The Land Of A Thousand Hills
I recently guided a trip to Rwanda to see the Mountain Gorillas and wanted to share my personal experience of travelling in the wake of global COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. Below I document the protocols, rules, and regulations which I encountered across countries, airlines, properties and wildlife experiences.
At the time of travel, Rwanda’s entry requirement included proof of a negative PCR test, and completion of an online form.
On arrival in Kigali, the greeter took our passports and pulled up our details, including passport number and hometowns. We also needed to show a paper copy of our hotel confirmation. Immediately after this, we were taken for PCR tests, which took under 30 minutes. I was impressed with the efficiency of the arrivals process before transferring to Mille Collines Hotel for the night to await our results. After about 6 hours our negative results were back, and we were able to embark safely on our trip.
That afternoon I took my guests to the Genocide Museum, a place of remembrance, reflection, and learning, to honour the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The next day was an early start in the Land Cruiser with a 3-hour drive to Musanze town. We stopped at the halfway point to eat the local potatoes and buy the famous Acabanga chilli sauce, before heading back out along the Land of a Thousand Hills.
We reached the Sabyinyo Silverback lodge in time for delicious lunch and a well-deserved rest in the afternoon. Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is tucked high into the foothills of the Virunga Mountain Range located in northwest Rwanda, in the Parc National Des Volcans. With the main lodge and eight sleeping rooms, it is the perfect location to enjoy gorilla trekking. This luxury location is Rwanda’s first-ever community-owned lodge and is run by a community trust called SACOLA, which uses income from its operation to finance socio-economic development and mountain gorilla conservation projects in the area. The lodge had all COVID-19 protocols in place, with temperatures being checked and hand sanitizer used.
The following day we were happily awakened with a cup of Rwanda’s finest coffee and bright blue skies, which is rare in May. After packing a picnic lunch and getting our gaiters fitted, we set off for the Gorilla HQ. Each group is assigned a gorilla family that they will be trekking and observing.
A few years back, I spent six months living in Musanze and have been lucky enough to do over fifteen treks. The groups have always been full, with eight guests and a guide. However, due to the pandemic, group numbers are smaller. Our private trek included my four guests and myself.
We left the HQ and headed up into the mountains, driving for a short time and then out of the car and on foot up into the thick beautiful tropical mountain forests. We walked past elephant dung and signs of bush pig and buffalo. After 45 mins of trekking, we were told we had reached the Umubano gorilla family. The Umubano gorilla family is a group of 13 with two silverbacks. This group was part of the another group - the Amahoro group - until it broke away, forming its own family.
We walked into the bamboo forest, putting our bags down, protective face masks on and cameras out, excited to see what the gorillas were up to. At this time of year there are new bamboo shoots growing, which are a favorite of the gorillas. Their high sugar content makes the gorillas slightly more energetic or “drunk”, as they say in Rwanda.
We spent an hour photographing the family and jumping out the way as they bustled around, especially the little ones which are curious and inquisitive.
It truly is a bucket list experience to be so close to such powerful animals. As it always does, the hour rushed by, and a thousand pictures later, we were on our way back down the mountain.
Everyone was in high spirits from such an amazing viewing. I still couldn’t believe how lucky we were with the sunny skies, warm weather, and no need for a jumper, which is crazy at ten thousand feet in the rainforest.
We arrived back at the lodge 45 minutes later for a well-deserved beer and feet-up to watch a beautiful sunset over Mount Karisimbi. We headed in for an early night knowing the next day was going to be a long but well worth it.
During our second early morning meeting at the gorilla HQ, we were allocated the Muhoza gorilla family to visit. As we had a tight schedule to keep to, the warden had kindly given us a group close to our lodge, so the trek wasn’t too long. Again, we were lucky with the weather and had another amazing gorilla experience. The group had one Silverback and new females which he had recently stolen from other families. The best were the babies - loads of them, shy ones, silly ones, confident and curious ones. They were intrigued and came in close to peer at us. The hour flew by as usual, and after a picture with the rangers and guides, we trotted down the mountain, hoping to get back to the lodge in time for a quick shower before our flight.
After lunch and a refresh, we were off again down the winding Rwandan roads to meet our helicopter. Flying back to Kigali in a helicopter is the easiest and best way to get back to the capital. Flying low over the beautiful hills, lakes and countryside, it's clear why they call this the land of a thousand hills.
Landing at Kigali International Airport, we were escorted through security and immigration and into the departure lounge without any hassle. To fly back into Kenya, we were required to do a PCR test, which we had done back at the Sabyinyo Silverback lodge, making it easy and efficient.
Rwanda truly is a fantastic country, and Gorilla trekking is second to none. The guides are at home in the mountains, knowing each animal by name and understanding the different characteristics in each of them.
The people, the wildlife, and the resilience of this nation make a trip to Rwanda both humbling and inspiring. Despite COVID-19 regulations, the country remains easy and efficient to travel in and out of. To book this rare and life-affirming Rwandan experience, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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