The Defining One
Do you know what defines adventure tourism? It is found at the cross-section of nature, culture and activity — and this itinerary perfectly embodies its spirit … It has hiking and cycling at its core, allowing you to slow down and really feel the land and its people. This mode of transport gains you access to places no car has ever gone, however, it does not cover it all. To get in touch with the awesome savannah wildlife of our region, we have added a motorised roadtrip. And while you are feeling adventurous, why not throw in some whitewater rafting on the Nile?!
• bike, trek, dugout canoe and raft through Rwanda and Uganda
• meet gorillas, chimpanzees, tree-climbing lions, elephants, giraffes, …
• lose yourself in amazing cultures
• unveil astonishing history
• experience a fantastic variety of landscapes
area: Kigali – Nyanza – Nyungwe National Park – Gisovu Tea Estate – Karongi/Kibuye – Rubavu/Gisenyi – Imbabazi – Musanze – Lake Burera – Mgahinga Gorilla National Park – Kisoro – Echuya Forest Reserve – Lake Bunyonyi – Kisiizi Falls – Queen Elizabeth National Park – Kibale National Park – Murchison Falls National Park – Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary – Jinja – Kampala – Entebbe
mode of transport: everything but the motorcycle
total days on the ground: 21
DAY 1 (Kigali — Nyungwe National Park)
You have flown into a city you perhaps don’t expect in Africa: clean, green, organised. Once the early morning stomach void is filled, your vehicle will bring you to the starting point of the Kigali walking tour. This activity is set to introduce you to the captivating town on many hills — but don’t fret, vigorous exercise will not begin during your first hours! We focus on the heart of Kigali on Nyarugenge hill, the walking direction is downwards and the point is in making you feel and reflect, not sweat. We will show you the most interesting attractions and keep you busy till your lunch time at the little cafe attached to the Genocide Memorial. Only the tragedy of 1994 can contextualise Rwanda’s unbelievable transformation that you will admire during your week here …
You will then make it to the outskirts of Nyungwe Forest National Park, the 4-hour drive featuring a fascinating interruption at Nyanza. Here, you literally step into history … A visit to the replica of the traditional royal palace and the actual colonial-era home of the last king will throw you deep into Rwanda’s history and cultural heritage. (Don’t miss this article and podcast about Africa’s secret past — it includes images from Nyanza.)
DAY 2 (Nyungwe National Park)
Because the gorillas are waiting for you in Uganda and because our itinerary reluctantly ignores Akagera National Park, visiting the chimps of Nyungwe National Park is hands-down your wildlife peak of Rwanda. The most likely location for the experience is Cyamudongo, an isolated forest lying a short way from the highway traversing the extensive woods of Nyungwe. Nature is cheeky and loves to surprise but looking for chimpanzees will probably take your morning.
For the afternoon, the canopy walk is planned. Afraid of heights at any level of your soul? High above the endless trees you will be grateful if no wind shakes you up … The feeling is incredible though! Even if you decide to give the walkway a pass, it’s a good idea to come to the central part of the park where it is positioned. The information office nearby can give you a better picture of not only Nyungwe but of African Parks, the admirable South African conservation organisation that runs it.
DAY 3 (Nyungwe National Park — Gisovu Tea Estate — Karongi/Kibuye)
It’s time to leave the tarmac for a longer stretch, with an intention to reach the Gisovu Tea Estate in about two hours. Tea-covered slopes are an impressive sight and the tour of the tea factory will give you an insight into one of Rwanda’s biggest exports.
In another two hours you’ll discover the pretty shores of Lake Kivu, in Karongi/Kibuye. A visit to Africa’s only environmental museum, situated here, is an optional activity for true fans only (if you are to believe Charlotte Beauvoisin speaking in our podcast). On the other hand, a stroll around the pleasant waterfront town is a must! Kibuye would win in a contest for Kivu’s neatest urban area.
DAYS 4-5 (Karongi/Kibuye — Kinunu — Rubavu/Gisenyi)
… And this is where true action commences, with two cycling days on the Congo Nile Trail! Despite its misleading name it has nothing to do with DR Congo; it alludes to Africa’s two great rivers originating in the area. A more telling name would be the Lake Kivu Coast Route because this is what you are really going to witness. You and your legs will provide the power for a hired mountain bike next to nearly uninterrupted, fabulous lake views.
You will cycle the first section of the roughly 100 km/60 mi through villages, past youngsters playing football on idyllic pitches and across River Koko where big boats collect sand. Your overnight stop will be in Kinunu, a good place to see the whole process of coffee growing. The second part of the route will keep you very close to the water throughout the day. In the fishing village of Nkora, Mama Nelly will refresh you with her tasty local cooking. At the very end you will meet two landmarks at the entrance of Rubavu/Gisenyi. Bralirwa, Rwanda’s biggest brewery, quenches the thirst of the nation and the region. The nearby methane plant under construction will convert Lake Kivu’s gas into electric energy the country is also thirsty for.
DAY 6 (Rubavu/Gisenyi — Imbabazi — Musanze — Lake Burera)
You may opt for a lazy morning on the white beaches of Lake Kivu and get some rest … Today’s drive to Lake Burera will only take about three hours, with three highlight breaks.
Mr. Neza is a licensed traditional doctor passionate about the health benefits of honey and has some of the best stock available — but there is much more to learn from him! Your late lunch site, Imbabazi on a rural road between Gisenyi and Musanze, is a former orphanage and a fantastic location rich in history. Finally, Virunga Valley Academy, a great American international school in Musanze, also has a story to tell (click for a teenager’s take on it).
DAY 7 (Lake Burera — Mgahinga Gorilla National Park)
Your hiking boots may have wondered why they have been carried to Africa … Not anymore! The trekking level of your adventure is about to begin, with a hike across the border into Uganda. The 5-7 hours on the Rwandan side will be mixed with boating — Lake Burera island hopping will cover everything that matters. You will then walk to the Cyanika border crossing.
On the other side you will be hiking through gorgeous cultivated areas straight on the border of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. The walk will take 2-3 hours, and there will be a picnic lunch in the middle of it all. You will spend your night close to where gorillas are roaming that day.
DAY 8 (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park)
Uganda’s corner of the Virunga volcanoes will be your rendezvous spot with the endangered Mountain Gorilla. As petite as it may be, Mgahinga is a jewel that you will have the privilege to explore for two days. You will be granted one hour with the park’s only habituated gorilla family, and spend a couple more hiking to and fro. Visitors are usually back by midday, so you can politely ignore your hosts’ offers to pack lunch for you.
The afternoon is yours to glow in the sun with cold beer in your hand, stare at the dormant volcanoes and appreciate the beauty of this planet we briefly inhabit. With chimps and gorillas ticked off, you have met the most famous wildlife of the Gorilla Highlands region but there is much more to come …
DAY 9 (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park)
Are you still feeling strong enough? Choose one of the three volcano peaks and step by step ascend into the sky! A good hiker who doesn’t suffer from vertigo will probably select Mt Sabyinyo where Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo meet. But the other two candidates are not a bad solution either.
There are less vertical options on the table too, like searching for the golden monkeys, or a rather horizontal one — to do nothing and prepare your body for the final big walking trip at Lake Bunyonyi.
DAY 10 (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park — Kisoro — Echuya Forest Reserve — Lake Bunyonyi)
One of the prettiest lakes in the world, Lake Bunyonyi, formed two hours away from the volcanoes 10,000 years ago at 1,950m/6,400ft. Before you reach it, there will be two cultural activities organised for you.
You will have already gotten some coffee knowledge on the Congo Nile Trail but the coffee tour above the town of Kisoro goes deeper. Whether you are an addict or not, you are going to leave with some new appreciation for the magic beans! Later on, between Kisoro and Bunyonyi, the tarmac penetrates the broccoli-shaped trees of Echuya Forest Reserve, and you get to enter it with Batwa ”Pygmies”. The ancient people of central Africa, they are too often forgotten, ignored or abused. Luckily, Batwa Today is a completely respectful way to pay them a visit. Our partners will show you their ancestral home and their current settlement above Lake Bunyonyi.
DAYS 11-12 (Lake Bunyonyi)
Dugout canoes, the rural hospitality of Mama Bena and Tom Karemire, a rather demanding hike in between — what more would an adventure traveller wish for?! This is the Mother of All Treks, the original travel experience we created back in 2005. Decades later it remains a benchmark for everything we do.
The first day is about canoeing from the eastern to the western bank of Bunyonyi, checking on several tiny but historically remarkable islands as you paddle. You then camp next to Mama Bena’s poignant peninsula home and feast on some of the best local food available. The second day features the summit of Mount Karembe (2,478m/8,130ft) but the long descent towards Tom’s island Homestay may be the main hiking challenge.
DAY 13 (Lake Bunyonyi — Kisiizi Falls — Queen Elizabeth National Park)
Tom will serve you warm chapatis with raw honey for breakfast and wave you goodbye. You will row and walk to Mrs Annah’s house to see how traditional crafts are made, and take in some final Bunyonyi views. You are now minutes away from your vehicle that is ready to take you to the savannah, with one special stopover …
Kisiizi Falls used to be the ultimate destination for pregnant unmarried girls — they were thrown down the falls as a punishment. These days, on the other hand, the water powers one of the best rural hospitals in Uganda! (Its British medical superintendent’s articles are worth a read.) At the end of your 4-5 hour drive you should get face-to-face with tree-climbing lions, something only a couple of parks in the world can offer. But that is not all. The plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park’s Ishasha sector extend deep into DR Congo, filled by Uganda kobs, topis, hippos, buffalos, elephants, hyenas and other wildlife.
DAY 14 (Queen Elizabeth National Park)
You will be driven to the more popular northern side of the national park, a 4-hour ride. The biggest attraction of the park’s north is the so-called launch cruise, a boat safari. It allows you to peacefully approach the variety of animals that drink the water from Kazinga channel, the natural connection between Lakes Edward and George. By contrast, the park’s beautiful explosion craters are seldom on itineraries, but they will be on yours!
Somewhere in between, outside of the park boundaries, Lake Katwe is a sight to behold. It gives you an opportunity to witness the traditional way of producing salt, the economic activity that made Katwe a merchants’ destination centuries ago. For example, our enterprising ancestors would walk many days from Lake Bunyonyi to Katwe for barter trade. Today, women are not allowed to enter the lake to harvest and men have to wear condoms to protect their private parts! (If you wish to learn more about Queen Elizabeth biotopes, click for our expert’s funny and scary anecdotes.)
DAYS 15-16 (Queen Elizabeth National Park — Kibale National Park)
In case you haven’t spotted them yet, the final morning in the park can be devoted to looking for lions on the ground. Afterwards you will proceed towards the edge of Kibale National Park (up to 5 hours from the equator signs).
A nature lover’s dream, the Sunbird Hill Experience has been booked for you on the edge of Kibale. You will be accommodated by Julia Lloyd, a former primate researcher who now highlights what tends to be in the shadow of the chimps. As long as you love birds, butterflies or beetles, you will not be bored! Prepare to be intrigued by how conservation in the village works, what former poachers have to say and what bees can do for elephants (well, against them). Julia will arrange for you a cool shelter for two nights while her team entertains you throughout — or just lets you be, the call is yours!
DAY 17 (Kibale National Park — Mparo Royal Tombs —Murchison Falls National Park)
Was the forest break sufficient? Are you mentally prepared for a long day on the way to the southern shores of the Nile? The 10 hours of driving towards the wonders of Murchison Falls National Park will be interrupted by one cultural activity …
Mparo Royal Tombs is our invitation to dive into Uganda’s alternate history. Did you notice the last paragraph of the the story linked to at Nyanza? What if King Kabalega didn’t fight the British? Would the capital of the country be in today’s Hoima instead of Kampala? Would it be called Uganda at all? But Kabalega resisted European occupation and lost … More than a hero, he is now unfortunately considered by most Ugandans a failure, a needless rebel.
DAY 18 (Murchison Falls National Park)
Your driver will take you to the other side of Africa’s longest river, the landscape of open rolling hills teeming with life. The giraffe will be the newest — and most majestic — species on the itinerary. The rest of the park’s population generally resembles what Queen Elizabeth has already shared with you.
It’s not about the animals after all. The top reason visitors drive so far to the north is to admire the raw power of the eponymous Kabalega Falls, pardon us, Murchison Falls. You should taste the afternoon local version of the boat trip with that in mind. While you will certainly see some life on the river, the rationale behind adding another launch cruise is to approach the bottom of the thunderous waterfalls.
DAY 19 (Murchison Falls National Park — Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary — Jinja)
Welcome to another full-day transfer … Your road to the source of the Nile will be punctuated by two natural attractions.
You will not get a complete idea of the Nile’s might without a trip to the top of of the falls! Compressed into a couple of square metres, the river awes. About 3 hours later you will pull off at Ziwa. In this sanctuary rhinos are being prepared for the long-delayed reintroduction into the wild. You are going to be taken for a walk to see these beasts. (There’s still up to 6 hours from here to Jinja, depending on the jam around Uganda’s capital Kampala.)
DAY 20 (Jinja — Kampala)
Your whitewater rafting is classified as Grade 5, meaning that it can’t get more tricky than that — at least as far as tourist activities go. The rapids will be difficult to navigate. The waves will be irregular, large and powerful. There will be rocks and other obstacles. Some involuntary intake of H2O Nile Special is totally expected … But there will also be safety kayaks floating around and a hugely experienced captain on board. You will be alright as your veins pump hard! And knowing that you are having some adrenaline fun right at the beginning of the 6,650km/4,130mi watercourse is kinda priceless …
Following 4-5 hours under the helmet you will be taken to Kampala for your ultimate night in Uganda. The drive takes roughly 1.5 hours.
DAY 21 (Kampala — Entebbe)
Ideally, it’s Sunday today because Jampala is more relaxed on weekends. (It wouldn’t make much sense to attempt a motorised tour during the week as that would mean too much waiting in traffic.) A big part of the usual fun of driving in Kampala are “taxis”, the shared minibuses that follow pre-determined routes. They are parked/packed at different locations in the city but the Old Taxi Park is the mother of all organised chaos, and something you just have to see! The second recommended destination is the parliament of the Buganda Kingdom, a unique chance to understand how traditional culture mixes with British colonial influences. The third place to visit is the Baha’i temple, the only one in Africa and a lovely green oasis in the urban jungle.
Our advice would be to end it all with Ndere Troupe. These ladies and gentlemen are world-class performers of traditional dancing and modern humour, entertaining you in their own charming amphitheatre. Starting from there, you will be at Entebbe Airport in about an hour …
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