‘Is there a nice walk I can do this afternoon in Gisakura, through the tea fields, maybe?’
‘There are many nice walks in Gisakura, but you cannot do them by yourself. You can walk on the main road. That is all.’
‘Okay.’ The park ranger is giving me a death stare; his demeanour is collegial though, and he has been nothing but helpful. I think he just takes his job very seriously. ‘Why can’t I walk through the tea fields? I thought I only needed a guide while I was in the national park?’
‘Yes, that is correct.’
‘So why do I need a guide to walk through the tea fields?’
‘Sadly, it is not safe.’
‘Oh.’ Should I tell him I have already gone for a walk through the tea fields? No, I better not.
‘They look safe.’
‘Yes, they look safe, but many of the workers in Gisakura are refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They do not care about tourism in Rwanda. They will attack you if you leave the main road.’
The people I passed in the tea fields seemed friendly. I waved at a few, said hello to others. They all smiled and waved back. None appeared menacing. Maybe I was lucky?
‘Okay, I’ll just go for a walk along the main road then.’
‘And another thing. Do not go on a boat ride on the lake. It is not safe.’
‘But if you do go on a boat ride, make sure you only go along the shore of the lake. Do not go towards the centre of the lake. If you go towards the centre of the lake, the people on the far shore will shoot at you.’
‘That’s fine; I’ll just walk along the road. Thanks, bye.’
I exit the ranger’s office. That didn’t go as well as I would have liked. I have a guided walk in the national park booked for tomorrow morning. But till then: nothing. I thought I might pass the afternoon wandering around the tea fields of Gisakura. But that plan’s been quashed. I guess I’ll just go for a walk along the main road. See how that goes. And, maybe, if all looks safe and sound, I’ll still pop into the tea fields. Just for a bit.
First though, it’s back to my guesthouse, which, conveniently, is located just across the drive. The stairs leading down to the guesthouse are slick, a passing shower having unloaded just enough moisture to make everything damp. Growing over the stairs, bursting with red and yellow flowers, is a shrub hosting several squabbling sunbirds. The birds lift into the air as I approach, their iridescent feathers twinkling in the sun, the fight taken to a nearby flowerbed.
As I tackle the stairs a family of vervet monkeys, ten to twenty in number, emerge from the surrounding jungle. They filter through the tree tops, making their way en masse to the roof of the guesthouse; mother monkeys with kids propped on their backs, or clinging to their bellies; adolescent monkeys leaping between branches with childish disdain for health and safety; older, larger monkeys showing more prudence, making less ambitious leaps, grabbing sturdier, less flimsy branches. One by one they plop down onto the guesthouse roof.
Each sits on the tiles for a minute or two, basking in the steaming midday sun, before jumping up and running along the gutter, swinging under the eaves, and dropping to the ground. Once on the ground they scatter, some running towards the guesthouse kitchen, others scampering across the grassy lawn. Three run through the door of the room neighbouring mine. Two elderly French men are rooming there; neither inside at the moment.
I think about going in after the monkeys and trying to shoo them out, but I don’t fancy cornering a bunch of excited monkeys in a small room. Nor do I want the French men to return and find me inside their room. All is silent within. What are the monkeys up to? Stealthily raiding knapsacks for food? Or just chilling out? Laying on the bed with their feet up?
A few steps further down is my room. Two young monkeys are clinging to the window grille. They’re peering through the curtains, looking for food. The smaller monkey begins working over the flyscreens, pulling off spiders, moths, beetles, anything it can find. Everything plucked from the screen, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, gets flicked into its mouth; a few crunches, and it’s gone. The flyscreen is soon picked clean.
The monkeys look at me as I approach them, full of curiosity. I take another step closer. The younger monkey squawks and jumps from grille to gutter, legs cycling through the air as it flips itself up onto the roof. The older monkey plops onto the ground and saunters away, cruising through the guesthouse flowerbeds.
I let myself into my room, and shut the door behind me. All I need is a few moments to lock my valuables away, then I am back out again, walking up the street.
The road outside the guesthouse is empty, plied only by the occasional filled-to-overflowing minibus, and the odd motorbike. Gisakura isn’t the most popular of destinations. I walk a few hundred metres uphill, before turning to take in the view.
In the distance I can just make out Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes, and the natural border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What appears to be the opposite shore is actually Idjwi Island, the tenth largest inland island (i.e. island in a lake) in the world.
Lake Kivu may look pleasant, but for the Rwandan government it is a source of endless worry. Lake Kivu is situated on the East African Rift, and is thus being ever so slowly pulled apart by continental drift. It is also one of the very few lakes in the world where limnic eruptions occur, an extremely rare phenomenon particular to lakes saturated with dissolved CO2 and methane. During the limnic eruption – which is caused by a trigger of some kind, such as volcanic activity – CO2 and methane is released into the atmosphere, asphyxiating all animal life and plant life that happens to be nearby. A limnic eruption occurred in Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 killing 1,800 people. Lake Kivu contains one thousand times as much CO2 and methane as Lake Nyos, and there are over two million people living in the impact zone. Eruptions are thought to occur here once every thousand years or so. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen. Luckily something is being done about it, a degassing program has begun, and the extracted gas is being used to fire a gas-fueled power plant. A win-win scenario. And there are many additional plants in the planning.
At the top of the hill are the verdant tea fields of Gisakura. Rolling hills covered in dense mats of tea plants. All so neat, and so lush; from a distance they look like elevated lawn. Behind the tea fields: steep mountains, shrouded in fog. Nyungwe Forest National Park. There is a church beside the road, the sound of children’s voices issuing from its front doors, a gospel hymn underway. Otherwise the countryside is quiet, no birds twittering, no leaves rustling. Rain clouds are racing overhead, a shower not far away.
Should I head back?
Or should I make a quick pass through the tea fields?
Why not? There is no one around. I’ll be in and out before anyone even realises I’m here.
I take the closest path, a dirt track that winds back and forth through the glistening, lime green crop. I wander along a few hundred metres before pausing to enjoy the scenery. There are a string of tea pickers in the distance. They pay me no mind.
I continue along, choosing a new path at a crossroad that I come upon. I crest a rise, and find a string of tea pickers scattered amongst the tea plants on either side of the track.
‘Muraho, I say, (Kinyarwandi for hello) as I walk amongst them.
They smile, wave. I continue on.
Gisakura is a 4 – 5 hour drive from Kigali. You can get there by public bus, but once you are there it becomes tricky to get around without your own transportation. If you ask in the ranger’s office they can organise a motorbike and driver to pick you up and drop you off as needed.