“I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

David, my fellow gorilla trekker, has just summed up how you feel, the first time you see a mountain gorilla. High in the bamboo rainforests of northern Rwanda, six overexcited, muddy tourists are squeezed together, trying to stay calm and upright in a tiny forest clearing that has attracted an entire family of apes. 

No-one dares move as the silverback ambles past. He is enormous and, even walking on his knuckles, stands shoulder high. Two young juveniles roll down the muddy slope behind him, ending up in a tangled ball of furry arms and legs.

These are the same muddy slopes trodden by Fossey and Attenborough, who brought gorillas to the world’s attention. They now draw primate pilgrims from across the globe. This rise in tourism, to the tune of $300 million last year alone, is bringing stability and growth. $50 million of this is generated from the sale of the actual gorilla permits, which are the most expensive in the world at $1,500 per person. For this, you get what is surely the quickest 60 minutes of your life, but the most human of all wildlife encounters.

Despite these costs, demand for permits regularly outstrips supply. A handful of sensitively designed, luxury lodges are now catering for the more adventurous, affluent traveller keen to make tentative inroads into Central Africa. With just three national parks, each one completely different and all offering beautiful safari lodges, Rwanda is positioning itself as a luxury wildlife destination. Singita, Wilderness Safaris and One&Only – names long associated with East and Southern Africa – are falling over themselves to gain a foothold here.

If you want a more affordable gorilla experience, then look to Uganda or, when circumstances allow, the DRC. Both are excellent and both are cheaper. But, consequently, they are busier. If you want to avoid the crowds, come to Rwanda.

This is the reason for my visit. As a guest of the Rwanda Development Board, I am exploring what is on offer, beyond the gorillas. My first stop is Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southwest of the country. Full of dazzling birdlife, chameleons and the gorilla’s more raucous cousin, the chimpanzee, the forest here is dark and inviting, with streams and waterfalls adding to the sense of adventure. Tourist numbers here are also strictly limited, with a maximum of just eight people allowed on chimpanzee treks. Yes, the chimps are not as close, but the experience is far more intimate.

Back at the lodge that night, the wonderful One&Only staff are engaging and welcoming, offering mouth-watering dishes served up with never-ending drinks. Despite these luxuries, nature still rules supreme and a spectacular electrical storm lights up the night sky as the power fails for a short while. Ever resourceful, the staff treat me to an impromptu lesson in Kinyarwanda by candlelight.

The following morning, I leave the cool, clear air. I drive through tea plantations, fresh from last night’s storm and head east to Akagera National Park, on the border with Tanzania.

Like Rwanda, Akagera is a success story. Pretty much destroyed during the 1990s, this wild park is now a beautiful wilderness of shimmering lakes, epic savannahs and shady woodland. Imagine a reserve roughly the size of the Masai Mara, but home to just two lodges.

In the afternoon, I take to the largest lake, Ihema, in a small, shaded boat as enormous crocodiles lie camouflaged on the shore and curious hippos bob up and down on the surface, glowing in the setting sun. After a night spent around the campfire watching stars reflected in the lake, I follow a ridge through the centre of the park, passing swamps and springs, which opens out onto sweeping plains, ringed by a series of low mountains.

Taking its name from the Kagera River that forms the border with Tanzania, this is now Big Five territory. Currently run by conservation NGO African Parks, here you find rhinos hiding in the shadows, lions stalking the plains and rare shoebill storks hunting in the marshes.

Towers of giraffes glide past in slow motion as sitatungas graze in the marshes. My presence startles a flock of grey-crowned cranes, which take flight. Leaving the savannah behind, I continue north, through a series of spectacular switchbacks, winding through fertile valleys, with banana and avocado plantations bursting from the dark, rich soil.

A series of endless hills fade into the distance like rolling green waves against a bright blue sky. It is mesmerizing. You never realise why Rwanda is called “Land of a Thousand Hills” until you are driving through them.

As I pass through smaller villages, some of the homes are decorated with striking red and black geometric designs, called “imigongo”, believed to possess magic powers of protection. It is Sunday, so the streets are filled with people in their Sunday best. Seeming to hover above these crowds are the ubiquitous “agaseke” peace baskets, balanced beautifully atop heads, filled with gifts.

This tiny kingdom has a big heart and big aspirations. I am struck by the fact that, despite huge investment and grand initiatives, Rwanda never loses sight of itself. Throughout my journey, everyone I speak to is immensely proud of a shared Rwandan identity.

Offering premium experiences at a high cost in a country such as Rwanda, will always attract a degree of criticism, but as in Botswana, high-yield, low-impact tourism is working. For the first time since records began, the mountain gorilla population has surpassed 1,000 individuals. There is free education and healthcare for everyone. Given where Rwanda was less than 25 years ago, this turnaround is nothing short of remarkable.

I contemplate this as I climb a hill behind my lodge, that evening. Mountains cast shadows on the quiet valleys below, their peaks gathering clouds in the setting sun.

It is time to rethink this beautiful, gentle country. Daily life here is still hard for many, but tourism continues to bring opportunities. There is a famous Kinyarwanda proverb: “Even climbing a small hill brings you to a higher point.*”

By that reckoning, the harder the climb, the better the view. Given the transformation taking place here and sitting atop this particular hill, to me, Rwanda looks spectacular.

*Agasozi kagufi kagushyikiriza akarekare

Thanks for reading

Chris Johnston

Author: Chris Johnston