It’s Saturday morning in downtown Kigali and the streets are curiously empty. There are no cars roaring along the smooth Tarmac roads, and only a few people milling in manicured parks. There’s not a spot of litter, either.
No chewing gum underfoot. It’s not what you expect in a capital city. But Rwanda is full of surprises. Just 23 years after genocide devastated the country, reducing the population of seven million by almost a third, the small East African nation has lofty sights set on progress.
There’s a flashy new Radisson Blu convention centre, and national airline RwandAir has invested in a eet of sleek new A330s to operate the rst direct route between London and Kigali, which launched at the end of May.
Then there’s the commendable commitment to conservation. Umuganda, the obligatory monthly street clean-up I’m witnessing, is all part of that. But one of the biggest surprises came last month, when the Rwandan Development Board announced the price of gorilla permits would double to $1,500.
Gorilla treks make up the bulk of the country’s tourism revenue, and the move has provoked mixed responses. The decision to keep visitors at a sustainable level and increase community investment is admirable, but there’s a risk tourists will simply switch to cheaper neighbour Uganda.
Leaving Kigali behind me, we drive 100km east to Akagera National Park on the border with Tanzania.
It’s Rwanda’s oldest park but years of poaching and conflict between community and wildlife as a result of cattle grazing, left it in decline.
Seven years ago, the park was restored, with a recent relocation of 18 black rhino from South Africa giving it Big Five status – lions, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.
As part of the new gorilla permit scheme, tourists will receive a 30% discount if they stay three or more nights here, an incentive to get people exploring more of the country.
Lemon-yellow wild owners waltz with wispy blades of long grass as we drive along one of two main roads in the scenic park, where hilltop views cascade down to lakes, savannah plains and swampland.
Lumbering buffalo search for scraps of shade beneath a wiry acacia tree, restless zebra dust bathe in the sunset-red African soil, and swarms of darting queria birds form the only clouds in an unadulterated cerulean sky. Given the relatively small populations (there are just 19 reintroduced lions, a fraction of the 300 poached to disappearance), seeing big game isn’t easy but we do catch sight of a regal elephant as we sensibly avoid the stony glares of irritable hippos on a motorboat ride across Hema lake.
Although currently lacking the near-guaranteed drama of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, Akagera does benefit from far fewer crowds and lower prices.
Operated by African Parks, the fully solar-powered waterside Ruzizi Tented Lodge costs from just $195 (£150) per person.
Getting the community onside has been instrumental in restoring the park, says Sarah Hall, tourism manager for African Parks.
After the genocide, the government granted half of the land for public cattle grazing, and an electric fence (solar powered, of course) was installed in 2013.
Projects are also under way to help local people reap the benefits of tourism. Godefroid, one of 18 community freelance guides working in the park, takes me to nearby village Kageyo, to take part in one of several new tourist experiences.
“People know Rwanda for two things: gorillas and genocide,” he laments. “But we want them to learn more about our country.”
That said, he introduces me to the art of cow milking. He tugs at the satin udders with ease, although my clumsy attempts are pathetic.
As a gesture of hospitality, I’m invited to cup my hands around the bowl of warm, frothing liquid and am later shown how to transform it into yogurt.
But most visitors will come to Rwanda wanting to see mountain gorillas, so I end my trip in the highlands of Volcanoes National Park.
My base is the ridge-top Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge, made up of 10 individual bandas, which easily has the park’s best view.
At 5am, I wake up to a thousand hills draped with a fine spider’s web of mist, drifting into Lake Bulera below.
Led by 20-year veteran Diogene, who’s had the honour of guiding David Attenborough, we scramble uphill for two and a half hours on a muddy trail of dense bamboo forest and angry stinging nettles.
All pain and discomfort (and concerns of expense) evaporate when we find our gorillas, munching on leaves, tumbling over toes, and locking our gaze with stirringly human eyes.
There are undoubtedly still some rumblings about the new permit costs, not least among the actual community who are worried the tourists may no longer come.
But just like my trek to see Pablo, fraught with difficulty and at times near impossible, let’s hope any concerns about the controversial price hike are, with time, surmountable.
NEED TO KNOW
■ SARAH MARSHALL was a guest of the Rwanda Development Board and RwandAir.
■ Red Savannah offers five nights in Rwanda from £5,225 per person. Includes two nights in Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge, two nights in Ruzizi Tented Camp, one night in Radisson Blu Hotel Kigali, return flights with RwandAir from Gatwick to Kigali, gorilla trekking permit, Akagera National Park entry fees and 4×4 private transport throughout.
■ Call 01242 787800 or click www.redsavannah.com
By Sarah Marshall