Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Gorillas in Our Midst: The Rwanda Wildlife Experience That Left Us Breathless
By Hideaway Report Editor
April 2, 2018
The capital of Rwanda, Kigali, comes as a shock to most first-time visitors. Conditioned by harrowing accounts of the 1994 genocide, it is reasonable to expect a place broken and sinister. But, on arrival, after the 90-minute flight from Nairobi, the airport seems modern and well-organized. The streets are unusually clean, and the people appear to be cheerful and prosperous.
Leafy and temperate, Kigali sprawls across four ridges, the highest of which rises to an elevation of 6,070 feet. On one hilltop, there is a clump of new, shiny high-rise buildings. Elsewhere, walls and roofs tend to reflect the color of the rich red earth. Only occasionally does the dark past reemerge. My driver pointed out the Hôtel des Milles Collines, famous as Hotel Rwanda in the 2004 movie of the same name. He then explained, matter-of-factly, that he too would have been murdered had he not been working as a chauffeur for the Swiss Red Cross at the time and able to take refuge in its compound.
One side effect of Rwanda’s remarkable renaissance is the rapid growth of upscale tourism, a development encouraged by the country’s forceful leader, President Paul Kagame. The primary purpose of my trip was to see Wilderness Safaris’ new Bisate Lodge, next to Volcanoes National Park, a reserve famous for its population of mountain gorillas. However, several other projects are underway. Next year, the renowned South African company Singita will open Kwitonda Lodge nearby. One&Only Gorilla’s Nest is also expected to debut shortly. Wilderness will soon expand into Akagera National Park, on Rwanda’s northeastern boundary with Tanzania, where lions have recently been reintroduced. And One&Only already manages Nyungwe House, in the south of the country, close to the border with Burundi.
It is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kigali to Volcanoes National Park. Along the way, you see tidy, earth-walled farms with tin or thatched roofs, set amid neat, terraced fields. The land’s extreme fertility is obvious: Every square foot is cultivated, and the vegetation is rampant. The road is smooth, and there are few cars, but the flow of pedestrians is ceaseless. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and the resulting social pressures are widely cited as a significant cause of the genocide. After about two hours, the stirring volcanic peaks of the Virunga Mountains appear on the horizon. The range rises to nearly 15,000 feet where the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo converge. The highest volcano, Mount Karisimbi, is occasionally capped with snow.
Bisate Lodge opened in June 2017 and comprises just six “villas” for a maximum of 12 people. Located a 35-minute drive from park headquarters, it is surrounded by farms and small settlements. Wilderness Safaris purchased the site, parts of which are now being reforested with 15,000 indigenous trees, from 103 villagers, thereby injecting around $500,000 into the local economy. The stated aim of the project was to create a model for socially responsible tourism, a perfect marriage of hospitality and conservation. The lodge brought numerous temporary jobs in construction, as well as a smaller number of positions for full-time staff members. And a farmers’ cooperative now supplies fresh produce.
From a distance, the lodge buildings look like a collection of gigantic weaverbird nests — cocoonlike structures made of shaggy thatch. These are stacked up a steep hillside, which is all that remains of an eroded volcanic cone. As my vehicle pulled up, I was serenaded by half a dozen staff members, singing with exquisite harmony. I was then formally greeted by Ingrid Baas, an exceptionally charming and articulate young Dutch woman, who, along with her husband, Rob, manages the property.
Bisate is connected by a network of steep stone steps, and given that it lies at an elevation of 8,100 feet, I was slightly out of breath by the time we reached the main lodge building. (Three minutes into my stay, it was already clear that Bisate is a place suitable only for those in reasonable shape.) The rustic exterior had left me entirely unprepared for its dramatic and vibrantly colored interior, which houses the restaurant, bar and wine cellar. Garreth Kriel of the South African firm Nicholas Plewman Architects based his extraordinary design on the traditional forms of the Rwandan Royal Palace in the southern city of Nyanza. The result is an aesthetic masterpiece, a tour de force of fluid lines, soaring ribbed ceilings and sinuous balconies. Expanses of woven rattan, massive blocks of local wood, leather sofas, fur throws and a huge conical fireplace made of rough lava blocks all help to create a unique and powerful sense of place. And through floor-to-ceiling windows the Visoke, Karisimbi and Mikeno volcanoes rear up through the cloud forest. Having seen more wildlife lodges than I can remember, I am not easily impressed. But my first glimpse of Bisate left me breathless — both literally and figuratively.
Having introduced me to several beaming members of the staff, Ingrid led the way up another flight of stone steps to Villa No. 4. This displayed a similar design aesthetic but on a smaller scale. A spacious bedroom came with walls clad in woven-grass matting, a parquet floor, a king-size bed and a writing desk (with an iPad explaining the lodge facilities). Two armchairs and an occasional table were set on a cowhide rug in front of a double-sided lava block fireplace, on the far side of which I discovered a huge bath, with a black oval tub, a separate shower, two sinks and leather-framed mirrors. A balcony extended the full length of the villa, appointed with loungers from which to gaze at the volcanoes. After about five minutes, I decided that Villa No. 4 was somewhere that I would be in no hurry to leave. Indeed, it seemed like a place where I would be happy to spend an entire day reading, dreaming or just contemplating the cloud formations assembling and dispersing around the adjacent peaks.
That evening, having enjoyed a glass of wine with my fellow guests beside the fire, I was treated to an excellent dinner, served by staff who managed to be both extremely friendly and consummately professional. Throughout my stay, the standard of the food at Bisate was far superior to that at most safari lodges, with a mix of international dishes (beef fillet with dauphinoise potatoes) and local specialties (kuku paka an East African coconut chicken curry). The varied and imaginative menus are accompanied by an extensive wine list. (Private wine tastings can be arranged in the spacious cellar.) The fruits, vegetables and home-baked breads were all delicious, as were local products such as honey and Lake Kivu coffee. The cuisine at Bisate is not merely sustaining; it displays real gastronomic sophistication, and meals are a consistent pleasure.
Although Bisate offers a program of excursions that include escorted village walks and visits to the reforestation nursery, as well as hikes of various lengths and degrees of difficulty (including challenging full-day trips to the crater lake at the top of 12,175-foot Mount Visoke and the Karisoke Research Center, established by Dian Fossey in 1967), the primary activity is, of course, trekking to see the mountain gorillas. A total of approximately 900 mountain gorillas survive in the wild. (None have ever prospered in captivity.) Around 400 live in Volcanoes National Park, with another 100 in Virunga National Park, a reserve on the western slopes of the mountains in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An additional 400 are to be found in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, 60 miles to the north, in neighboring Uganda.
Mountain gorillas are chiefly distinguished from their lowland cousins by having thicker and longer fur that enables them to live in cold temperatures. Males average 430 pounds in weight, though the dominant silverbacks can grow to well over 500 pounds and stand nearly six feet tall. Currently, there are 12 habituated groups in Volcanoes National Park, with around 20 to 25 gorillas in each. Some groups live at around 11,000 feet, and to see them it may be necessary to trek for more than five miles up steep slopes through dense vegetation. Others can be reached in less than an hour, after a relatively undemanding hike. A maximum of eight visitors are allocated to a specific group by the park authorities — hence a total of 96 people a day — and are permitted to spend precisely one hour in close proximity to the animals. Such is the demand, the cost of a daily trekking permit was recently raised to $1,500. Obviously, this has the unfortunate effect of excluding the less affluent, but the primary purpose of the increase was, apparently, to persuade people to visit the gorillas only once, rather than two or three times, as was often previously the case.
I arrived at park headquarters at around 7 a.m. and sat chatting with my fellow trekkers, sipping coffee and waiting for my allocation. To my pleasure, I found that I had been assigned to the 25-strong Agashya group, which would require a straightforward hike of about an hour and a half. Seven years earlier, I’d been given Dian Fossey’s Susa group, which had necessitated a grueling ascent through dense bamboo forest, before the trees were replaced at around 10,500 feet by thigh-high ground cover. This morning’s excursion was going to be a breeze by comparison.
After a 20-minute drive along what may well be the world’s bumpiest road, composed of unyielding chunks of volcanic rock each about the size of a baseball, we arrived at the trailhead. There local porters were waiting to help carry rucksacks and camera equipment and to assist less athletic visitors on the uneven ground. Ever thoughtful, Bisate had provided walking sticks, gaiters and gloves (the latter being to protect against a virulent local species of stinging nettle). We set off into the forest, following the guides, who cleared inconvenient branches and creepers with their machetes. On my previous trip, I had been obliged to crawl through narrow tunnels that had been hacked through the bamboo, but this time the trail was relatively wide, dry and not particularly steep. Although the park contains elephant and buffalo — one guide was carrying a rifle just in case of an encounter with the latter — they remained well-hidden by the encircling screen of trees.
About an hour later, the guides called a halt, and we were told to stockpile walking sticks, tripods and anything else that a nervous gorilla might mistakenly conclude to be a gun. Nowadays poaching has been virtually eliminated in Volcanoes National Park — although there is still a problem with snares — but it seems that the animals retain a race memory from the days when they were routinely hunted. The trackers, who remain in the forest to follow the gorillas’ movements, told us that the Agashya group was nearby, and I suddenly became aware of a complex, musty smell. Having been reminded that we must maintain a distance of at least 20 feet, speak only in whispers and avoid direct eye contact with the dominant males, who can regard this as a considerable impertinence, we left the path and stumbled down the hillside through lush green vegetation. As I was chiefly preoccupied with not falling over, I failed to notice the silverback until a guide grabbed me by the arm. The enormous creature was sitting just three or four yards away, contently chewing a stick of wild celery; he appeared to regard my somewhat undignified arrival with complete indifference.
Although guides warn trekkers that being charged is a remote but real possibility, the members of the Agashya group, by whom I realized I was surrounded, seemed utterly relaxed. Ignoring the constant click of camera shutters, they gazed dreamily into the middle distance. On my previous visit, mothers with young offspring had been more wary. But on this occasion, gorilla toddlers tumbled around my feet while their parents looked on indulgently. Even when two of my fellow trekkers, in defiance of everything they had been told, got far too close in order to take selfies on their cell phones, the silverback stared right through them and carried on munching.
I have now been fortunate enough to spend two hours with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, and I have never felt even the slightest twinge of alarm. On the contrary, sitting quietly, observing their domestic life at close quarters, engenders a profound feeling of peace. This is a superb experience that, for most people, far exceeds their expectations.
Bisate Lodge 98
Everything. This is a sensational lodge. If you have a bucket list, put this place at the top of it.
The seemingly endless steep steps can be wearing, but the only really disagreeable thing about Bisate is the pain of leaving.
Good to Know
Rwanda has two dry seasons — June to September and December to February — but in the mountains the weather is unpredictable year-round.
Rates: Tented Room for two, $2,600 (all meals, house wines and spirits, selected camp activities and laundry included)
Address: Volcanoes National Park
Telephone: (27) 11-807-1800
Having checked out of the peerless Bisate Lodge with extreme reluctance, I set off with my driver for the six-hour drive to Nyungwe House. Some of my fellow guests had opted to continue their Rwandan journey by helicopter. Rwanda’s roads are well-paved and uncrowded, though the seemingly endless bends can be wearisome. The western part of the country is hilly, fertile and absurdly picturesque. A combination of deep red earth, dark green vegetation, brightly colored flowers and intricately terraced hillsides leaves an indelible impression. As we drove along, everything seemed almost eerily well-ordered and peaceful. The only discordant notes were provided by occasional signboards marking the proximity of a genocide site.
Rwanda sits astride an arm of the Albertine Rift valley, an offshoot of the Great Rift Valley, and much of its western boundary is formed by the 56-mile-long Lake Kivu. Nyungwe House is located at the southern end of the lake, at the edge of the 385-square-mile Nyungwe Forest National Park, which extends across a highland region that forms the great divide between the Nile and Congo drainage systems. (The park is said to contain the “true source” of the White Nile.) One of the oldest woodlands in Africa, it is home to 300 bird species, 27 of which are found nowhere else. There are also 13 species of primates, including a significant population of chimpanzee.
Nyungwe House opened in 2010 and is owned by Dubai World, a state investment company. Recently, its management has been taken over by the upscale One&Only Resorts group. The 22 accommodations are housed within six villas, which are set amid the clipped bushes of a working tea plantation. The virgin forest of the national park provides an imposing and mysterious backdrop. On arrival, I was surprised by the scale of the public areas, which are more like those found at a lavish resort than a wildlife lodge. The striking interior design contained some indigenous elements, but overall it seemed more international and contemporary than Rwandan. A member of the staff escorted me to my room along a path through the tea bushes, and my luggage followed behind in a golf buggy. Two enormous black-and-white-casqued hornbills flapped slowly past and landed heavily on the roof of my villa.
My accommodations were spacious and comfortable, with a high ceiling, air-conditioning and a metal woodburning stove for chilly evenings. The bath provided a deep tub, two sinks and a walk-in shower. The bedroom extended onto a large balcony, but the view was of an impenetrable wall of foliage. Rustles and the occasional crash indicated the presence of the blue monkeys that live around the resort, but it was hard to catch a glimpse of them.
After settling in, I headed to the bar for a predinner cocktail. There I fell into conversation with two New Yorkers, who had also just arrived. Following several weeks of travel in Ethiopia and Kenya, both were clearly thrilled to be reunited with the creature comforts of home, especially the power shower and a functioning Wi-Fi connection. “I guess the natural habitat of this particular primate is the Upper East Side,” the woman remarked with feeling. Dinner proved to be a strange meal. There was no menu and no choice; the food just simply arrived. Delicious zucchini soup was followed by a bizarre “gherkin carpaccio,” which was simply a very thinly sliced gherkin fanned out across a plate. This was succeeded by a beef tournedos, which, despite being tiny, was completely raw in the middle. Still hungry, I was pleased to discover that the apple strudel for dessert was excellent. (On the following day, the breakfast buffet was outstanding, but lunch was equally confusing. The chef seems to have a talent for soup but little else.)
Nyungwe House has an attractive horizon pool, plus a small spa, and the atmosphere of the property is ineffably peaceful. Some guests may never leave the estate. Most, however, have come to see the chimpanzees and the spectacular black-and-white long-haired colobus monkeys. The national park has numerous hiking trails that range from three hours to four days in duration, plus an elevated walkway through the canopy for bird-watching. But its primates are hard to see. The park has about 60 habituated chimps, but given its scale and the density of the vegetation, finding them can be tricky. (Unlike gorillas, chimps tend to move around a lot.) The solution is to visit the small Cyamudongo forest, situated about an hour’s drive from the resort, which is detached from the main park and surrounded by cultivated land. This island of mahogany and mulanje cedar trees contains around 30 habituated chimpanzees, who are constrained by the dimensions of their home and hence are relatively easy to locate.
Having set out in darkness, we arrived at Cyamudongo at sunrise, as the chimpanzees began to stir in their treetop nests. After an hourlong hike along an intermittently steep and muddy trail, taking exaggerated care to avoid the marching columns of ferocious ants, we suddenly heard the chimpanzees whooping and hooting to one another through the morning mist. It was a haunting and magical chorus that is impossible to describe. After five minutes or so, the cries subsided and silence reclaimed the forest. “Well, that was sure worth the price of admission,” one of my New Yorker friends from the night before remarked, having apparently recovered her enthusiasm for the great outdoors. Although most of the chimps remained high in the canopy, gorging themselves on ripe fruit, one large male slithered down a tree trunk about 15 feet away and strode off into the forest without giving us so much as a glance.
Overall, I enjoyed my stay at Nyungwe House, but it is not possible to recommend the place unequivocally for now. I suspect that One&Only needs a little more time to bring the cuisine, and some aspects of the service, up to the high standards customarily associated with the brand.
From Nyungwe it is a five-hour drive back to Kigali, the first section of which follows a spectacular winding route through the national park. The highlight of the trip, however, was a visit to the former Royal Palace at Nyanza, which includes aesthetically exquisite traditional structures as well as a colonial residence from the 1930s. Rwanda’s monarchy was abolished in 1961, and the last king, Kigeli V Ndahindurwa, died in 2016, just outside Washington, D.C. In January 2017, he was interred with his ancestors.
Nyungwe House 89
The exquisite landscape of tea plantations backed by cloud forest; the friendly staff.
The interior design, which lacks a sense of place; the nonexistent choice in the restaurant and the eccentric nature of some of the dishes.
Good to Know
Aside from its habituated chimpanzees, the Cyamudongo forest is renowned for its rare orchids.
Rates: Nyungwe King, $1,105; Forest Suite, $2,230
Address: Gisakura, Nyungwe Forest National Park
Telephone: (866) 552-0001