Rwanda: Heart of the Hills
January 1, 1970
by Nelly Makena
I literally left my heart in the hills of Rwanda, in the heart of its myriad hills that fence around the capital in Kigali. Rwanda is a landlocked country and has a very rich green landscape. The gorilla trek is one of the main attractions at the Volcanoes National Park. We visited the country as a family from Kenya 2 years ago for Christmas and in our mapped circuit of the East African countries. Never had I seen a town so clean and orderly on the eastern end of the continent; Friday is their national cleaning day of Rwanda and everyone gets involved!
Back to the trip, we used Kenya Airways and landed at the Kigali airport which is not a very busy place and their service was reasonably fast. Now, if you’re embarking on a trip to Rwanda, do not carry any polythene bags or materials, they take environmental matters very seriously. Use paper bags or cloth bags as the staff will carry out a search at the airport. Thanks to my first campus roommate who is a citizen of the country, I knew of this. We took up accommodation at the Kigali Serena hotel. If you’re on back pack and looking for other options, you can check out a list of them here: Affordable hotels in Rwanda
Once we had lunch, we settled in the hotel and took a tour around it. It’s a spacious hotel with 2 restaurants, a large atrium showcasing cultural artwork, many boardrooms and lush gardens that host events every now and then. There’s a lovely pool deck too, a gym with the Maisha spa & health club and a lovely concierge with very high walls that are embellished with granite.
Brief Town Tour
The next day, we took a cab around town to identify places, landmarks and shopping centres. If you’re a luxury traveller, you will enjoy using the cab company, Limoz Rwanda, that you can hire at the Kigali Serena hotel. We stopped at Union Trade Centre (UTC), which was more like a mini-mall that houses a common supermarket chain in East Africa called Nakumatt. Other than that, it has shops with clothes, African crafts, travel and tour agencies and also restaurants. I found their food rather pricey because we tried a mid-range local restaurant on the ground floor and for a quick lunch-on-the-go, we paid about $35 for four. It was sumptuous and very fresh so you could say that it went well. For a taste of Rwanda coffee, there was the Bourbon coffee shop a few steps from the local restaurant. We grabbed a packet for my aunt who is a keen coffee lover and she has it was intensely tasty, it still tickles her tongue!
Akagera National Park
It was now time to take our trot to the park. We settled on Akagera National Park that’s towards the North East of Rwanda. Volcanoes National Park was too far to the west and being on a 5-day timeline, our bargain was done. Taking a trip from the capital of Kigali is one that is full of swerves due to the mountainous landscape of the country. The cool air and the greenery will distract you well enough though to forget the side swings during the ride. For a little bit of comfort and better maneuvering, consider a four-wheeler. It is a 4-hour drive and we left very early at 6 a.m. with packed lunch. Once we arrived there were many tourists and it took a while to confirm residency and rates, you will need a little patience here. Having a local tour guide or driver will be a source of information as you go through the park. I mean, you need someone who knows the whereabouts, hot spots and all that jazz.
We started by going to Akagera lake (pic above), a lake within the park. It was so crystal clear and you could take a boat ride. The in-roads into and around the park are narrow and bushy, an effort to still maintain the organic preservation of their environment. It is such a silent park and the sound of nature will enthrall you. There are various animals ranging from buffaloes, giraffes, impalas. warthogs, water bucks, zebras and elephants. Ensure that you drive at a reasonably low speed due to the narrow roads and to spot some wildlife from all the bush. At some point we stopped for about fifteen minutes for an elephant and its calf to cross the road, quite a sight to capture. We spent about 4 hours within the park, stopped for lunch at a designated picnic area then got back, an exhausted but happy lot.
Kaplaki Crafts Market
The next day we went to the Kaplaki Crafts Market and the downtown area to get the female national attire of Rwanda called Umushanana. For more information on this traditional lovely dress, follow this link: How to rock Umushanana. At the crafts market, there is a range of woven crafts, african material/clothes/dresses, wall hangings made out of reeds or banana leaves and many more. It’s a lovely place to obtain souvenirs and one of the items that caught my eye was a speaker made to look like a house. See below:
Our final trip was to Lake Kivu which lies on the border between Rwanda and DRC. It was a 2 hour drive and there are more swerves to make in this land of a thousand hills. Lake Kivu is one of the great African lakes and there are a couple of hotels to host you around. We stopped at Lake Kivu Serena hotel, had lunch then went to bask by the beach. The sandy beach by a lake is very different from the ocean. The distance to the water tends to be shorter and the sand isn’t as white but it’s clean.
Other places that you can see around town are the genocide museum, the presidential palace museum, the local Nyabugogo market as well as other art galleries like Inema, Niyo and Ivuka.
Quick pointers: The main languages spoken are English, French and Kinyarwanda. Some of the nationals can speak Swahili. The local currency is the Rwandan franc but you can use the Kenyan shilling or US Dollar. Their staple food consisted of plantain and beans. They also have a maize meal dish called Kaunga, a version of what we call Ugali in Kenya. There’s plenty of beef and chicken as well. On our way back, we transited through Bujumbura airport and got back to Kenya with a bucket load of memories.
Planning a trip to Rwanda? Hope this helps!