HIGH IN THE GREEN HILLS

TRAVEL & LEISURE In the Virunga Moun­tains and be­yond, up­scale lodges are fu­elling Rwanda’s rise as Africa’s un­like­li­est new safari star.

Robb Report (Malaysia) - - Travel & Leisure - By JACKIE CARADO­NIO

The val­ley looks like it’s spun from gold. Lush from the sea­son’s rains, the vi­brant ex­panse shim­mers in the af­ter­noon sun­light, 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 find my­self stand­ing – and pant­ing.

“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. “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 the fruits of nine months of hu­man labour are clear: Bisate is un­like any safari camp I’ve 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, 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 Botswana-based safari out­fit­ter Wilder­ness. Set on the edge of Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park, 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 trav­ellers here – but it’s al­ways worth the ef­fort in the end. I ar­rived in the cap­i­tal of Kigali two days ear­lier

Set on the edge of Vol­ca­noes Na­tional Park, the camp is an aes­thetic mas­ter­piece as well as a mag­num opus of sorts for Wilder­ness.

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 one mil­lion dead at the hands of their own neigh­bours, 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.”

We pass a pris­tine shop­ping cen­tre and an ul­tra­mod­ern ho­tel wrapped in colour­ful 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.

The Virunga Moun­tains have long held al­lure for trav­ellers, of­fer­ing the rare op­por­tu­nity to see the same en­dan­gered moun­tain go­ril­las and other pri­mates that Dian Fossey stud­ied dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s. But the Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment has a broader am­bi­tion, one that will lure trav­ellers 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

“There’s so much more to Rwanda than sim­ply cherry- pick­ing the go­rilla- track­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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 three-weekold 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 half-hearted 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. www.

We chuckle when a black­back grog­gily stum­bles out of the brush like a hun­gover frat boy.

and mon­keys — the lux­ury-re­sort brand One&only opened a lodge last year.

Lux­ury trav­ellers 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 neigh­bour­ing 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 three-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 deep­soak­ing 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, colour­ful pat­terns cov­er­ing the wing­back chairs and pil­lows are con­tem­po­rised ver­sions of tra­di­tional kitenge fab­rics. And the bed is the most com­fort­able I’ve slept in since ar­riv­ing in Rwanda. At over 2,590m, 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.”

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