No longer a moto-taxi novice!

No longer a moto-taxi novice!
No longer a moto-taxi novice! It can be exhausting but it's great fun!

Friday, 22 March 2013

Rwanda Nziza!

I'm feeling very guilty as I haven't posted anything since last Easter's trip to Sénégal, now almost a year away!  Now, as the end of my time here seems to be rushing up to me I find I have a need  to reflect on my last two and a half years here in Rwanda.

Although my day to day work has become "normal" for me and I no longer feel the need to describe it in detail, I still often think how lucky I have been to have this experience.  One day last week I stepped out of the District Office to head home for lunch and was struck by the amazing view from the hilltop office across the green valley full of banana plantations to the hills dotted with the shiny tin roofs of little houses.  All around Nyakarambi it is easy to find wonderful views of undulating valleys and hills and once the town is left behind and a journey along a dirt track towards a rural school begins, the scenery just gets better and better.

Heading down the hill behind the District Office to cross the dam and head off over the  hills on the other side.
  Once I experimented by taking a video of one journey back to Nyakarambi and it gives a superficial feel of what the experience is like, however it is very difficult to take photos which reflect the scale of the views.

It occurred to me that I should try to do something of a travelogue about Rwanda to show that there are beautiful places to visit here as well as in Sénégal, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya.  As I steadily use up my third and last year here and it seems that visitors are not likely to venture as far as Rwanda, I can at least show you all what you are missing! 

Though Rwanda is less than half the size of Scotland and can be crossed from East to West in 6-7 hours by bus, it still offers a diverse and fascinating landscape ranging from Volcanic mountain forests in the North West to more gentle dryer slopes in the East, banana plantations and rice paddies in the valleys of the East, tea plantations and tropical forests in the South West. 

The climate here is very gentle - although Rwanda is only a couple of degrees South of the equator. because it is situated on hills and mountains the height keeps the temperature within very pleasant limits.  At about 1800 metres, Nyakarambi has temperatures on hot days in the very low thirties centigrade, tempered by gentle breezes.  After rainy periods the temperate can get as low as 15 degrees and a light sweater or fleece is needed.  In the rainy season each day brings a hot sunny morning followed usually by some torrential rain for an hour or so and then a fine evening.  When the rain falls you just take shelter or stay where you are indoors until it clears and life can continue.  If you are at home you can collect rainwater from the roof to add to the storage containers.  By the end of the dry season the countryside is dry and dusty and in the East of this District the farmers often get worried about their crops.  When the rainy season is expected the fields are all cultivated and ready for planting and stretches which are usually green are the brownish red colour of bare dusty soil.  After  few days with heavy rainfall the fields transform to the bright green which is so typical of Rwanda as the maize, beans, potatoes and new young banana trees begin to grow.

All of that makes it very easy to live here - beautiful scenery, never too hot or cold and , of course, friendly and welcoming people. But that is not the subject of this blog.  I want to tell you about some special places I have visited in Rwanda, places tourists do not tend to find but which would be a great attraction if they could be encouraged to leave behind the easy comforts of Kigali.

 Let's start close to home, here in the Eastern Province only half an hour away from the Tanzanian border at Rusumo Falls.  A narrow single lane bridge connects Rwanda to Tanzania and from the middle of the bridge there is an excellent view of the River Akagera plummeting down a waterfall only a few metres away.  This is the river, which after crossing Lake Victoria becomes the River Nile and you can imagine this broiling brownish water passing by the pyramids on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The border crossing is rather like a chaotic motorway service area lorry park and it is good to leave the little town of Rusumo behind and climb the path which leads to the antennae on a hill beside the town.  It's a walk of about 45 minutes to get up and 30 to come down but well worth the effort.

Looking down on the border crossing, a single file bridge.  Tanzania is to the left, Rwanda to the right.

From the top you can see the Akagera coming from where it forms the border with Burundi in the West then continuing downstream heading due North towards Uganda.  It's like being on a balcony overlooking a different country.  The contrast between Rwanda and Tanzania is very marked.  Densely populated Rwanda has to cultivate as much land as possible to feed the growing population and the Akagera divides the banana plantations on one side from the predominantly grassy and scrubby hills of Tanzania with only a cluster of houses and a few cultivated fields around the border crossing town.  The West of Tanzania is a long way from the bustle of the rapidly growing capital city, Dar Es Salaam on the Indian Ocean and the people just over the border seem to be living much more hand to mouth and more isolated than the Rwandans.  This place is beginning to change dramatically as work has begun on a new border crossing and one stop customs post on the Rwandan side of the river and at the same time a dam is to be built to produce hydroelectric power for the bordering countries.  A huge lake will cover the river valley upstream from the bridge and some 1500 families have to be relocated and given equivalent land and housing.  For five years there will be around 4,500 extra workers in the District and when they have finished their work the views here will be very different but no doubt equally spectacular.  I'd like to be able to come back in a few years time to see the new lake.

Sitting on the lawns by Lake Mahasi, enjoying the views and the cool drinks from the"Seeds of Peace" guest house.
 Still in the East there are many natural lakes, large and small, which are wonderful to see but only a few offer opportunities to stay and enjoy them.  One such is Lake Muhasi which has several inexpensive guest houses right on the lake side where food and drink can be enjoyed in beautiful surroundings.  One such place is "Seeds of Peace" guesthouse not far along the road from Kayonza towards Nyagatare and easily accessible by bus.  Like many guest houses this one is owned by the Catholic church and has conference and wedding reception facilities as well as accommodation and a restaurant. 
Crested cranes are a common sight at most lakes

There are small motor boats which can be hired with the boatman for a cruise on the lake to enjoy the views and the many lovely birds. 

A kingfisher - there are also the smaller blue ones.

Although the food service is typically Rwandan slow, the views from the terrace help the time to pass pleasantly and gardens along the lakeside offer opportunities for a leisurely stroll. The absence of tourists makes "Seeds of Peace" a relaxing place to while away a warm afternoon and if there is a wedding party that adds a different kind of interest for the visitor.

A view over the lake at the Akagera National Park
Still in the Eastern Province the Akagera National Game Park is a rapidly improving destination.  They are building a new visitor centre with a cafe and lovely views. Also under construction is a perimeter fence which will keep the animals in so that they can encourage lions to return and breed in safety and protect the local population from wandering wildlife. For accommodation there is the expensive Akagera Lodge for wealthy tourists but even from Nyakarambi, some two hours away, a day's visit is most enjoyable.  Both of my visits were done on the cheap, sticking to the nearer southern section of the park.  The first time we saw zebras, giraffes, baboons, impala and buffalo very close up and hippos in the distance in the lake, beyond the papyrus and reed beds.  The scenery is beautiful and the guides are very well informed and friendly. 

On the second visit we were in the dry season so the giraffes and zebras had moved further north to graze leaving us with only impala, buffalo, baboons,  vervet monkeys and some interesting birds (eg a bright turquoise kingfisher).  When/if I go again I will take the northern section where there is much more wildlife to see including elephants.

Moving anticlockwise around the northern border with Uganda I made another visit to Lake Ruhondo to stay at Ruhondo Beach Resort.  Though still under construction at the time of my visit the site definitely has the potential to be a beautiful peaceful lake side retreat. 

Newly built rooms at Ruhondo Beach

 The rondavel style accommodation is on a promontory overlooking the lake and has a large restaurant and bar terrace overlooking lawns dropping down to the lake side.  We were picked up by boat from a village across the lake, which is a lovely way to arrive, though it is a very bumpy 40 minute motor cycle taxi ride from Musanze to the village.  The lakeside gardens are very attractive and beyond them a footpath continues along the edge of the lake offering a pleasant walk with lovely views of the volcanoes across the lake.  The resort is very much a work in progress at the moment, but in the future it could offer a lovely place to stay for a few days.

Continuing towards the West to the shores of Lake Kivu there are two beautiful destinations.  Firstly Gasenyi just beside the crossing point to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Paradise Malahide, near Gasenyi.

There outside the town is a guest house called "Paradise Malahide" - passed on by word of mouth from VSO volunteer to VSO volunteer this is a gem already offering great service as well as a beautiful location.  The rondavel style rooms are comfortable and overlook the lake side from the lovely gardens.

Fishing boats linked together like trimarans leave in the evening and come back in as you have breakfast

The food in the restaurant is excellent and there is a visiting troupe of Intore Dancers for entertainment after the meal served around a blazing open fire. 

Breakfast is served on wooden platters with wooden carved cutlery at tables beside the lake where the fishing boats can be watched returning with the night's catch.  A short moto taxi ride away is the Serena Hotel with it's swimming pool and tourist style restaurants but nearby is the sandy beach and a walk along the shore towards the Congo border post.

The views of the lake are lovely but perhaps not as stunning as another Lake Kivu destination at Kibuye.  "Home St. Jean" in Kibuye is the great value guest house favoured by VSO volunteers.  It is located on a headland above the lake with beautiful views from the bar/restaurant terrace and the terrace outside the best rooms.  The gardens slope steeply down to the bank of the lake where a rocky beach gives access for swimming. 

View of Lake Kivu from Home St. Jean

The service is friendly but meals other than breakfast are produced very slowly and are very basic.  A lovely walk around the headland leads to other more expensive hotels which also have lovely gardens and shore lines. 

Karen and her daughter and me as we set off from the Bethany Hotel for Peace Island

From the nearby Bethany Hotel you can take a boat to cruise out to Amahoro Island where the island tour includes cold soft drink.  The boat can drop you at any spot for example the "Cormoran Hotel".

Cormoran Hotel from Lake Kivu.

View of the Cormoran gardens from the restaurant.

This is an eco-friendly collection of lovely wooden buildings on stilts set into the side of a steep cove linked by paths through the gardens going up from the lake's edge.  The views from the raised restaurant looking over the lake are beautiful and the food here is very tasty with good service.

The room rates are fairly expensive but by staying at a budget guest house you can still enjoy the facilities of more luxurious establishments after a short ride by moto taxi or even a boat ride.  Once more there is a distinct lack of tourist crowds and the natural beauty can be enjoyed without any hustle and bustle.

Further south from Kibuye but moving east from the lake there is the Forest of Nyungwe where guided treks through the forest simply for the beauty of the trees and shrubs or in pursuit of chimpanzees can be organised relatively inexpensively. 
Nyungwe Forest National Park
 There are guest houses in the forest near the park offices and camping is also a possibility.  Sadly unlike the gorilla treks in the Virunga Park there is no guarantee that chimpanzees will be found.  Of course gorilla trekking costs some 700 dollars a day just to enter the park whereas the chimpanzee trek is only 80 dollars.

Our friendly park guide who sadly did not manage to find the chimpanzees.

One of the Nyumgwe Park entrances and information point
 I'm glad I was lucky enough to see the gorillas six years ago before the big fee increases. The drive to Nyungwe is long and bumpy even though it is a tarmac road and passes through tea plantations as well as the forest itself.  The temperatures here are rather cooler, especially in the evening and early morning, so you need to wrap up warmly.

The last place I visited recently links quite well to the idea of wrapping up warm as it is high and subject to a fair bit of rain.  The volunteers in Byumba to the North of Kigali organised a party event called "Northern Lights" and invited all who wanted to to join in.  The weekend was really good.  First of all in spite of the weather the week before it was sunny and warm in the afternoon of Saturday when we all went for a lovely walk around Byumba, creating quite a stir as we numbered about 20-25 abazungo.  The walk, which lasted about two hours and wasn't at all strenuous in spite of the hilly countryside as it was mainly around contour paths.  Byumba is apparently the highest town in Rwanda so the surrounding countryside is spectacular.

Of course you see these everywhere but he was posing for a photo.
Rather hot and sticky we got back to the Ubwuzu Guest House - which was really friendly and welcoming with excellent service for only 15,000 Rwf (£15)  forB&B for two people per room.  The owner has been supported a lot by the volunteer couple in trying to create a tourist attraction with visits to the wetlands about an hour away.

 The owner, Blandine had booked a local traditional musician with his guitar type thing and, even better, a troupe of young drummers who gave a concert in front of the guest house for us.  They were very very good, we all enjoyed it a lot - the women taking in the muscular young bodies with much appreciation!!

Volunteers enjoying the drummers' show at Ubwuzu.

Sunday morning was bright and misty but very promising.  The guest house staff left hot water outside our rooms which most of us discovered after washing in cold water and dressing!!!! Breakfast was good and quickly served.  About 13 of us wanted to do the Rugezi wetlands visit so eventually we set off in a very old tatty taxi bus along gradually deteriorating roads until the last stretch which had temporary log bridges over the water channels crossing the roads, while they were building new conduits and bridges.

I never cease to be amazed by what people and even children can carry on their heads!

We got there unscathed in bright sunshine and transferred to boats (the kind with one paddle at the back, but otherwise like a large rowing boat - no life jackets of course!)  With our guides we were about 8 per boat, which was fine.  We paddled and drifted about for about two hours seeing lovely views and something like 15 species of birds, including blue kingfishers and a spoonbill.   All in all a good weekend - a lovely place to visit - gorgeous mountain scenery, stunning wetlands with beautiful birds.

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