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.
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.”