After the exhilarating trek to see the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Forest and visiting the local village of Iby’Iwacu, we spent our next day exploring Lake Kivu, which is one of the African Great Lakes and is bordered by three different countries. From the town where we stayed, we could see the Republic of Congo and went to two of the border crossings that allow a constant flow of goods and traffic between the Congo and Rwanda. The lake itself sits on a volcanic rift and there are several methane extraction platforms located on the lake. It has the potential of a catastrophic eruption at some point in the future, but until then it is a source of thermal pools on the various islands that sit on the lake.
We took one of the many tour boats that are available along the shore of the town of Gisenyi, which is the second largest city in Rwanda, to visit one of the islands and see the locals enjoying the therapeutic benefits of the hot springs. Rwanda is a land-locked country and most of the cuisine is vegetable based, but there is Tilapia in the lake that is offered at the local restaurants and was one of the meals that we had at our resort as well. Overall, we spent a lot of time during our trip to Rwanda getting up early and exerting a lot of energy hiking, so the time spent by the lake was a nice reprieve.
Lake Kivu is obviously very large as it is over 1,000 square miles (2,700 square kilometers) and is the eighth largest lake in Africa. There are many resorts that sit along the coastline, some more remote than the one that we stayed at in Gisenyi. Most tours in Rwanda that include both the gorilla trekking and the chimpanzee trekking will include a stay at Lake Kivu as it is located centrally between both of the national parks. Although not the highlight of the trip, it was an enjoyable day between some amazing wildlife experiences.
After trekking in the rainforest to spend time with the gorillas, we then went to visit the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village where we spent time learning all about the local life in the Rwanda countryside. It was a very interactive experience as we were given the opportunity to play drums, grind sorghum for banana beer, and test our archery skills. As we walked among the huts, our local guide explained to us all about daily lives of the people that have lived in this part of the country for hundreds of years.
From the moment that we entered the village, we were warmly greeted by the music of drums and the local villagers dancing in their authentic ceremony garments. The men wear dramatic blonde wigs, which they flip dramatically around as they dance making for quite the impression. We also had the opportunity to visit the king’s hut with its large bed and learned of the local traditions and rituals. Whether it was making banana beer, creating bee hives, or learning about the role of the medicine man, each hut that we visited was fascinating.
As with many villages that provide these types of cultural experiences, there is also the opportunity to buy handmade goods created by the villagers. The money goes towards the community, which is important as it encourages the local communities to embrace tourism and keeps them from poaching wildlife from the surrounding national park. Prior to tourists coming to Volcanoes National Park to trek to the gorillas, many of the villagers would trap gorillas to sell their hands as well as trap the mountain elephants and other animals to sell to people outside of the country. Rwanda has made great strides in reducing the number of poaching incidents and ensuring that the local people make enough money without needing to resort to trapping animals.
Although spending time with the gorillas is clearly the highlight of going to Volcanoes National Park, visiting the Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village was certainly still a wonderful experience. Considering we did both the trekking and the village visit on our first full day in Rwanda, we were certainly off to a tremendous start to our time in this interesting country. We definitely slept very well that evening before getting up early to move on to our next adventure within Rwanda.
After making the over twenty-one-hour trip from Washington DC to Kigali, Rwanda, we immediately were transported to Volcanoes National Park where the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda are located. We got a few hours of sleep and then woke up early to climb into the rainforest to locate our gorilla family. We were expecting to make our way through the jungle to observe the gorillas through the trees and perhaps have the opportunity to get a little close to one or two of them. It turned out that we would spend an hour standing and walking amongst the entire gorilla family, who continuously walked in front, behind, and all around us as we spent time with them. It was truly one of the most incredible and unique experiences that we have ever had during our travels.
There are only ten families that can be visited per day and the visit is restricted to no more than one hour. Each group that gets to visit with the gorillas is also limited to eight or nine people and our group was a group of eight. That means that only eighty to ninety people per day can visit with the gorillas, which makes it an experience that is not shared by a lot of people. The family that we visited with was the Agashya family and we were told that Agashya meant “special”, which had to do with the unique circumstances that this particular family was formed. When the former Silverback, elder leader of the family, passed away, normally the females would go off to join other families. In this case, though, they stayed together and other silverbacks tried to join the family. The female gorillas were not interested in the first few suitors that tried to join the family and then finally they accepted the silverback, which the guides named Agashya due to having never seen a family of female gorillas due what this family had done.
Our encounter started with one of the two other silverbacks that were now part of the family who had strayed away from the rest of the family with another female gorilla, which would not be tolerated by the leader when he learned about it. A silverback is simply a gorilla that has gotten old enough for the hair on his back to turn gray, typically at about thirteen years old. He beat his chest for us, making sure we knew he was our boss and then came straight towards us. Our guide had us stay perfectly still as the over 500-pound gorilla walked past us making sure to brush up against us as he passed. At this point, we knew that we were in for an amazing day.
It took another hour or so to find the rest of the family and at that point our sixty-minute visit would officially start. One of the highlights was seeing a mother gorilla with her five-month-old baby riding on her back. As we walked amongst the gorillas, taking photographs, and watching as they showed off for us and genuinely seemed as curious about us as we were of them. Several of them brushed up against us and one juvenile gorilla even slapped the men in our group as the family departed for the day. Obviously, we’re sharing some incredible photographs of our encounter, but there is no way to adequately explain what it was like to spend time with the majestic creatures.
We would definitely recommend people take the time and spend the money to see these incredible animals and help with their conservation. Be prepared, though, as the trekking can be extremely difficult as you hack your way through the jungle with machetes and climb up and down steep, muddy hills covered with dense vegetation. It was well worth the effort, but it certainly was one of the hardest things that we had done as far as hiking and trekking goes. After spending the magical hour with the Agashya Gorilla Family, we made our way out of the jungle, images still dancing through our minds. This was only part of our first full day in Rwanda and it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. We knew at this point that it was going to be a trip that would be one of the best of our lives.