BUILT BY a Belgian colonial administration official in 1954, the Muhabura Hotel in Musanze has curved out a distinct and charming reputation in the last sixty years of its existence.
From the lush green and spacious gardens, the rich display of local artisan works on the walls and in the souvenir shop at the reception, to the gracefully aging but otherwise solid rough cast walls, right down to its culinary tradition, Muhabura easily stands out in the town’s long-running hospitality tradition.
Set in the heart of Musanze town, directly opposite the Gorillas Hotel on the main road from Musanze to Rubavu, the hotel sits gently within eye shot of the Muhabura peak of the Volcanoes -a warm nest in an authentic tropical setting.
It is also a prime base to the nearby Volcanoes National Park, popular with gorilla tracking tourists.
Actually, standing behind rooms 13-24 in the guest wing, one can observe the majestic Muhabura peak of the Volcanoes.
At the time of its establishment, it was called the Mimosa Hotel. When the Belgian owner sold the hotel off in 1968, the new owner, Otto Rusingizandekwe renamed it the Muhabura Hotel.
Gaudence Rusingizandekwe, the current owner inherited the family business from her father who passed on in 1987.
One of the high profile guests at the hotel was King Mutara III Rudahigwa, who reigned as King of Rwanda from 1931 until his death in 1958.
He used to hold court at the nearby ku rukiko, and after court, hosted his local chiefs here. The King would then spend the night in his favorite room, Apartment II.
Today, the room is known as icyumba cy’Umwami (King’s apartment), and has been kept without any modifications.
The name Muhabura has a long history that is rooted in local legend in the Volcanoes region.
Local legend holds that long ago, a group of hunters went chasing after wild animals deep into the forest, and lost their way back home.
They started to wander in all directions, and by sheer luck, reached a raised ground and saw the tip of a mountain, which helped them find their way back home.
But legend aside, Otto Rusingizandekwe had more personal reasons for choosing Muhabura for a name:
“He wanted to prove something. He wanted to demonstrate that Rwandans are by nature hospitable people. That was his vision, and that is the vision I’m still fighting to uphold today,” explains Gaudence.
“His idea was of a place that would be a market leader in hospitality and service. He wanted something that was majestic.”
Being the first and only hotel in the entire Volcanoes region, its contribution to the local and national tourism sector is obvious.
“Gorilla tracking in Rwanda started around 1975, but imagine what life was in Musanze at the time! Muhabura was the only hotel in the whole Volcanoes region, so it facilitated gorilla tracking in that way at the time,” says Charles Nsabimana, the hotel manager.
“Today, we take gorilla tracking for granted because of the improved infrastructure and boom in the hospitality sector. There are so many roads and facilities like hotels in the Volcanoes region. A tourist can fly to Kigali, drive to Musanze, go tracking gorillas, have a decent meal and warm shower in Musanze, before going back to Kigali. All this was impossible a few years ago,” he adds.
Dian Fossey factor
By far the most popular (and prestigious) place to sleep at Muhabura Hotel is room 12, which is specially named the Dian Fossey Room. It goes for a slightly higher rate than the others, and is liked by tourists, conservationists, and researchers alike.
The rich history and name of the room comes from the popular occupant, Dian Fossey, an American primatologist and gorilla conservationist who undertook a daring study of gorilla populations in the Volcanoes National Park in the 1970s.
From 1963, and over a period of 18 years, she dedicated her life’s savings to visit Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and the Congo.
In 1966, British archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey invited her to a long-term study of the endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga massif. Accepting the offer, Fossey subsequently lived among the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo until civil war forced her to move to Rwanda.
Her work attracted huge international attention, and that won her a few friends but perhaps enemies too.
In 1985, she was found lying dead in her house in the Volcanoes National Park, murdered by unknown assailants.
Dian Fossey’s active stand to save the gorillas from game wardens and zoo poachers caused her to fight for the gorillas not only via the media, but also by destroying poachers’ dogs and snares.
Today, her work continues through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, under which the Karisoke Research Center continues to operate.
Today, one of the most popular hikes around the Volcanoes National Park is the one to the Dian Fossey tomb, and the adjacent gorilla cemetery in the former Karisoke Research Center.
Here, you find the vestiges of her former jungle house, and her grave, which sits next to that of her favorite gorilla, Digit.
Gaudence still holds vivid memories of the “gorilla lady” as Dian Fossey came to be known.
“The first time we met her, we were impressed. We had already heard about her –as a strange and lonely lady who only talked to the gorillas. When we met her, she was like any other person, sharing and laughing with everybody, although it was obvious that many people feared to approach her. They didn’t understand her relationship with the gorillas.”
This situation was further complicated by the fact that at that time, there was very little public awareness about the gorillas and conservation in general. “Before, the gorillas were just wild animals in the bush, unlike today,” says Gaudence.
She remembers Fossey as “a simple person whose dress code was safari clothes and boots, a camera and a pair of binoculars. She dressed like a man, and only wore dresses and make-up for special occasions like cocktail parties. She was beautiful with nice hair, and when away from the gorillas, she became a lady who even wore high-heels, make-up, jewellery, and nail vanish. She worked hard under extremely difficult conditions, but was a highly self-motivated person. She wanted to protect the primates genuinely, and to know about their life. She would even mimic gorilla sounds.”
At the time, the hotel had 12 rooms, and Fossey chose the last of the range because of its peace and quiet, as it was surrounded by a beautiful garden with many birds.
She wanted to relax, take a warm shower, eat a good meal, and punch her research notes on her type writer.
“People did not understand her mission at first. They thought she was just anti-social in choosing to stay with gorillas, but now they recognize the impact of her efforts.
In January 1970, Fossey graced the cover page of the first issue of the National Geographic magazine, and in a 20-page article, gave her first detailed account of her research among the gorillas.
“For the first three years I have spent most of my days with wild mountain gorillas. Their home, and mine, has been the misty wooded slopes of the Virunga range –eight lofty volcanoes –the highest is 14,787 feet –shared by three African nations; Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
During this time I have become well acquainted with many of the gorillas, and they with me. They roam the mountain slopes and saddles in groups, and several groups now accept my presence almost as a member,” reads the introduction of her ground-breaking research article.
Gaudence still keeps an old issue of the magazine –National Geographic Issue 01, as a souvenir. The magazine bears the hand written inscriptions: “Good luck and all the best wishes to Otto Rusingizandekwe. Sincerely, Dian Fossey.”
The old magazine has gradually given in to wear and tear, and as we conclude the interview, Gaudence gathers it up carefully, concluding; “It has been a long journey for Muhabura Hotel, but for me it was an interesting long journey.”