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Travelling Rwanda

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Memoirs from my trip travelling Rwanda (Kigali), to play the 2012 ITF Futures Event

I left for Kigali, Rwanda on 13th November 2012 having spent the previous four days in Bujumbura, Burundi. Again, my main purpose for visiting this country was to play in an ITF Futures event.

These are entry level professional tennis tournaments. By winning a
match in the main draw, one can accrue ATP world ranking points. In
order to play in the main draw however, one may need to qualify. If you
win enough matches in the qualifying rounds you move through to the main
draw. For more information about futures tournaments, how they work and
what to expect, you should read this.

Rwanda is known as the “Land of a thousand hills” – a befitting title. There were many winding bends and ups and downs from the airport to my hotel. Most of the hills around the city are packed with homes, a mix of shacks, mud huts and some sturdier brick homes. Kigali is noticeably more wealthy than Bujumbura, yet is still very much a poor country compared to say my hometown, Sydney.

The Hotel I stayed in while travelling Rwanda

I stayed at the Stipp Hotel situated in Kiyovu. It seems this may be a
more upmarket suburb of Kigali as not too far from here, is the
residence of the president of Rwanda. The houses in the area also appear
to be of better building quality as compared to other parts of Kigali.

The Stipp Hotel is very well presented with good facilities, a
beautiful pool, gym and comfortable rooms, all with wi-fi. They have an
extensive menu at the restaurant, unfortunately, I found the quality of
food to be poor. It’s certainly edible, but having been spoilt with
fantastic produce in Australia, the food here was disappointing.

This is probably a common theme throughout central Africa. I had also found the food in Bujumbura to be rather ordinary.

My main reason for choosing this hotel was its proximity to Cercle
Sportif, the venue of the tennis tournament. It’s about a 10 minute
walk, very safe, and you pass by a mini supermarket on the way. This was
a handy stopping point for buying bottled water, I chose not to sample
the tap water during my time in Africa despite having heard it is safe
to drink.

For what I would class as a three star hotel at best, the price of food and accommodation here was definitely overpriced.

The Tennis

The tournament was held at Cercle Sportif. There are six clay courts
of which four were used for play, and two for practice. Surprisingly,
the quality of clay was not quite as good as in Burundi. There seem to
be more dodgy bounces on these courts. I was told by a local, in fact,
that Burundian clay comes “from the sea”, whilst Rwandan clay is from
“smashed brick”. I guess my preference is sea clay.

As the venue is a sporting complex, there is also a pool, soccer field and a bar. The food at the bar is much cheaper than at Stipp hotel, but still not that great tasting. If you’re going to order food from here though, be warned you could be waiting anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and a half. How is this you ask? Africa I say – go figure.

The motorbike taxis in Kigali are like flies in the outback, they
won’t leave you alone. These drivers will ride right up to you and beep
their high pitched “road-runner” horns. A simple shake of the head is
enough to swat them away. Otherwise, if you”re feeling lazy, you can
catch one for about RWF500 (less than US$1) and they’ll take you roughly
5km in distance. Any more than this and I would expect it to cost a
little more.

You can see one of these bikers in the photo below.

The Genocide Museum

Before travelling to Kigali, I watched the movie, Hotel Rwanda, maybe
not the best curtain raiser event for travelling to such a place.
Ironically, it had the effect of making me even more interested in
travelling to Rwanda. I read a little about the genocide online before
travelling there. Genocide is clearly a terrible thing for a country to
have to go through, but the fact of the matter is, it has very much
shaped the country it is today.

Although I had been warned that visiting the genocide museum
was quite depressing, having done it, I don’t think youve experienced
Rwanda unless you”ve visited the place. It does not cost anything to go
there and have a look around, but you are encouraged to spend US$15 for a
portable audio device that narrates information around the various
sites of the museum.

The first part of the narrative tour begins in the memorial gardens and mass graves. The gardens are pretty, but one gets the sense that a little extra funding would go a long way to help tidy some of the overgrown parts and broken fountains and waterworks.

The second part continues inside the memorial building. There is a
series of rooms to walk through, each with giant posters of information
documenting the sequence of events in the genocide. Amongst this
information are some rather graphic photos, harrowing short video
interviews and some dedicated artworks such as stained glass windows and

Visiting the genocide museum, is one of the two must-attractions I
would recommend for travellers to Rwanda. Personally, I felt obliged to
visit. I met many locals in Kigali, most of whom were between the ages
of 18 and 30. Out of respect, I did not ask them about how they might
have been affected by the genocide, but I am certain many of them would
have lost family members.

The genocide of 1994-1996 claimed over one million lives. We cannot
choose the families or countries we are born into, and having become
more informed about this terrible event, I feel immensely fortunate to
live in a place like Australia.

The Gorillas

The second item on your to-do list, is to go and see the gorillas in
the Volcanoes National Park. This is situated in the north western tip
of the country very close to the border with the Congo and Uganda. These
beautiful creatures are on the verge of extinction with only 786
gorillas left in the world today.

I used a company called Rwanda Eco Tours.
I organised my trip through one of the owners, Osborn. He was, as an
Aussie would say, a champion bloke. It was an expensive expedition
however, a total cost of US$1100. This included a “Gorilla pass” at
US$500, which goes towards Gorilla conservation, and the remainder
towards travel, guides and lunch and water expenses.

Prior to going to Rwanda, I wasn’t 100% certain that I would be doing
the gorilla trip. As I didn” have that much money in cash, it ended up
costing me a little more than US$1100. My preference was to pay on
credit card, but of course, Osborn’s machine was broken (Africa strikes
again). I ended up paying in Rwandan francs, around 750,000 worth to
avoid a further charge having to draw US dollars. This translates to a
massive wad of play money that keeps you on your toes when walking by
foot between the Eco tours office and the bank.

I was picked up directly from my hotel at 4:30am on the day of the
trip, my driver’s name was Yusain. Another champion bloke. The drive was
two and a half hours to the base camp at Volcanoes National Park. We
needed to arrive there by 7am for the briefing of the trek by the
guides. The early morning drive to Musanze/Ruhengeri passes through the
magnificent, hilly countryside which gives Rwanda its stature as “the
Land of a Thousand Hills”.

On route, even as early as 5am, there were masses of people travelling to the markets for a day of trading their goods. I drew it a parallel with Sydney slickers alighting at Wynyard train station in the mornings. The below photo does not do the scene justice but should give you an idea.

When we got to the base camp, there was a bit of waiting around for other tour groups to arrive. I happened to be the only Eco tours patron for the day and I would be integrated into another tour company’s trekking party for the day. There was tea and coffee available and they even put on a little traditional Rwandan song and dance for us.

From here, we got back on our four wheel drives and made out for the
base of the mountain we would be climbing. Gorillas live in families of
roughly seven to ten where there might be up to three silverbacks (fully
matured males) but only one dominant male. Today, we would be tracking
the “Amahoro” family which means “peace”.

The drive from base camp to the mountain started firstly, on a normal
tarmac road. After about 3-5km however, the road turned into a mix of
dirt and extreme rockiness. The road was so primitive we couldn’t travel
more than 5km/hr. I was in the back literally gripping the window frame
and the arm of the seat as hard as I could so that I could stay
upright. I was having to fire my core constantly out of concern I would
hurt my back if I let it slack for just two seconds. I spared a thought
for any elders who might be trekking today – they would certainly find
this drive a struggle.

It was during this point of the drive that one really begins to see
how the other half live. It was incredibly difficult for me to take
pictures of what I saw due to the bumpiness of the ride but I was lucky
to get some shots of the locals and how they live. These locals live in
such primitive conditions – there is rarely any electricity, certainly
no sewage works, and their water is retrieved from wells dotted around
the vicinity. I observed some of the clothes the kids were wearing. One
young kid had some Spider man tracksuit pants. I thought to myself, I
wonder if this kid will ever even know who or what spider man is – I
very much doubt it.

Most of the kids” clothes were filthy, for many of them, they would
probably have had only a few sets of clothes, maybe less. I wondered how
they would cycle their outfits for the week. I presumed they would
probably wash their clothes in a nearby river once a week and then put
them on again once they were dry. As we drove through the tiny villages,
kids would come running up to the vehicle waving and smiling, saying
hello in English and sometimes giving a thumbs up.

I was so impressed by these people, they have virtually nothing, only
the bare essentials of life, if that, yet they still found a way to
smile and be happy as we passed by. It was such a humbling experience
and helped me realize how so many of our first world problems are
completely insignificant. These people are real survivors, and perhaps,
may even be happier in their lifestyles than one might initially think.

Rwandan Rocky Road – not as sweet as what you’ll find in Sydney.

Outside the local school.

A typical mud-hut home in the village just before the base of the gorilla mountain.

A class of school kids and possibly some of their teachers.

Smily Rwandan children – I can’t get over how beautiful these people are.

The bumpy trip section covered only about 5km in distance, but would
have taken at least 45 minutes to complete. Eventually we arrived at the
parking site where we would begin the trek. We were offered walking
sticks to use during the trek. I’ll never forget one American lady in my
group saying to me, “Don’t be proud, take a walking stick, you’ll need
it for balance”, to which I replied, “Thanks lady, but I”ve managed on
two feet since I was one.”

I couldn’t help being a smart arse, the truth is, I hate carrying
unnecessary gear. I was reluctant even to carry bottles of water. The
guide had suggested I take three bottles (about 2 litres), I had thought
of only taking one 600ml bottle. I compromised and took two. At the
starting point there was also an option to hire a porter for any bags
you might be too lazy to carry. It’ll cost you RWF6000, roughly US$10.
This seemed too cheap for what would be about 3-4hrs work.

The starting point of the trek – still in the thick of people’s homes.

Shortly after walking through the villages by the parking site, the trek opens up into flower fields. These flowers are farmed to use in the production of insecticide. The flowers are picked and then go through several drying processes before being turned into insecticide. On this particular day, the weather was nice and cool and we were walking through a very fine cloudy mist, it seemed as if we would get some rain later in the morning.

Flowers in the drying process.

By this stage of the trek, the mist had turned to a light drizzle and
I was certain it would be raining further up the mountain. We arrived
at a stone fence which had obviously been constructed to separate the
wilderness from civilization. The were are few bamboo trees concealing
the entry point into the starting point of the wilderness track. We had
to cross a small creek by walking along a log bridge.

As expected, it was now raining gently and the muddy track was
getting muddier by the minute. Being a simple man, I had only worn my
tennis shoes. These actually turned out to be great hiking shoes. Much
better than the hiking specific shoes my fellow trekkers were using –
they were slipping and falling constantly. I reveled in my superior
balancing skills until I in fact slipped on a slippery jungle leaf and
fell to my knees. I don’t why, but I turned to look at the American lady
I”d had words with before. Our eyes met, her expression was politely
blank, but her eyes said, “Ha ha.”

Rwandan mud – don’t waste your money on expensive hiking shoes, my tennis shoes were more than adequate.

One of our guides was armed. If by some small chance a gorilla were to become aggressive, a warning shot would have been fired first. Poachers wouldn’t be so lucky however.

This was real jungle we trekked through, there was a rough track to follow for part of the way but for the rest of it, we had to climb through thick vegetation, mostly uphill. The guide at the front had a machete to hack out a rough track for us but it still remained a fairly physical climb uphill. The following photo paints a picture of the jungle, note the American lady and her porter behind me.

The reason we strayed from the man-made track is of course, because
we were tracking gorillas. These creatures don’t need tracks as their
climbing skills are second to none. After much climbing we had come to
see the Amahoro family, babies, kids, mothers, brothers and sisters, and
of course, the majestic silverbacks.

Most of the time, we were two to three metres away from these beautiful beasts.

They were extremely tame, not once did we feel threatened.

Two gorillas in the mist.

We stayed with the gorillas for about an hour and a half before
returning to the parking site. You are not allowed to touch the
gorillas, but sometimes they may approach you and touch your hair or
your skin out of fascination. This did not happen to any of us that day,
and I wonder just how often it does. The creatures seemed very tame,
very used to being observed by people. I doubt there very fascinated by
us anymore.

Having returned to the parking site, and re-experiencing the bumpy ride out of the villages, we were taken to a small group of souvenirs shops. Here you could purchase all sorts of wooden carvings: gorillas, African masks, woven baskets, etcetera. We were also issued our gorilla trekking certificates, a nice touch.

After staying here for about half an hour, and having bought nothing
because it all seemed a little junky to me, we headed off to the
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge for lunch. This was included in the up front
cost. This was a very nice looking hotel and would be the perfect
option for those looking for a short stay in Rwanda. It’s close to the
base camp so you don’t have to get up early and the food is certainly
better than Stipp Hotel.

I was pretty famished after the long driving and four hour trek. I
ate about two plates of food, at least four bread rolls, and I
specifically remember, five pieces of cake. Whilst I enjoyed the food,
the best thing about this place was the “shoe service”. When we arrived,
all of our shoes were filthy with mud. We had to remove them and put on
some crocs type flip-flops which the hotel supplied. By the time I”d
finished my lunch, one of the hotel staff brought me my shoes which they
had cleaned – they looked brand spanking new!

After lunch it was about 3pm and time to go home. Yusain, had been fantastic throughout the day, telling me a little about the Rwandan lifestyle along the journey to and from the Volcanoes National Park and pointing out some of the sites. On the way home we stopped at a lookout point where we could see one of the sources of the Nile, the Nyabaronga River.

It was approaching 5:30pm and once we were about ten minutes from my
hotel, Yusain asked me if I had seen the movie, Hotel Rwanda. I told him
I had, and he said, “because we are just 200m from it on our right. I
became quite excited and asked him if we could drive through. It was of
course, just like any other hotel, but the fact that this particular one
had been a safe house for over 1200 Tutsi people during the Rwandan
genocide, bestowed upon it, a rather special aura.

Hotel Des Mille Collines translates to: Hotel of a thousand hills.

It was spooky to think that many heavily armed Hutu soldiers had walked through this place in the mid 90s with the intention to kill. Thanks to one man, Paul Rusesabagina, not one Tutsi soul was killed in this hotel – amazing!

I was home by 6pm and pretty tired by this stage. I had a night of
packing to look forward to as my stay in Rwanda had come to an end. I
left the hotel at 4am the next morning for a 6am flight out of the

The Conclusion

I have learnt a lot from this humble place, Rwanda. I feel very sorry
for the country, it has a terrible scar. It irritates me to think that
the genocide would probably have been avoided had the numerous outsiders
not tried to interfere with the country. In much the same way as Burundi, Rwanda too is a beautiful country, perhaps even more so with it’s endless rolling hills.

My advice to potential travellers to this country however would be
that you wouldn’t really need more than three days there. I would book
in a one day gorilla trek and make an effort to visit the genocide
museum. Further to that, nothing much else appeals to me personally,
unless there’s a tennis tournament on at Cercle Sportif.

Thank you Rwanda, I take home so many wonderful memories of you, mwah!

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