Finding new adventures in the shadow of the Virunga Volcanoes
Rwanda isn't all about gorillas
Director of Kingfisher Journeys
21 Aug 2018
22 Apr 2021
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When I heard I was going to live in Rwanda a few years ago, I was excited that I would have the chance to visit the Virunga Volcanoes. These majestic mountains are an iconic location, not least because shrouded in their seemingly impenetrable, enchanted forests there is a truly remarkable treasure. They are home to what is arguably the most incredible wildlife encounter in the world.
And it’s true! I’ll never forget the hour I spent in the company of a giant silverback gorilla watching over his family. To see these amazing primates was just astonishing. As I watched the individual gorillas and the way they interacted with each other, there transpired an uncanny reflection of our own human family experience.
“There were boisterous adolescents misbehaving and playful children constantly demanding attention of their parents, aunts and uncles who appeared to have eaten just a little too much for breakfast and so needed a good rest to sleep it off.”
It was fascinating to not just see some amazing animals, but to be struck by their genuine, social behaviour. I was blown away, this really was a wildlife experience like no other!
But despite this encounter, I wasn’t in Rwanda just to see the gorillas! Drawing on my experience of leading adventures at home in the UK, in the rainforests of the Amazon and deep into the Arctic, I was there to set up a new activity for visitors to enjoy.
The previous year it all began when on a short visit to Rwanda, I’d looked out over the shimmering blue water of Lake Kivu. As I happened to be a qualified British Canoeing coach, advanced water kayaker and canoeist with some 20 years experience, I saw the potential of creating a new adventure here. So, when I returned a few months later, I brought a few kayaks and canoes and began by training several Rwandan tour guides to become kayaking leaders so that they could lead trips on this amazing lake…
Lake Kivu is located in the Albertine branch of the African Rift Valley, with its deep blue water contrasting magnificently against the surrounding lush green hills where local people work on a patchwork of fields and fishermen paddle out at sunset. Since then, kayaking on Lake Kivu has become the leading activity in the region. Furthermore, the Rwandan tour guides I trained are now qualified British Canoeing Paddlesport Leaders in their own right so that whether it’s a short excursion or a longer adventure, all trips are led professionally and to the same standards as if they were run in the UK.
“It’s just that they’re taking place on the clean, warm water of Lake Kivu in the middle of Africa where there is so much new to discover!”
And there is one extra special fact about Lake Kivu that makes it perfect for kayaking; it just happens to be the largest lake in Africa that naturally has not a single hippo or crocodile. This means that whilst there are plenty of lodges located on its shores, kayaking trips on Lake Kivu are unique in the entire continent because it’s perfectly safe to swim from the kayaks and camp right next to the lake.
But it didn’t stop there. Next came the Mukungwa River Canoe Trip, a lovely journey through the Rwandan countryside in the foothills of the Virunga Volcanoes that The Sunday Times went on to describe as a ‘half-day of pure joy.’ In fact gently floating down a beautiful valley where we have recorded sightings of almost 40 species of birds has now become the top activity to do before or after a visit to the gorillas themselves.
Then, because people who go to see the gorillas began asking for another short, relaxing activity that they could go on in the afternoon following their amazing encounters, we created a short excursion by canoe onto a nearby lake. Here the guides do the paddling, so all our clients need to do is to relax and sip a complimentary glass of champagne whilst watching the sunset behind the volcanoes… It’s just perfect!
However, there are many other ways to explore in Rwanda! When I’m not on the water, one of my favourite things to do is to take a mountain bike and discover the trails that criss-cross the hills. You don’t have to go far or fast to find spectacular scenery, stumble across small markets and meet so many friendly people. Whilst of course there are some up hills that challenge top riders, by carefully selecting routes in advance I like the ones that are mostly downhill…and finish at a nice café or lodge for a cold drink!
Of course Rwanda also has a world-class safari park with all the classic animals that you would expect to see as well as other wonderful forests.
“However, I can’t talk about Rwanda without mentioning the people who have had a profound impact on me.”
Whether professionally educated in the cities or living in rural communities they are genuine and proud and have taught me so much. So I always recommend to people who visit Rwanda that they include a least one community activity whilst here, because whilst most tourists come for the wildlife and are blown away by the scenery or the activities that they do, for many it’s also the people they meet that make their visit extra special.