The baby gorilla rolls around the undergrowth, almost close enough to touch. He is hanging off a strip of fallen bamboo, and playfully launches himself again and again at his mother, who is lying resting in the shade. Suddenly she’s had enough of the game and sweeps him up, pulling him close to her chest for a tight hug. It feels as if our small group is holding our breath, not wanting to break the spell. A few minutes earlier, we had walked through a clearing with the rangers in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to find 47-year-old Guhonda sitting rhythmically chomping through bamboo leaves and totally unbothered by our presence. He was magnificent to watch.
There are 17 members in the Sabyinyo gorilla family (one of 12 groups that are habituated to humans) and during our hour in the mountains we were lucky enough to catch sight of most of them. One female was grooming the family’s second silverback; another, a tiny baby, was barely visible but for a pair of bright button eyes peering through a gap in a tree trunk. After an hour-and-a-half’s hike back down the forest-covered mountain, we were still buzzing from the pinch-me, bucket-list experience.
We hopped in a car back to Bisate Lodge, Wilderness Safaris’ newest lodge just outside the Volcanoes National Park, and our home for a few nights. Bisate Lodge is built on the side of a hill and comprises six thatched-roof round villas, each with local woven matting on the walls and ceiling, a balcony with heart-soaring views of the green-patchwork countryside, and Instagram-worthy bathrooms with wire bird-cage lights and a black, oval tub. In the open-plan main building, recycled green glass-bottle lights match the emerald tiles on the side of the bar, where we gather that evening on slouchy leather sofas with sheepskin throws for a glass of red wine before dinner: delicious broccoli soup with tahini lemon, tilapia with a side of mango salad, and passion-fruit cheesecake.
As a tour operator, Wilderness Safaris is renowned for putting an emphasis on conservation and community, and it comes through in every little detail, from its ongoing indigenous reforestation project in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation, to the Tuzamurane Co-operative set up in the neighbouring village through which the hotel buys, among other items, potatoes and fire wood. During our stay, we go on a nature walk around the property (at one point it’s possible to see six volcanoes) with brilliantly enthusiastic in-house guide Aline Umutoni.
While the gorillas are the blockbuster stars of any visit to Rwanda, this small country has so much else worth seeing. One day we take a helicopter ride to Gisenyi, a border town on the vast 2,700km² Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We hang out at the least touristy place we can find — laidback beachfront bar New Tam-Tam. As we sip a Skol beer and share a plate of salty deep fried sambaza, a whitebait-like fish served with hot pili pili sauce, we watch the locals cooling off in the water.
Another day, we head back into the Volcanoes National Park and go trekking to see the chubby-cheeked golden monkeys flying through the trees, then stop for a shopping fix at the Kinigi Craft Centre where we buy kitenge fabrics and pretty raffia bowls as souvenirs.
There’s more shopping too, in the capital Kigali (the cleanest city in Africa), where we spend a night at the elegant Kigali Serena Hotel. We call in at Inzuki Designs, run by local designer Teta Isibo, see contemporary African art for sale in the Inema Arts Centre, and wander the stalls of the Caplaki Craft Village.
We also visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the 1994 genocide. The experience is harrowing and informative, and the memorial serves as a marker for just how far this country has come in such a short time. Everyone we meet, from the women tending crops in the fields to the owners of the Repub Lounge restaurant in Kigali is full of pride and positivity towards the future.
I leave Rwanda with a piece of paper in my pocket, given to me by the agronomist at Bisate Lodge. Part of his job is to help willing guests plant a tree before they check-out. They are given co-ordinates so they can find it when they return — something which I hope to do before too long.
- From the August edition of Wanted magazine.