Cyangugu in the south, Kibuye in the middle and Gisenyi to the north – and driving between the towns (roughly 3-4 hours from each other) is a lovely way to explore the area. And if you’re travelling between Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe Forest National Park, Lake Kivu makes for the perfect stop en route.

As the lake attracts a number of tourists and Rwandan holidaymakers, the level of accommodation here is generally of a better standard than in the national parks. The views from the many hotels and guesthouses across the palm-fringed lake are lovely, with little sandy beaches and grassy banks leading down to the shore. In Gisyeni you can pay a visit to local hot springs that locals believe have healing powers, while in Kibuye you can take a boat cruise to some of the islands of Lake Kivu.

Nyungwe Forest National Park

Another prime adventure on a Rwanda safari holiday is trekking to see chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park. Believed to be one of Africa’s oldest forests, this tree-covered paradise offers the opportunity to see no fewer than 13 different primate species, including the most famous of them all, the chimpanzee.

The chimps live in two habituated groups in a region that’s difficult to access, but perfect for travellers seeking a challenge. It’s essential to book in advance in order to secure a highly qualified local guide and ranger, who will escort you and your fellow primate enthusiasts to see these intriguing animals. It’s an experience that will stay with you forever.

Other primates in Nyungwe Forest National Park include golden monkeys, Ruwenzori colobus monkeys with their distinctive black-and-white faces, L’Hoest monkeys, silver monkeys, owl-faced monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, Dent’s Mona monkeys, crowned monkeys, vervet monkeys, olive baboons and grey-cheeked mangabeys.

There are more than 85 mammals in the park, which is considered one of the most biodiverse spaces in Rwanda. As well as leopard (this is the only member of the Big Five that you’ll find in the park, and even then only rarely), there are many different types of antelope and also the tree hyrax – kind of like a guinea pig, but with an eerie screech. It’s also a top birdwatching spot – more than 300 species have been recorded here, including 16 endemics – and at least 1,050 plant species can be found in Nyungwe Forest National Park.

Aside from the forest’s incredible flora and fauna, Nyungwe boasts the most stunning waterfalls in Rwanda. They’re accessible via a 10-kilometre trail through the heart of the rainforest. Also worth doing is the Canopy Walk, which has been built some 50 metres above the ground. From a 90-metre-long platform you can enjoy views of the massive forests and stunning, mist-shrouded valleys.

Akagera National Park

Located at the eastern edge of Rwanda, the Akagera National Park shares a border with Tanzania. Covering about 1,140 square kilometres, it’s named after the Akagera River that flows along the eastern boundary of the park, feeding into a labyrinth of lakes dominated by Lake Ihema.

Established in 1934, the park’s been through a great deal with land encroachment and poaching, but since 2010, a joint venture with African Parks has seen it return to its former glory. Just a couple of decades ago the game reserve looked like it could have been lost forever, but today, it’s one of the largest protected wetlands in central Africa and virtually unrecognisable.

It’s a unique ecosystem filled with forest-fringed lakes, savannah plains, rolling highlands and papyrus swamps. It’s easily explored by boat, and its lakes are home to a huge variety of waterbirds – including the sought-after shoebill stork – plus plenty of crocs and hippo. The park is also home to elusive species such as the sitatunga and topi antelope, as well as Maasai giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, warthog, olive baboon, vervet monkey, waterbuck, jackal, hyena, numerous types of antelope and nearly 500 bird species.

This is Rwanda’s only Big Five destination, so you can also see populations of lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino and buffalo.

Kigali

If you’re heading to Rwanda for a safari holiday, it’s highly likely you’ll kickstart things in Kigali. Blessed with a moderate, high-altitude climate that belies its tropical location, Kigali sits roughly in the centre of Rwanda. It’s a brilliant base for exploring the country’s greatest attractions, which are all located within about three hours’ drive.

Among the safest and friendliest of all African capitals, Kigali is quite the cosmopolitan city and positively buzzes with energy. There are skyscrapers, modern buildings and a well-developed infrastructure, as well as an efficient international airport and 24/7 transport options. And, unlike many cities in Africa, there’s a lot of discipline on the roads: traffic runs pretty smoothly here.

All these concessions to modernity provide a contrast to the lush scenery of the surrounding hills. Kigali still retains the feel of a garden city and has a satisfyingly organic shape, dictated by the verdant hills and valleys over which it sprawls. The views are superb, there are lots of trees and green spaces throughout the city, and you’ll be blown away by how clean the streets are. It’s thanks to a practice called Umuganda – a nationwide community work day that takes place from 8am to 11am on the last Saturday of every month. All able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 hit the streets to help out with anything from cutting grass, planting trees and repairing public buildings, to digging ditches, sweeping streets and building schools and housing for people in need. The practice has existed in Rwandan culture for many years, dating back to the pre-colonial period, but is now mandatory. The goal of this community cleanup is to promote unity and reconciliation in a society that’s been devastated by conflict, genocide and poverty. And it’s had spectacular results. In the quarter-century since the Rwandan Genocide, Kigali has been reborn as one of the safest and most well-organised cities on the continent, and is often called the cleanest city in Africa.

A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a must for anyone visiting the city for the first time. It’s a sobering, truly moving reminder of the past – and what must never happen again. There are contemporary art galleries and museums, great coffeehouses, a range of hotels catering to all tastes and budgets, and an assortment of restaurants offering international and authentic local flavours (don’t miss the chance to eat at the appropriately named Heaven). The compact, low-rise city centre surrounds a busy, colourful market studded with souvenir stalls where you’ll find a wide range of lovingly executed local crafts. Abutting the city centre is an atmospheric Muslim quarter that’s well worth a visit, and you can also explore the network of leafy avenues that wind out of the town centre into the surrounding residential suburbs.

This is definitely a city where, if you have the time, you can spend a couple of days rather than just pass through.

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