As a child I would gaze towards the stars and dream of a time such as this. A time where I would finally step into the very heart of Africa.
This luscious ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ taught me a new found joy and freedom as I ventured through towns and villages, passing volcanoes in the north and forests in the south. Unique in it’s charm and character, Rwanda welcomed me with open arms as if I was returning home…yet I had arrived for the very first time.
With rolling green hills from east to west, Rwanda is bound by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the DRC. At high altitude, tea and coffee plantations flourish and with a mild climate combined with a couple of long dry seasons, it’s no wonder that tourism is on the rise. Known as the cleanest city in Africa, Kigali was the start and end point of our journey and became a city that I long to return to.
Rwanda’s capital facilitates luxurious relaxation with eleven exquisite lodges staggered upon one of Kigali’s many rolling hills. An invitation into a deep serene, a piece of opulence waiting to be discovered. The Retreat is Kigali’s first entirely eco friendly solar-powered resort, featuring elegant rooms of locally crafted teak furniture equipped with outdoor rain-showers and private balconies. A well-equipped gym, meditation room and yoga space overlook the outside bar and pool area where breakfast is served from the hotel’s gourmet restaurant, ‘Fusion’. Offering mouth-watering fine dining with fresh Rwandan ingredients, Fusion serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in style, with breakfast offering a wide variety of tropical fruits and fresh bakery items, alongside a cooked menu. Yes, The Retreat may be far from reality but how exciting that behind the banana trees that laden the streets, such an idyllic haven can be found.
Based at The Retreat, we spent our first couple of days with Question Coffee, exploring the farms near Kibungo in the east, returning to the city each evening just in time for dinner. Dan, our guide accompanied us for much of our trip and for that, I am eternally grateful. His knowledge as a coffee lover, barista and roaster was as refreshing as it was insightful. We couldn’t have wished for a better beginning for our adventure through Rwanda.
As the saying goes, “All good things start with a caffeine hit” so it was only fitting that our tour began at Question Coffee, Kigali’s portal into the world of third-wave specialty coffee. Having been fortunate enough to visit many coffee-producing countries in the past, I’ve been somewhat saddened to see the majority of quality beans exported with a lack of demand (and roasting knowledge) in the producing countries. Question Coffee are doing an incredible job in tackling this trend. It was such a pleasure to see the women coffee farmers out in Kibungo grinding beans to take home to their families as well as many Rwandan residents enjoying a brew in their local café. Times they are a changing and Rwanda is paving the way for other Sub-Saharan African countries to reap and enjoy the fruit of their own harvest, in its most literal sense.
Out at the co-operative we were shown the process from bean to plant. There’s a brilliant initiative in Rwanda to empower women coffee producers and it was such a privilege to spend the day with the ladies working on the farm, experiencing first-hand the love and pride they have for their craft. After visiting the plantations we took a short drive down to the washing station where we watched the traditional method of milling, roasting and grinding before a cupping. The time, effort and care that goes into making a single cup of coffee is somewhat humbling and we left the co-operative with an even greater love for the commodity.
Upon leaving Kigali, Rwiza Village (meaning ‘beautiful village’ in Kinyarwanda) was our next destination and the journey would quickly become the most scenic drive of my life. Up and over majestic mounds through rural villages connected by clusters of banana trees, passing streams and luscious green trees. It was a drive I’ll never forget. After several hours on surprisingly smooth, paved roads we arrived in Kibuye. Just outside this small fisherman’s town lay Rwiza Village, a strip of log cabins lining Lake Kivu, an enormous stretch of water that separates Rwanda from it’s neighbouring country, the DRC. From our balconies we watched as dusk fell and the local fishermen headed out in an army of boats towards the setting sun. This land surpassed my expectations once again and it wouldn’t be the last time…
What sets Rwiza Village apart is not only the awe-inspiring, unspoilt views of the lake but the raw, homely ambience created from arrival until departure. With genuine care and affection, we were made to feel at home by everyone at Rwiza Village in a place which in all honesty, couldn’t be much further from home. It was the adventurous escape I craved; the Rwanda I had been longing for.
After a boat ride to one of the many islands dispersed throughout Africa’s 6th largest lake, we headed north in pursuit of our final destination, Ruhengeri. The capital of Musanze District is most commonly known as a base when gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. While we didn’t get a chance to experience the gorillas, we were pre-occupied by the last few stages of the Tour du Rwanda, an iconic event for the country and now part of the UCI Africa Tour. The Tour du Rwanda is a gruelling 8 stage cycle race, tacking a vast proportion of the country’s hills with around 15 different teams competing. It was a goose-bump moment as we joined the streams of people lining the streets, patiently waiting in great anticipation for the group of cyclists to pass us by. Together: cheering, laughing, clapping and even the odd vuvuzela.
Beneath Volcanoes National Park you’ll find Five Volcanoes, a small boutique hotel featuring accommodation from family suites to VIP cottages. While the hotel has a multitude of facilities including a spa, restaurant and pool, the majority of visitors are there to experience activities outside the hotel. From canoe trips to gorilla trekking, there is so much to do in this district of lush, dramatic landscapes.
On our final morning at Five Volcanoes we drove to the most incredible lookout point on a peak of land that separates Lake Burera and Lake Ruhondo. We arrived just in time to catch sunrise and in true form, brewed Rwandan beans before heading on a short hike. Staying at Five Volcanoes was the perfect way to end our road trip across Rwanda. We even decided to ditch the car for the rest of the day and explore Ruhengeri the local way: by moto-taxi!
For our travels across Rwanda we hired a classic old Defender and I’m happy to announce it survived our entire trip and with over 850,000km on the clock, she was still going strong! Despite the main roads being in excellent condition across the country, a 4×4 was an absolute must to reach many destinations on our list.
There is no denying the challenges faced when documenting a country like Rwanda. Before arriving, I made the decision to treat this adventure the same way I would any country. We would discover beauty in the little things, portraying the charm and character of local life. I am aware of Rwanda’s deeply saddening history but I believe there is so much more for this country than its past. The development, safety and cleanliness I witnessed across Kigali was truly applaudable and it was so encouraging to see how far this country has progressed in recent years. I experienced an unmatched beauty and joy during my time in Rwanda. This ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’ should be renamed the ‘Land of a Thousand Smiles’, for the love and welcome we experienced was heart-warming. I have no doubt in my mind that I will return soon.
Below I have included a map of our journey as well as a list of recommendations in terms of accommodation, car rental and restaurants. Feel free to leave a comment if you are thinking of visiting Rwanda and want to ask any questions.
Address: 5, KN 29 St, Kigali, Rwanda
Address: Kibuye, Lake Kivu
Address: Ruhengeri, Rwanda
Rent a Car Rwanda
Restaurants and Cafés
Khana Khazana Kiyovu
Address: 9 KN 31 St, Kigali, Rwanda
Address: RN4, Ruhengeri, Rwanda
For more images see: www.instagram.com/dancartertc