‘At some point, you realise you are looking at your first gorilla. The moment comes as a complete surprise. The gorilla is all but invisible,’ says Richard Kemp, who recommends Rwanda, a country teeming in nature’s awesome creations and thrilling moments, as the best bet for travel post COVID-19
If you want a once-in-a-lifetime experience to celebrate the end of lockdown and isolation, visit Rwanda, now that the country’s airport has opened a month ago. There’s no need to quarantine if you have an up-to-date COVID-19 test.
Why come? Because Rwanda’s game and gorilla reserves, which have been in lockdown, too, are now open. They have been visitor-free for months, which means one would be seeing the wild without people, seeing animals that have lost the memory of people. This means you can get up, close and personal to game you would normally otherwise never see, only see at a distance, or see from among a crowd of crowded vehicles.
“In Rwanda right now, you are likely to be pretty much alone. As I was. To have one of the most memorable and profound encounters with the wild and wild animals of my life,” says Richard Kemp, director,
Cohort-2 of Oman’s National CEO Programme, who has been instrumental in applying the time-tested leadership qualities of Oman’s leadership for the benefit of Rwanda (Africa). Kemp usually divides his time every year between Oman and Rwanda.
Safe country, welcoming people
“The adage goes, ‘When God sleeps, he rests his head in Rwanda. The country’s fabled thousand hills provide his pillow’. This tells you how beautiful Rwanda really is. Rwanda boasts 4,500m high volcanoes, rift and crater lakes, savannas, the watershed to the Nile and Congo and some of the richest biodiversity anywhere in the world,” Kemp asserts.
Rwanda also straddles Africa’s English- and French-speaking regions. Catholics, Muslims and Protestants live happily side by side. Churches and mosques are everywhere. The country is also completely safe. You can walk the spotless pavements alone, day or night. Rwandans are incredibly welcoming. The country is corruption-free and remarkably efficient. Everything works. Hence its name as the Switzerland of Africa, he observes.
To make the most of a visit, aclimatise in Kigali, Rwanda’s beautiful verdant capital city. Lying two degrees south of the equator, Kigali boasts its beneficial, temperate climate to its elevation, some 1,500m above sea level. This means it may take a day or two for you to catch your breath and usual stamina. The pleasure in Kigali is that everything is al fresco. The standard of service and food second to none and Rwanda has some of the best coffee in the world.
The magic of Akagera
Kemp recommends, “Once you are settled in Rwanda, head to Akagera. Africa’s largest protected wetlands reserve, Akagera lies on the eastern border with Tanzania. Taking its name from the Kagera River, Akagera lies within Rwanda’s savannah zone. The magic of Akagera is that its wildlife is so abundant and its visitors so few, that you could think yourself in ‘Out of Africa’, that time when East Africa’s big game outnumbered its people and truly lorded the plane. Right now, you get to see the game without any crowd.”
Founded in 1934 by the Belgian government. Akagera initially occupied over 2,500 sq. km. of what was then uninhabitable terrain because of the deadly sleeping sickness carried by the tsetse flies infesting the region.
Akagera lost almost two thirds of its extent to farming and all of its lions, rhinos, leopards and elephants. All these species have been introduced, along with non-native Maasai giraffe and are now starting to thrive again. Still comprising 4% of Rwanda at 1,122 sq km, Akagera is also home to 520 bird species, hippos, crocodiles, and every kind of herbivore and ruminant from warthogs, antelopes, gazelle, zebra, buffalo, buck and bock.
One can stay overnight at Akagera in a range of different accommodation, from five-star luxury game hotels to more basic tent camps. Or, one can stay in the nearby town of Kayonza which has a lively bustle to and vibrant street life.
Fabled Mountain Gorillas
Going to Akagera gets your eye in for spotting animals in the wild. And for appreciating just how well animals blend in with their surrounding to become all but invisible. This is also the best possible immersion for getting the most out of seeing Rwanda’s fabled Mountain Gorillas.
Mountain Gorillas inhabit the Virunga Volcano region where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) come together. Not long ago classed as seriously under threat of imminent extinction, Mountain Gorillas are now classed as endangered. This turnaround reflects in part Rwanda’s determination to engage its local community in the protection rather than the slaughter of this remarkable species.
The Virunga National Park has put in place one of the best-managed wildlife conservancies of any national agency anywhere in the world. Visitor numbers are carefully controlled to both minimise impact to habitat and gorilla communities – and also to protect gorillas from dying from human diseases, Kemp points out.
Moment of surprise
To get the best out of a gorilla visit, start the road from Kigali to Musanse pre-dawn, at 04.30. This gives you the best chance of a smooth drive avoiding the slow-moving lorries that otherwise clog the road. With luck, you arrive to see the iconic high volcanoes of Rwanda’s gorilla country wreathed in dawn-lit mist.
Two hours from Kigali, Musanse and its surrounds have every variety of accommodation to suite every budget. The town is the centre of innumerable walks, trails and adventure hikes and rides. It is well worth the stay.
Arrival for a gorilla visit is set at 07.00. Visitors are placed into two groups based on walking fitness. The more demanding walk is five miles round, with a moderate scramble in places. The power of either walk is the way you start in the vivid brightness of a Rwandan village, all colour, noise and movement.
Apparently, gorillas love two foods above all others. They crave fresh bamboo shoots in the rainy season and eucalyptus oil which they strip from under the bark
Cross the boundary wall and you enter another world. It’s not Narnia. But it is just as magical. The bamboo forest is all verdant green in tone, dappled with light and shadow. Everywhere you look the world moves, blending light with leaf, breeze with scent, sound with silence.
Every step now takes you further and further into your own senses. And then, at some point, you realise you are looking at your first gorilla. The moment comes as a complete surprise. The gorilla is all but invisible. A blend of black in the green, an all-but invisible shadow.
As you observe, you realise that the gorillas are both intelligent and profoundly aware. They interact as a real family unit, a team, foraging together, serene and alert, vigilent and playful. At some point it is likely that you will be surrounded by up to 16 individual gorillas, invisible to you but audible, scatterd a few meters away in a ring that completely encircles you.
You are warned not to look any gorilla directly in the eye. Which means taking photos very circumspectly. Your guide does everything to ensure you both see the gorillas up as close as you can while not getting in their way. However, it is not always possible to predict a gorilla’s behaviour.
“What I can promise you is that your visit to the gorillas will stay with you, a part of your mind, a part of your reflection of yourself for ever after. This is why visitors say it is life changing. Being among gorillas opens you to yourself like nothing else on earth,” Kemp asserts.
Rwanda has announced the reopening of tourism activities as well as the resumption of international travel for visitors arriving by scheduled commercial flights as of August 1, 2020.
According to official sources, all travellers arriving in Rwanda must have a negative COVID-19 certificate. The only accepted test is a SARS-CoV 2 Real Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) performed within 120 hours of departure (meaning travellers must be tested and get results within 5 days of their first flight). Other tests, such as Rapid Diagnostics Test (RDTs), are not accepted. A second PCR test will be conducted upon arrival, with results delivered after 24 hours during which time they will remain in designated hotels at their own cost.
“Visitor numbers are strictly limited to 12 per day. Every step of the way from arrival is driven by social distancing safety protocols. Sterile surgical masks are issued on arrival. And re-issued just prior to encountering the gorillas. Seating and standing spaces are marked, hand washing, sanitising and temperature checks take place at every entry and transition point. Shoes are sterilised when entering and leaving forest reserves,” Kemp disclosed.
Airlines servicing Kigali International Airport are: RwandAir, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, KLM, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines.
Helicopter transfers within Rwanda are available through Akagera Aviation.