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Rwanda - Travel and visas
Check well in advance that you have a valid passport, and that it won’t expire within six months of the date you intend to leave Rwanda. Should your passport be lost or stolen, it will generally be easier to get a replacement if you travel with a photocopy of the important pages.
Bilateral agreements currently allow nationals of the following countries to visit Rwanda without a visa for a period of up to 90 days: Burundi, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Kenya, Mauritius, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda, UK and USA. This might change, however, so check at the website below before you travel.
Visas are required by all other visitors and cost up to US$60, depending on the place of issue. They can no longer be bought upon arrival. Either arrange yours through the nearest Rwandan consulate, or apply online at www.migration.gov.rw (click on ‘public forms’ then ‘single entry visa’). So far as we can ascertain, the visa issued online is valid for 15 days only, but can be extended for up to 90 days after you arrive.
If there is any possibility that you’ll want to drive or hire a vehicle while you’re in the country, do organise an international driving licence (via one of the main motoring associations in a country in which you’re licensed to drive), which you may be asked to produce together with your original licence. You may be asked at borders for an international health certificate showing you’ve had a yellow-fever shot.
For security reasons, it’s advisable to detail all your important information in one file that you can forward to the email address you use when travelling, and also print and distribute through your luggage. The sort of things you want to include are travel insurance policy details and 24-hour emergency contact number, passport number, details of relatives or friends to be contacted in an emergency, bank and credit card details, camera and lens serial numbers, etc. It’s also handy to carry a photo of your suitcase or other luggage, to save trying to describe it if it’s misplaced by an airline.
The national airline Rwandair Express (tel: 0788177000; email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org; www.rwandair.com) flies directly between Kigali and Brussels (Belgium), Entebbe (Uganda), Johannesburg (South Africa), Nairobi (Kenya), Bujumbura (Burundi), Dar es Salaam, Mwanza and Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), Libreville (Gabon), Lagos (Nigeria) and Dubai. It has a reservations office in the Union Trade Centre in central Kigali, as well as in all the countries to which it flies (see website for contact details), and bookings can also be made online.
Other operators that fly directly to Kigali include Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com), Ethiopian Airways (www.flyethiopian.com), and South African Airways (www.flysaa.com). All of these carriers operate a good network of intra- and intercontinental flights – travellers coming from the Americas and Australasia will do best to aim for Johannesburg or Nairobi, while those from Europe are best off flying via Brussels, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. For those tagging a visit to Rwanda on to a safari in northern Tanzania, it is worth knowing that Coastal Aviation operates a flight between Kigali and Arusha, Manyara or the Serengeti by inducement.
Kibale International Airport lies less than 10km from central Kigali, and taxis are available to/from the city centre, though it’s possible that the existing airport will be replaced by the planned Bugesera International Airport about 40km south of the city during the lifespan of this edition. The departure tax that used to be payable at the airport is now included in your ticket – but check when you book, in case this changes again.
Remember to confirm your return flight at least three days in advance, via an airline office or travel agent in Kigali. Unless you do this, there is – at least with some airlines – a serious risk of being ‘bumped’ at the last minute, or of finding that the schedule changed unexpectedly and your flight left early.
Four countries border Rwanda: Burundi to the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the west, Uganda to the north and Tanzania to the east. Assuming peaceful conditions, frontier formalities aren’t too much of a hassle – but nor are they standardised. Most frontier offices used to open at 08.00 and close at 17.00 or 18.00, but the Gatuna border post with Uganda and main border posts with the DRC now operate 24 hours a day, and others are likely to follow suit. Don’t count on official exchange facilities being available; there are likely to be ‘black-market’ money-changers around, but you should decide in advance what rate you’re prepared to accept.
Despite the ongoing unrest in the DRC, it is normally safe to travel in the immediate Rwanda border area, which includes the Congolese border towns of Goma and Bukavu, though you’re strongly advised to check the current situation first as this can change. Regular minibus services run between Kigali and Rubavu/ Gisenyi (for Goma) and Rusizi/Cyangugu (for Bukavu). On both sides of each border there is accommodation reasonably close by – in the case of Rusizi and Rubavu, only a few minutes away, but further for Bukavu. From Goma, it is also currently possible to visit Virunga National park. Travelling further into the DRC remains highly risky.
Crossing to and from Uganda is simple. Direct buses and minibus-taxis connect Kampala and Kigali, taking around 12 hours if you do the trip in one leg. Among the better companies are the Kampala Coach and Jaguar Executive Coaches (tel: (Uganda) 041 4251855; mobile: (Rwanda) 078 8640796/8703591), both of which charge around Rfr6,000 one-way. Kampala Coach also has connections on to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
There is a limited number of local minibus-taxis along the roughly 50km road between Kisoro in southwest Uganda and Musanze/Ruhengeri in northwest Rwanda (an hour’s trip, not allowing for changing vehicles and other delays at the Cyanika border post, which might add another hour to the journey). It is also easy to travel by minibus-taxi between Kabale, the largest town in southwest Uganda, and Kigali, though once again you might have to change vehicles at the border – this trip should take about five hours in total. Entering from Uganda in your own vehicle is relatively hassle-free.
Crossing between Rwanda and Tanzania is something of a slog, due to the poor state of roads and lack of large towns in northwest Tanzania. The Rusumo border post lies about 160km from Kigali, roughly a four-hour trip by minibus-taxi, with the possibility of staying the night en route at the town of Ngoma, 60km from the border. Or there is a restaurant with basic accommodation at Rusumo itself, on the Rwandan side.
The closest Tanzanian town to the border is Ngara, which is connected to Rusumo by occasional minibus-taxis taking about six hours, and has a few small guesthouses. From Ngara, daily buses to Mwanza on Lake Victoria take 12–18 hours depending on the condition of the road. Mwanza is a large port with a full range of accommodation and other facilities, including thrice-weekly rail links to Dar es Salaam on the coast and daily buses to Arusha in northeast Tanzania. A rail link between Rwanda and Tanzania is planned, but don’t count on it being up and running in the near future.
Several travel agencies in Kigali rent out saloons and 4x4s, with or without drivers. Further up-to-date listings are given in the tourism section of the Rwanda website (www.rwandatourism.com). Rates vary according to whether you’ll be driving outside Kigali, and whether fuel is included. A 4x4 can cost from US$120 to US$200 per day including driver, depending on its type/size. If the deal excludes fuel, bear in mind that this is not cheap – more than US$1.50 per litre – and that most 4x4s have a heavy consumption.
If you rent a self-drive vehicle, be aware that Rwanda follows the continental and American custom of driving on the right side of the road. Check the vehicle over carefully and ask to take it for a test drive. Even if you’re not knowledgeable about the working of engines, a few minutes on the road should be sufficient to establish whether it has any seriously disturbing creaks, rattles or other noises.
Check the condition of the tyres and that there is at least one spare tyre, better two, both in a condition to be used should the need present itself. Ask to be shown the wheel spanner and jack, check that all parts of the latter are present, and ensure that the licence is valid for the duration of your trip. Ask also to be shown filling points for oil, water and petrol and check that all the keys do what they are supposed to do. Once on the road, check oil and water regularly in the early stages of the trip to ensure that there are no existing leaks.
Most trunk roads in Rwanda are surfaced and in reasonable condition, including the main road from Kigali to Rusizi/Cyangugu via Huye/Butare; to Rubavu/Gisenyi and Kinigi via Musanze/Ruhengeri; to Rusumo via Ngoma/Kibungo; to Karongi/Kibuye via Muhanga/Gitarama; and to the Uganda border via Gicumbi/Byumba or Umutara. Roads are generally good but there are still some pot-holed sections along most routes which, together with the winding terrain and the tendency for Rwandans to drive at breakneck speeds and overtake on sharp or blind corners, necessitate a more cautious approach than one might take at home.
The unsurfaced roads most likely to be used by tourists include the long stretch running parallel to Lake Kivu between Rubavu/Gisenyi, Karongi/Kibuye and Rusizi/Cyangugu, the approach roads to Akagera National Park (and roads within the park), and the roads around Lakes Burera and Ruhondo. All of these are in variable condition, and should be passable in a saloon car when dry, though a 4x4 would certainly be preferable.
Do bear in mind that unsurfaced roads tend to vary seasonally, with conditions most difficult during the rains and least so towards the end of the dry season. Even within this generalisation, an isolated downpour can do major damage to a road that was in perfectly good nick a day earlier, while the arrival of a grader can transform a pot-holed 4x4 track into one navigable by any saloon car.
The main hazard on Rwandan roads, aside from unexpected pot-holes, is the road-hog mentality of most drivers. Minibus-taxis in particular regularly overtake on blind corners, and speed limits (60–80km/h) are universally ignored except when enforced by road conditions. On all routes, be alert to banana-laden cyclists swaying from the verge, and livestock and pedestrians wandering blithely into the middle of the road. Putting one’s foot to the floor and hooting like a maniac is the customary Rwandan approach to driving through crowded areas; driving rather more defensively than you would at home is the safer one!
A peculiarly African road hazard – one frequently taken to unnecessary extremes in Rwanda – is the giant sleeping policeman, which might be signposted in advance, might be painted in black-and-white strips, or might simply rear up without warning like a 30cm-tall macadamised wave. It’s to be assumed that the odd stray bump will exist on any stretch of road that passes through a town or village, so slow down at any looming hint of urbanisation.
Rwandans, like many Africans, display an inexplicable aversion to switching on their headlights except in genuine darkness – switch them on at any other time and every passing vehicle will blink its lights back at you in bemusement. In rainy, misty or twilight conditions, it would be optimistic to think that you’ll be alerted to oncoming traffic by headlights, or for that matter to expect the more demented element among Rwandan drivers to avoid overtaking or speeding simply because they cannot see more than 10m ahead. It’s best to avoid driving at night, since a significant proportion of vehicles lack functional headlights, whilst others go around with their lights permanently on blinding full beam!
Boat and rail
There are no rail services in Rwanda (although a rail link with Tanzania has been under discussion for some time), nor is there at present a public ferry service on Lake Kivu, although private links operate between Rusizi/Cyangugu, Karongi/Kibuye, Rubavu/Gisenyi and Goma. It’s possible to rent local dugouts for short excursions on the lake. Motor boats are also available for hire at Karongi, Rusizi and Rubavu. Small boats can be used to get around the smaller lakes, such as Burera and Ruhondo, by making an informal arrangement with the boat owner.
The main mode of road transport is shared minibuses, generally known as taxis (and referred to in this book as minibus-taxis to distinguish them from cabs). These connect all major centres (and most minor ones) and leave from the town’s minibus station (gare taxi/minibus) when they are full. No smoking inside is the rule, as it is on all public transport.
Departures continue throughout the day but it’s best not to wait until too late, in case the last one proves to be full. Fares generally work out at around Rfr1,000 (US$1) per 50km. More precise fares for specific routes are given throughout this book, but do note that they are subject to regular inflation and occasional deflation as a result of fluctuations in the oil price and to a lesser extent the US dollar exchange rate. Travel times along main surfaced roads typically average about 50km/h, with frequent pauses to drop off passengers balanced against driving that verges on the manic between the stops.
If you’re carrying luggage, either keep it on your lap (if it’s small enough) or else ask for it to be stuffed in at the back or put on the roof. If you have anything fragile, keep it with you. Overloading is not the problem it is in many African countries, nor are tourists routinely overcharged, though the latter does happen from time to time, so check the fare with other passengers if it feels too high. Fares are collected just before you alight rather than when you board; you’ll see other passengers getting their money ready as their destinations approach. If you’re not sure of the fare, ask another passenger.
There are also several private companies running regular express services to fixed timetables with bookable seats between Kigali and other main towns. These start and finish at the company’s offices rather than at the public minibus stations. The price is generally much the same as for public minibuses.
In and around minibus-taxi stations you may find ‘taxis’ in the form of motorbikes (motos) or bicycles. They’re handy for short distances – but be aware that your travel insurance may not cover you for accidents when on either of them. Agree a price beforehand, and check with a passer-by if it seems excessive. If you’ve got a heavy bag, a comfortable alternative is to stick it on the saddle of the bicycle and walk alongside. Commercial moto drivers and passengers are obliged by law to wear helmets, and drivers always carry one for passengers – though the chin straps are often not very secure.