I Wonder Rwanda, Is it All Tea Trees, Rainforests and Gorillas?

Posted in Travel / The Honey Badger Diaries

 I Wonder Rwanda, Is it All Tea Trees, Rainforests and Gorillas?

Hold a sea shell to your ear. Listen to the shh’s of lapping waves onto the shore. The cool breeze gently washes over me while I type. Outside, the tide is rolling in after a long day of receding behind the coral reef. The sky is aqua, and the sea, as far as the horizon, is six-year-old Landi’s favourite Indian ink blue. 

A few short weeks ago in Rwanda, we witnessed a landscape saturated in green. Every blade and leaf is a different shade of green. Name the colours and you'll see and smell them. Olive green, lime green, kikuyu green, pine, eucalyptus, mint, and even khaki. The sky was often cloudy and, if we were lucky, polka-dotted with shades of crystal clear blue as the sun poked sabre-like rays through the mist and clouds.

An artist would tell us there are a gazillion shades of white. The light is so pure and clear after showers that I often look at my photographs and am astounded by a landscape soaked in vivid colour. I remind myself that the old phone’s technology did an excellent job of capturing intense colours.

Winding up into the hills, our trusty Honey Badger would grind her way into higher altitudes, and we were transported into the rain forests in the low clouds.

The scene unfolding before us was overwhelming. Rolling hills of tea, coffee, and indigenous forests swathed in mist, dripping fat drops onto the sodden, mulch-infused red earth.

It was as if Nyungwe Nziza Eco-Lodge read our thoughts and appeared out of the mist as we rounded a bend a few hours before sunset. We stopped.

After our recce of the property, we stood in awe of the endless views of green trees amidst miles of tea plantations. Chilled to the bone, we returned to unpack our downy puffer jackets.

The Swiss owner welcomed us and invited us to thaw at the crackling fire while the chef prepared our traditional meal.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Anon


With fresh eyes, we were ready to tackle the new day’s onslaught on our senses as we travelled through the Nyungwe Forest National Park.

“Nyungwe is the largest remaining tract of forest in Rwanda, nestled in the country’s southwest. A twenty-year partnership with the African Parks Network and the Rwanda Development Board manages the Park.

They aim to restore and protect wildlife, engage with the local communities, and develop tourism to improve the economic sustainability of the Park. The Park’s management is building a sense of ownership of conservation among the people who live around it while developing an ecologically healthy and financially self-sufficient asset,” digital comment.

Nyungwe National Park is in the western Great Rift Valley and stretches from Lake Albert to Lake Tanganyika. The Park has a precipitous rainforest, beautiful grassland, and wetland. It also has altitudes ranging from 5,600 feet to 9,700 feet.

As we travelled along the immaculately maintained tar road, we passed through its rich biodiversity and a myriad landscape, which includes swamps, marshes, bamboo thickets, heath, open woodland and microhabitats.

Due to the Parks’ proximity to the DRC and Burundi, we were met by military troops stationed within the Park who did regular patrols. Hunting within the Park is strictly prohibited, yet poaching does, on occasion, occur, we were told.

The most significant threats to natural forests are deforestation, fire, and poaching, and in Rwanda, during the Genocide, great swaths of forest and conservation infrastructure were destroyed.

Imagine this: “No two leaves are alike in a forest of a hundred thousand trees.” Someone wise once said.


There are over 1,100 recorded plant species, 345 bird species and 85 known mammal species, including 13 of Africa’s primates – notably, chimpanzee, Ruwenzori black-and-white colobus and L’Hoest’s monkeys – are found in this exceptional landscape.

Nyungwe Forest National Park has 68 endemics, such as Talenna Rwandensis and the orchid stand, which covers 66% of all Rwandan orchids. Nyungwe has 140 orchid species out of all 160 species found in Rwanda.

It was here that one genuinely witnessed and experienced the awesomeness of trees. They are the earth’s lungs, and looking up a hundred feet or more, one can visualise our human lungs’ branches and air pockets. Changing levels of air and wind can be seen, and the dances mimic the inhalations and exhalations our lungs make.

Once again, we couldn’t help but express our ohs and Aahs, our OMGs, and flabbergasted expressions of awe. There was no chance of us just passing through unaffected. We had to stop to take it all in. The spectacular vistas and views demanded our undivided attention. We were transfixed.

Butch was immensely impressed by the fact that this highway through the Park had street lamps. I must admit it is impressive. Whether they’re activated is another matter; we’ll not know, but believe in Rwanda, they probably are!

Camping in the Park is permitted, but we couldn’t think of a better spot to stop for the night. But regarding the enquiry, we decided to press on. Exorbitant daily rates. We also realised that camping was not encouraged when we were told that the parking area, without facilities or electricity, was the only camping spot.

The fees were quoted in US$ at $100pppn. There was a charge for the vehicle, too. We didn’t even go there. We could have a cappuccino and plain crepe on our ZAR in the restaurant. “This is an experience and is as good as”, we decided, nodding when the server swished off to the kitchen to place our order. “Bloody daylight robbery” Butch muttered.


It was midmorning, and there were no other tourists about. Sometimes, you can outprice yourself.


This time, we’d miss out on forest hikes, canopy walks, swims under a waterfall and Gorilla treks, but we did see a small deer and some Colobus Monkeys. That is good enough for me.

While all Butch’s attention was on navigating the twists and turns and sharp corners and U-bends, I saw the orchids, ferns, mosses and lichens growing on ancient trees with gnarled limbs and gently swishing and swaying branches. Tall trees stood in the deep valleys, and no leaf was in motion. That, too, was inspiring, and a swathe of trees could be so still. Not a breath in the air. The only sound is the occasional monkey screech or parrot song and the pervasive smell of well-mulched, centuries-old compost—rich, peaty forest oozing nutrients for the subsequent growth, season, or generation.

Mist rolled in over the valleys covering the foliage in a gentle spray until the wisps evaporated and the sun warmed the earth and, in partnership with the forest, produced chlorophyll and cleared the air Butch and I filled our lungs with.

The Umuvumu is a sacred tree. Kings and important people in Rwanda made sure that Umuvumu were planted around the compound. The scientific name for the Umuvumu is Ficus Thonningii. Ordinary citizens used the trees as mainstay poles for their cattle enclosures’ entrance and exit gates.

The Umuvumu or Ficus Thonningii is a species of Ficus. It is native to Africa. It is commonly known as Mugumo to the Agikuyu or the Strangler Fig in English.

Some of the tree species that can be found in Nyungwe include Prinaria exelsium, cyathea manniana, carapa, newtonia, orchids, mosses, ferns, and podocarpus, to mention a few.

How small we are.


Soon, we left the forest behind us, and once again, we passed through villages and rural areas, subsistence farming, and large carpets of tea and coffee plantations.

Our sights were set on Kugami, a fishing village on the lake.

We were back in “Africa”, where things can be slightly neglected, almost like a pair of well-worn school shoes, scuffed. There were lodges in decline,  dirt roads are weathered by storms and budget cuts and corruption. This was the landscape we had anticipated in Rwanda but were denied by all the perfection.


My first thought was, “I knew it.” while Butch said, thumping his hand down on the steering wheel triumphantly, “When things look too good to be true they normally are.”

The beauty of Kigali reminded me of an aging (40 is considered old in those circles ) actress showing off on the red carpet at the recently held Academy Awards, with perfectly sculptured features, liberally botoxed and primed with fillers. Her face surgically perfected, and her hair coiffed by the industry’s leading professionals. Dressed by Dior, her slender feet clad in Jimmy Choo pumps. Dripping in expensive glittering diamond-encrusted Cartier or Tiffany’s.

We preferred sun-streaked hair, a few laughter lines on the corners of the eyes and even a few puckers around the lips. Those faces tell our stories, after all.


We headed to Kagano on the shores of Lake Kivu. 

Which is part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley and Great Lakes. Lake Kivu lies to the west of Rwanda on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and is in the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East Africa Rift, and is surrounded by magnificent mountains and has deep emerald green waters. It is Rwanda’s largest lake and the sixth largest in Africa.

Lake Kivu empties into the Ruzizi River, which flows southwards into Lake Tanganyika.


We parked at our campsite at Ishara Beach Camp—the Honey Badger trilled on the cracked cement floor, the only remnant of a demolished building. Around us, bricks, overgrown weeds, and a lawn needing a machete or slasher invited us down to the water’s edge. The famous "soda" brands are well represented in East Africa with cheerful, new bill-boards everywhere. 

While I laid our picnic table with a bright Mozambique tablecloth, two engineers working on a construction site came down for a swim, and the bartender turned up the volume on the hi-fi pumping local Rwandan music.

We sipped our drinks as the sun set and dined on scrumptious, crispy peri-peri chicken while the water lapped gently a few yards from us. In the distance, lights, like stars, danced on the lake and would light up from small villages in the DRC.

The campsite manager soon warmed to us; she managed to negotiate a very reasonable rate, and she even smiled shyly on day two while sweeping the beach with her short buffalo grass broom.

Left to our own devices, we could catch up with some of our chores and get some exercises clocked on our watches—our way of exploring.



The weather didn’t hold, and once again, we were driving on roads slick with rainwater and diesel drops—villages with names like Kanjongo, Macuba,  Kirimbi and Mahembe nestled in the folds of spectacular rolling hills.

Where every square inch of land is cultivated, terraces scar the hillsides where traditional farming methods are still practised to reduce soil erosion due to high rainfall levels. Rice paddies and trees of bananas thrive on these slopes in this temperate climate.

In Gishyita, we stopped at the Gashari Genocide Memorial Site. The tiny, stooped lady caretaker welcomed us with open arms and a hug. Her pain is etched on her wizened face. Yet, she believes the horrors of Rwanda’s Genocide will never be forgotten as she painstakingly keeps the displays in immaculate condition in honour and respect for those who perished there. Her dedication adds to the emotion I experienced in that place where the dead and their Spartan pieces of clothing are kept, and the shoes (a reminder of my visit to Dachau, where a mountain of shoes are on display) hammer home the atrocities humans are capable of.

In tears and feeling raw with emotion, we silently left the shrine of her slayed and axed grandparents, parents, cousins and siblings who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One could say the weather mirrored our mood. 

We continued our journey through Mubuga, wending our way up into the mountains of Bwishyura. This landscape will not be ignored. It will bully you into taking a close look and see it's people, the achitecture, markets, Eucalyptus plantations and banana trees.

And then we spotted the opulence of the recently renovated Château le Marara, Marara Castle with its breathtaking views of Lake Kivu at Kibuye.



Our rendezvous was a campsite on the southern side of the peninsula at the Livalana Hotel in the holiday town of Kibuye or, Little Switzerland (my name for the spectacular setting.) 

We were the only campers there and could choose the choicest spot on the water’s edge surrounded by rolling lawns.

The first order of business was a Pizza for lunch. We were famished, and Butch had been having Pizza cravings for weeks. Our amiable server soon had us seated. We hungrily accepted his topping recommendation and impatiently waited for our pizza while we enjoyed our new location, which had a magnificent, unsurpassed view over the crystal waters of Lake Kivu.

We spent four nights there enjoying magnificent sunsets and delicious meals from our kitchen, and we went on long exploratory bike rides and explored the coastline from a boat.

One of the highlights of our stay there was a “race” I was egged on to engage in by two young, very fit local guys while I negotiated the mountain descent on one of our cycles. They diced me and, at times, I think, allowed me to get ahead of them as I went careening down the hill at the rate of knots.

Butch just shook his head when he caught up. Who probably thought I had lost my marbles? No, I’d lost my fear of descents. It was exhilarating and a compliment. They thought I was capable and up to scratch to compete with them. They won the race by a country mile, of course.

The second highlight was discovering the coffee shop serving delectable patisseries and a brew that lived up to every Rwandan coffee rumour. There, we met a young couple from The Netherlands on their bikes. How they conquered the Rwandan mountains from Kigali is inspirational.


With our competent skipper and guide, we put-puttered along the edge of the lake and explored one of the islands in Lake Kivu. Bukavu Island, Bubare Island, and Kabehe Island, are situated in the DRC; however, Sake Island and Goma Island are found in Rwandan waters and include Gisenyi Island, Kibuye Island and Cyangugu Island.

It was pretty thrilling to know we were so close (yet so far) from the DRC, but we didn’t dare sail into their waters, our guide warned. Cross-border relations with the DRC have always been strained; today, the border is closed.

"Lake Kivu has historical importance and was caught up in the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda with their allies in DR Congo, which led to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the first and second Congo wars." our Skipper said.  There is a strong naval presence in Kibuye. (At night we heard the whine of drones fly along the lake edge a few meters above our heads and assumed it was a military/naval one.)

He also told us that Lake Kivu was formed by volcanic activity about 1-5 million years ago.




One afternoon, while enjoying our afternoon coffees, we heard the distinctive trill of an old Toyota engine and saw another motorhome make its way up the lawn and park adjacent to us. We hadn’t seen other Overlanders for weeks and were both sceptical and excited to have company.

They soon had their campsite set up, and we introduced ourselves. They are Renè and Yvonne Brans in their Morrocan-inspired Lyla-On-Tour and the owners of the Outdoor MegaStore in Egelsbach, Germany. Yvonne is by all accounts an ‘influencer” with her YouTube Vlog LaylaOnTour. Her dedication and discipline greatly inspire me.

While Butch and I unashamedly swan about enjoying the countryside, exploring markets, coffee shops, and restaurants, Yvonne will work on her weekly vlogs, succinctly telling thousands of subscribers their captivating travel stories using her Go-Pro.

It didn’t take long for us to become firm friends. Since meeting at Lake Kivu, we’ve caught up and spent time with each other on many occasions. Our shared evening meals at sunset are fun occasions that we all look forward to, and Yvonne has inspired me to “grow” a sourdough starter, but all about that in another blog. We’re not there yet.

The Honey Badger was beginning to smell musty after all the sudden downpours and too little sunshine. With no laundry facilities, our towels weren’t drying, and our socks, cycling shorts, and tops began smelling fetid. I had missed my Monday washday, and "we needed a fresh set of linen on our bed", I told Butch. It was time to move on to warmer climes in rainy Rwanda, if that's at all possible.

I love the smell of African rain but right now we needed a rainbow.



Interestingly Lake Kivu, along with Cameroonian Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun, is one of three that are known to undergo limnic eruptions (where overturn of deepwater stratified layers releases dissolved carbon dioxide). Around the lake, geologists may have found evidence of massive local extinctions about every thousand years, presumably caused by outgassing events. The trigger for lake overturns in Lake Kivu is unknown, but volcanic activity and changes in climate are both suspected.[7] The gaseous chemical composition of exploding lakes is unique to each lake. In Lake Kivu's case, it includes methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2), as a result of lake water interaction with volcanic hot springs. All these factors contribute to the lake's blue colour. I also believe the clear, pollution free sky's reflection adds to the vivid blue colour especially after rain.


On one of our cycle trips we stopped for our customary sip of water, this time at a church with a magnificent view across the lake where we found the glassed  burial sites of victims of the genocide. These reminders are all poignant and an emotive reminder "lest we forget."