Rwanda is a tiny country in the mountains of east central Africa just south of the equator. It borders Tanzania on the East, Uganda on the north, Zaire and Lake Kivu on the West and Burundi on the South. Rwanda’s land area of 26, 340 sq kms (10, 290 sq miles) is only about the size of some of East Africa’s larger national parks, but with over six million people it has the highest population density on the African continent.
Rwanda’s best known attraction is the gorilla tracking in the famous Parc National des Volcans and mountain Gorillas also there is a variety of wildlife at Akagera National Park.
The great volcanic massif of the Virunga Mountains straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, covering a huge area of over 8,000km², and encompassing six active and three extinct volcanoes. Much of this is protected by national parks, including the Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans) on the Rwanda side, which was made famous by Dian Fossey’s work, and the film Gorillas in the Mist. More than half of the world’s last mountain gorillas live here – about 350 of them – and at present it’s probably the best place in Africa for a mountain gorilla safari.
Even without the mountain gorillas, this park would be fascinating. Its altitude ranges from about 2,500m to the peak of Karisimbi, at 4,500m, resulting in extensive bamboo forests, and some of the last remaining afro-montane forest habitat on the planet. Quite apart from the mountain gorillas, it harbours a spectacular array of rare and endangered animals and plants.
There is a variety of other primates, including the endemic golden monkeys, plus forest elephants, buffalo, giant forest hogs (Africa’s largest swine), bushpigs, bushbucks, black-fronted duikers, spotted hyenas, and around 200 species of birds. On the higher slopes you’ll find an almost otherworldly habitat of thick moors with endemic giant lobelia and groundsel.
In the southwest of Rwanda, Nyungwe Forest National Park is an enormous tropical forest with a high canopy. Access is easy, but start on one of the guided walking/hiking trails and you’ll rapidly realise just how big it is. Tall old mahoganies, ebonies and giant tree ferns tower above you, whilst orchids and other epiphytes cling to every branch. Brightly coloured birds flit around, butterflies are everywhere, and walking quietly you may encounter larger forest residents.Nyungwe Forest is, in fact, the largest swathe of montane forest left in East or Central Africa. It harbours about 275 different birds, hundreds of butterflies and orchids, and over 75 different species of mammals – including 13 primates (about a quarter of all Africa’s primates).
The forest walks here are excellent, lasting from one to six or seven hours. We can arrange for you to track chimpanzees, or search for Ruwenzori colobus monkeys, which can be found here in troupes of several hundred. Other primates such as the l’Hoest’s monkey and the grey-cheeked mangabey are often sighted as well. The birds are spectacular, though as in most tropical forests, you’ll have to look hard for them. Giant hornbills, great blue turacos and red-breasted sparrowhawks are amongst the specials, of which 24 are endemic to this section of the Rift Valley.
Bordering Tanzania, Akagera National Park covers about 900km² of fairly low-lying grasslands and woodlands, similar in feel to the ‘traditional’ safari areas of East Africa. To the west of these plains is an adjacent range of mountains, whilst to the east the Akagera River feeds into a series of lakes, marshes and papyrus swamps. So for a fairly small park, there is a wide variety of habitats and some lovely scenery.
The game includes most of the usual plains species. Impala and topi (known as tsessebe in Southern Africa) seem to be dominant, with eland, oribi, Masai giraffe, Defassa waterbuck, reedbuck, bushbuck, sable and roan antelope also present. Burchall’s zebra, buffalo, hippo and crocodile are commonly seen whilst game viewing; elephant are more restricted. A rare sighting would be lion and sitatunga which are present but restricted to more inaccessible areas.
Birding is especially good with savannah birds and raptors being prevelant and several endemic species such as the red-faced barbet are often seen. Short boat trips are available which will give you the opportunity to get close to the plentiful waterbirds including numerous African fish eagles, marabou stork, crowned cranes, open-billed stork, cormorants, herons and egrets. If you are lucky you may even get to see the elusive shoebill stork. Game densities aren’t high, but you’ll see plenty in a day or two, and pleasantly few other visitors, so it’s worth the drive from Kigali to get here.
Rwanda is a small country, with its modern capital, Kigali, at the centre. From here the roads radiate outwards, like the spokes of a wheel, and hence you’ll occasionally spend a night here as part of any itinerary.
It gets relatively few tourists, so don’t expect organized attractions. Instead take a stroll around one or two of its lively markets, you’ll usually be met with great friendliness; or visit the new, very insightful and moving Kigali Genocide Museum.
The physical and spiritual backbone of the country is Lake Malawi, stretching for over 300 miles and covering more than 20% of the country in water. These clear, mineral-rich waters teem with countless, brightly coloured cichlid fish, many of which are endemic.
Many of the lodges around the lake offer diving and snorkelling. The diving in Lake Malawi is not comparable to diving around exotic coral reefs however it does offer you the unique experience of swimming in fresh water.Although extremely rare, hippos and crocodiles have been sighted in the lake.
Looking along the lakeshore there are many places to stay. We have concentrated on the best, which are all tucked into secluded coves, on rocky islands and along the lake’s golden beaches. These are perfect destinations in themselves, each offering a range of activities, or make thoroughly relaxing beach retreats after a safari holiday in Zambia.