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the vi­brant ex­panse shim­mers in the af­ter­noon sun­light, a se­cret gar­den guarded by the ma­jes­tic Mount Bisoke to the west and tum­bling hills to the north. Climbing the emer­ald peak to the east, though, is the set of un­bear­ably steep stone steps on which I cur­rently find my­self stand­ing— and pant­ing. Per­haps it’s the altitude, or all of that un­fil­tered golden light, that has me gulp­ing for air.

“Ev­ery sin­gle stone on th­ese steps was car­ried up by hu­man hands,” says In­grid Baas, the man­ager of Rwanda’s new Bisate Lodge, as she guides me up, up, and up far­ther still. I nod and give a tight-lipped smile in re­sponse—a fa­tigued ges­ture that I hope com­mu­ni­cates a com­bi­na­tion of “wow” and “tell me more.” “Men were car­ry­ing hun­dreds of pounds on their backs up this hill. The phys­i­cal ef­fort was un­be­liev­able.” I an­swer with a silent, hum­ble nod and won­der how much far­ther we have to go.

At last we ar­rive at the main lodge— and what an ar­rival it is. The fruits of 9 months of hu­man labor are clear: Bisate is un­like any sa­fari camp I’ve ever seen. The dome-like space bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the tra­di­tional tented lodges com­mon through­out sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Gone are the can­vas chairs and vin­tage trunks. In their place are mod­ern low-slung chairs cov­ered in fur throws, sparkling char­treuse chan­de­liers com­posed of thou­sands of tiny bits of glass, and sweep­ing bil­lowy curves ev­ery­where. One look at the views from the ter­race—a panorama over the val­ley and the moun­tains and those ter­raced hills—and

I’m breath­less all over again.

In­deed, Bisate is worth the ef­fort, both to get there and to build. The six-room lodge is the re­sult of nearly a decade of re­search and plan­ning by the Botswan­abased sa­fari out­fit­ter Wilder­ness. Set on the edge of Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park—where Dian Fossey fa­mously car­ried out her re­search of the re­gion’s pri­mates—the camp is an aes­thetic mas­ter­piece as well as a mag­num opus of sorts for Wilder­ness. “I’ve never walked away from a pro­ject feel­ing so re­warded,” says the com­pany’s CEO, Keith Vin­cent. “Ev­ery part of it has blown me away, from the ef­forts the local pop­u­la­tion put into mak­ing it hap­pen to the sense of pride it has brought to the sur­round­ing vil­lages.” That the hill­side camp was con­structed al­most en­tirely by hu­man power is noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle.

Spend a bit of time in Rwanda and you’ll find that al­most noth­ing comes easy for trav­el­ers here—but it’s al­ways worth the ef­fort in the end. I ar­rived in the cap­i­tal of Ki­gali two days ear­lier to dis­cover a mod­ern metropo­lis boom­ing with progress. Hardly the mere pre-sa­fari pit stop I

had en­vi­sioned, the city is a tes­ta­ment to the strides this coun­try has made in the quar­ter-cen­tury since a tragic geno­cide tore it apart. The atroc­ity—a 100-day slaugh­ter that ended with nearly 1 mil­lion dead at the hands of their own neigh­bors, friends, and fam­i­lies—is still clear in the mem­ory of ev­ery Rwan­dan above a cer­tain age. And yet a col­lec­tive op­ti­mism about the coun­try’s fu­ture clearly pre­vails.

“The president has given us a new hope,” says my driver, Em­manuel Gasana, as we zip past the cut­ting-edge Ki­gali Con­ven­tion Cen­tre, an all-glass orb-like struc­ture that was com­pleted in 2016. “He’s mak­ing sure ev­ery­one gets an ed­u­ca­tion, and cre­at­ing jobs for peo­ple who have never worked be­fore. And he’s bring­ing in­vestors into the coun­try to cre­ate new op­por­tu­ni­ties and wealth.”

Rwanda is still a work in progress— for in­stance, last Au­gust’s re­elec­tion of President Paul Kagame with 99 per­cent of the vote raised ques­tions of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion—but re­cent im­prove­ments are read­ily ap­par­ent. We pass a pris­tine shop­ping cen­ter and an ul­tra­mod­ern ho­tel wrapped in col­or­ful rib­bons of metal be­fore turn­ing a cor­ner flanked by bill­boards show­ing a pair of shim­mer­ing res­i­den­tial tow­ers. A new air­port, the dra­matic can­tilever­ing Ki­gali Art & Cul­ture Cen­tre, and Nor­man Foster’s first-of-its-kind “droneport” (a hub for cargo de­liv­ered via drone) are also in the works.

Kagame is lead­ing his coun­try into an un­prece­dented tourism boom, too. The Virunga Moun­tains have long held al­lure for trav­el­ers, of­fer­ing the rare op­por­tu­nity to see the same en­dan­gered mountain go­ril­las and other pri­mates that Fossey stud­ied dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s. But the Rwan­dan govern­ment has a broader am­bi­tion, one that will lure trav­el­ers be­yond the Virun­gas. “There’s so much more to Rwanda than sim­ply cherry-pick­ing the go­rilla-track­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Vin­cent says. “The long-term goal is to open up new des­ti­na­tions, too.”

To that end, Wilder­ness is plan­ning to open its sec­ond Rwan­dan camp in the north­east­ern Ak­agera Na­tional Park, which of­fers the coun­try’s only Big Five sa­fari ex­pe­ri­ence. In the south­west­ern Nyungwe For­est Na­tional Park—home to chim­panzees and mon­keys—the lux­ury-re­sort brand One&Only opened a lodge last year.

Lux­ury trav­el­ers are clearly a fo­cus for Rwanda, par­tic­u­larly in the Virun­gas, where the govern­ment re­cently dou­bled the price of go­rilla-track­ing per­mits to en­sure a more ex­clu­sive ex­pe­ri­ence than that of neigh­bor­ing Uganda. In ad­di­tion to Wilder­ness’s Bisate, vis­i­tors to the re­gion will soon be able to choose from lodges by both One&Only—which is sched­uled to un­veil its rein­ven­tion of the his­toric Go­rilla’s Nest later this year—and Sin­gita. For now, how­ever, the talk of Rwanda is Wilder­ness’s rar­efied new re­treat in the heart of the Virun­gas.

With Gasana at the wheel, we set out on the 3-hour drive from Ki­gali. It’s only a mat­ter of min­utes be­fore the city streets give way to wind­ing mountain roads, and as we weave past slop­ing fields lined row af­ter row with Ir­ish pota­toes and wide ex­panses of wispy golden wheat, ru­ral Rwanda comes alive. Gasana, who lost his mother in the geno­cide, tells me that the mud farm­houses to our right re­mind him of his youth, when he’d visit his grand­mother in the coun­try­side.

Two hours later, Bisate comes into view, its wo­ven struc­tures sprout­ing from the hill­side like giant birds’ nests wedged into a mound of ferns. Baas is wait­ing to show me up the steep stone steps to my room, which turns out to be a fan­tas­ti­cal

cross be­tween an enor­mous wo­ven bas­ket and a ge­o­desic dome. De­signed by Gar­reth Kriel of the South African firm Ni­cholas Plew­man Ar­chi­tects, the thatched villa is a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the old king’s palace of Nyanza, once the seat of the Rwan­dan monar­chy. But this mod­ern ver­sion brims with chic de­tails: In the bath­room, the deep-soak­ing tub looks as if it were carved from slick onyx. Above it, an ele­gant chan­de­lier is com­posed of tiny strips of leather. In the bed­room, col­or­ful pat­terns cov­er­ing the wing­back chairs and pil­lows are con­tem­po­rized ver­sions of tra­di­tional kitenge fab­rics. And the bed is the most com­fort­able I’ve slept in since ar­riv­ing in Rwanda.

At over 8,500 feet, I’m nat­u­rally a lit­tle bit light­headed, but the views from my pri­vate ter­race are down­right dizzy­ing. I step out into the sun to find a pair of black-and-white rat­tan chairs that have been po­si­tioned in such a way that when I sit down, I find my­self quite nearly face to saw-toothed face with Mount Bisoke. The float­ing ef­fect is ut­terly mag­i­cal. You don’t go on sa­fari to spend all of your time in your room, but my, is it tempt­ing. “Mm­m­mmm,”

Patrick Ma­giri­rane growls. “Muhhh-mm­mmm.” Our group of eight trekkers is cling­ing to the side of Mount Karisimbi, catch­ing our breath, and get­ting a crash course in go­rilla-speak from our guide. Of the 20-plus vo­cal­iza­tions used by go­ril­las, the one Ma­giri­rane has just taught us roughly trans­lates to “Hello. We come in peace.”

It is 10:30 am and we’ve been as­cend­ing this trail-less in­cline for more than an hour. The air is get­ting thin­ner and thin­ner—or maybe it’s the care­ful work of tread­ing through an in­de­ci­pher­able grid of bam­boo that has me feel­ing dazed. Ev­ery­where, mossy reeds shoot this way and that; it’s like wad­ing through a giant game of pick-up sticks. At the front of our group a trio of go­rilla track­ers slashes at the maze with their ma­chetes, and we inch for­ward, with

High in the Green Hills net­tles latch­ing onto our pant legs and tan­gles of lianas grab­bing at our an­kles as if try­ing to hold us back.

When we reach a muddy de­pres­sion bridged by a fallen tree trunk, my porter—a sturdy woman named Pauline whom I hired only to carry my back­pack filled with cam­eras and lenses—reaches for my hand. I timidly take it and al­low her to hoist me over the im­passe. Min­utes later she reaches for me again, this time to help me nav­i­gate a slip­pery crevasse. A few min­utes af­ter that, I hit my head on a low tree branch. I swal­low my pride, reach for Pauline’s hand, and de­cide not to let go un­til we reach less hazardous ter­rain.

Then, sud­denly, we’ve ar­rived. Just be­yond the thicket of bam­boo ahead, Ma­giri­rane tells us, is Pablo’s group, one of the go­rilla fam­i­lies Fossey ha­bit­u­ated dur­ing her 18 years among th­ese moun­tains. One by one we cross the thresh­old, emerg­ing from the dark for­est into a bril­liant slop­ing meadow. And there, loung­ing in the mid­morn­ing sun like a Bac­chus feast­ing on grapes, is Gi­curasi, the group’s mas­sive sil­ver­back of 400-plus pounds, munch­ing on wild cel­ery.

Any­one who has en­coun­tered go­ril­las in the wild will em­phat­i­cally re­mind you that we share 98 per­cent of our DNA with the black-furred beasts. This fact car­ries sig­nif­i­cantly more weight when you’re ac­tu­ally

stand­ing in front of a sil­ver­back. Gi­curasi’s nim­ble fingers—and his fin­ger­nails—look so hu­man, I can’t help but glance down at my own for the sake of com­par­i­son. When he fin­ishes his snack, he rolls over onto his stom­ach and rests his chin in his hands, as if pos­ing for a pin-up cal­en­dar. And when a rowdy ado­les­cent tum­bles past, pluck­ing a shoot of cel­ery for him­self, Gi­curasi slowly lum­bers away, ev­ery bit the grumpy dad in search of just one mo­ment of peace.

For their part, the go­ril­las meet our awe with im­pas­sive dis­in­ter­est. As we nav­i­gate the meadow around them, grace­lessly trip­ping over the knot­ted vines that cover the ground, they go about their busi­ness ut­terly un­moved. We coo over a 3-week-old baby, laugh­ing at the wild mess of hair atop his head. We chuckle when a black­back—the group’s sec­ond el­dest male—grog­gily stum­bles out of the brush like a hun­gover frat boy. And we gasp when a rowdy ju­ve­nile cart­wheels into the mid­dle of the clear­ing, nearly knock­ing over one of his hu­man in­trud­ers. Mean­while, they doze in and out of sleep, pick gnats off each other, and oc­ca­sion­ally glance in our di­rec­tion and let out a half­hearted mm­mmm.

All too soon, our time with Pablo’s group comes to an end, and Ma­giri­rane leads us back into the for­est where Pauline waits with my back­pack. The long trek back down Karisimbi is still ahead. The stab­bing net­tles and the trenches of mud and the mess of bam­boo are all wait­ing to be nav­i­gated once again. But how­ever ar­du­ous the jour­ney home, the ef­fort will be worth it.

High in the Green Hills

IN OUR MIDST New lodges, along with an in­crease in per­mit fees, are en­sur­ing a more ex­clu­sive go­ril­la­track­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in Rwanda.

ROYAL RE­TREAT The bas­ket-like guest rooms are mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the old king’s palace of Nyanza, once the seat of the Rwan­dan monar­chy.

RAISE THE ROOF Bisate’s thatched vil­las are bur­rowed along a ver­dant hill in the shad­ows of Mount Bisoke.

Bisate Lodge, wilder­ness-sa­faris.com; avail­able through Al­lur­ing Africa, al­luringafrica.com

DE­SIGN FOR­WARD Bisate’s in­no­va­tive style is ap­par­ent at ev­ery turn, from the glit­ter­ing chan­de­liers com­posed of re­cy­cled bot­tles to the curv­ing ribs that form the dra­matic dome-like main lodge.

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