Video: Miha Logar (director & camera); Marcus Westberg, Josh Hamby, Jane Mulungi, Andy (camera); Tudur Evans (music) / Photo: Lake Mutanda by Marcus Westberg
Introduction to the Gorilla Highlands of Uganda and Rwanda
Travellers from all over the world come to the Gorilla Highlands of Rwanda and Uganda for the epiphany of staring into the eyes of our giant relatives. Yet our area offers much more: vibrant cultures bubbling through the surface and a landscape that opens your heart to adventure.
The region is a fascinating mix of ancient hills and recent volcanoes on the eastern side of the Western Rift Valley; densely terraced hillsides present a contrast to the wide open grazing lands of most of East Africa.
When to come?
The rainy seasons are supposed to be March-April and September-November but it can rain at any time. Torrential downpours are usually very short, followed by sunshine. The term “rainy season” means nothing more than that it rains too. When it is dry, it quickly becomes dusty and views hazy. All in all, any month is good to come for a visit.
How to reach?
The main urban centres can be reached by good motorway from both Rwanda’s capital Kigali (about 2 hours away) and Uganda’s Kampala (8 hours). There are also airstrips in Musanze, Kisoro and near Butogota (see more under Getting Here).
What are the highlights?
In the olden times Batwa “Pygmy” people thrived here in an extensive rainforest shared with mountain gorillas. Over centuries Bantu peoples slowly reduced it to the three still impressive patches remaining today: the base of the Virunga volcanoes, and the forests of Bwindi and Echuya. Numerous lakes are splashed all around, the biggest among them Lake Bunyonyi, referred to by the BBC as perhaps the most beautiful in the world. Safe swimming and dugout canoeing complements spectacular hiking.
What’s ‘Kigezi’? Where’s ‘Ruhengeri’?
The Ugandan side of the region was named Kigezi by the British colonial administrators; the term remains in informal use. The Rwandan side was called Ruhengeri Province till 2005 and is now part of the Northern Province. Few people still refer to Musanze Town as “Ruhengeri”.
The Gorilla Highlands initiative defines the Gorilla Highlands region as the Rwandan districts of Burera and Musanze and Ugandan districts of Kabale, Kanungu, Kisoro and Rubanda. However, any visitor should also consider checking out the wider region ecompassing Akagera National Park, Gisenyi Town and Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Mountain gorilla by Marcus Westberg
Lodge cuisine by Abby Bluth
Tracking golden monkeys by Jiro Ose
Mountain football by Jiro Ose
Musanze by Marcus Westberg
Fisherman by Marcus Westberg
Bakiga museum by Marcus Westberg
Enchanting nature by Marcus Westberg
View from Muhavura by Marcus Westberg
Lake Bunyonyi by Marcus Westberg
The Wider Gorilla Highlands Region
A triangle of attractions surrounds the Gorilla Highlands region, connecting two savannah national parks and the town of Gisenyi (Rubavu). Between Queen Elizabeth and Akagera National Parks there is also Kitagata, the site of peculiar hotsprings.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
This park is deservedly popular due to abundant wildlife thriving in its diverse ecosystem of sprawling savanna, humid forests and sparkling lakes, including over 600 bird species. The lions of the Ishasha sector, the part closest to our region, have developed a cultural trait seldom seen within their species – they climb trees. There are many other species: antelopes, buffalos, crocodiles, elephants, hippos, leopards, primates and more.
The absolute must is a launch (boat) trip on Kazinga Channel; might easily be the best safari you do, with plentiful birds and other animals visible from the boat, unperturbed. Chimp tracking is possible in Kyambura Gorge (within the park) and at Kalinzu Forest (outside the park, towards Mbarara). The equator circles can be visited in the north of the park.
Akagera National Park
The lake environment of Akagera National Park in northeastern Rwanda is magnificent and its campsites with electric fences are a unique sight in central Africa. The park’s specials in terms of fauna are the zebra, the giraffe and the rare roan antelope. Lions were reintroduced in 2015 and had their first offspring in 2016. There are also elephants, leopards, hippos, buffaloes, impalas and many other species present, all on the rise under the management of an international non-profit African Parks.
Akagera’s former reputation for “vegetarian safaris” is undoubtebly a thing of the past and the park can surprise you in a most positive way. We highly recommend adding Akagera to your wider region circuit by travelling through the park (entering and exiting through different gates).
Famous troughout Uganda for its healing powers, Kitagata (“warmth” in the local language) is an appropriate stop-over for those who want to experience the real local life. At any time, scores of people are submerging their half-naked to fully-naked bodies in a pond of water that reaches up to 80°C/176°F. Tourists are welcome as long they leave a small donation and do not try to take photos. You may come with a container to take some water with you. If you want to make it special, pack towels and an umbrella and join the people for a longer period of time.
Only lack of salt in the water may hint that Gisenyi is not a seaside town; the sandy beaches, tropical vegetation and relaxed vibe are all present on Lake Kivu. Safe for swimming and up to 480m/1,575 ft deep, Lake Kivu is unusual for its methane concentrations that are actually used for power generation. A major beneficiary of this energy is Bralirwa, the only Rwandan brewery.
The Congo Nile Trail starts here and can take you 227 km/141 miles down the Rwandan shores of Lake Kivu. A hike to Kibuye, a major town on the way, would take about four days.
Side-trip to Congo
Gisenyi also serves as the main connection to the Democratic Republic of Congo, through its sister city, Goma. There are two border posts and the Petite Barrière is in fact the bigger one. However, if you wish to be collected by the Virunga National Park staff for your Nyiragongo volcano climbing, Grand Barrière is the right crossing.
If you are not doing a round trip starting and ending in Kigali, many other places to visit open up on your way to Kampala. Please check out the East Africa tab.
East African Tourist Visa Area
Uganda and Rwanda are part of the East African Community, a grouping of countries modelled on the European Union and gradually integrating. The biggest current benefit for a traveller is the East African Tourist Visa that covers the third country too, Kenya.
What else to see in Rwanda?
Nyungwe Forest in southern Rwanda offers the only forest canopy walk in the region and is the Rwandan destination for chimp tracking.
The genocide memorial in Kigali presents not only what happened in Rwanda two decades ago but other genocidal tragedies around the world. Its museum-like setting is recommended to all. A more visceral reminder of the horror of 1994 are the two churches at Nyamata and Ntamara south of Kigali.
What else to see in Uganda?
On the way to Kampala, Lake Nabugabo close to Masaka Town is a pretty sleepover site. Isolated from Lake Victoria by sand dunes 5,000 years ago, it is a small lake with sand beaches and safe swimming.
If you haven’t seen zebras and giraffes in Akagera National Park, you can stop at Lake Mburo National Park soon after Mbarara Town.
North of Kampala lies Murchison Falls National Park with an astonishing waterfall and abundant wildlife. In the northeast there is Kidepo Valley National Park, seldom visited due to its remoteness but absolutely breathtaking.
Towards the Kenyan border, Jinja with the mighty river Nile and countless water activities is a must stop for adrenaline junkies. Those who prefer it more peaceful might, on the other hand, be convinced by Sipi Falls and its views over half of Uganda.
What to see in Kenya?
While Kenya may be the wildlife poster child of East Africa, this comes at a cost: crowds. The yearly migration of a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras in Masai Maara is unmissable if you are there at the right time (July-October), but you won’t be alone. Better be prepared to see hundreds or thousands of cars, a sight very much unthinkable in Rwanda and Uganda. Still, the Masai Mara, Amboseli and Lake Nakuru are all places that provide animal concentrations unseen in the other two countries.
Where Kenya sets itself apart from the other two countries, however, is the Swahili Coast of the Indian Ocean. This is where Bantu people have been mixing with Arabs for many centuries, resulting in a unique maritime culture. Lamu, an island in the north of the country, harbours Kenya’s oldest town (founded in the 14th century). Time stands still in a number of ways here, including cars replaced by donkeys.