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The two lane paved road kept climbing higher, past waterfalls, lush cultivated valleys and terraced hillsides. Kermit the Frog, from Sesame Street, would feel right at home with the abundance of green foliage that simmered before our eyes. The river that followed the road to Ruhengeri in the north of Rwanda provided a beautiful contrast with its brownish-red colored waters. Our family was traveling with a group we worked with at an orphanage in the capital Kigali. We were taking a break to visit the rare mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa. The scenery during our two hour ride along the Ruhengari Road (built by the Chinese) was spectacular, but even that lovely assault on the senses didn’t prepare us for what was to come.

When we arrived at The Gorilla Nest Lodge in Ruhengeri, just outside the Volcanoes National Park, we were stunned. Imagine a luxury hotel, superbly crafted from local stone, wood and bamboo, tucked into the jungle at the bottom of a blue-green volcanic range. Top that off with spacious rooms, fine dining and friendly service from people that speak English, French and Kinyarwanda (the national language) and you have a virtual Shangri-la in the middle of Africa.

After a peaceful night we were driven to the Virunga Park entrance and met our guide, Fidel, who has worked as a park ranger for thirteen years. He informed us that we would be walking for about three hours to find the family we would be observing. We set out, nine in all and made our way up the hillside past planted fields and traditional mud huts; over the stone wall, which was built by villagers (who were paid by the government) to keep out elephants and buffalo and to delineate the park boundary. We were well prepared for what is usually a wet misty experience (with our boots and raincoats), but were in luck with sunny weather and a clear trail.

As we walked Fidel told us that the dominant male in a family (the Silverback) is called “The President”. He said if there is no dominant male in the group than a female is the leader. “Blackbacks are males before they become adults,” Fidel said quietly. “From eight years on females are called adults because they can have babies. Gorillas can live up to forty years old. Gestation for pregnancy is about eight to nine months. Females usually live longer than males. Sound familiar? They are vegetarians. They sleep, play, socialize and eat just like us. Their DNA is ninety-seven percent the same as humans.” Fidel suddenly held up his hand and whispered, “straight ahead.” We heard the sound of twigs breaking and grunting noises before we could see anything. Fidel gently pushed aside some bamboo and my wife was staring face to face with a 500 pound silverback ten feet in front of her who was contently sitting down to lunch on some freshly stripped morsels of bamboo leaves. She froze, as we lined up alongside her; our mouths agape at the spectacle.

It wasn’t long until a number of females with toddlers and a newborn joined the silverback. We watched the children play, nurse and be pulled back to their moms when they got to far away or too close to the spectators. We were entranced. We were the ones with the camera equipment, but if the gorillas could take our picture, they would probably be laughing hysterically at images of our grinning stupefied faces.

As required, we left the gorilla family after an hour’s viewing and made our way back down the mountain. We were in such awe that there was little conversation. Everyone knew the $500.00 per person we had paid for permits to see the gorillas was the best money we had ever spent. The funds from the permits help the rangers protect the gorillas, continue research and provide funds for the surrounding communities to build schools, health clinics and crafts centers.

Rwanda is becoming increasingly noticed for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government, family life and breathtaking beauty. Positive internal and international support for infrastructure, education, investment, security and eco-tourism have made it assessable, affordable and one of the safest destinations for adults and children in Africa.

When we returned to Kigali the next day and continued our work at the ROP Center for Street Children, my wife said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if these kids could some day afford to see the gorillas?”

“It would be fantastic,” I thought. Perhaps some day soon these children will be able to finish their education, make a living and visit the rare mountain gorillas themselves. Perhaps some of them will, like Fidel, grow up and work in one of Rwanda’s beautiful national parks and lead tourists like you and me to see their beloved and amazing national treasure, our cousins, the magnificent mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park.

Vacation In Rwanda?

If Africa and especially Rwanda, are not the travel destination that first come to mind when you think about relaxation, luxury and “getting away from it all”, you may want to seriously reconsider. The friendly greetings, bustling city and countryside belie the fact of the genocide which occurred in the early nineties. The majority of Rwandans now see themselves as one people and one country. There are an increasing number of tourists descending upon this beautiful lush land of national parks, mountain gorillas and terraced hillsides. Contrasting styles of traditional mud huts and dress are interspersed among paved roads, modern amenities and comfortable accommodations.

Same sex couples walk together on the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and nobody bats an eye. In fact, it is quite common to see men embracing, putting their foreheads together when greeting one another and walking hand in hand, as they stroll down the streets of the capital or along highways, dirt paths and country roads in one of the few African countries that has no laws against homosexuality. That doesn’t mean that these men are gay (most are probably non-sexual friends), but who knows who is and who isn’t?

Homosexuality is illegal for lesbian women in 20 African countries and for gay men in 29. In Zimbabwe, Uganda, Somalia and Northern Africa you can be prosecuted and imprisoned. South Africa is one of the exceptions, where homosexuality is legal and national legislation bands discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Rwanda doesn’t actively acknowledge homosexuals positively or negatively, but has no laws against it. It follows an unspoken policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. There is no kissing displayed in public, by homosexual or heterosexual couples, but other affections are accepted (hugging, touching hands).

The national parks and wildlife are not the only attractions in this lovely country known as the “land of a thousand hills”, as there are also traditional dance performances, art centers, shopping and an active social scene in Kigali and the northern city of Ruhengeri.

Kigali has a large market in the Nyabugogo district where you will be inundated with clothing, both women’s and men’s, as well as household goods and other local merchandise. Expect to bargain until you’re hoarse, as it is expected and part of the experience. One U.S. dollar equals approximately 550 Rwandan Francs. A new shopping center uptown houses a modern shopping center, complete with a Starbucks like coffee house called Bourbon Street, which has free internet access and all the caffeine you can handle. Rwandan’s don’t drink much coffee, as tea is their thing, even though Rwandan coffee has become a thriving export. There is live music at the Cadillac, Abraxis and Planete Club and numerous bars throughout town.

Some very fine hotels in the city include the Chez Lando (near the airport); Hotel Gorillas; Iris Guesthouse; The Presbyterian Guesthouse; and the famous Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda). Prices range from $50 to $160 per night.

Some area restaurants include an exquisite Indian establishment called Khazana; the Shangh Hai, a Chinese restaurant with great service and food and; Sole Luna, an upscale Italian eatery out towards the airport. You can expect to spend anywhere from $10 to $20 per person for a good meal. People also partake of local Rwandan food at diners and cafes around town, but they can get rather boring, as they consist of the same overcooked vegetables, potatoes and meat, without any spice or seasoning. It is however cheaper than the “foreign” restaurants (about $5 to $10 per meal).

Ruhengeri, the largest city in the north, is the gateway to the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa. The scenery from Kigali to Ruhengeri is spectacular and The Gorilla Nest Lodge just outside the park is stunning. Imagine a luxury hotel, superbly crafted from local stone, wood and bamboo, tucked into the jungle at the bottom of a blue-green volcanic range. Top that off with spacious rooms, fine dining and friendly service from people that speak English, French and Kinyarwanda (the national language) and you have a virtual Shangri-la in the middle of Africa. The Hotel Muhabura is reported to be another great place to hang your hat and much less expensive ($35 to $50) than the Mountain Gorilla’s Nest, which charges $100 and up per night.

No matter how beautiful the drive north has been or how luxurious your accommodation, nothing quite prepares you for the magnificent mountain gorillas that reside in the Virunga National Park. Even though tourists are only allowed an hour visit, to protect the gorillas, the $500 fee charged to see them is worth every penny. The funds from the fees (permits) are used to maintain the sanctuary, continue research, guard the gorilla families and support local communities and projects outside the park. These creatures, which have 97 percent of the same DNA as humans, are gentle vegetarian mammals that live in clusters of communal families and alternate between play, sleep and time to enjoy a tasty meal of bamboo, greens and fruit. If you take the time to travel to Rwanda, do not miss the adventure of visiting the mountain gorillas.

The people of Rwanda are as beautiful as their country, which has to rate a ten on the lush green scale of tropical paradises. From smiles and generosity in the cities hotels, shops and fine restaurants, to the lodges and safari’s to see the gorillas, volcanic mountains, game parks and lakeside resorts, this Central African country has moved leaps and bounds beyond their tragic civil war over sixteen years ago. It has literally risen from the ashes and become the “new Eden” of Africa. With a stable government, abundant overseas investment and a pervading sense of hope and reconstruction, Rwanda is now considered one of the safest countries to visit on the continent.

When you go:

Easy access from the U.S. via England to Kenya and from Kenya to Kigali (the capital of Rwanda), makes it an affordable, though lengthy trip. The time spent traveling is well worth the long haul. There may soon be an even quicker route from Atlanta to Kigali, via Johannesburg South Africa.

National language is Kinyarwanda, but many people also speak English or French and there is a big push for everyone to learn English.

You will need up to date vaccinations and malaria precautions.

A great resource for touring Rwanda is: Bizidanny Tours & Safaris B. P. 395 Kigali, Rwanda. Phone 250 08501461. Web Site: www.bizidanny.com

Barbara Jenkins at Rancho Del Mar Travel has been arranging trips to Africa for thirty years. 1327 La Sobrina Court, Solana Beach, CA 92075-2105. Phone: 858-755-7368.

The Rwanda Tourist Board can be contacted at: www.rwandatourism.com.

Our Kin In Rwanda

The two-lane paved road kept climbing higher, past waterfalls, lush cultivated valleys and terraced hillsides. Kermit the Frog, from Sesame Street, would feel right at home with the abundance of green foliage that simmered before our eyes.

The river that followed the road to Ruhengeri in the north of Rwanda provided a beautiful contrast with its brownish-red colored waters.

Our family was traveling with a group we worked with at an orphanage in the capital Kigali. We were taking a break to visit the rare mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga National Park, which borders The Congo and Uganda in Eastern Africa.

The scenery during our two-hour ride along the Ruhengari Road (built by the Chinese) was spectacular, but even that lovely assault on the senses didn’t prepare us for what was to come.

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