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Mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Trekking in Volcanoes National Park to visit mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat is an absolute highlight of a trip to Rwanda – read my article here to give you lots of handy hints of what you should know before you arrange your trip and what you need to take with you.

This article has been published by Travelicious – a revolutionary travel website & community that uses online advertising and sponsorship to fund independent travel writers.

Mountain gorilla

Iceland – a long weekend amongst volcanoes and snow

A mere 3 hour flight from the UK or 5 hours from the East coast of the USA – Iceland is the perfect destination for a long weekend.

 

First Impressions

Walking out of the airport in Reykjavik, the first thing that struck me was that the views of the stunning snow covered scenery went on for what seemed like forever. It took me a while to realise that this was because there are scarcely any trees, so your vista is uninterrupted and boy is it stunning.

We arrived mid-March and there was heavy snow all around. It was with some trepidation that we collected our 4WD hire car (recommended in winter months), having never driven on snow before I wasn’t sure how we would cope. I needn’t have worried however; the roads were excellent, completely cleared of snow and hardly any traffic to speak of so we could take our time. Our destination was Hotel Ranga in Hella, approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik airport.

scenery icelandI was mesmerised by the roadside scenery, stopping continuously to take photos. Living in the UK we don’t see much snow and when we do it hardly settles before it melts and turns to brown slush. This was pristine white blankets with beautiful blue sky and sunshine, a novel sight.

Accommodation

Upon arrival at Hotel Ranga we were welcomed into reception by a huge stuffed polar bear named Hrammur. Slightly curious as they are not native to the island but I was stunned at his enormous size nonetheless.

Hotel Ranga is a log cabin style hotel and is the only 4 star resort in Southern hotel rangaIceland. It has 51 rooms and has its own observatory for star gazing. Due to the isolated location there is a good chance of seeing displays of the Aurora Borealis also known as the Northern Lights as there is no local light pollution.

 

Single rooms from €232 double rooms from €266 incl breakfast.

We had been forewarned that alcohol is pretty pricey in Iceland, so we came prepared with some bottles of wine purchased at the airport before we departed. It felt like as good a time as any to pop one of those open and jump into one of the three outdoor hot tubs at Hotel Ranga – located just outside our room overlooking the East Ranga River. Sitting in the warm water whilst the air temperature was -2˚c was absolute bliss, although it did result in a very rosy red nose! This became a ritual each day when we got back from our sightseeing; warming up in the hot tub whilst drinking a bottle of wine was a great way to end each day before dinner.

reindeerDinner at Hotel Ranga is served in the restaurant overlooking the river which has huge glass windows on three sides, for optimal Northern Lights viewings – should you be lucky enough for them to make an appearance. The menu combines Icelandic specials with gourmet cuisine, resulting in us sampling dishes such as reindeer carpaccio with parmesan and truffle oil, smoked puffin with cream cheese and pan fried arctic char. All were absolutely delicious.

After requesting that the hotel reception wake us if the Northern Lights make an appearance we went to bed full of anticipation. At around 2am we were woken with a phone call to say that the lights were just coming out. Cue a mad dash to pull on our thermals, adding as many layers as we could fit underneath our coats and running outside into the freezing temperatures. The lights were there, but only as a very faint green-y white line in the sky, nothing compared to what I have seen on the TV with coloured lights dancing about. I thought perhaps this is just the beginning and then they will come out in their full splendour? It was not to be, after 30 mins of waiting, with my face going numb from the cold, there was no change. We gave up and went back to bed. After all, we had lots planned for the next day.

Things to do

Mýrdalsjökull Glacier

Around 40 mins from Hella is Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s southernmost glacier, where we had booked a morning of snowmobiling. After meeting at the cabin and getting kitted out in snow suits, boots, balaclavas, helmets and gloves we set off in a huge ATV to the snowmobiles which were already on the glacier. I opened the door of the truck, jumped down, took two steps and then promptly got blown over by the wind. I was actually cleanly blown over into the snow, flat on my back…that doesn’t happen in London!

The snowmobiling was lots of fun; we travelled up one side of the snow covered glacier and then down the other side back to the ATV. We were gifted continuous beautiful views of the surrounding wilderness. The snowmobile was simple to control and suitable for novices. You are required to shift your weight to lean either to the left or the right at times when travelling along a steep slope, so a reasonable level of mobility is required. Full instructions are given before you set off. I felt safe and happy that I had been provided all the right clothing and equipment. It important that you wear warm layers underneath the snowsuits that are provided.

snowmobile 2 snowmobile

The snowmobiles can carry up to two people, one driver and one passenger. Children aged 6 and over are allowed as passengers. You must hold a driving licence to drive the snowmobile. Our snowmobile activity was priced as 24,990 ISK per person (around £165). We spent around 1 hour on the snowmobile with approx 20 mins drive each way in the ATV.

Arcanum’s meeting cabin is approx. 2 and half hours drive from Reykjavik.

 

 

Vik

The southernmost village in Iceland is a 30 min drive from Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. VikThis stunning black sand beach is often voted as one of the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world and I can see why. A thick layer of snow lay in continuous blankets from the road onto the beach and then in stark contrast the black sand stretched to the angry looking sea. The wind was whipping our faces but I didn’t care, I wanted to walk along this beach as it was like nothing I had seen before.

I was looking out for sea birds, we saw a few sheltering in the cliff sides… but alas no puffins, we were a bit early they don’t normally arrive until April.

Vik is approx. 3 hours drive from Reykjavik.

There are not a lot of options for dining in Vik as it is only a small village. We had lunch at Víkurskáli a café at a petrol station. There are plenty of choices on the menu such as burgers, fish and chips, meat stews, fish stews, sandwiches etc. Main dishes around 2,000 ISK (£13). Open 8am to 10pm daily.

Skógafoss

SkogafossOn the way back from Vik to Hella we stopped at Skógafoss waterfall. In comparison to our visit to Gullfoss, there were not many visitors there and we almost had the views to ourselves. Parking is free and there is free access to the waterfall all year round.

Skógafoss is a 30 min drive from Vik, 40 mins from Hella, 2 hours from Reykjavik.

 

 

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a set of three popular attractions all within 100km of the Reykjavik: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. It is possible to visit all three in one day – either by a self-drive or joining a tour bus. We drove to all 3 of them during our second day comfortably and they were all interesting and enjoyable.

Gullfoss

This waterfall is one of the most popular attractions in Iceland. There is a dedicated gullfosspath for tourists to walk on to the viewing areas where you can take in various views of the powerful rushing water.  There is no admission fee to visit the waterfall and it is open 24/7.

There is a large café & restaurant with hot and cold food available and a souvenir shop open from 09:00 – 21:00. There is a large car park and parking is free. Be prepared to share your experience with hundreds of other visitors. We found that the walkways were quite icy and slippery on the day that we visited as there had been snow earlier in the morning. It is important to wear sturdy footwear with good grips.

Gullfoss is approx. 2 hours drive from Reykjavik, 10 mins drive from Geysir.

Þingvellir National Park

Parts of Þingvellir are classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it was the meeting place of one of the oldest parliaments in the world; established in 930 AD. There is a church built in 1859 which you can visit in the summer months. There are some remains of the buildings visible. A highlight is being able to see where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart, creating a rift valley. Some of the submerged rifts display crystal clear water. Walking paths take you through the rifts where the towering walls of rock are either side of you. Entrance to the National Park is free of charge.

pingvellir

Parking is 500 ISK and is pay & display (so you need to pay when you arrive) machines accept credit/debit cards only. Cash can be used to pay for parking but you must go to the visitor centre to do this.

There is a visitor centre (close to Hakið viewpoint, where a footpath leads down into the great Almannagjá fault) it is open 09:00 – 17:00 which is free of charge. There is a range of multimedia and interactive information displays available in Danish, English, German, French and Icelandic. There is a 200 ISK charge to use the toilets at the visitor centre.

There is also a free information centre located at Leirar, open from 09:00 – 17:00, where you can get information regarding the nature and history of the National Park and find details about hiking trails and camping. There is a café open all year round.

Þingvellir is 35 mins drive from Reykjavik, 1 hour from Gullfoss.

Geysir

This hot spring area has boiling mud pits, azure blue springs and gushing geysers geysirone of which sprays water up to 30 meters into the air every few minutes. It is currently free of charge to visit, however there have been ongoing appeals by the land owners to be able to charge an admission fee. There is free parking and a café & gift shop.

Wait with your camera poised by Strokkur which erupts frequently, if you are anything like me it will make you jump every time!

Geysir is 1 and half hours from Reykjavik, 50 mins from Þingvellir.

 

Reykjavik

The colourful capital city is full of excellent restaurants and cafes serving both traditional and international cuisine. If you are feeling brave you can try fermented shark; if you are not quite feeling that adventurous perhaps some reindeer or some smoked lamb. Reykjavik also has a bustling nightlife with live music venues, pubs and clubs aplenty. It also has lots of museums including The National Museum and several art museums. It is a fun and friendly city and a good place to base yourself if you don’t want to hire a car during your visit. It is easy to book onto various tour buses to see many different attractions.

We liked The Laundromat Café – where unbelievably you can actually do your laundry whilst you grab some food and a coffee or a beer. They also have books that you can buy or trade and board games.  The chocolate fudge cake was absolute heaven!

Sights

  • Hallgrímskirkja church is the main landmark of the city and its tower can be seen from almost everywhere.
  • Tjörnin pond next to City Hall and some beautifully coloured old houses making for beautiful photographs, this is a natural pond and home to ducks, swans and geese.
  • Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall – an architectural wonder
  • Whales of Iceland featuring 23 life-size models of the species found in Icelandic waters
  • The Old Harbour

The Blue Lagoon

Conveniently located close to Keflavik International Airport the best time to visit is either when you have landed or on the day of your departure. We decided to visit The Blue Lagoon before our departure, so we arrive around 3 hours before we needed to be at the airport. We did not book in advance (but you can through the website). There are lots of different packages on offer – we chose the ‘comfort’ option which included the use of a towel so we didn’t have to fly home with a wet one, plus a free drink. We paid €10 (£8.60) extra to also have a bathrobe, which is nice when it’s below zero outside! The online price for the comfort option is advertised from €55 (£48) per person (advance ticket).

 

blue lagoonGetting into the lagoon was absolute bliss, like a very warm bath. It was snowing when we were in the beautiful turquoise water, and the snowflakes were gathering on my eyelashes. A beautiful experience. There are places to hang your bathrobe and steps to walk down into the lagoon. It was fairly busy while we were there, so it’s difficult to get a whole patch of water to yourselves but we found if you swim out a bit further you could have a bit more peace and quiet. There is a bar where you can be served whilst you are in the lagoon, you charge your drinks to your entrance bracelet and pay for everything when you leave.

There is also an indoor restaurant and café and a sauna and steam room.

The showers provide shower gel, shampoo and hair conditioner in each cubicle. It’s important to use a lot of conditioner on your hair as it will feel very dry after being in the lagoon. Small plastic bags for wet bathing suits are provided. Ensure you rinse your bathing suit whilst in the shower or else it will turn stiff when dry.

The Blue Lagoon is 40 mins drive from Reykjavik, 20 mins from the airport.

Summary

Our weekend in South Iceland was fabulous, it’s an incredibly beautiful place with so much to see and do. The landscape at times almost feels like you are on the moon; it was unlike anywhere else I have ever been. I am glad we went in the winter to see the land covered in snow and despite the ever present gusting winds (I am sure it is the windiest place I have ever been) I didn’t feel ever so cold that I wished I was somewhere warmer. I would love to go back again soon to visit other parts of the island and see more. I would also find it interesting to travel there in the summer, as I am sure it has a completely different feel. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky enough to be treated to a full display of the Northern Lights, but that’s just a good excuse for us to go back!

Other Information

  • Iceland is on GMT and does not observe daylight saving hours.
  • The currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK) which is currently approx. 150 to £1 and 115 to $1US.
  • Vehicles drive on the right hand side.
  • The native language is Icelandic, however English is widely spoken as a second language.
  • The country is connected by one main ring road known as Route 1 which runs around the entire country.
  • Iceland has 130 volcanoes; most famous is Eyjafjallajökull whose eruption in 2010 shut down the entire air space of Europe, resulting in thousands of flights to be cancelled over an eight day period.
  • Iceland is not part of the European Union.

 

 

Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills

Rwanda – the land of a thousand hills – it’s so much more than just the country who suffered from a genocide in 1994.

Rwanda is setting itself up as a bona fide tourist destination, ready to compete with its much larger neighbours. This landlocked country is full of hills, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, national parks and is the reputed source of The Nile (White Nile). It’s also home to the majestic mountain gorilla. With only 880 remaining in the world, Rwanda is one of only three places that mountain gorillas are found along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mountain Gorilla RwandaOne of the highlights of a visit to Rwanda is trekking to visit a group of mountain gorillas, in their own natural habitat in Volcanoes National Park (see my other article about gorilla treks). But there is a lot more to explore before or after your gorilla trek.

I absolutely loved our holiday in Rwanda and I would definitely want to go back for another visit soon. The scenery is incredible, I found Rwandans to be friendly, gentle and kind. In contrast to some of its neighbouring countries I felt very safe in all of the towns and cities and was amazed at how little litter there was. The roads are in good shape and the all of the food and beer I sampled was delicious. When travelling around the winding roads of the country, I found myself exclaiming in awe at every single vista of the beautiful lakes and mountains – truly stunning. Although my hour with the mountain gorillas was the absolute highlight, I enjoyed immensely the canopy walk in Nyungwe and the walking tour in Nyamirambo.

NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK

l'Hoest Monkey

l’Hoest Monkey

Approximately 4 hours drive from Kigali near to the border with Burundi is one of Africa’s oldest forests, Nyungwe. At around 1,000 sq km there is plenty to discover. One of the major draws is that you can track a troop of habituated chimpanzees, but there are no fewer than twelve different species of primates found in the forest.

Treks to the chimpanzees typically start early (around 5:30am) so you can find them before they wake up, as once they are on the move it is very difficult to keep up as they swing through the trees. Treks typically would depart at 5:30 and return around 2pm, the terrain can be steep so a moderate level of fitness is required.

Treks to see Black & White Colobus monkeys are also possible; often this is a shorter and easier trek.

Guided bird watching walks can also be arranged. There are over 300 different bird species in the park, with 16 of them being endemic to the area.

Nyungwe Canopy Walk

Nyungwe is also home to East Africa’s only canopy walkway; hanging 60m high above the forest floor it is possible to see the forest from a different perspective. It is often possible to spot birds whilst on the canopy walkway plus if you are very lucky you may see some primates too.

I felt safe on the walkway, I was able to hold on with at least one hand at all times and the mesh at the sides makes you feel secure.

Cost is $60 per person and there is a minimum age of 6 years old. Children must be accompanied by adults.

If driving from Kigali to Nyungwe, you may find it convenient to stop in Butare (approx. half way) where there are a number of restaurants and cafes, plus the National Museum of Rwanda.

Accommodation – Nyungwe 

Nyungwe Lodge

We stayed at Nyungwe Forest Lodge, which is a luxurious hotel with beautiful rooms, set in a tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe National Park. The hotel has a restaurant, a heated swimming pool, free WIFI in the main building, spa treatments and each room backs onto the forest, with a chance of spotting wildlife including primates from your room. We found the service to be excellent, the food – particularly breakfast & dinner – was delicious and the bar stocked imported wines, beers and spirits plus local beers. Spending time relaxing at the lodge right next to the forest was very special. Rooms from $295 pp sharing (full board).

Nyungwe Lodge

Nyungwe Lodge

Other accommodation options:

Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel – Single room $135, double room $200 – bed and breakfast.

Giskura Guest House – Rooms from 23,500 RWF (around $30) for single occupancy and 35,400 RWF (around $45) for double occupancy.

There is a campsite at Uwinka, should you wish to stay in the forest.

KIGALI

The capital of the land of a thousand hills. This high altitude city is home to more than one million people. The city is clean and safe and very welcoming to tourists. It is also conveniently located in the centre of the country, making it easy to travel to visit other areas. Often skipped by some tourists, it is well worth at least twenty four hours of your time.

Things to do

Kigali Genocide Memorial

In 1994 Rwanda suffered a brutal genocide, where it is estimated that up to 1 million people were killed over a 90 day period. Rwanda is now at peace, and there are memorials all over the country to serve as a permanent memorial but also a place where families could bury their loved ones. 259,000 are buried at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Although a visit to the memorial is full of sadness, Rwanda wants visitors to know what happened to their country, to understand the warning signs that were missed at the time and their goal is that this awareness should not let it happen again, anywhere in the world. I am glad that we went.

Nyamirambo Walking Tour

Nyamirambo Walking Tour

Pounding cassava leaves

This was one of the best things we did in Kigali. Nyamirambo is a busy and lively, multi-cultural area of Kigali. This tour takes you around this part of urban Rwanda, introducing you to the local businesses including hair salons, embroiderers, charcoal sellers, market stalls – everyone is friendly and happy to tell you about their business and show you what they are doing. I even got to have a try at pounding cassava leaves to make a Congolese style sauce, it was hard work! The tour is run by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, where they have been teaching new skills to the local women, including sewing and weaving – their products are for sale in their shop.

Nyamirambo Walking TourWe were guided around by a son of one of the women, he spoke excellent English and as he has grown up in this area he was knowledgeable and was able to answer any questions. The tour took place in the morning and then at lunchtime we were taken to our guide’s house, where his mother had prepared a delicious Rwandan meal for us, including sweet potatoes, a spinach, garlic and carrot dish, a mixed beans dish and some plantain – absolutely divine. It was wonderful to be shown around an authentic urban area of Rwanda and to talk with the people who live there. Highly recommended. Walking tours cost around 15,000 RWF ($20 including lunch).

Inema Art Center

Inema Arts Center shows a collection of work by Rwandan creative artists. Paintings, sculptures, jewellery, leather goods and textiles are all created here, all on show for visitors to both observe and purchase. Three times a week there are performances of the Rwandan traditional dance styles. Classes for visitors are available in painting, Rwandan craft and traditional dance. Open 9am to 7pm.

Hotel Des Mille Collines

This Kigali hotel was made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, based on the true story of 1,268 people taking refuge inside the hotel during the genocide of 1994. It is possible to visit the hotel even if you are not staying there.

Accommodation –Kigali

milles collines

We decided to stay at the Hotel Des Milles Collines. It is a large hotel; each room has a balcony and the views of the cityscape and rolling hills are pretty nice. There is a large swimming pool with sun loungers and a bar service.

The food in the restaurants is average, prices are slightly on the high side plus the service is not speedy but the WIFI was good and the staff were pleasant.

Some of the rooms are a little tired but there are refurbishments happening. Rooms from $275 (based on 2 people sharing).

Other accommodation options:

Kigali Serena Hotel – rooms from $290 (based on 2 people sharing)

Urban by CityBlue Kigali – rooms from $150 (based on 2 people sharing)

Five to Five Hotel – rooms from $90 (based on 2 people sharing)

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK

Akagera National Park is on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania and is one of Africa’s oldest national parks. While the park has suffered from poaching and human encroachment in the past, it is now run by African Parks and the wildlife is making a good recovery with substantial increase in numbers over the past couple of years. The park is approx. 2 to 3 hrs drive from Kigali and doesn’t receive a high volume of visitors, so it could be nice to have the park almost to yourselves. The park also offers a behind the scenes tour of the park headquarters and the management of park. The terrain is similar to the more famous parks of East Africa.

Game drives can be conducted by your own driver-guide and accompanied by a wildlife guide provided by the Rwandan National Parks or you can book a driver and guide through the park management. Self-drive is also possible (you must take a guide). There are frequent sightings of zebra, hippo, impala, buffalo, bushbuck, giraffe, tsessebe, elephant and crocodile. The park is also home to leopard, hyena, side-striped jackal, lion and there are plans to introduce black rhino in the near future too. There are lots of birds including water birds such as marabou stork, fish eagles and cranes.

Accommodation options:

Akagera Lodge located inside the park. Rooms from $100.

Ruzizi Tented Lodge – $165 per person per night (based on two sharing)

 

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK

Aside from the mountain gorilla trekking there are other activities in Volcanoes National Park. (2 hrs drive from Kigali)

Golden monkey trekking

There are two habituated troops of golden monkeys. Treks are limited to 8 people per group and they take place daily. Permits are $100 per person. Moderate level of fitness is required.

Visit Dian Fossey’s Tomb

Dian Fossey studied the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for over 18 years. Visits to her house and her grave can be arranged through Volcanoes National Park headquarters – $75pp. The terrain is steep and a moderate level of fitness it required.

Hike Mount Karisimbi or Mount Bisoke

Mount Karisimbi is the fifth highest volcano in Africa – this is a two day hike. You can also visit Dian Fossey’s grave en route.

Mount Bisoke can be hiked in one day. The ascent usually takes approx. 4 hours with a 2 hour descent.

You need a high level of fitness to undertake these activities.

Accommodation – Nearby Volcanoes National Park

Virunga Lodge

We stayed at Virunga Lodge, a deluxe lodge located about 50 mins drive from the gorilla trekking headquarters. The views from the lodge of the volcanoes and the lakes are stunning, the service is first class and the choice of food & beverages was excellent. The main lodge has a cosy fire (you are at altitude so the evenings are chilly) and free WIFI. The lodge provided packed lunches for the gorilla treks, clean your boots on your return plus offer one free massage per person.

I would definitely recommend staying here, the views are absolutely stunning. You must book early as it is extremely popular. Room tariff including all food & beverages is as follows:

High season per person sharing $826 (single occupancy $991)

Low season per person sharing $500 (single occupancy $500)

Other accommodation options:

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge – close to the park headquarters, ideal for gorilla trekking/other activities in the park. Rooms from $470 – $880 pp per night.

Mountain Gorilla View Lodge – 15 mins drive from the park headquarters. Rooms from $350 (2 persons sharing)

Le Bambou Gorilla Village – situated right next to the park headquarters. Rooms from $250 (2 persons sharing)

Other Information about Rwanda

  • Rwanda has a ban on plastic bags – which is why it is one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Recyclable paper bags are used in shops; alternatively people use their own cloth bags. Rwandan’s take a lot of pride in the tidiness of their country; each month there is compulsory community service where all citizens are expected to clean the streets, pick up any (rare) pieces of litter, painting fences and any other nominated chores to keep the country spic and span.
  • The local currency is the Rwandan Franc, which at the time of writing is approx. 800 RWF to $1 USD. US Dollars are also widely accepted.
  • Kigali is the only international airport in Rwanda and is served by many airlines including: KLM, Kenya Airways, Rwandair, South African Airways, Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines.
  • English and French are official languages of Rwanda; and Kinyarwanda is spoken by most Rwandans.
  • Vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road in Rwanda.

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