One & Only's Nyungwe House, Rwanda: Luxurious haven surrounded by chimpanzees

A strange thing happens to me when I arrive at One & Only Nyungwe House. Up until this moment, I have been channelling the spirit of David Attenborough, ready for an adventure in the African bush. I have packed my best outdoors gear and am excited about tackling a range of exciting wildlife experiences.

As soon as I step through the entrance, however, my inner Attenborough is elbowed out of the way by my inner Martha Stewart. I can't stop marvelling at the interiors of this luxury lodge. I love the structure of the airy main building, with its soaring ceilings, its shaded deck and its panoramic views across the surrounding tea plantation through to the misty hills beyond. I love how the series of rooms flow into each other, from the tea salon to the bar to the restaurant, and the way that each room has sofas and armchairs grouped together in cosy nooks.

I love the huge stone fireplaces and the intriguing locally-made furnishings, from lamp bases made from the dried stems of tea bushes to the quirky chandeliers: one is made with spoons; tea strainers hang from another like glittering medallions. I love the wall panels and carpets throughout the resort that use striking geometric patterns known as imigongo. General manager Jacques Le Roux explains to me that these traditional Rwandan designs almost disappeared.

"It was mainly the older generation that practised the art, and many of them died in the genocide,"  he says. However, investment has ensured that a new generation is learning the art, along with other traditional crafts. "It is nice to see a lot of the old traditions coming back."

Nyungwe House is in many ways a celebration of Rwanda's rebirth. The country has made extraordinary strides forward since the bloody genocide and civil war of the 1990s, not least its surprising reinvention as a luxury tourist destination. Until now, the main drawcard has been the population of wild mountain gorillas living in the north of the country. The opening of Nyungwe House, in south-western Rwanda, is bringing high-end tourism to a new part of the country, where visitors will find a lot to explore.

"There are 13 primate species in the forest, and we have seen nine of them on the property," my guide, Sam, tells me when we head out for our first adventure. It is not long before we spot our first mountain monkeys, then blue monkeys, grazing on greenery by the side of the road. Not a fan of monkey business? With 300 bird species and more than 200 different varieties of tree, not to mention 100 or so species of orchids, there are plenty of other natural wonders to keep an eye out for.

It is not just its location that sets Nyungwe House apart. The property is also a departure for One & Only, the company that has built a global reputation for its exclusive beachside resorts, scattered in scenic locations from the Maldives to Mexico. One & Only recently announced a new portfolio of nature resorts, which was kick-started by the takeover of one of Australia's best luxury lodges, Emirates Wolgan Valley just outside Sydney. Nyungwe House is the first new property in the portfolio; it will be joined next year by another Rwandan resort, Gorilla's Nest.

Nyungwe House has drawn inspiration from some of Wolgan Valley's most successful initiatives, not least the impressive roster of activities designed to get guests exploring the area's nature and culture. This includes complimentary activities such as an exploration of African tea, archery and spear-throwing lessons, and a chance to explore executive chef Treasure's kitchen garden.

However, it is the paid activities that are the real highlights. I particularly love the Canopy Boardwalk, a hike through the forest that culminates in a walk across a suspension bridge swaying 70 metres above the forest floor. It is a fabulous way to gain a perspective on this pristine wilderness, particularly given that a huge troop of colobus monkeys happens to be frolicking in the tree tops beneath us.

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Another highlight is the night-time walk through the property, where we catch sight of some of the nocturnal animals that make their home here. Although we don't see any of the resident civets, we do spot a number of jackals and scrub hares, along with tiny bats.

The must-do activity, however, is the chimpanzee trek. This early-morning activity requires some stamina. By the time we set off, local trackers are already following the local chimp troops, reporting back on their whereabouts; we get to head straight to where the chimps are. However, the going is not exactly easy. Although we reach our chimpanzee troop after a hike of less than half an hour, most of that time is spent going uphill, scrabbling up slopes that are almost vertical. The recent rains add to the degree of difficulty; our feet frequently slip on the muddy ground. We find ourselves leaning heavily on the walking sticks that have been provided. However, the exertion is forgotten the moment we hear the first chimp call.

A few minutes later, we find ourselves standing beneath tall trees, staring up at three chimps perched on a broad branch, grooming each other. Gradually, we spy the other members of the group. There is one hidden behind those leaves; another on the next tree; two more huddled close together. Two young ones chase each other through the trees, hooting aggressively. In the end, we count more than two dozen chimpanzees, and spend almost an hour in their company before they move off in search of more food.

A far less strenuous outdoor activity is the Birds of Nyungwe walk, which takes place on the hotel grounds. Sam, one of the resort's knowledgeable guides, leads me along the forest edge, past fields and up hills, through the varied landscapes that make up the property. It is a gentle stroll that allows us to spot plenty of colourful birds, including yellow African citrils and black-crowned waxbills, which have a cheeky flash of red under their wings.

Whichever activity you opt for, arriving home is part of the fun. When your vehicle pulls up at the entrance, a bevy of smiling staff are waiting to hear all about your adventure. One proffers a hot towel while another stands ready to whisk away our muddy boots for cleaning. It is all part of the heartfelt service that characterises Nyungwe House.

With so many activities on offer, it is easy to pack your schedule. However, resist the temptation to fill up every moment. Some of my most treasured moments at Nyungwe House see me curled up in a chair in the main lodge, watching the mist wrap itself around the surrounding hills. I also manage to steal some time by the pool, which has a spectacular valley view, before my private yoga session that is held on the deck of the spa, surrounded by forest. I return to the spa for a superb massage, which proves to be the perfect way to loosen up my calves and thighs after all the trekking.

Then there are the meals. With just 22 rooms on the property, executive chef Treasure has decided to do away with unnecessary frills, such as menus. Instead, he chats with guests each day about what he is going to serve. The three-course lunches and four-course dinners showcase local produce that comes fresh from the farm. Some of my favourite dishes include a smooth zucchini soup, a tangy broccoli salad, flavour-packed fish cakes and an unusual cassava chapatti topped with butternut and avocado. More indigenous flavours are on offer at the bar, where the signature cocktails include a tea-infused gin and tonic.

TRIP NOTES

Ute Junker travelled as a guest of One & Only Resorts.

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traveller.com.au/rwanda

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FLY

Qatar Airways offers one-stop flights to Kigali. From Kigali, transfer options include a five-hour scenic drive, a 30-minute flight to the nearby Kamembe Airstrip or a 40-minute helicopter transfer to the property.

STAY

Rates at Nyungwe House include meals, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and two complimentary activities per person per day, including nature walks, archery and an Africa tea experience. Signature experiences such as chimpanzee trekking and the canopy walk are available at an additional cost. Rates for 2019 from $US1564 for a double room. See oneandonlyresorts.com      

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