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It is no wonder Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills, they are visible in every direction, stretching far into the distance. The most striking feature of the landscape, however, is how incredibly cultivated it is, with virtually every square centimetre growing one crop or another.
The iron roofs of dwellings glint in the sun surrounded by the different hues of green, of maize and bananas, beans and potatoes, groundnuts and on the higher parts, the ubiquitous Eucalyptus. The rain feeds the lush valleys and streams abound; it is a memorable sight.
Then there are the people. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and you can hardly drive fifty metres without seeing someone – sometimes walking on their own, more often in groups, going to or coming from markets with their purchases perched high on their heads. Others are tending and sweeping the verges, the recently-planted variegated-leaf bushes and hibiscus plants soon to become features beautifully lining the road in a country that takes huge pride in being neat, clean and tidy – there is virtually no rubbish in sight. Then you notice – why would you, unless you had been told – that everyone is wearing something on their feet, usually flip flops of some sort, because walking outside barefoot is strictly forbidden.
Turning off the tarmac road after around an hour and a half of enjoyable driving through the fascinating countryside, with exciting and tantalising glimpses of the Muhabura volcano peeking through its clothing of morning cloud, the journey changes suddenly as the vehicle twists and turns along a stone and murram track, past small villages and the usual array of crops all the way. There is a sense of being more in Africa after the earlier drive and then the Virunga Lodge suddenly comes into view. The beating drums and singing voices of a “Royal welcome” break the silence as the manager offers a warm welcome and a tour up the path to the main building of the Lodge.
The views all around are stunning – five volcanoes’ peaks stretch away into the distance and the crater-lake Burera glistens in the sun way below. The quiet and peace is pierced by birdsong and the first cold beer is most welcome. The site has been chosen well and it took vision by someone, plus a good deal of courage and faith, to have embarked on such an ambitious project some fourteen years ago when Rwanda was a very different country, recovering as it was from the horrors of the genocide.
The owner and founder of this beautifully designed eco-lodge is Praveen Moman, who, as a child growing up in Uganda in the 1960s, was inspired by early efforts with gorilla tourism.
The separately-spaced private bandas, all ingeniously equipped and tastefully decorated, and the main building means there is plenty of room to relax over a drink and read about the surrounding volcanic countryside. The new Diane Fossey map room is a fund of information for those at the beginning of a gorilla-trekking tour in the nearby national park. Where Praveen led, others have followed and there are now a number of luxury lodges to choose from. A visit to Rwanda should if possible include getting out of the city of Kigali and a trip out to his unique site in an area of great natural beauty. A truly memorable experience.
Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.
Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.