Animal kingdoms: Rwanda and Burundi

The gorillas are the stars, but there’s more to Rwanda: head south for regal history and – in neighbouring Burundi – hip-swinging nightlife

7 mins

The first sign we were getting nearer was the stench. Gorilla pee is not the most attractive of aromas but, smell it, and you know you’re close.

We’d ditched our bags and were proceeding in silence through a bamboo thicket, the sky obscured by its thick fronds. Carrying just cameras, all eight of us were a little nervous. Then a sudden thrashing immediately above my head sent my pulse leaping – was a gorilla about to drop on top of me?

But he didn’t penetrate the canopy, crashing off to my right instead. However, within moments, we found Gukonda, the park’s largest silverback – all 120kg of him. Officially you’re not supposed to get closer than 7m, but the only way past him was the trail we were on. That took us within a metre...

He looked on serenely as, first, we went slightly crazy with our cameras, and then crouched dumbfounded, eyeball to eyeball with this almost motionless giant – all huge, dark, disdainful eyes, vast black hands and thick hairy shoulders. This was my first encounter with mountain gorillas, but not with Rwanda. I lived there in 1987 as an 18-year-old volunteer teacher. Back then, no one had really heard of the place. The gorillas were the sole tourist draw, but few visited them. How things have changed.

The gorillas now rank as one of the world’s ultimate wildlife encounters, and the world certainly knows about Rwanda – the genocide in 1994 ensured that. Many tourists still associate the country with only these two things: they fly in, ‘do’ the gorillas, fly out, maybe stopping off to visit the moving Genocide Memorial Centre on the way back to the airport.

But my return visit – from gorilla-stalked Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda’s far north to the ancient royal capital of Nyanza in the south, then over the border to neighbouring Burundi, ending on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – proved there’s far more to see in this largely unvisited part of Africa.

Down with the tribe

On my second morning in Volcanoes National Park I was up early to hunt for a much smaller endangered primate – one that receives far fewer visitors. Golden monkeys are only found here and across the borders in adjoining Congo and Uganda; if it wasn’t for their bigger cousins, these striking creatures would be the stars of the show.

We picked our way around farm plots before crossing into the National Park to trek for about an hour along squelchy trails skirting fresh piles of wild buffalo dung. While the gorillas had been pretty disinterested in us, the golden monkeys were curious – bright bundles of gold and black fur clattering through the bamboo. We spent a fascinating hour surrounded by them. There were eight people in our group, just like the day before, but whereas with the gorillas we’d had to stick together for safety reasons, here we could roam freely. It was a very different experience and, in some ways, more rewarding.

One of the reasons primates have fared relatively well in this part of Africa is that locals don’t eat them – there’s no bush meat culture in Rwanda. But monkeys and gorillas used to get caught by mistake. That afternoon I met 66-year-old Leonidas at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. He, along with many of the community, used to make a living illegally trapping wild game in the park – sometimes snaring baby gorillas by mistake. Now the former poachers demonstrate crafts and concoct witch-doctor potions in a mock-up of a traditional village.

Leonidas had the hugest smile and the most remarkable lack of teeth, but he was a dab hand with a bow and arrow; in his time he’d killed over 200 antelope and 15 water buffalo. He tried to teach me but I was absolutely hopeless, failing to hit the target at a paltry 3m. The afternoon concluded with the whole village thumping tribal rhythms on huge drums and performing warrior dances bedecked in swirling head-dresses. A rhythm-free Brit in hiking boots and cagoule, I felt somewhat self-conscious when they dragged me up to join in. But, to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Rwandans love to sing and dance, and their joy was utterly infectious.

Regal Rwanda

Rwanda is a republic, but it has a long history of monarchy. Nyanza, five hours south, was once the seat of the country’s kings, or mwami. The penultimate king, Mwami Rudahigwa Mutara III, built two palaces here; both are now museums. At the Rukari Ancient History Museum, his colonial-era pad is a time capsule of African Art Deco fireplaces and furniture, and faded prints of pith-hatted, moustachioed Belgians sat next to stern-looking Rwandan kings in animal skins.

Mutara III also had a more modern place built nearby. Today the Rwesero Palace houses the Rwanda Modern Art Museum. Tribal huts used to be decorated with intricate, bright mud collages; these traditions were fast disappearing but a recent renaissance in the creative arts, including the re-establishment of an Arts School at nearby Nyundo, is saving such skills. The originality of the pieces on display was brilliant: wildly colourful sculpture, acrylics and collages.

Butare, a further hour south, proved perfect for kicking back. The country’s university town, it’s a sleepy, one-strip place. Locals joke that if former president Habyarimana, assassinated in 1994, returned from the dead, this is where he’d come – unlike in much of the rest of the country, little has changed here.

I browsed for souvenirs at an art cooperative stuffed with baskets and carvings; in the evening I munched pizza and drank chilled beer on the terrace of the Ibis, the town’s oldest hotel: set right on the main strip, it was the perfect spot for some people-watching.

Chimp tramp

Butare might be a bit of a time warp, but in much of Rwanda you sense the momentum. A new generation of Rwandans – many returned exiles – is making ambitious development plans. Tourism is an integral part of the mix.

Nyungwe National Park, several bumpy hours west of Butare, is a great example. This chunk of preserved medium-altitude rainforest is roughly the size of Hampshire and it’s stuffed with species – orchids, birds, primates and reptiles. I met head warden Kambogo Ildephonse there a few days later to continue my quest for rare primates. The park is home to around 500 chimpanzees; two groups have been habituated, making it fairly likely you’ll see them.

We were up very early, bucking along in a 4WD for an hour, watching dawn leak its light into the steep, cloud-strewn valleys. The hike to reach the chimps was short but intense. Kambogo set off up a vertiginous pathway and I immediately struggled to keep up. Rainforest mulch is slippery underfoot. I grasped at creepers; they wobbled and swayed, offering no support. By the time we crested the hill, sweat was dripping from my forehead.

“We’re at 2,600m,” Kambogo smiled. (That might explain it. Nothing whatsoever to do with being unfit...) Kambogo checked in with the trackers on his radio. “The chimps are on the move. We’ll wait and leave the trackers to follow them,” he said. Good idea.

Twenty minutes later, Kambogo’s radio crackled to life. Time to move. Now it was downhill – hard to keep your feet. I opted to hurtle forward, grabbing at trunks to avoid running out of control. We halted and, with a gentle rustle, a tracker materialised from the foliage. We followed him to an opening in the canopy. At first I couldn’t see anything. Then the leaves of a huge fig tree about 50m away shook and a dark hairy head and shoulders appeared. We sat and watched, hoping the chimps would come closer, but they kept their distance, too interested in the figs above.

Nyungwe skywalkers

Protecting rainforest is no easy task. In the afternoon, I visited a new village of mud huts with shiny corrugated iron roofs, built for a Ba’twa pygmy tribe who’d previously lived inside the forest. Chattering kids crowded round, shy and curious at the same time. A couple of women sat on a straw mat smoothing the surfaces of part-made mud pots. We met Antoine, one of the elders. I asked how he felt about the move.

“We’re happy to be in modern houses with roofs that don’t leak,” he smiled. The idea is that selling pots to tourists will provide income to offset the loss of hunting territory. I asked if they were hungry, noting the protruding bellies of several children. “This is a big problem,” he said. “Before, we had more land. Now we are struggling to grow enough food.”

“Part of the problem is lack of tourists,” Kambogo explained. “Not enough people visit, so they don’t sell enough pots.”

The next day we took a rain-spattered walk along one of Nyungwe’s forest trails and watched a huge troop of colobus monkeys thrash through the trees, flashes of black and white bouncing from branch to branch. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of Rwanda’s ambitions for tourism is a new high-level aerial walkway here. Built using state-of-the-art steel, nylon and plastic at a cost of close to one million US dollars, it offers a swooping, vertiginous walk between centuries-old trees, 50m above the ground.

Into the wilder

At Nyungwe, I’d come about as far south from Rwanda’s headline-grabbing gorillas as I could – but one raw and tempting travel possibility remained. During the distant era of colonial rule, Rwanda and its southern neighbour Burundi were defined as a single country – Ruanda-Urundi. Rwanda is relatively well-known these days, but little about Burundi makes the Western media. It’s a blank space on the tourist map, just waiting to be explored...

I’d been staying at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, a stylish new place set in a scenic tea plantation on the outskirts of the forest, and they provided a driver to take me to the border. We left Rwanda, with its new customs office, and headed through no man’s land. At the other side I waited while someone went to find the border guard. He scrutinised my passport for what seemed like an age before stamping it. “Bienvenue au Burundi,” he smiled.

Over the next few days I discovered a country that felt much as Rwanda had many years ago. A two-hour wait between ordering a meal and getting to eat it was not uncommon; a chimp-trekking expedition yielded, well, no chimps; the sights in the capital, Bujumbura, were monuments to people I’d never heard of, guarded by bored policemen.

But what Burundi lacked in sophistication, it more than made up for in other ways. From the moment I crossed the border that fizz of adrenalin at being in uncharted territory kicked in: Burundi felt exciting. And nowhere more so than in ‘Buja’ on a Saturday night. My timing happened to be perfect: in the Havana Bar, on the strip in the centre of town, Kidum – Burundi’s hottest zouk artist – was on stage. It was hot, it was heaving. By the end of the night I’d got the Buja boogie sorted: waggle your bum, hunch your shoulders, rotate your wrists, grin like your head’s going to drop off.

The next day I was rocking in a more gentle manner, on a boat on the riverside at Rusizi National Park, just outside the city. I set off down the wide, brown river with guide Etienne, his gnarled face and tombstone teeth making him seem far older than his 40 years. “You still see crocodiles around here,” he said, “but
they are rare now.”

He was sharp when it came to spotting birds. And there were masses of them: weavers, spoonbills, flamingos, plovers, lapwings and storks flapped and fluttered in front of us, sometimes in huge numbers. And hippos too. A fat, happy family wallowed on a sandbank, hippo-kids looking on with childlike curiosity.

“We don’t go too close when they have babies,” Etienne explained. “Hippos can be pretty unpredictable.”

Then suddenly we came to Lake Tanganyika. The vastness of the water came as a surprise after the enclosed banks we had been drifting along, its scintillating blue a complete contrast to the brown gloop of the river. Somewhere in the distance I could make out the hazy shores of the Congo; in between, a fisherman poled his boat slowly across the water.

It was a scene of serenity, a scene that probably hadn’t changed in decades. And it was here that I decided Rwanda and Burundi made a pretty ideal combination: the frisson of the untamed mixed with the excitement of progress, all warmed by a bundle of dazzling sunlight.

This piece was written memory of Roger Diski (1949-2011), ethical tourism entrepreneur, director of Bridge & Wickers, and a friend of Rwanda

The author travelled with Bridge & Wickers, whose new Africa programme includes tailormade trips throughout the continent

Photographer Dale Morris accompanied Jeremy Head on his trip. Check out images from their trip here.

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