Exploring Musanze Caves, Buhanga Eco-Park and Red Rocks Community Camp
Published Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 3 December 2016
Basking in the afterglow of having been in the company of the critically endangered Mountain gorillas on the high slopes of Volcanoes National Park in north-western Rwanda, we’re now in the belly of the ancient caves that are a product of the fiery volcanic drama of the volcanic Virungas. In Kinyarwanda, Virunga is the word for volcano.
The deep underground lava tubes are a product of red-hot lashes of molten eruptions. Now silent, they are impenetrably dark save for the cave openings. Donned with sturdy caps, nose-masks, knee-caps and powerful head torches –and looking like minions on a mission – we walk through the immense cave between hard ground and layers of iguana where uncountable bats roost.
In the beam of the torchlight, natural sculptures and pools of water merge between the walls of the caves in this dark world. Half an hour later, a shaft of light shows the end of the tunnel and stepping out the sun is blinding.
The next cave is smaller and just as fascinating while the last cave is longer. Somewhere in the midst of it, the ranger asks for all torches to be switched off and for silence. It’s pitch dark – so dark that even when l hold my hand in front of me l can’t see it. In the silence of the cave, every sound penetrates the ear – the drip of water, the silent wing-beat of the bat and every sigh emitted.
Out in the open again, the high peaks of the Virunga Mountains are stretched along rural farms and villages and a short drive takes us to the royal site of the kingdom that once was – and now is the Buhanga Eco-Park.
It’s where the kings’ were coronated and held court until 1959 when the last monarch – Rudahigwa Mutara 11 died. It led to the revolution with people divided between the monarchy and democracy.
It’s small but a really interesting forest grove with trees from three centuries through which paths of natural lava stones meander. We’re shown where the Abiru or the king’s assistant picked herbs to infuse in the spring water to make a ritual bath for the king’s crowning.
A path leads to a dark cave surrounded by huge boulders where the king was wheeled in a royal carriage, Ingobyi, from his palace in Nyanza (not the one in Western Kenya!). After the bath he was carried to the coronation stage made of cut lava rocks up a flight of steps where he was blessed to be the Umwami of Rwanda.
The royal forest harbours iconic venues like the enormous fig tree, the Inyabutatu ya Banyarwanda that represented the unity of the three Rwandan ethnic groups who served the one King loyally.
The final stop is at the magic spring with ice-cold water which overflows during the dry season but is dry during the wet season. Villagers fill their jerry cans which is where the King’s bathwater was collected. However in 1988, according to local lore, a local chief ordered it dredged – and again the diggers were found dead.
It’s been a full day and we end it with some clubbing at Red Rocks at the base of the Virungas. In the late afternoon a play is enacted of how the king was received in the days of old.
The ‘king’ arrives, carried on a royal carriage by his bearers. After the king has been offered food and is rested, the maidens and warriors dance for the king. And to keep the beer flowing, a group of women show us how the traditional beer brew was done. Dozens of local green bananas are peeled and thrown in a wooden trough which is filled with hay.
The women begin to pound the bananas using sheer muscle – and others invited. In less than thirty minutes of pounding with clenched fists, the bananas are liquid. The dry hay doubles as a blender and sieve. A glass of the banana brew (not yet fermented) is amazingly refreshing and as the night stars travel across the mountains of the gorillas we take to the floor with the Rwandese.
The 1.25-mile long Musanze caves in Musanze town are a 90-minute drive from Kigali. Great after you’ve trekked to the gorillas – log on http://www.kwitaizina.rw . The caves take about 2.5 hours.
Stay at Red Rocks Eco Centre – camp or take the tented accommodation – very affordable near the mountains.