Travelling Rwanda

Travelling Rwanda

Memoirs from my trip to Kigali, Rwanda to play the 2012 ITF Futures Event

I left for Kigali, Rwanda on 13th November 2012 having spent the previous four days in Bujumbura, Burundi. Again, my main purpose for visiting this country was to play in an ITF Futures event.

These are entry level professional tennis tournaments. By winning a match in the main draw, one can accrue ATP world ranking points. In order to play in the main draw however, one may need to qualify. If you win enough matches in the qualifying rounds you move through to the main draw. For more information about futures tournaments, how they work and what to expect, you should read this.

Rwanda is known as the “Land of a thousand hills” – a befitting title. There were many winding bends and ups and downs from the airport to my hotel. Most of the hills around the city are packed with homes, a mix of shacks, mud huts and some sturdier brick homes. Kigali is noticeably more wealthy than Bujumbura, yet is still very much a poor country compared to say my hometown, Sydney.

The Hotel

I stayed at the Stipp Hotel situated in Kiyovu. It seems this may be a more upmarket suburb of Kigali as not too far from here, is the residence of the president of Rwanda. The houses in the area also appear to be of better building quality as compared to other parts of Kigali.

The Stipp Hotel is very well presented with good facilities, a beautiful pool, gym and comfortable rooms, all with wi-fi. They have an extensive menu at the restaurant, unfortunately, I found the quality of food to be poor. It’s certainly edible, but having been spoilt with fantastic produce in Australia, the food here was disappointing.

This is probably a common theme throughout central Africa. I had also found the food in Bujumbura to be rather ordinary.

My main reason for choosing this hotel was its proximity to Cercle Sportif, the venue of the tennis tournament. It’s about a 10 minute walk, very safe, and you pass by a mini supermarket on the way. This was a handy stopping point for buying bottled water, I chose not to sample the tap water during my time in Africa despite having heard it is safe to drink.

For what I would class as a three star hotel at best, the price of food and accommodation here was definitely overpriced.

The Tennis

The tournament was held at Cercle Sportif. There are six clay courts of which four were used for play, and two for practice. Surprisingly, the quality of clay was not quite as good as in Burundi. There seem to be more dodgy bounces on these courts. I was told by a local, in fact, that Burundian clay comes “from the sea”, whilst Rwandan clay is from “smashed brick”. I guess my preference is sea clay.

As the venue is a sporting complex, there is also a pool, soccer field and a bar. The food at the bar is much cheaper than at Stipp hotel, but still not that great tasting. If you”re going to order food from here though, be warned you coud be waiting anywhere from ten minutes to an hour and a half. How is this you ask? Africa I say – go figure.

The motorbike taxis in Kigali are like flies in the outback, they won’t leave you alone. These drivers will ride right up to you and beep their high pitched “road-runner” horns. A simple shake of the head is enough to swat them away. Otherwise, if you”re feeling lazy, you can catch one for about RWF500 (less than US$1) and they’ll take you roughly 5km in distance. Any more than this and I would expect it to cost a little more.

You can see one of these bikers in the photo below.

The Genocide Museum

Before travelling to Kigali, I watched the movie, Hotel Rwanda, maybe not the best curtain raiser event for travelling to such a place. Ironically, it had the effect of making me even more interested in travelling to Rwanda. I read a little about the genocide online before travelling there. Genocide is clearly a terrible thing for a country to have to go through, but the fact of the matter is, it has very much shaped the country it is today.

Although I had been warned that visiting the genocide museum was quite depressing, having done it, I don’t think you”ve experienced Rwanda unless you”ve visited the place. It does not cost anything to go there and have a look around, but you are encouraged to spend US$15 for a portable audio device that narrates information around the various sites of the museum.

The first part of the narrative tour begins in the memorial gardens and mass graves. The gardens are pretty, but one gets the sense that a little extra funding would go a long way to help tidy some of the overgrown parts and broken fountains and waterworks.

The second part continues inside the memorial building. There is a series of rooms to walk through, each with giant posters of information documenting the sequence of events in the genocide. Amongst this information are some rather graphic photos, harrowing short video interviews and some dedicated artworks such as stained glass windows and sculptures.

Visiting the genocide museum, is one of the two must-attractions I would recommend for travellers to Rwanda. Personally, I felt obliged to visit. I met many locals in Kigali, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 30. Out of respect, I did not ask them about how they might have been affected by the genocide, but I am certain many of them would have lost family members.

The genocide of 1994-1996 claimed over one million lives. We cannot choose the families or countries we are born into, and having become more informed about this terrible event, I feel immensely fortunate to live in a place like Australia.

The Gorillas

The second item on your to-do list, is to go and see the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. This is situated in the north western tip of the country very close to the border with the Congo and Uganda. These beautiful creatures are on the verge of extinction with only 786 gorillas left in the world today.

I used a company called Rwanda Eco Tours. I organised my trip through one of the owners, Osborn. He was, as an Aussie would say, a champion bloke. It was an expensive expedition however, a total cost of US$1100. This included a “Gorilla pass” at US$500, which goes towards Gorilla conservation, and the remainder towards travel, guides and lunch and water expenses.

Prior to going to Rwanda, I wasn’t 100% certain that I would be doing the gorilla trip. As I didn” have that much money in cash, it ended up costing me a little more than US$1100. My preference was to pay on credit card, but of course, Osborn’s machine was broken (Africa strikes again). I ended up paying in Rwandan francs, around 750,000 worth to avoid a further charge having to draw US dollars. This translates to a massive wad of play money that keeps you on your toes when walking by foot between the Eco tours office and the bank.

I was picked up directly from my hotel at 4:30am on the day of the trip, my driver’s name was Yusain. Another champion bloke. The drive was two and a half hours to the base camp at Volcanoes National Park. We needed to arrive there by 7am for the briefing of the trek by the guides. The early morning drive to Musanze/Ruhengeri passes through the magnificent, hilly countryside which gives Rwanda its stature as “the Land of a Thousand Hills”.

On route, even as early as 5am, there were masses of people travelling to the markets for a day of trading their goods. I drew it a parallel with Sydney slickers alighting at Wynyard train station in the mornings. The below photo does not do the scene justice but should give you an idea.

When we got to the base camp, there was a bit of waiting around for other tour groups to arrive. I happened to be the only Eco tours patron for the day and I would be integrated into another tour company’s trekking party for the day. There was tea and coffee available and they even put on a little traditional Rwandan song and dance for us.

From here, we got back on our four wheel drives and made out for the base of the mountain we would be climbing. Gorillas live in families of roughly seven to ten where there might be up to three silverbacks (fully matured males) but only one dominant male. Today, we would be tracking the “Amahoro” family which means “peace”.

The drive from base camp to the mountain started firstly, on a normal tarmac road. After about 3-5km however, the road turned into a mix of dirt and extreme rockiness. The road was so primitive we couldn’t travel more than 5km/hr. I was in the back literally gripping the window frame and the arm of the seat as hard as I could so that I could stay upright. I was having to fire my core constantly out of concern I would hurt my back if I let it slack for just two seconds. I spared a thought for any elders who might be trekking today – they would certainly find this drive a struggle.

It was during this point of the drive that one really begins to see how the other half live. It was incredibly difficult for me to take pictures of what I saw due to the bumpiness of the ride but I was lucky to get some shots of the locals and how they live. These locals live in such primitive conditions – there is rarely any electricity, certainly no sewage works, and their water is retrieved from wells dotted around the vicinity. I observed some of the clothes the kids were wearing. One young kid had some Spider man tracksuit pants. I thought to myself, I wonder if this kid will ever even know who or what spider man is – I very much doubt it.

Most of the kids” clothes were filthy, for many of them, they would probably have had only a few sets of clothes, maybe less. I wondered how they would cycle their outfits for the week. I presumed they would probably wash their clothes in a nearby river once a week and then put them on again once they were dry. As we drove through the tiny villages, kids would come running up to the vehicle waving and smiling, saying hello in English and sometimes giving a thumbs up.

I was so impressed by these people, they have virtually nothing, only the bare essentials of life, if that, yet they still found a way to smile and be happy as we passed by. It was such a humbling experience and helped me realize how so many of our first world problems are completely insignificant. These people are real survivors, and perhaps, may even be happier in their lifestyles than one might initially think.

Rwandan Rocky Road – not as sweet as what you’ll find in Sydney.

Outside the local school.

A typical mud-hut home in the village just before the base of the gorilla mountain.

A class of school kids and possibly some of their teachers.

Smily Rwandan children – I can’t get over how beautiful these people are.

The bumpy trip section covered only about 5km in distance, but would have taken at least 45 minutes to complete. Eventually we arrived at the parking site where we would begin the trek. We were offered walking sticks to use during the trek. I’ll never forget one American lady in my group saying to me, “Don’t be proud, take a walking stick, you’ll need it for balance”, to which I replied, “Thanks lady, but I”ve managed on two feet since I was one.”

I couldn’t help being a smart arse, the truth is, I hate carrying unnecessary gear. I was reluctant even to carry bottles of water. The guide had suggested I take three bottles (about 2 litres), I had thought of only taking one 600ml bottle. I compromised and took two. At the starting point there was also an option to hire a porter for any bags you might be too lazy to carry. It’ll cost you RWF6000, roughly US$10. This seemed too cheap for what would be about 3-4hrs work.

The starting point of the trek – still in the thick of people’s homes.

Shortly after walking through the villages by the parking site, the trek opens up into flower fields. These flowers are farmed to use in the production of insecticide. The flowers are picked and then go through several drying processes before being turned into insecticide. On this particular day, the weather was nice and cool and we were walking through a very fine cloudy mist, it seemed as if we would get some rain later in the morning.

Flowers in the drying process.

By this stage of the trek, the mist had turned to a light drizzle and I was certain it would be raining further up the mountain. We arrived at a stone fence which had obviously been constructed to separate the wilderness from civilization. The were are few bamboo trees concealing the entry point into the starting point of the wilderness track. We had to cross a small creek by walking along a log bridge.

As expected, it was now raining gently and the muddy track was getting muddier by the minute. Being a simple man, I had only worn my tennis shoes. These actually turned out to be great hiking shoes. Much better than the hiking specific shoes my fellow trekkers were using – they were slipping and falling constantly. I reveled in my superior balancing skills until I in fact slipped on a slippery jungle leaf and fell to my knees. I don’t why, but I turned to look at the American lady I”d had words with before. Our eyes met, her expression was politely blank, but her eyes said, “Ha ha.”

Rwandan mud – don’t waste your money on expensive hiking shoes, my tennis shoes were more than adequate.

One of our guides was armed. If by some small chance a gorilla were to become aggressive, a warning shot would have been fired first. Poachers wouldn’t be so lucky however.

This was real jungle we trekked through, there was a rough track to follow for part of the way but for the rest of it, we had to climb through thick vegetation, mostly uphill. The guide at the front had a machete to hack out a rough track for us but it still remained a fairly physical climb uphill. The following photo paints a picture of the jungle, note the American lady and her porter behind me.

The reason we strayed from the man-made track is of course, because we were tracking gorillas. These creatures don’t need tracks as their climbing skills are second to none. After much climbing we had come to see the Amahoro family, babies, kids, mothers, brothers and sisters, and of course, the majestic silverbacks.

Most of the time, we were two to three metres away from these beautiful beasts.

They were extremely tame, not once did we feel threatened.

Two gorillas in the mist.

Roughly 200kg (over 400lbs) of Silverback Gorilla.

We stayed with the gorillas for about an hour and a half before returning to the parking site. You are not allowed to touch the gorillas, but sometimes they may approach you and touch your hair or your skin out of fascination. This did not happen to any of us that day, and I wonder just how often it does. The creatures seemed very tame, very used to being observed by people. I doubt there very fascinated by us anymore.

Having returned to the parking site, and re-experiencing the bumpy ride out of the villages, we were taken to a small group of souvenirs shops. Here you could purchase all sorts of wooden carvings: gorillas, African masks, woven baskets, etcetera. We were also issued our gorilla trekking certificates, a nice touch.

After staying here for about half an hour, and having bought nothing because it all seemed a little junky to me, we headed off to the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge for lunch. This was included in the up front cost. This was a very nice looking hotel and would be the perfect option for those looking for a short stay in Rwanda. It’s close to the base camp so you don’t have to get up early and the food is certainly better than Stipp Hotel.

I was pretty famished after the long driving and four hour trek. I ate about two plates of food, at least four bread rolls, and I specifically remember, five pieces of cake. Whilst I enjoyed the food, the best thing about this place was the “shoe service”. When we arrived, all of our shoes were filthy with mud. We had to remove them and put on some crocs type flip-flops which the hotel supplied. By the time I”d finished my lunch, one of the hotel staff brought me my shoes which they had cleaned – they looked brand spanking new!

After lunch it was about 3pm and time to go home. Yusain, had been fantastic throughout the day, telling me a little about the Rwandan lifestyle along the journey to and from the Volcanoes National Park and pointing out some of the sites. On the way home we stopped at a lookout point where we could see one of the sources of the Nile, the Nyabaronga River.

It was approaching 5:30pm and once we were about ten minutes from my hotel, Yusain asked me if I had seen the movie, Hotel Rwanda. I told him I had, and he said, “because we are just 200m from it on our right. I became quite excited and asked him if we could drive through. It was of course, just like any other hotel, but the fact that this particular one had been a safe house for over 1200 Tutsi people during the Rwandan genocide, bestowed upon it, a rather special aura.

Hotel Des Mille Collines translates to: Hotel of a thousand hills.

It was spooky to think that many heavily armed Hutu soldiers had walked through this place in the mid 90s with the intention to kill. Thanks to one man, Paul Rusesabagina, not one Tutsi soul was killed in this hotel – amazing!

I was home by 6pm and pretty tired by this stage. I had a night of packing to look forward to as my stay in Rwanda had come to an end. I left the hotel at 4am the next morning for a 6am flight out of the country.

The Conclusion

I have learnt a lot from this humble place, Rwanda. I feel very sorry for the country, it has a terrible scar. It irritates me to think that the genocide would probably have been avoided had the numerous outsiders not tried to interfere with the country. In much the same way as Burundi, Rwanda too is a beautiful country, perhaps even more so with it’s endless rolling hills.

My advice to potential travellers to this country however would be that you wouldn’t really need more than three days there. I would book in a one day gorilla trek and make an effort to visit the genocide museum. Further to that, nothing much else appeals to me personally, unless there’s a tennis tournament on at Cercle Sportif.

Thank you Rwanda, I take home so many wonderful memories of you, mwah!

Travelling Burundi

Travelling Burundi

Reflections from my travels to Burundi, Africa to play the 2012 ITF Futures event

On Thursday 8th November 2012, I left Sydney for Bujumbura, Burundi. Two months earlier, I had never known the country even existed. My reason for travelling to what I nick-named, “the bulls-eye of Africa”, was to play in an ITF Futures Tournament.

Futures tournaments are the lowest tier professional tournaments where one can gain ATP world ranking points by winning a match in the main draw. In order to play in the main draw, one may need to play in the qualifying rounds first. Depending on the tournament, and it’s whereabouts, qualifying draws usually consist of anywhere between 32 and 128 players. For more information about futures tournaments, how they work and what to expect, you should read this.

The trip over there

Flying into Burundi is not like flying into the big cities you might be used to. Coming from Sydney, I couldn’t help but dart my eyes around the landscape looking for some sort of CBD. This is what it looked like from my plane seat window:

Upon landing in Bujumbura, Burundi, the first hurdle would be to pass through customs. It is at this point I feel it necessary to pass on what is perhaps the best piece of advice I could give to someone travelling to central Africa. When you travel to central Africa, in particular, Bujumbura, it’s best to accept these three things:

  1. Expect to wait a long time – restaurant food, customs, or whenever you ask for something such as information from reception or particularly, when checking out of your hotel.
  2. Many things are either broken or do not function properly – hot water systems, bed lamps, elevators, electricity in general.
  3. The people are not stupid so do not treat them that way. There are many languages spoken across central Africa and fortunately, one of them happens to be English. Keep this in mind if you find yourself becoming frustrated at not being understood. As broken as their English may be, it’s better than trying your hand at Swahili or “African” French. If you’re going to speak in English, speak slowly and use simple vocabulary.

As I walked off the plane onto the tarmac, I took a photo of the small airport, only to be approached thirty seconds later by a guard armed with an AK47. He told me that photos of the airport were not allowed and that I was to delete it from my phone immediately. I obliged.

I had to fill out two immigration forms at the airport and then pay US$90 for an entry visa valid for 90 days tourist travel. To get the visa you will also need a letter of invitation from someone or some organisation (such as your hotel maybe) stating the purpose of your trip.

The Hotel

My hotel was a US$20 taxi ride from the airport. The taxis are not metered, they seem to have predetermined tariffs for trips around the place. I was looking forward to this taxi ride, it’s always a good way to experience the vibe of a place.

I arrived at the hotel, where I noticed, once again, a guard out the front with an AK47. It’s tough to know how to feel when you see this sort of thing, should I be worried that the place I’m visiting is so dangerous that there’s a need for armed guards, or should I have peace of mind for protection provided by the hotel in this potential warzone?

The Hotel Source du Nil means “source of the Nile”. As I have come to learn, knowing the source of the Nile is a long debated topic. It seems though, that the most distant source of the “White Nile” is either one of two rivers Ruvyironza in Burundi or Nyabarongo in Rwanda. The hotel is extremely dilapidated but it at least seemed clean. There is a nice pool out the back, a better alternative to using the shower facilities in the room due to the fact there is no hot water.

Throughout the day, there are usually one or two guys who sit in the hotel lobby by the elevators. Their only role is to operate the elevator, and it’s probably just as well, they seem rather tricky to control. They will ask you what floor you’re on, but it never seems to matter as they always seem to push the level four button. I stayed on level three during my stay. I would always say either, “Three”, “Trois”, or both and hold up three fingers. Despite this, the operator would still push four, but sometimes two or three, yet I would still get to level three – amazing! They didn’t score a perfect record during my stay however, on many occasions I did end up on level four, and at least a couple of times half way between a floor and the elevator shaft – that was fun.

Sometimes the doors would open by themselves, many times however, the doors would need to be wrestled open by the operator. I tried using the lift on my own once, it was a bad idea. The lift went somewhere, I know that much because I felt it vibrating and the old fashioned bicycle-type bell that would ding when you reached a floor, had chimed a few times. Disappointingly, when the elevator stopped, or more appropriately – stopped having a fit, I began to wrestle the doors open, only to find the elevator operator doing the same thing on the opposite side. I had reached the hotel lobby, right where I started. Damn, how do they do it I kept asking myself? Don’t try calling the lift to go down either, it never comes unless your lucky enough to catch someone coming out from below.

The Tennis Club

The courts are right next door to Hotel Source du Nil, all of about a 20m walk. There are twelve courts in total, six are good considering the general state of Burundi, while the other six are pretty terrible, but are at least adequate for practicing.

Here is the view of the courts from level three of my hotel, good courts to the left, bad ones to the right.

The good,

and the bad.

The most vivid memory I take from Burundi is that of Emedy Ndayisaba, an 18 year old boy who coaches at the club. Emedy was kind enough to arrange one of his friends who had a car, to drive three of us around Burundi on my last night. Emedy’s father was killed in the genocide that took place around 1994-96. When we offered to buy him dinner that night, he asked if he could instead not eat, and rather use the money we would have spent on him to pay his term four school fees. This amounted to roughly US$23.

Scenes from Burundi

In Burundi you’ll see a mix of beauty and dirtiness. It really depends on how you choose to see the world.

At the tennis club.

Emedy’s neighbourhood.

Lake Tanganyika – Burundi, Africa’s largest fresh water lake. The democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) is in the background.

Typical street scenes.

The Conclusion

Burundi is typical of many African countries – very poor, and at first glance, grotty and polluted. First impressions won’t be very positive, but if you take a closer look at your surroundings, there is beauty all around Burundi. As you look beyond the confines of the township, there are majestic mountains, a vibrant birdlife and interesting foliage.

Still, to be honest, I don’t know why anyone would choose to travel here. I had my tournament to play, which also meant the opportunity to meet numerous other players and potentially explore the place with those people. I had fun during my four day stay in Burundi, but I’m quite sure those days were my first and last.

Best wishes Burundi!