Rwanda, Pays aux Milles Collines

Everyone remembers the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the dreadful blood bath between the Tutsis and the Hutus. For myself, I was too young to recall the event but I surely do remember watching the movie Hotel Rwanda and being stunned by the story. I was happy that this small intriguing country was on our group tour itinerary. I was very curious to discover what Rwanda is all about today. The minute we crossed the border, I was in love! Volcanos and rainforests as far as our eyes can see, roads in perfect conditions (they even have sidewalks and bike lanes!), absolutely no sign of pollution (finally, an African country that believes in garbage cans!), houses and schools are nicely built and taking care of, AND, most of the Rwandan speak French! Wow! 👍 Despite this, 57% of Rwandan still live below the poverty line. They are simply very hard-working people who are proud of their country, striving to rebuild their economy and reputation.

We only spent 3 days in Rwanda but it was enough to get a glimpse of their beautiful culture and to learn about the history of the country. However, the dark days are finally behind. The Rwandan were able to turn the page and open a new chapter. Rwandan don’t differentiate themselves by tribes anymore, but consider themselves as one nationality. Nowadays, you don’t hear about ‘Tutsis’ or ‘Hutus’, but ‘Rwandans’. Rwanda has now become a very politically stable country, with no corruption. It’s impressive how an awful event had such a positive change for a country. Rwanda is a perfect example of a nation that was able to apologize, put the past behind in order to progress towards a bright future. Respect! 🙌

Population: 12.3 millions

Capital: Kigali

Languages: Kinyarwanda, French and English

Visited places during my trip: Kigali (Genocide Memorial Center), Musanze and the Parc National des Volcans

Famous for:

-The movie Hotel Rwanda

-Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who devoted her life to the study and the protection of mountain gorillas.

-Coffee and tea plantations

Interesting facts:

-Rwanda has the world’s highest number of women working at the parliament (56%)! Go women power!

-To preserve the natural beauty of the country, the government enforces a strict ban on plastic bags. You can even get fined if the police finds a plastic bag in your luggage at the border!

-Just like The Gambia, the last Saturday of every month is a national community service/cleaning day called the Umuganda. Every Rwandan (including the President) must clean their neighborhood or help building community centers (schools, medical centers, hydroelectric plants). No wonder the country is so clean!

-Rwanda, ‘Le Pays aux Milles Collines’ (the Land of Thousand Hills) got its name because of its endless rolling grassy hills, mountain ranges and volcanoes.

-Rwanda is one of the smallest nation and most densely populated countries in the world…

My highlight moment: My trek in the Parc National des Volcans in search of mountain gorillas! Mountain gorillas can only be seen in the nature in 3 different countries (Rwanda, Uganda and Congo); they can’t survive in captivity. So it is a pretty unique experience to get an encounter with these big intimidating primates! However, contrary to the commercial image of the fierce King Kong, gorillas are actually very nice and tolerant towards humans (let’s not forget they have 98% of our genes!). After one hour of trekking through the dense rainforest we finally arrived to our designed family, the Umubano group. It was pretty amazing to hang out with three silverback, but also with a little 3 months old baby! I must say gorillas are very charismatic creatures! I was impressed on how they didn’t mind us at all, they were just moving around us, like we were part of their family! This is definitely a must for everyone who comes in Eastern Africa! 🙂

Uganda, the Pearl of Africa

The Pearl of Africa, this is how Winston Churchill named Uganda after his visit in 1907. I quickly understood why after spending a few days in this beautiful, stable and welcoming country. First, the landscape is simply stunning: savannahs, rainforests, mountain ranges, lakes, waterfalls, rice fields and of course, the endless green fields of tea, coffee, bananas, pineapples and avocados plantations. I was so mesmerized by the scenery, that I couldn’t keep my eyes off the bus windows. For once, those long driving days were kind of enjoyable. Secondly, the country has a very rich wildlife. Almost all your typical African animals are found in Uganda: lions, elephants, giraffes, hippopotamus, gorillas, chimpanzee, more than 1000 species of birds and the list goes on. Uganda is also the adrenaline center of East Africa. Rafting, bungee, mountain biking, rock climbing…everything is available to make you sweat or scream a little! And on top of that, Ugandan are very hospitable, smiling and warm people. One thing I won’t forget is the company of young Ugandans during my daily runs. Each time I was out on the road, there was always at least one (or many!) child/teenager joining me for a few meters or kilometers. In Masala, a young soccer player asked me if he could run with me (well that’s what I figured he was asking because he didn’t speak a word English!). We ended up running 8km at a pretty fast pace (he was the one leading!) in the hilly Ugandan country roads! I didn’t enjoy the view much, but at least I got a pretty good workout! I definitely don’t have a teenager’s stamina anymore!

Population: 37 millions

Capital: Kampala

Languages: Lugandan, Swahili and English

Traditional dishes: Matoke (mash banana/plantain), Ngege (tilapia served with peanut sauce) and Mandazi (sweet doughnut)

Found in Uganda:

-Rwenzori, the tallest mountain range in Africa

-Victoria Lake, the continent’s largest lake

-Nil River, the world’s longest river (surges out of Lake Victoria)

-Murchison Falls, world’s most powerful waterfalls

-“Go big or go home” should be the country’s motto!

Fun facts:

-They make about everything with their endless bananas: cake, mash, sauce, beer, even wine!

-Uganda has been ranked as one of the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the world! (I must admit that their beer is pretty good!)

-The country has the fifth highest fertility rate in the world, with an average of 6 children born/woman.

-They have a ‘non official’ tree cutting rule: whenever someone cuts a tree, he/she has to replant another one. Apparently this rule is well followed all around the country.

-The most used mode of transportation are bicycles.

Visited places during my trip: Kampala, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Lake Bunyonyi, Masaka and Jinja

My highlight moment: Definitely my rafting trip on the Nil!! Not only did I have the chance to run the world’s longest river in an inflatable boat, but I went through (and survived!) a dozen level 4 and 5 rapids! Yes, we tipped over a few times and yes, even if I’m a good swimmer, I must admit I got a little petrified! Swimming in rapids of this scale was a first for me! But we all made it safe and sound and we can definitely say it was a pretty good bang for your buck! 🙂

My Intrepid holidays

Going on a safari tour was on my bucket list. I mean, I couldn’t come to Africa and not see an elephant or a giraffe in the wild right? Since I am traveling solo and there’s so much to see and do in East Africa I thought it could be fun to try the group tour thing. While I was in The Gambia, I spent numbers of hours researching on the different companies, the different routes, the different activities offered. I knew I wanted an adventurous kind of trip where we would camp, see all kinds of animals, experience the culture and that would suit my budget. So I finally booked a 16 days trip (20% off because of low season! Bonus!) with the company Intrepid and opted for the Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda route.

My next blog entries will be about the three visited country on my trip, but for now, here are my pros and cons of my first group tour.

The Good Sides:

-No planning to do. Everything is perfectly organized, from the route to the activities to the meals. It’s considerably less time consuming (and stressful) than traveling solo so more time to relax and enjoy the holidays!

-I did 2 weeks of camping (for me that is a big plus!). Intrepid provides the tents and mats so you only have to bring your sleeping bag. I must say that sleeping beside elephants and hippos is a pretty unique experience! Although you don’t feel like going peeing in the middle of the night!

-Comfy ride. I got to travel in a comfortable truck (no chicken or goat running around like the public transport in Senegal!), and because we were only 13, we even had our own double seat! No one had to fight for a window seat during game drives!

-Having a local guide 24/7. Forget the Lonely Planet, we had our own live encyclopedia to teach us about the country and the culture, tell us stories and answer any of our questions!

-Finally, I think the best aspect of a group tour is the chance to meet and socialize with a very nice group of travelers. Although the age on my tour was ranging from 21 to 83 (!!), we all got along pretty well! I met very interesting people from different generations, from all around the globe. In two weeks time, we shared some pretty good memories and lots of laughs! 🙂

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda

The Not-So-Good-Sides:

-Don’t have much liberty. When you book a tour you’re kinda ‘stuck’ with the itinerary. So even if you fall in love with a place, you still have to pack up the next day and follow the rest of the crew. I would probably still be in Lake Bunyonyi if not…

-A lot of time on the road! We did a few (too many!) 8+ hours driving days. I should have known that covering three countries in two weeks would mean a lot of bussing… At least the scenery was pretty impressive!! And thank god for podcasts and my entertaining fellow travelers!

-You don’t get to interact as much with the locals. Since you’re traveling with a group and stay in the touristic areas, you don’t have many opportunities to meet locals. Especially after living 3 months on the west coast and traveling by myself for a few weeks, I was kinda enjoying hanging out with Africans all the time!

-You eat whatever’s on the daily menu. Don’t get me wrong, our tour chef was great but I didn’t get to taste the local flavor as much as I wanted to! Yes for cheap street food!!

-It’s more expensive than traveling solo, but you get to do and see more in less time. So at the end of the day, you get your bang for your buck!

-And finally, as much as I’m a social person, I also like my ‘me time’. When you are traveling with a group it is often difficult to spend time by yourself. My solution: Everyday when we were arriving at our destination, I was putting on my running shoes and see ya later alligators! For me it was the best way of exploring a new place but also of escaping the group for a little while.

Running in Lake Bunyonyi

This trip did fulfill (almost) all of my expectations. Each country was unique in all its aspects (sceneries, wildlife, culture, language, people)! Two weeks was also a good length for a group tour (for me) but it is also VERY short to make it worth the visit of three countries. I did enjoy every minute of my trip but feel like these countries have so much more to offer. It’s like eating just the ‘M&M’ in the trail mix. Yes, they are most people’s favorites, but almonds, peanuts, cashews, raisins are also really good to eat and part of the mix!!

Overall, I’m happy I did this trip. I did a LOT and seen a LOT in a short period of time; I could never have done the same thing by myself in the same length of time. But on the other hand, this trip also made me realize how I like my liberty of traveling on my own. Yes it’s more time consuming and it takes more energy but hey, I’m still young and I do have that thirst for adventure! So, personally, would I do it again? Yes, but not now. Maybe in a few years…or when I’ll be retired! 😉

My Intrepid Family