Rwanda: Hope in the hills

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The fate of Rwanda's mountain gorillas has become entwined with the future of a country still reeling from the genocide of 1994, as Mike Unwin discovers

Guideline No7 on my sheet of gorilla-tracking protocol advises: "Do not beat your chest at the silverback." I wonder what moment of idiocy prompted this warning; Rwanda seems an unlikely destination for a stag weekend.

Of course, the gorilla's image as a hairy, homicidal maniac has long since been blown. American primatologist Dian Fossey put paid to this in the Seventies, exposing the great apes as sociable, peace-loving herbivores. Yet the prospect of encountering a gorilla in the wild still excites a primal, heart-of-darkness frisson. So my apprehension is building as I head deeper into the forest – together with my six fellow tourists, our guide and two soldiers, whose guns guard against any lurking buffalo.

We're looking for Group 13, one of the seven troops of mountain gorillas on Rwanda's Virunga volcanoes that are habituated to humans. We slither up the muddy trail, clutching at stands of nettles and leaning against moss-laden hagenia trunks to recover breath and balance. At 3,000 metres, the altitude is definitely kicking in. Mist veils the canopy, lifting occasionally to reveal glimpses of the forested slopes beyond. Yet this is no needle-in-a-haystack job: our guide has radioed the trackers who keep tabs on the apes. So, unless we expire en route, our sighting is guaranteed. Splintered bamboo and fresh droppings show we are getting close and, sure enough, the trackers await around the corner. There's a final briefing: no flash photography, no closer than five metres and so on.

Suddenly the curtain goes up: one second we're groping through a thicket; the next we're in a clearing, surrounded by gorillas. The apes lie slumped in various attitudes of abandonment, hillocks of black fur protruding from the glossy greenery. Group 13, it transpires, is enjoying a mid-morning break – as it does every day at 10 o'clock sharp, having risen at six to embark on yet another day munching through the giant salad-bowl of the Virungas.

It's bewildering; embarrassing, even. Like being ushered into the living room of a family of strangers who remain glued to the TV. Should I sit or stand? Do I take off my boots? Am I meant to say a few polite words?

We squat discreetly. What follows is one hour of almost overwhelming wonder. I'd been determined not to succumb to any cloying anthropomorphism. But no documentary prepares you for the raw impact of simply sitting among the beasts in their forest.

The experience is, admittedly, short on action. Boisterous youngsters periodically barrel out of the undergrowth, while one mature female, breastfeeding a tiny infant, brushes against me as she wanders over to take up a new position. The others do little but roll over, grunt and break wind with pungent regularity. The silverback seems particularly indisposed: he lies on his massive belly, head cradled in beer-bottle-sized fingers, while youngsters tumble over his back.

But action is not the point, we all agree later: it's all about a sense of "connection". This may just be an illusion, created by the human-like topography of the great ape's face. But it's a humbling one.

Emerging from the forest, still buzzing with the experience, reminds you immediately why seeing these animals is so special. The reality of today's Rwanda is laid out before you: an undulating mosaic of fields and homesteads stretching to the horizon. Pretty, yes, but hardly unspoilt. Virtually every square metre of this hilly little country is now turned over to feeding its burgeoning population of 10 million. Any concept of untamed jungle is a hopeless anachronism. The remaining forests perch like toupees atop their balding volcanoes, islands in a sea of relentless cultivation.

Hence the precarious status of the mountain gorilla. Although the western "lowland" gorilla still survives in reasonable numbers elsewhere, its mountain cousin – a race of the larger eastern species and the one made famous by Fossey – has been reduced to a population of just 750. Most live here in the Volcanoes National Park, which straddles the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda's slice of the park is the smallest, but it harbours the most gorillas and is the best protected from poachers. Rwanda, therefore, is where most punters come to see them.

Gorilla trekking, at $500 (£265) a permit, does not come cheap. But a good chunk of the revenue goes directly to the impoverished local community, helping fund clinics, schools and other amenities. It's the classic "ecotourism" equation: tourists pay to see wildlife; money improves life of locals; locals protect wildlife. It's easier said than done, but Rwanda – which earns about £3.2m a year purely from gorillas, seems to be making it work.

A good illustration comes in the form of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, my base for the Virungas. This elegant new retreat nestles at the foot of Mount Sabyinyo, with a volcanoes vista from its terrace. It was built by Governors' Camp, of Kenyan safari fame. Yet Governors' does not own the property; it merely leases it from the local community. Together with the African Wildlife Foundation and International Gorilla Conservation Programme, it has established a community trust, Sacola, which allocates visitor revenue to local development projects. The lodge has already provided more than 650 jobs and brought many new skills to the neighbourhood – especially for women.

The result is all the five-star comforts that Governors' upmarket clientele would expect. But, unlike safari lodgesu oelsewhere, Sabyinyo does not attempt to persuade its guests that they are the only human beings in an otherwise empty wilderness; Rwanda is far too crowded to carry off that deception. Instead the guests awake to the smell of wood smoke, the chime of goat bells and the peal of children's singing.

But wait a minute, you remember, this is Rwanda. You remind yourself that this is the country where, in 1994, a million people died in a three-month genocidal bloodbath.

Scratch many of Africa's most popular destinations and horrors are easy to find: war, disease, famine, injustice. Most visitors, understandably, prefer not to scratch. In Rwanda, however, you cannot avoid the genocide. This first becomes apparent on a personal level. My guide for the week is law student Gérard Shema. Within two minutes of my airport pick-up, we are heading into Kigali exchanging pleasantries and I ask whether his family is from the capital. "Ma famille était tuée," ("My family were killed") he answers.

Of course, I think. How insensitive of me. But Rwanda, I soon realise, has moved beyond conversational taboos and Gérard is happy to talk. This is down to more than personal resilience: it is government policy. The country wears its past on its sleeve. Look at what happened here, it says, then understand why, so that it can never happen again. The genocide has joined the gorillas as a Rwandan tourist experience: "the two Gs", some blithely say.

The Gisozi Genocide Memorial stands on a hill just north of town, where 14 mass graves hold 258,000 victims from Kigali. International funding has helped create an impressively modern museum. Iridescent sunbirds flit around landscaped gardens, where stone tablets display countless names of the dead.

Inside, an unflinching narrative leads you from room to room, explaining everything from the manufacture of ethnic divisions during colonial times to the foul propaganda spewed on the radio during the killings. Some facts are jaw-dropping: the military muscle used to evacuate Europeans, for instance, would have been more than enough to stop the slaughter. In one room a video loop screens interviews with survivors, all now museum staff. "It was as if we had moved to a different planet," says one. In another room hang thousands of family snapshots: beaming smiles, weddings, cup finals, graduations. Gérard shows me his sisters and brother.

Other memorials elsewhere have not enjoyed such funding and remain stark, shocking affairs. At Murambi, in the south, I visit a secondary school in which more than 50,000 fleeing Tutsis had sought refuge. The killers had laid siege to the school and, in just three days, slaughtered everyone – first with grenades and bullets, then machetes, spades and hammers. The victims were bulldozed into mass graves, but many have since been exhumed for identification. Today 1,200 nameless corpses are preserved in lime and laid out on trestle tables in the classrooms as a "never again" reminder. One room contains just children.

As a guide leads me from room to room, Gérard waits by the minibus. This is where his parents died. Thunder rumbles overhead and voices drift across the surrounding fields. My breaking point is a small plaque stuck into the bare turf: "French soldiers played volley here," it reads. Back at the office I'm offered the visitors' book, but can find no words for the comment column.

Just east of Murambi school lies Butare, Rwanda's second city and its seat of culture. Here I learn that life goes on. Perhaps Rwandan tour guides are briefed to give their clients an emotional roller-coaster. Certainly Gérard has the knack: desolation to jubilation in just one afternoon.

The latter comes at Butare's excellent museum, as I watch a thrilling display of traditional intore dancing that has won the National Ballet of Rwanda international acclaim. A dozen dancers gyrate across the floor in a ritualised drama: the women twirl hands and skirts with fluid elegance, while the men strut and leap, sisal head-dresses flaring out as though alight. The drumming is an explosion of rhythmic power and complexity.

Back in town, we stop for a bite at the Ibis Restaurant, clearly something of an expat hangout, and I reflect on what the world has given Rwanda. Decades of colonial governance – the Germans, the Brits, the Belgians – achieved little but division. And when this division exploded into the greatest massacre of modern times, the world looked away. Today, the flotsam of Western culture seems embodied in my "croque monsieur speciale", which turns out to be a cheese-and-ham toastie drowned in bolognese sauce; the piped music, which brings us George Formby and Harry Nilsson in quick succession; and the Arsenal shirt worn by the newspaper vendor pacing the pavement outside.

Meanwhile, Rwanda generates its own breathtaking bustle and energy. In the countryside, bicycles and handcarts labour beneath vast loads of bananas and timber, while lines of women harvest potatoes from neatly terraced smallholdings. And in Kigali, a modern African city that is refreshingly safe to explore on foot, new buildings are going up almost as I watch. All this industry seems borne on a genuine wave of self-determination. Never, for instance, have I seen an African country looking so spick-and-span.

This, explains Gérard, is down to umaganda – a national clean-up held on the last Saturday of every month, when the nation downs tools and tidies itself up. Rwanda, a step ahead of most Western countries, banned plastic bags in 2005.

In the swanky lounge of Kigali's Serena Hotel, I describe my impressions to Rosette Rugamba, the dynamic young director of Rwanda's Office du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux. Rosette assures me that the energy I've seen goes all the way to the top, and that her tourism portfolio has the full backing of the president – both as a poverty reduction strategy and an image builder.

One animal looms large in our discussion. "Gorillas have allowed us to be acceptable," admits Rosette.

She talks in strategic terms about how the great ape offers Rwanda a "competitive advantage" over heavyweight neighbours such as Kenya and Tanzania. Thus the beleaguered gorilla has a whole nation as its custodian. There can be few places in the world, I suggest, where a nation's wellbeing depends so heavily upon the fortunes of one endangered species.

But Rosette's mission now is to keep tourists in Rwanda long enough to see the rest of the country. "The success of our tourism will be judged on diversification," she argues. "There's more to Rwanda than the gorillas."

Nyungwe National Park gives me a glimpse of how much more. This little-known reserve protects nearly 1,000 sq km of montane forest in the country's south-west corner. Manicured tea estates press against the boundaries, but inside, the natural abundance is bewildering: misty ridges cloaked in tumbling vegetation; orchid-laden newtonias clutching at the canopy; ropes of driver ants twisting across the forest floor.

The biodiversity here matches any in Africa, and the park is home to hundreds of Albertine Rift endemics – species that evolved in this isolated western branch of the Great Rift Valley and are found nowhere else on Earth. My guide, Claver, helps me tick off several of the birds that get twitchers salivating, including the Rwenzori batis and Kivu thrush. We also find a good selection of Nyungwe's 13 primate species: black-and-white colobus monkeys leap from tree to tree; L'Hoest's monkeys peer at us over their Elizabethan ruffs; and olive baboons follow us into the forest, before – perhaps remembering that they're really a savannah species – scampering back up the trail.

Best of all are the chimps, of which Nyungwe boasts at least 500. Finding them is a challenge: most of the forest lies beyond trails, and the apes' location depends upon which trees happen to be fruiting. We catch a frenzied crescendo of hooting and shrieking far below, but by the time we arrive the troop has moved on, save for one old male, high in the canopy, who seems reluctant to abandon his stash of figs. We can just glimpse long limbs reaching out to gather the booty, before – alerted by the drumbeat summons of his companions' feet – he swings down from his lofty throne and is lost to the forest.

Rwanda offers many reasons to visit, and not all begin with a "G". Yet it is not a visit to undertake lightly. The experience is intimate, intense and at times it is overwhelming. Not one, perhaps, for that stag weekend.

Getting there

The writer flew to Rwanda on Kenya Airways (020-8283 1800; www.kenya-airways.com), which flies to the capital Kigali from Heathrow via Nairobi.

Brussels Airlines (0905 609 5609; www.brusselsairlines.com) also flies to Kigali from a range of British airports via Brussels.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

The writer's trip was arranged by Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; www.imagineafrica.co.uk), which offers an eight-night private safari in Nyungwe Forest and Volcanoes National Park from £2,302 per person, plus a £549 supplement for two gorilla permits. The price includes ground transport, the services of a driver and guide, park entry fees, activities and full-board accommodation at Guest House Gisakura, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge and Serena Kigali. International flights are not included.

More information

Rwanda Tourist Board: 00 250 576 514; www.rwandatourism.com

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