Louise Stanion from luxury holidays operator Cox & Kings discovers the little known treasures of Rwanda.
There is a long row of tall, African drums lined up in the courtyard of Butare’s National Museum. The cowhide drum skins of brown and cream are held in place by an intricate rope system; behind which are tucked two drum sticks. There is an air of expectancy about the whole set up as a few locals sit on a nearby stone wall, shuffling their feet.
After a while the drums are moved around the back and we are led to a covered stage surrounded by beautiful gardens. Crouched low on handmade stools I was unaware that we were about to witness one of the finest examples of Rwanda’s dynamic dance styles.
The Intore Dancers have been dancing for centuries.
At the time of the monarchy, before the arrival of the Europeans, the Intore Dancers at the royal court were young men who had received a privileged education and choreographic training in order to entertain their masters and to perform at special functions. The name intore means ‘The Chosen Ones’ signifying that only the best of them were selected for this special honour.
Originally their performances consisted mainly of warlike dances, such as ikuma (lance), umeheto (bow) and ingabo (shield), in which they carried authentic weapons. Nowadays, dummy weapons have been substituted and the dances have been given peaceful names. Although rhythm and movement rather than warfare have now become their main feature, the dances are no less impressive.
Today the show was a varied one and started with a group of female singers clapping and swaying to a heavy drumbeat. The young men, with their colourful costumes, expressive faces and long white wigs of flowing horsehair, took centre stage. I switched my camera to its fastest shutter speed and followed them as they dipped their hips low towards the ground and jumped up high into the air as the music reached a crescendo. They seemed to have the flexibility of a child coupled with the strength of a fully-grown warrior. The female dancers, although calmer, were equally striking in the energetic connection that they made with the audience. Totally involved and in their element, the performers were enjoying themselves regardless of our presence. We were just an excuse.
So immediately engaged was I in this tiny country, it was hard to believe that we had been in Rwanda for less than 24 hours.
It was only this morning that we had sat on the roof terrace of the recently refurbished Hotel Des Milles Collines, (made famous for its central role in the sheltering of Tutse refugees during the genocide) listening as Jimmy, our guide, briefed us over breakfast. The view of Kigali, which straddles several hills, was impressive. Everything of interest in Rwanda is within a 5-hour drive of here, Jimmy explained, making this small, land-locked country an excellent place to explore by road.
Kigali itself has all the usual characteristics of a colourful, bustling, noisy African city but it is surprising clean, safe and European in feel. The pavements are spotless and the bus timetables are carefully posted up at each stop.
Soon after leaving Kigali, an artist’s landscape of green terraces began to open up. No space is left uncultivated. Known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, the whole of West and Central Rwanda is broken up by dramatically steep mountains interspersed with stunning blue lakes. Once a landscape of montane rainforest, tea plantations and banana trees now dominate although a huge tract of this ancient forest is preserved in the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Rwanda is wonderfully rich in colour. Travelling by road provides a fascinating insight into daily village life and gives a clear sense of what Africa’s most densely populated country looks like on the ground. Hardly fifty metres of road passed us by without some form of life, animal or human. Travelling west, the scenery is positively Alpine and reminiscent of the Italian lakes. The road joining Kibuye and Gisenyi, both pretty ports situated on the edge of Lake Kivu, is a highlight. Expensive villas dotted high on the mountainside contrast with the busy, more basic rural life that exists lower down. Crowds gather together on market days creating a splash of moving colour on an otherwise green backdrop. Both ports provide an opportunity to take a break from driving, enjoy some grilled tilapia (a lake fish) and relax on the sandy beaches.
Gisenyi, the most northerly of the two ports, is just an hour by road from the gorilla tracking base of Ruhengeri. Once here, I head to the Virunga Lodge, an eco-friendly establishment close to the Volcanoes National Park. Ten rustic but very comfortable bandas are perched high on a hilltop, giving an outstanding panoramic view of the twin lakes, Ruhondo and Bulera, as well as the 15,000 ft volcanoes that inhabit the park.
The lodge is about 45 minutes from the park headquarters and so an early start is called for on gorilla tracking day. Over the past decade, Rwanda’s mountain gorilla population has increased by more than 10% and today 300 gorillas live in the misty forests. There are now 7 habituated troops which typically consist of a silverback male, his 3 or 4 wives and several young infants. It can take anything between 20 minutes and 4 hours to find the gorillas; depending on what group you are tracking. We came across the Sabyinyo group after about 90 minutes.
Without doubt, looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla is one of Africa’s most memorable wildlife experiences and it was indeed a privilege to spend an hour with these huge creatures. As is usual, the infants were very active, moving quickly from branch to branch. Occasionally they would roll too close to the seated Silverback, who would open his eyes nonchalantly and swat them away briskly, like you would a mosquito. His touch sent them flying through the air and landing with a thud on the ground. The wives sat separately, quietly grooming, whilst the younger males also kept their distance.
There is plenty to do in the area aside from gorilla tracking.
You can climb a volcano, track the golden monkey in the bamboo forests, visit the zoologist Dian Fossey’s grave or go for a gentle stroll around the picturesque villages near the lakes. Virunga Lodge also regularly invites the Intore Dancers to perform and provides a well needed on-site massage after a gorilla track.
The trip was drawing to a close and on returning to Kigali our last stop was the Genocide Memorial. Hardly a family in Rwanda was left untouched by this event, but although there is still great sadness, the country has transformed itself into a vibrant and welcoming nation. The memorial, with its meditation garden, catalogues the details of the genocide using photographs, videos and written accounts including personal testimonies.
Rwanda is a spirited country run by a progressive government under the leadership of the popular Paul Kagame. His ‘2020 Vision’ has already started to move Rwanda out of poverty and into a new era of reconciliation and development. A largely unknown gem, in which the gorillas take centre stage, Rwanda is also a country full of hills, mountains, forests, lakes, markets, drummers, dancers, artisans and craftsman.
Cox & Kings offers tailor-made holidays to Rwanda.