Travelling in Rwanda as a solo female was a perfect introduction to travelling in Africa. That probably surprises a lot of you, particularly as most people associate or know Rwanda for the horrific genocide that took place there. But that was over twenty years ago and this tiny country has made great efforts to heal and transform. And yes, family and friends were worried about me traveling there especially as I had my heart set on travelling independently. But my experience was of well organized transport, clean streets and friendly people together with beautiful landscapes and one of the most incredible wildlife encounters on the planet.
So why Rwanda?
After seeing so much of Europe, Asia, North and South America the idea of visiting Africa started to take hold. Top of my wish list was to the see the critically endangered gorillas.
That narrowed down my Africa trip to the three countries where gorillas can be found – Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo. After a bit of research I decided that travelling in Rwanda as a solo female would be safe and possible. So Rwanda was to be my first real African country (I don’t feel like Egypt really is Africa given it’s strong Middle Eastern feel).
This is my experience of travelling in Rwanda as a solo female.
After three flights from Sydney via Doha and Entebbe, Uganda I finally reached Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
The city of Kigali stretches over hill after hill after hill with the small centre focused at the top of one of those hills. I happened to arrive for Umuganda Day. Umuganda means to come together and in traditional Rwandan culture members of the community would call on their family, friends and neighbours to help them complete difficult tasks. As part of the reconstruction of Rwanda the government drew on this concept and now on the last Saturday of each month communities come together to do a variety of public works, predominantly cleaning. It’s one of the reasons Rwanda is so clean! (Another reason is because plastic bags are banned!)
What it meant for me on my first day in Rwanda was that the streets were pretty empty and most of the shops were closed. Not quite what I was expecting.
One place that was open was Hotel des Mille Collines – the infamous ‘Hotel Rwanda’. It was at this hotel that local, Paul Rusesabagina, allowed Tutsis and moderate Hutus to take refugee during the genocide. That story was transformed into the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.
Today the hotel is set amongst peaceful gardens, and makes for a pleasant place to relax with a drink.
Like most travellers to Rwanda I was acutely aware of the genocide that took place here in 1994. In just 100 days around 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists.
Genocide is completely beyond my comprehension.The idea of neighbours turning on each other, killing each other, blows my mind. Yes, that’s right neighbours killing each other.
The role of propaganda is always present. This was clear at the Kigali Memorial Centre.
The Kigali Memorial Centre is intense but in my view incredibly important. Important in order to remember those who were killed, to remember those who lost loved ones, important as a memory and sanctuary for those who live with trauma today, and hopefully so that humanity does not allow this horror to happen again.
To get to and from the Memorial Centre I took a moto – a motorbike taxi. A cheap and efficient way to get around Kigali.
Waking the streets of Kigali I found it hard to reconcile what I had seen at the Memorial Centre and often thought most of the people on the streets had lived through those terrible days.
While researching my trip I learnt of a women co-operative which ran walking tours in the oldest part of Kigali, Nyamirambo Women’s Center.
I loved seeing the city through the eyes of a local and that the profits were used to pay seamstresses, a local library and literacy classes and workshops on women’s rights.
And it included lunch at a local women’s home! Delicious!!
From Kigali I travelled to Gisenyi on Lake Kivu by local bus. Lake Kivu is one of the Great Lakes of Africa and I was keen to see it. I was also keen to see more of Rwanda and not just be focused on the gorillas (later in the post!!).
Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills and on my short three and a half hour journey to Gisenyi it was clear why.
For the entire trip the bus wound its way over and around hill after hill after hill, the smell of eucalyptus drifted through the open window, reminding me of home. On the side of the road a constant progression of locals walking or cycling carrying all manner of things, wood, bamboo, vegetables in huge sacks, water in yellow plastic tanks. A fascinating snapshot of local life which I absolutely loved.
And yes I was the only mzungu (white person) on the bus!
When I arrived I discovered Gisneyi was a bustling town with lots of colour and more interesting people watching.
I arrived around 1pmish and after checking into Discover Rwanda Hotel I took a moto straight out to Rubona Peninsula. This peninsula juts out into Lake Kivu and provides great views out over the lake and it’s shores. The perfect place for a long lunch to soak up the beautiful scene.
Back in town many locals were hanging out, or exercising by the lakeside beach. Many of the locals were keen to practice their English or generally chat with me when I was down by the beach.
The next day I headed to Musanze. Musanze is the third largest town in Rwanda and is one of the most convenient bases to tack gorillas.
I was keen to see more of the local life and culture, and what better place to see both then the local market. As I walked in it seemed very few tourists ventured into this bustling scene. The locals were bemused and more often than not didn’t want their photos taken. But occasionally they did.
On my final day in Rwanda I woke early to see Rwanda’s standout highlight – the mountain gorillas! Tracking the gorillas in Rwanda was simply magical and easily one of the all-time highlights of all my travels. To read about my experience click here. Otherwise here are a couple of photos from my all too short one hour with these incredible animals.
Travelling in Rwanda as a solo female and independently was surprisingly easy. The country is small enough to make the bus trips relatively short and mini-buses leave so regularly I generally would simply arrive at a bus station and leave nearly immediately.
However, don’t be surprised if you are the only tourist on the bus as the majority of tourists travel in tours or with drivers with the focus mainly on seeing the gorillas only.
The only time travelling by bus was a bit overwhelming was when I arrived back into Kigali. It was Friday dusk and the place was heaving with vehicles and people. It was pretty chaotic and hectic. When our bus stopped it was mobbed by people and there was a fair amount of shoving and pulling. My backpack was safely stored under a seat that was hard to get to so I sat back and waited for the bus to empty. A super kind local uni student also decided to take me under her wing and help me to find a taxi. Luckily I had a rough idea of how to get back to the hotel where I’d stayed where I arrived and could direct the driver as he had no idea where to go.
Given I’ve travelled a lot I wasn’t overly worried about the chaos and the driver being a bit uncertain but I can imagine that for some travellers, male and female, that could be stressful.
While I was in Kigali I stayed at Step Town Motel where John and Emmanuel went out of their way to help me find my way and organise drivers to the bus station, etc. The hotel also had lovely views from their patio over the hills of Kigali.
In Gisneyi I stayed at Discover Rwanda which had a fantastic location just opposite the beach front. However, the service at the restaurant was lacking. I fully appreciate that travelling in countries in Rwanda means service won’t be like home but waiting for over an hour and a half for dinner was not great. In fact generally it was commonplace in Rwanda wait quite a long time for meals. I suggest you order well before you’re actually hungry!
In Musanze I stayed at Amahoro Guest House. It was central, very simple and nearly empty when I stayed but Honest, who ran the guesthouse, was another who went out of his way to answer my questions and help me change money, etc.
And finally a special mention of Isange BF Restaurant in Musanze. The most delicious chicken dish of my Africa travels!
So if you would like to travel to Africa as a solo female but are a bit unsure why not try travelling in Rwanda?