Musanze District, found in the Northern Province of Rwanda, is blessed with a wide range of tourist attractions. Volcanoes National Park, which is home to the mountain gorillas, is found there. Apart from gorilla tracking, the park offers a variety of other exciting activities. However, you don’t need to enter the park to discover everything Musanze has in store. There is so much more outside the protected area.
I published my list of top ten things to do in Musanze for the first time about two years ago. The list stayed intact until I camped on a tiny island known as Kwa Mikayire (Michael’s place) in March, this year. This islet is named after its last inhabitant.
Below is the updated countdown of my most memorable experiences in Musanze. Spoiler alert: Dian Fossey’s tomb is out. The aforementioned camping experience has kicked out a visit to the final resting place of the legendary primatologist and reshuffled the pack a little bit.
Camping on Cyuza Island
My camping experience on this tiny island was out of the ordinary. I slept like a baby and woke up to hit songs from those talented birds I always write about. This early morning show is known as the dawn chorus. It is the best alarm clock ever.
Cyuza is located in the middle of Lake Burera. Its campsite is run by La Paillotte, a social enterprise established to cater for the needs of tourists in pursuit of a combination of wild adventure and comfort.
Visiting the twin lakes
Although Lake Burera is attracting more and more tourists, it was dead quiet when I visited. I am not complaining though. The tranquility and peace of mind I found there was exactly what I needed.
About half a kilometer away lies another hidden gem — Lake Ruhondo. The "Twin Lakes" moniker is often used to refer to the two neighboring water bodies. Burera’s level is 150 meters higher than her twin sister altitude-wise.
Ntaruka hydropower plant is constructed at the foot of the hill separating the two lakes. There is a pipeline designed to intensify the velocity of the dropping water, which in turn, whirls the turbines to generate electricity.
Camping on Michael’s Island
Upon arrival, I strolled around the islet and marveled at the gentle waves and the surrounding islands. Farther ahead, I saw Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo volcanoes soaring to the clouds along the border.
Like the rest of the campsites run by BGE, Michael’s Island has a fully equipped kitchen and a professional chef. Full course meals and an assortment of refreshments were at my disposal while on the island.
At night, I sat by the fire with fellow campers. We borrowed a leaf from our ancestors’ oral tradition. Around us, lit lanterns from fishing boats looked like glittering pieces of diamond.
Golden monkey trekking
Overshadowed by their gorilla neighbors, the golden monkeys do not get the recognition they deserve. Like their famous cousins, they appear on the list of the endangered species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The golden monkeys live in large groups. They are often spotted eating bamboo leaves and fruits. They have long golden facial hair and bright orange backs. Limited research has been conducted on these fascinating primates but the little we know about them shows quite advanced cognitive development.
Visiting the Gorilla Guardians’ Village
A visit to the Gorilla Guardians’ Village was a great opportunity to learn Rwanda’s rich historical and cultural heritage. I also had an opportunity to interact with former poachers who are now protecting the gorillas. The realization that nature can improve their livelihoods through tourism is behind their transformation.
Formerly known as Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, the site offers an alternative accommodation option for travelers.
Touring Musanze Caves
Equipped with a protective headgear and a flashlight, I was guided through an underground dark channel divided into three segments. A lot of work has been done to pave the underground walkway and give the caves a much-needed facelift. Something similar to a cobblestone footpath is built therein. Stairs are shaped to ease climbing up and down the uneven floor.
When volcanic eruptions took place in the Virunga area, discharged lava gushed toward the least resistant directions. As the outer parts of the streaming molten rock eventually cooled and hardened, inner currents continued to flow unobstructed. The process left behind huge horizontal openings known as lava tubes beneath the elevated ground.
Canoeing along the meandering course of Mukungwa River
While in Musanze, I participated in a thrilling canoeing expedition. As I propeled my canoe down the stream, it left behind a trail of twisting whirlpools.
I was overwhelmed by the excitement of steering my canoe down the stream while learning basic rowing techniques. Despite being preoccupied with this new adventure, I still caught a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of the birds of Mukungwa. I was amazed by their impressive work ethic, attention to detail and resilient spirit. Ever since, I have been paying more attention to their endeavors. Each birding experience leaves me speechless.
Visiting Buhanga Eco Park
Elsewhere, I had a history crash course in the mysterious Buhanga Eco Park. This is the isolated forest patch in which coronation of Rwandan kings used to take place. There are four profound sections of historical significance in the forest: the dark cave, the spring, the ditch and the conference podium.
Obviously, there are many trees in the forest but one of them stands out from the crowd. This is the popular three-in-one tree. Three species of trees are intertwined to form one symbolic tree known as Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda. It reflects the unity of the three Rwandan ethnic groups.
Hiking the volcanoes
It is also in Musanze where I was converted into an enthusiastic hiker. Five volcanic mountains are lined up along the park’s northwestern border. Bisoke and Gahinga hikes are relatively easy. If you are struggling to climb the stairs to the fourth floor, Karisimbi and Muhabura are probably not for you.
Muhabura is not as tall as Karisimbi but its gradient is steeper and rockier. Their summits are usually foggy but, on a good day, hikers enjoy views of breathtaking landscapes in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo.
My last gorilla trekking outing was in 2015 when I visited the park with a group of Big Brother Africa reality TV show participants. It was a rainy day. Luckily, we were covered by waterproof gear from head to toe.
We hiked for about two hours before we found the Sabyinyo group led by a giant silverback namely Guhonda. Then we spent an hour observing this family keenly. Guhonda and company were not bothered by our presence. They were busy eating, and occasionally, arguing in their form of communication.
A lot has been written about our cousins in the animal kingdom. All I can add is that an encounter with these great apes is an experience of a lifetime.
The author is a travel enthusiast on a tour of all 30 districts of Rwanda. Follow his awe-inspiring expeditions on Twitter @GeoExposure