A vista of three volcanoes fills our bedroom window, each glowing in the dawn light and covered by the smooth textures of surreal lenticular clouds. It is a scene to savour, except gorillas are awaiting us this morning. As we eat breakfast, Bisate staff fit us with gaiters and give us thick gardening gloves for the jungle climb to come.
Rwanda's mountain gorillas are near the top of any list of great wildlife experiences. In July 2017, Wilderness Safaris opened Bisate Lodge, which redefines luxury with strong eco credentials in the once-troubled nation. There are just six villas in tiers up a steep ancient volcanic cone ("Bisate" means "pieces of broken stone"), the main lodge lies towards the base, and there are 45 staff for the 12 guests.
With a pointy roof and spherical shape, each building is based on a traditional Rwandan royal palace. They feature thatched grass on the outside and weaving within. Bisate was designed by Nicholas Plewman and Associates, with the interiors created by Caline Williams-Wynn and Nilfah Adams from Artichoke Design.
The villas are remarkable, with a huge bedroom on one side and an equally large bathroom (with freestanding bathtub and separate shower room) on the other. In between is a central fireplace that is warming the room when you return from gorilla trekking.
When muddy boots and clothes are shed, they are returned cleaned and pressed just a few hours later. Sitting in armchairs by the fire reading about Dian Fossey while looking out over her mountains is blissful contentment.
Despite the all-out luxury of many African lodges they can be a little khaki-bland. Not so Bisate, where the staff uniforms look like they come from a kaleidoscopic and colourful fashion runway. The fabrics of both uniforms and fittings are textured art with a predominance of emerald green to match the surrounding verdant jungle. Many of the local touches are provided by Teta Isibo of Inzuki Designs. Forbes magazine rated her as one of the 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa 2017.
While the villas have excellent Wi-Fi ("we have fibre to the village") there is none in the lodge. Guests gather by the fireplace for drinks before dinner and the conversation is generally about the day's gorilla encounters.
Bisate meals are a highlight, with local dishes such as liboke (chicken cooked and served in banana leaves), sambaza (fried, spicy small fish served with ginger rice), coconut fish and kachumbari (a traditional tomato and onion salad).
"We source most of our fresh produce from our own kitchen garden and from neighbouring farms, all situated within a five-kilometre radius of the lodge", said Bisate's food and beverage manager, Benjamin Nskekuye. "Our indigenous farm-to-table dining experience is both authentic and world class".
Local ingredients to feature in Bisate's menu include wild honey, avocado, climbing beans, mango, kale, papaya, plantain, passionfruit, pineapple, macadamia nuts and chillies.
We did gorilla walks over two days and both were very different. On the first the gorilla group was on the move as a young silverback was intruding. I felt special indeed when Special, the dominant silverback of the Agashya group (the name means "Special"), stood on my foot while chasing the usurper off. The second day was mellow as we hung out with a silverback, a young mother, a baby and a curious juvenile.
Each day we would return to Bisate to find a gift in our room, such as Rwandan coffee (sourced from the local Kigufi Coffee Estate called Gato Keza) in a small bag made by the women in the nearby village. An old man in the village weaves the welcome note for each guest. "It has been really important to involve the community in Bisate," general manager Ingrid Baas told me. "Most staff are locals we've trained on-site."
Wilderness Safaris chief operating officer, Grant Woodrow, declares that "when we made the decision to invest in Rwanda, the last thing we intended to do was just to build a boutique lodge and sell gorilla treks. We wanted to ensure that our brand of responsible ecotourism made a real difference to both rural Rwandan people and biodiversity conservation."
The time we spend with the mountain gorillas is perhaps the least surprising element of Rwanda. We know about the gorillas and we remember the horrific 1994 genocide. But we don't expect our local driver, Bosco, to introduce himself as a barista who teaches hotels and resorts how to make coffee properly. Nor did we anticipate the streets of Kigali being litter-free (and safe at night) or flowerbeds by the roadsides of villages. "The last weekend of each month is devoted to community work and reconciliation," Bosco explained. "Everyone from the President down is involved."
A woman in Kigali told me more succinctly "we've been to hell and we never want to go back". In 2017 The Independent declared Rwanda to be the next luxury travel hotspot. Bisate is more than a luxury lodge: it's a significant step in Rwanda's progress.
An early guest review of Bisate sums up the experience. The writer stated that her lifelong dream had been to come to Rwanda and see the mountain gorillas. But after discovering the delights of her villa she didn't know if she ever wanted to leave it, even for gorillas. Most guests manage to combine both. Some come for just one night and many for two. Ingrid Baas suggests that three nights gives the best chance to settle in – and there is a lot to do here. Shopping in town reveals some excellent Rwandan weaving and jewellery; a visit to the village shows how basic life remains in rural Rwanda; and a morning with the golden monkeys is very entertaining. There is a ritual where every guest plants a tree as part of the lodge's reafforestation program. More than 15,000 trees have already been planted.
The Bisate gorilla experience is not without its challenges. The first is cost. Last year the Rwandan government doubled the cost of a gorilla permit from $US750 ($1003) to $US1500. Then there is the altitude and the hills. Bisate is set at 2600 metres and the Park Headquarters at 2400 metres. It can be an uphill scramble for a few hours to reach the gorillas. Even so, more Australians visit Rwanda's National Parks than any other nation.
As we left Bisate the staff came out to sing us goodbye in an emotional farewell. I'll never forget a large gorilla stepping on my foot nor the remarkable combination of setting, design and hospitality that has come together at Bisate in this special corner of Africa.
Air: Kigali, Rwanda's capital has direct flights from Nairobi, Dubai and Johannesburg. Road: In mountainous Rwanda, the 106 kilometre drive from Kigali to Bisate may take 2½ hours along good roads. You need to retain your driver for the duration of your stay so you can move around the area.
Helicopter: it's a spectacular 15-minute helicopter flight from Kigali to Bisate ($US1800 return) but you'll still need to send a car ahead so you have transport upon arrival.
Wilderness Safaris offers a three-day Gorillas Through the Mist tour that includes a night in Bisate and one in Kigali plus driver/guide from $3180 per person (excluding gorilla permits). Phone: 1300 205 049. See adventureworld.com.au
THE BEST WAY TO PHOTOGRAPH A GORILLA
A one-day gorilla permit gives you one hour with the gorillas. It's intense so you need to plan in advance. Here are some tips to come back with the best images.
1. It can be quite a clamber to reach your gorilla family. $US10 for a porter is worthwhile and effectively stops poaching
2. You must leave all bags behind at the point of encounter so wear nettle-proof pants with roomy pockets for an extra lens or small camera.
3. No flash is allowed and a tripod is little use when standing on a bamboo canopy or when moving to keep up with the gorillas.
4. Carry rain protection.
5. If you're a couple it's best if one does stills and the other video. The video should range from wide to telephoto while most stills will be in the 85mm to 300mm range. Lighting will be from dark shade to bright sunlight. Check image quality at the beginning.
6 Have the guide take photos of you and the gorillas.
7 Close-ups of gorillas' hands, feet, faces and interaction are the most rewarding.
David McGonigal was a guest of Wilderness Safaris and Bisate Lodge.