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Rwanda's beauty lies beyond the mist

Press Association logoPress Association 19/06/2017 Sarah Marshall

It's a Saturday morning in downtown Kigali and the streets are curiously empty. There are no cars roaring along the smooth tarmac roads, and only a few people milling in the manicured parks.

Crucially, there's not a spot of litter - no tumbleweed plastic bags rolling through the city (Rwanda was the first country worldwide to ban them in 2008) and no splats of chewing gum stretching like melted mozzarella underfoot.

Not exactly what you'd expect in an African capital city, but Rwanda is a country full of surprises.

Just 23 years after genocide devastated the country, reducing the population of seven million by almost a third, the small East African nation has lofty sights set on progress.

A flashy new Radisson Blu convention centre looks beyond the 21st century, its modern design inspired by traditional Rwandan basket weaving. Then there's the commendable commitment to conservation, bound up, perhaps, with a desperate longing for order. Umuganda, the obligatory monthly street clean-up I'm witnessing, is all part of that.

But one of the biggest surprises came last month, when the Rwandan Development Board announced the price of gorilla permits would double to $US1500 ($A1,968).

Gorilla treks make up the bulk of the country's tourism revenue, and the controversial move has provoked mixed responses.

The decision to keep visitor numbers at a sustainable level and increase investment into communities surrounding the national parks is admirable, but there's a risk tourists will simply switch to neighbouring Uganda, where gorilla permits are less than half the price.

I've come to Rwanda to find out where the money is going and why a holiday here is worth the extra spend.

Leaving the civilised streets of Kigali behind me (where road names have been replaced with numbers for ease and neatness), we drive 100km east to Akagera National Park on the border with Tanzania.

Gazetted in 1934, it's Rwanda's oldest park but years of poaching and conflict between community and wildlife as a result of cattle grazing, left it withering in a state of unhappy decline.

Seven years ago, the government invited African Parks to restore the park, with a recent translocation of 18 black rhino from South Africa giving it Big Five status (lions, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros).

As part of the new gorilla permit-pricing scheme, tourists will receive a 30 per cent discount if they stay three or more nights in Akagera - an incentive to get people exploring more of the country.

Lemon-yellow wildflowers waltz with wispy blades of long grass as we self-drive along one of two main roads in the scenic park, where hilltop views cascade down to lakes, savannah plains and swampland.

Lumbering buffalo search for scraps of shade beneath a wiry acacia tree, restless zebra dust bath in the sunset-red African soil, and swarms of darting queria birds form the only clouds in an unadulterated cerulean sky.

Given the relatively small populations (there are just 19 reintroduced lions, a fraction of the 300 poached to disappearance), seeing big game isn't easy.

But we do catch sight of a regal elephant worshipped by a fanfare of bowing papyrus fronds, as we sensibly avoid the stony glares of irritable hippos on a motorboat ride across Hema lake.

Although currently lacking the near-guaranteed drama of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, Akagera does benefit from far fewer crowds and lower prices.

Operated by African Parks, the fully solar-powered waterside Ruzizi Tented Lodge costs from just $US195 per person - an equivalent across the border would be three times that price.

This is untapped territory - although there are rumours of a five-star camp opening next year.

Projects are underway to help local people reap the benefits of tourism, many funded by Rwanda Development Board's Revenue Sharing Scheme (redistributing 10 per cent of those new permit fees).

Godefroid, one of 18 community freelance guides working in the park, takes me to nearby village Kageyo, to take part in one of several new tourist experiences.

Matchstick thin, towering tall and blessed with a beaming smile, he's a merry continuation of the dazzling sunflowers lining our dusty (but impeccably neat) path.

"People know Rwanda for two things: gorillas and genocide," he laments. "But we want them to learn more about our country."

This morning, I'm going to do just that with an introduction to cow milking.

Drowning beneath an oversized blazer and waving a wooden staff, Rugengamanzi herds his cows into a boma and, with help from one of his 10 children, ties their hind legs together in preparation for milking.

He tugs at the satin udders with ease, although my clumsy attempts are pathetic.

As a gesture of hospitality, I'm invited to cup my hands around the bowl of warm, frothing liquid and am later shown how to transform it into yoghurt.

Of course, most visitors will come to Rwanda wanting to see mountain gorillas, so I end my trip with a stay in the highlands of Volcanoes National Park in the north of the country.

Day and night, a continuous stream of villagers frames the main road, corkscrewing skyward. Women wrapped in bold prints balance bales of eucalyptus branches on their heads, and spindly men do a remarkable job of heaving push bikes laden with 50kg panniers of bulging potato sacks.

It's a hard but happy life.

My base is the ridge-top Volcanoes Safaris Virunga Lodge, made up of 10 individual bandas, which easily has the park's best view; at 5am, I wake up to a thousand hills draped with a fine spider's web of mist, drifting into Lake Bulera below.

Every day, I leave with a gourmet packed lunch and return to fireside drinks on a terrace set below wizard hat peaks.

We embark on our gorilla trek to see the Pablo family, one of 11 habituated groups. It's a two-hour scramble uphill on a muddy trail of dense bamboo forest and angry stinging nettles.

All pain and discomfort (and concerns of expense) evaporate when we find our gorillas, munching on leaves, tumbling over toes, and locking our gaze with stirringly human eyes.

There are undoubtedly still some rumblings about the new permit costs - not least among the actual community who are worried the mizungas may no longer come.

But just like my trek to see Pablo, fraught with difficulty and at times near impossible, let's hope any concerns about the controversial price hike are, with time, surmountable.

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