Three years ago, after my second trip to Rwanda, I wrote an article called “A Plane Ride to Inspiration,” because even though I had come to see endangered mountain gorillas, what left me in awe was the resilience of the country’s people, who had survived a horrific genocide and rebuilt a thriving nation. Last month, when I returned to Rwanda for nearly three weeks, I was once again moved and inspired by the spirit of its people. But coming at the end of this challenging year, the trip turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. Because never before have I seen the positive power of travel—or the consequences of its absence—so starkly illustrated.
Contact us to learn more about our upcoming Insider Journeys to Kenya or Rwanda or to receive an itinerary and talk with one of our travel specialists about these trips, new COVID-19 policies or future trip-planning advice.
Traveling in the time of Covid is a complex undertaking. Just the thought worries almost everyone, and it dissuades many—rightly so, in the case of most leisure travel, when staying home and being mindful of the health of family, friends and others and adhering to government guidelines, is of huge importance. But when travel can be done responsibly—and it can in the case of certain destinations currently, and when both guests and hosts follow strict protocols—it invites a naturally intrepid type of traveler. When we announced our Insider Journey to Rwanda, the first IJ since the spring, I wondered if there would be enough demand. As with so many of Indagare’s best offerings, initially, the trip had been suggested by one of our members. He had contacted me in August when Rwanda became one of the first countries to re-open its international airport to foreign travelers. He had heard me talk about how the small East African country (roughly the size of Massachusetts) had become a beacon of hope for the African continent because of the way its people had survived the 1994 genocide to create the region’s safest country, with a fast-growing economy, and high health and education standards.
In this unprecedented global crisis, Rwanda’s leadership acted swiftly to lock down the country, requiring mask-wearing and instituting contact tracing. When it reopened, it also became one of the first countries to require foreign travelers to present a negative Covid test on arrival and to quarantine in a hotel room until receiving the results of a second PCR test. Subsequently, since March, the country has had very few cases (and deaths). The member wanted to know if I thought it would be safe for him and his wife to travel there, and when I affirmed that I thought it was, he wrote: “Then why don’t you plan it as an Insider Journey and come along, too?”
After six months at home, I loved the idea, though again I wondered how many others would be willing to come. A lot, as it turned out. Forty-eight hours after we announced the trip, we had sold all 12 spots and had a waitlist twice as long. As an advocate for the travel industry, I knew this could show others how travel can be done safely and responsibly, so I decided to offer a second trip right after, which is how I ended up spending most of November in Rwanda. Both of these Insider Journeys began with time in the capital of Kigali. All visitors now have to overnight/quarantine there while awaiting the results of a Covid test administered by Rwandan health authorities. We were tested at our hotel, the lovely 12-room Retreat, then isolated in our rooms (with room service for the 14 hours it took for us to receive our negative results). Usually, I hit the ground running as soon as I arrive anywhere, but I found the built-in downtime a welcome way to ease into a different time zone. This, too, is a lesson of Covid—that our fast-paced ways of traveling in the past were certainly not great for the world and its environments, but also were not the gentlest of approaches for ourselves. In Rwanda, confined to a hotel room, I could step onto my balcony into equatorial sunshine and see a raft of flowering trees giving way to the bustling hills of Kigali. I could arrive slowly, thoughtfully, purposefully.
Many gorilla itineraries skip time in Kigali but, to me, it is essential to understanding the country. We spent our first days learning about the genocide and the slow rebuilding of Rwanda. We visited one of the Catholic churches, where thousands of Tutsis sought refuge when the killing began, only to be massacred within its walls. We met with a survivor, who shared her story of endurance in heart-wrenching detail, and also toured one of the earliest post-genocide health clinics, built when much of the country was still suffering from famine, with its founder. We had dinner with artists at a new contemporary art gallery, where a young Zimbabwean chef dazzled us with his culinary talent, and we visited women’s cooperatives and female-led businesses to buy kitenge-fabric fashions and housewares. Not surprisingly, really, but still amazingly, in most of these spots, we were the first travelers to visit since March, and the purchases we made supplied weeks of wages. “Your purchases were a big boost to our income, which has been affected by the pandemic,” said Joselyne Umutoniwase of Rwanda Clothing Company. “Thank you for supporting us.”
After four nights in Kigali, we drove to the southeast of the country to Akagera National Park to witness another of the country’s remarkable revivals. After the genocide, the park was overwhelmed by returning refugees who cut timber, grazed cattle on its land and eradicated all of its lions and rhinos. But in 2015, African National Parks, in cooperation with the Rwanda Tourism Board, reduced its boundaries by a third and fenced 277,000 acres. They hired former poachers as rangers, reintroduced lions (which have tripled their population since 2015) and returned 20 Eastern black rhinos in 2017. On both Insider Journeys, we took over Magashi Camp, the lovely six-tent run by Wilderness Safaris. It sits on a private concession of 12,000 acres in Central Africa’s largest protected wetlands, so you can alternate game drives with boat rides on Lake Rwanyakazinga, which fronts the camp and provides a constant pageant of fish eagles and a chorus of hippo-honking.
On our first game drive, our group saw a pride of 13 lions and one female leopard. By the next day, we had seen all of the big five, including a pair of rhinos who had been born in European zoos and successfully reintroduced to the wilderness. Cruising on the placid, mirrored lake, we spotted the pair by the water’s edge. Behind them, impala dotted the green savanna; a troop of baboons occupied a nearby acacia tree and a family of warthogs darted along the tree line. In the distance, papyrus swamps, their green tassel tops swaying in the breeze, gave way to the mountains of Tanzania on the horizon. It was astonishing to imagine that this eden had been restored in less than a decade from a nearly barren landscape. For safari backdrop, the landscape rivaled the Okavango Delta in Botswana, the Serengeti in Tanzania and Mana Pools in Zimbabwe—and in our six days in the park, we saw only two other vehicles.
However much of a gift the sense of privacy felt on safari, the lack of tourists was downright shocking when we arrived at Volcanoes National Park. To see the fabled mountain gorillas, there are a maximum of 96 daily gorilla permits, normally sold-out months in advance. Every other time I have arrived at the Rangers’ headquarters, dozens of people have milled around, waiting to set off to see the 12 habituated gorilla families. Normally, the 20-some gorilla rangers are busy five days a week escorting different groups. But each of the four times I took our Insider Journey groups in November, we found only a few other travelers. (We learned that each ranger was now lucky to take two groups a week). The permits cost $1,500 and support conservation, as well as local health and education efforts. Tragically, the lack of visitors is already showing: the economic desperation caused by Covid has led to an increase in bushmeat poaching and three baby gorillas have been caught in snares since March.
“Visitors are critical to conservation and to supporting communities surrounding the park,” one of our rangers said. “Please know how grateful we are that you have chosen to visit.” The former poachers-turned-porters and the trackers who helped guide us to the families in the bamboo forests expressed similar thanks. With minimum wage in the country at $1.50 a day, tourist tips and hotel taxes provide significant boosts to locals’ livelihoods. Formerly, the government’s strategy to grow tourism has fueled an increase of tourism revenue contribution that has grown from four percent in 2000 to more than 15 percent in 2019. Since March, much of that has disappeared.
Yet nowhere did we see desperation. Times are hard for people here, as they are for so many around the world, but Rwandans have been through worse. One of our guides shared her story of surviving the genocide with us, and what left a deep impression was how she drew a parallel between our current situation and her family fighting for survival then. “Think about lockdown,” she said, “but imagine you are getting no news at all. There are dead bodies in the street. You are running out of food, and you have no idea when someone will come to the door to kill you.”
Every time I have visited Rwanda I—and those with me—have been struck by Rwandans’ willingness to discuss difficult times and to share their stories of fierce resilience and optimism. “I wanted to go to a place that had overcome challenges on a massive scale, and somehow come out the other side to provide hope to its population and foster a sense of community, purpose and future,” one of our travelers told me. “Rwanda met all of these expectations and went beyond.”
In a moment of global crisis, it was truly inspirational to spend time with people who transformed their tragic history into a light of hope. Rwanda has also handled Covid better than the vast majority of countries and is leading the way in how travel can be managed safely even in a pandemic, so it was a bit like visiting the future. Amongst our groups, there was a collective appreciation of just how fortunate we were to be in Africa surrounded by beauty and friendship. For me, the shared wow and shared gratitude was the highlight of the trip, because as amazing as a great moment is, it is magnified when shared—and I felt so lucky to share it with other adventurous, world-trusting souls, who braved traveling in such unusual times.
I felt an imperative to travel before I left, but I returned with a powerful new understanding of it. By supporting a destination in a time of real need, we not only felt the magnified impact we were having on the country (“Your visit made us believe that things will slowly get better as tourists come back into our country,” the designer Joselyne Umutoniwase told me). We also felt its lasting impact on us. Our encounters were global exchanges in which we learned from each other and they were also genuine exchanges of hope. When we travel now, we experience a true partnership of humanity and in order to emerge from this crisis, we must recognize the strength we have together.
Contact us to learn more about our upcoming Insider Journeys to Kenya or Rwanda or receive an itinerary and talk with one of our travel specialists or trip designers about these trips, new COVID-19 policies or future trip-planning advice.
To learn more about Rwanda, listen to episode 22 of the Indagare Global Conversations with Melissa Biggs Bradley. She talks with Rwanda activists Josh and Alissa Ruxin about the country’s complicated history, the power of resilience and the best way to experience Kigali.