Our Rwanda Holiday: The Land of a Thousand Smiles

To travel, or not to travel. I kept asking myself if we were doing the right thing hosting a FAM trip to Rwanda and Kenya during a pandemic. Feedback from friends and colleagues in the industry was 50/50, but now that I have travelled, I know it was the right decision.

Travel is our profession, and the industry has been decimated over the past year. Unfortunately, it is not going to get any easier any time soon. We need to support the industry and show our clients that it is safe to travel responsibly. And wow, Rwanda has got it right!

From the time I stepped off my direct flight from Cape Town to Kigali (Rwanda Air operates 3 flights a week from Cape Town via Harare to Kigali), I knew that I was in good hands with our partners on the ground. The efficiency at Kigali International Airport was amazing to see. I was out of the airport within 20-minutes, which included a mandatory COVID-19 test. Incredible!

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The Retreat by Heaven, Kigali
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Drive to the Volcanoes National Park

Our first stop was The Retreat, a 20-room luxury 5-star boutique hotel set in the vibrant heart of Kigali. The travel advisors on our FAM had all arrived direct on KLM from Amsterdam. All our flights were empty, which allowed for easy social distancing while flying. It was here at this leafy, tranquil spot that we all quarantined in our beautiful suites until we received the results of our COVID-19 tests done on arrival.

After a good night’s sleep, we all anxiously awaited our results (which can take up to 24-hours to receive). The average wait is, however, anything from 8 to 12 hours, and ours was no exception. With negative results received, we left the hotel with great anticipation to visit the Genocide Museum, which is an absolute must for all visitors.

Yes, we all know about the 1994 genocide, but the actual events do not hit home until you have visited the museum. The realization helped put our current pandemic into prospective… 500,000 to 800,000 Rwandan people died over a 100-day period! The fact that a country can go through such an atrocity and come out on the other side, stronger and more unified, is beyond comprehension. The rest of the world can learn a lot from Rwanda.

Rwanda landscape and Kigali Genocide Memorial

I would recommend that visitors take advantage of their time in Kigali. Visit a local market and immerse yourself in the amazing art displays in various venues around the city (some of these opportunities are obviously not possible during COVID-19). The city is very safe – I enjoyed a run around the city on our second morning, a great way to see the city and neighborhoods.

After two comfortable nights of settling into our destination at The Retreat, it was time to head to Volcanoes National Park (about a 3-hour drive from Kigali). Viewed from the comfort of a Landcruiser, the scenery along the way was breathtaking. I love immersing myself in the home-grown culture, so stopping at a local food market along the way was a huge highlight! Locals use bicycles as their main mode of transport, and it is not uncommon to see someone transporting over 250 kg’s of potatoes on their bicycle!

Room at Singita Kwitonda

We arrived in time for lunch at Singita Kwitonda Lodge, which opened around 18 months ago. Wow, wow, wow! As with all Singita properties, I knew this place would be special, but nothing prepared me for the spectacular location and the luxurious accommodation associated with it.

Boasting breathtaking views of the Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes and surrounded by high-altitude forests, Singita Kwitonda Lodge offers an experience unlike any of Singita’s other destinations. With its stunning surroundings, environmentally conscious luxury and purpose-driven experiences, the lodge reflects the spirit of Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas. It features eight contemporary suites as well as a private villa – Kataza House.

That evening we were treated to locals performing Rwandan dancing, with the Sabyinyo Mountain as the backdrop.  With a sundowner drink in hand, this was a “pinch yourself” moment!

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Rwanda locals performing

Soon the excitement for our Gorilla Trek started to build as the Singita team began to brief us on what to expect the next day. This once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list dream was becoming a reality.

The following morning, before our trek, we had to stop in at the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters (only a 7-minute drive from Singita) to get our temperatures taken and to be paired with our guide for the day. Because of COVID, our group was split into two groups of four. At the moment they allow only 6 pax per group (pre-COVID it was 8).

On a busy day, there can be up to 90 people trekking, but under the current climate and with so few people travelling, there were about 18 people in total… another good reason to travel at this time – no crowds!

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On our way to see the Mountain Gorillas

My group was fortunate enough to be paired with Francois, who has been trekking for over 40 years as a porter and now a guide. Fun fact … he was a porter for Diane Fossy back in the day!  The locals say Francois is half gorilla, which we soon realized is not far from the truth as he took a big bite out of a eucalyptus tree to show us what gorillas love to eat!

For the small cost of $10, I highly recommend you take a porter with you.  Not only are you supporting the local community, but they are immensely helpful when you’re trekking through dense vegetation and mud.

We were allocated the Agashi Gorilla family, which consists of around 24 gorillas, including three silverbacks (these are gorillas that are older than 12 years).  It was a relatively tough 2h30m trek to reach the family, and then the excitement began!

My first view of a gorilla was a cute 6-month year old hitting his chest with his hands when he saw us if to say, “I am the boss around here!” Just a few meters behind him was the dominant, massive silverback. I have to say the next hour was a blur as I took in this incredible experience, which included two charges from the dominant silverback. You only have one hour with the family, which feels like a 1-minute adrenaline rush. The experience was certainly life-changing and hard to put in words – you need to experience it for yourself.

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One of the gorillas of the group of 24

Once we left the group of gorillas, we enjoyed a tasty picnic snack prepared by Singita. They also provide all the necessary trekking equipment like gaiters, backpacks, walking sticks and even Salomon shoes (if you were lucky enough to find the right size!).

Our next stop was Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – Rwanda’s first ever community-owned lodge. The lodge was built and is operated by Governors’ Camp Collection. Still, the ownership rests with a Community Trust, SACOLA (Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association) which uses rentals and community fees from the lodge to drive socio-economic and conservation initiatives in the communities adjacent to the national park. Authentic, stone-built accommodation comprises six cottages, two suites and one family cottage.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Our stay was short, but we did enjoy an amazing evening around the cozy bar, followed by a delicious dinner hosted by ‘Mama Rachel’ and Chloe from Governors. Again, the staff were all incredibly hospitable.

What I loved about this lodge was the ‘old world charm’ as well as the location with wonderful views of the surrounding volcanoes and countryside. It was also the perfect location from which to set off on our Golden Monkey trek as the headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park are nearby.

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Another reason to visit Rwanda is to see the Golden Monkeys

For the monkey trek, our temperatures were taken, and we were allocated our guide. This is a far easier trek, and children from 12 years of age can join in. To support the locals, we all decided to use a porter, and for this trek, we could go as one group. On all treks – Gorilla and Golden Monkey, a mask is mandatory. Once we located a family, we could spend one hour with them. It was a fun experience with the monkeys playing in amongst us.

One&Only Gorillas Nest

Our next stop was the much talked about One&Only Gorillas Nest, which only opened about a year ago and is already on the list of best new hotels in the world as chosen by Conde Nast Traveller’s expert team of writers and editors across the globe. It certainly lived up to its expectations! From the moment we arrived, fragrant fauna and flora greeted us – a world of roses and eucalyptus trees growing year-round in the fertile Rwandan soil.

Not only does the plant-life contribute to everything from your welcome drink to your dinner and the logs burning on the fire – every plant and tree is chosen to encourage flourishing wildlife. Individual free-standing lodges and suites sit suspended over sprawling gardens at eye level with the tall eucalyptus trees and volcanic surroundings—also a special mention about the food, which was the best we had while in Rwanda.

The food at One&Only Gorillas Nest

One of the most rewarding experiences was our last stop at the Kampanga School, which was only a 15-minute drive from the One&Only Gorillas Nest.

Our group decided to participate in the Pack for a Purpose program which Giltedge supports. During this global pandemic, we must all practice responsible behaviour. Now more than ever Packing for a Purpose is a way to make a big impact wherever you travel, simply by using a small amount of space in your luggage to pack supplies needed by community projects around the world. Our group packed stationary, soccer balls, sports equipment and books.

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Kampanga School

On departure from Rwanda, there is a compulsory Covid-19 test required by the government. Saying that most countries now require a negative Covid-19 test to return home. Our team on-the-ground can arrange this in the comfort of your hotel at a cost of $60, and the results are published within about 24 hours online. I also wanted to mention that while we were in Rwanda, Kigali went back in lockdown because of Covid-19. This was merely due to the government being super cautious – their numbers are low. The one good thing to know is this does not affect tourism; the government understands that tourism is their lifeline.

Unfortunately, my time in Rwanda was limited to only 7 days, so I did not have the chance to experience other parts of this beautiful country. Other than Kigali and the Volcanoes National Park, the two other major destinations in Rwanda are Nyungwe National Park and Akagera National Park.

Nyungwe National Park lies in southwest Rwanda, partly abutting the Burundi border. It is a vast area of mountain rainforest, home to many species of chimpanzees, plus owl-faced and colobus monkeys. The Canopy Walkway, part of the Igishigishigi Trail, is a high suspension bridge with views over the valley and surrounding forests. Akagera National Park lies in eastern Rwanda, hugging the border with Tanzania. It is characterized by woodland, swamps, low mountains and savanna. The varied terrain shelters wildlife including rhino, leopard, zebras, giraffes, elephants, lions and hundreds of bird species, including the rare shoebill stork. In the southern part of the park, vast Lake Ihema is home to hippos and crocodiles. All these destinations within Rwanda make it a perfect one-stop destination!

Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to the USA travel advisors that travelled across the pond to experience travelling to Africa during a pandemic – Jill & Pete from Jet Set World Travel, Brianna from Milk + Honey Travels, Leah from World of Luxury Travel, Kayla from Destinations Europe, Judy from Judy Perl Travel and Claire from Stray Dog Travel.

By Murray Gardiner
Photos by Murray Gardiner and Travel Partners 

Find out more about Rwanda or get in touch with us to start planning your trip of a lifetime.