Rwanda Trip Summary and Travel Information
This is the report and information I filed following our visit to Rwanda in 2007.
Our main goal when planning our first Africa trip was actually a Tanzania safari, but you never know when you’re gonna get back to these places, so we decided to add a mountain gorilla visit. That meant flying to Uganda or Rwanda, and we’re now glad we chose the latter.
Rwanda is a beautiful country, with little evidence of the bloodshed and violence that occurred in the 1990s (outside of the occasional memorial). The people are warm and friendly, and we felt quite safe and welcome.
Below, you will find information about our stay, including our guide, lodging, and most importantly, the gorilla and golden monkey trekking in Parc National Des Volcans.
Parc National des Volcans: Mountain Gorilla and Golden Monkey Trekking
Visiting Rwanda’s mountain gorillas is a truly special experience, and probably the chief reason tourists come to this country. Mountain gorillas are endangered, and they don’t adapt well to captivity, so the only place to see them is in the wild of Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo.
Gorilla trekking is not cheap. Permits cost $500 per person per day. You should apply for permits well in advance, especially if you plan on traveling during the high tourist season (summer or over the winter holidays). It’s easiest to arrange the procurement of permits through your guide or tour operator. A gorilla visit lasts only one hour, due to the need to prevent the gorillas from too much human exposure. Still, the hour-long session goes by slowly. I never felt rushed or shorted.
Depending on the gorilla group you are assigned to, trekking can take anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours each way. The terrain can also vary, with steep, muddy terrain a distinct possibility. We saw a couple folks wearing nice new white running shoes… not a good idea. You may also have to do some bushwhacking through dense thicket, so it’s best to pack your gear away so that camera straps, etc. aren’t getting caught on branches every other minute. Porters are available to carry your bags if necessary (be prepared to tip them if you do need their help). Walking sticks are provided and nice to have during a muddy climb. Bring water and food to snack on.
Once you approach the gorillas, you must leave all your bags behind with the porters and rangers. Make sure you don’t leave any valuables behind. Bring all the camera equipment you need for the hour-long session, and remember, no movies and no flash!
Monkey trekking is generally easier than hiking to the gorillas. However, photography is much more difficult. The monkeys are often found in dense bamboo forests (the bamboo shoots are a food staple). The lack of light and tightly packed bamboo make it very difficult to get clear, well-exposed shots of the monkeys, which don’t help matters by hopping around at great speeds. Flash is allowed here, and is necessary. Unlike the gorilla experience, the $100 visitation permit for the monkeys seems a bit exessive. Supposedly it is cheaper to see the same species of monkeys in Uganda.
See More Rwanda Photos
More photos from Rwanda will be available soon.
Unless you are traveling overland from Uganda, you probably want to fly to Rwanda. Probably the easiest route is to fly to Kigali from Nairobi on Kenya Airways. At the time of our booking (summer 2007), airfare was about $500r/t.
It is highly recommended that you bring cash and plenty of it. US dollars seem to be good in most places, and come in handy when buying sourvenirs or tipping the various guides and hotel staff you’ll encounter. Tipping amounts vary. You can estimate $10-20/day for hotel staff, $20/day for your guide (if you’re happy with their performance) and $10 each for your gorilla guides and porters (if you use the latter). It adds up rather quickly. In nearly a month in Africa, the $1400 cash we brought with us ended up not being enough, even after making use of a credit card.
Kinyarwanda is the official language of the country, but French has been prominent as a second language for decades due to Belgian colonization. We were told that there is actually a concerted effort to introduce English as a second language, perhaps in an attempt to break from Rwanda’s troubled colonial past. While you can probably get by with English and a little bit of French (especially if you have a guide with you the entire time), it’s always good to know some basics in the primary local language. Everyone appreciates a nice “hello” after all. Here are some essentials:
Muraho – Hello
Amakuru – How are you?
Nimeza – I’m fine
Murakoze – Thank you
Murabeho – Goodbye
Our Guide: Bizidanny Tours
I found Danny Bizimana’s company via an obscure link on the web, and though I had many questions about this less-publicized outfit, we were quite pleased with their service. Based in Kigali, Bizidanny Tours handles everything from airport pickup to lodging reservations. I highly recommend our guide, Amos, who has previously guided Bill and Melinda Gates. Amos was one of the friendliest people we encountered during our entire stay in Africa. His kind, warm demeanor reflects the attitude of his countrymen as well.
A word of warning to those planning a trip: you will be required to wire a deposit to Rwanda if you book with Bizidanny. Though this may be disconcerting to some, our deposit was received with no problems, and overall we found that the Rwanda leg of the trip was a great value compared to other locations in East Africa. You can book a private guide as we did (one is not required to share a vehicle with strangers, though that is cheaper). However, you won’t have a choice when it comes to the gorilla trekking itself, and will likely be grouped with others for the treks.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (this email address can be a bit flaky, it occasionally bounces messages)
Lodging was arranged by our tour guide, and consisted of staying in Kigali after arrival and before departure, and in northern Rwanda for the gorilla trekking.
Novotel Umubano – Once the jewel of Kigali’s hotels, it has since been overtaken by a newer and bigger competitor. However, that doesn’t mean it’s shabby by any means. We were quite impressed by the room and facilities, and the buffet was solid. The hotel also doubles as a sort of athletic club, with an outdoor pool and clay tennis court which are also available to guests. Paid wireless Internet is also available.
Mountain Gorilla Nest Lodge – A sprawling series of cabins and room set along rolling hillsides and under a towering grove of trees. The food (except for breakfast) is served from fixed menu, so it can be hit or miss depending on your tastes. The expansive grounds are well-maintained, the staff can build an outdoor fire as the evening chill sets in, and a local dance troupe entertains guests daily.
What We Packed
This was part of a longer trip that encompassed both Rwanda and Tanzania for nearly a month, so overall we had a lot of gear. Since this trip was planned through tour operators that provided comprehensive service, we opted for duffle bags to pack our clothing and miscellaneous items. These provided adequate storage capacity while still being easy enough to carry on our own in those few moments when we didn’t have porters swarming about.
We brought a small day pack for personal items, which was also used to carry the gear necessary for gorilla and monkey trekking. This pack conveniently attached to one of the photo packs, which made things easier when going through so many airports. My waist pack (see the Photo section) and two photo packs carried the majority of our camera gear for the entire trip.
Recommended Photo Gear
Three bags carried photo gear for the two of us. The Mountainsmith lumbar waist pack worked well as a walking/hiking bag. I carried the necessary gear (two bodies, lenses, flash, accessories, plus water bottles) in this bag during our gorilla and monkey treks. Note that since this trip, I have upgraded to the Think Tank Skin System with the Pixel Racing Harness. I much prefer this over the Mountainsmith bag.
We had two larger photo packs for transporting all of our equipment throughout Rwanda and Tanzania. Jenn used the Photo Trekker AWII camera pack, while I needed to use the larger ThinkTank Airport Addicted bag for my gear.
The 70-200mm 2.8IS and 24-70mm 2.8 lenses were the primary lenses I used for the gorilla and monkey visits. Lenses that let in more light are optimal, especially because you can’t use flash with the gorillas. ISO speeds ranged between 400-1000.
One may run into foul weather when hiking in a cloud/rain forest environment like this. If you don’t want to spend hundreds on a commercial rain cover, consider making your own out of marine grade fabric, or simply use ziploc or plastic bags with some rubber bands.