TOURISM : Gorillas in our Midst: The Rwanda Wildlife Experience That Left Us Breathless

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. By Andrew Harper




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.
The view over the top of villas at Bisate Lodge - CrookesAndJackson

                                                    The interior of our villa at Bisate Lodge  Photo by Andrew Harper

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.

                                                      The terrace off a villa at Bisate Lodge CrookesAndJackson

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.


                                           The view over the top of villas at Bisate Lodge - CrookesAndJackson

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.
The entrance to Volcanoes National Park
The lush landscape of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park at the beginning of our trek to see gorillas
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.

                                A mountain gorilla in the Agashya group in Volcanoes National Park Photo by Andrew Harper
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.