Wildlife is thriving in Rwanda’s national parks again.
Three years ago when I walked from my room to the camp-fire at Rwanda’s Ruzizi Tented Lodge, I worried about running into a hippo in the dark, jumping at the swoosh of their ridiculous, low-slung bellies in the grass. Returning to the same lodge in Akagera National Park last June, I have even more reason to be on guard. Rwanda has since been transformed into a Big Five destination with the reintroduction of lion in 2015, and, more recently, rhino.
“Big Five? Nah. This is Big Six country,” says my safari fixer, Alice Daunt, whose travel agency looks after 100-odd high-profile clients. “If you include Rwanda’s mountain gorillas, we’re talking the Big Six for the Big Spenders.” Daunt is referring to one of the most dramatic turnaround stories in the annals of safari land, with millions of dollars invested since 2011 in wildlife security within Akagera, overseen by the conservation NGO African Parks. (The spend includes an antipoaching helicopter, ranger training, and a pack of Belgian Malinois and Dutch shepherd tracker dogs gifted by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.) As of this writing, there has been no poaching in the park this year. I am dumbfounded. The last time I visited Rwanda, the snare pile in Akagera’s HQ reached almost to my chin. That was during the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were murdered; Akagera’s long grass had for years served as a hideout for the rebel fighters, led by future president Paul Kagame.
In August, Kagame was reelected for a third term in one of the most peaceful political events in the continent’s post colonial history (though in winning 99 percent of ballots, he attracted accusations of voter “harassment” from local activists as reported by Human Rights Watch and “irregularities” from the U.S. Department of State). Still, Rwanda has come to be known as the Switzerland of Africa for its measured diplomacy and verdant landscape—as well as the $1,400 per person price tag for a night at the newly opened Bisate Lodge and the $1,500 gorilla-trekking permits.
Until recently, the hilly back country mainly lured NGOs and UN personnel looking for a self-drive weekend break from the capital, Kigali, while gorilla treks were sold as a three-night extension to East African safaris. Today you can easily spend a week on a circuit linking Volcanoes National Park (gorilla country) to Akagera (rhino country) and the southern park of Nyungwe, home to 13 different primate species. Direct flights from London on Rwanda Air’s new Airbus A330s cut travel time from the U.S. by saving travelers an additional stopover in Africa. And a constellation of luxury lodges is popping up: The One&Only hotel group, with resorts in Dubai, the Maldives, and Mauritius, has put its glitz into the Nyungwe Forest with the October opening of a 22-room property with a pool, spa, and yoga classes. In 2018, One&Only Gorilla’s Nest is slated to open on the edge of the primates’ habitat beside Volcanoes National Park. The following year, Singita, the queen of the South African luxury lodge scene, plans to debut Singita Kwitonda, an eight-suite, one-villa property that will also make the most of the gorilla card. And Wilderness Safaris, which operates some of Botswana’s top camps, is behind the new Bisate, where I stayed this past summer.
Bisate’s six thatched dome suites are built against a steep hillside facing the cloud-ringed Bisoke volcano. Rooms of emerald green and black-and-white chevrons open onto explosions of bamboo and Rwandan color. Meals are exotic salads, fish, and Asian-spiced pork belly paired with South African reds. Then there are the massages, the attentive Rwandan staff, and the balcony views of the Virunga massif. A Hollywood star is about to check in as I am checking out.
I admit I’m impressed. But there’s a nagging caveat to this luxury bubble, which is part of the larger Champagne-safari trend emerging here. When only 96 gorilla permits are issued each day at $1,500 a pop, it signals that a big velvet rope is going up. Locals are unlikely to see the majestic creatures living in their own forest, leaving the animals as the preserve of the super-rich. When the three newest gorilla lodges operate at full capacity, there won’t be a lot of space for the smaller operations, those local mavericks who took on all the risk after the genocide when Rwandans needed a common purpose to help them get back on their feet.
It’s not that competition isn’t healthy. I respect the responsibility that Wilderness Safaris has exercised by sticking to just six rooms (the company could fill many more). Tourism that helps pay for conservation is a model I subscribe to, so long as the funds cascade down the system to the communities. It would be good to see these lodges operate a program in which for every gorilla permit bought clients also agree to purchase a permit for a Rwandan child. Because it is only by falling in love that the next generation will be moved to protect it.
HOW TO DO A WEEK IN RWANDA
Arrive in Kigali and have a juicy burger brunch next to the pool at Hôtel des Mille Collines (aka Hotel Rwanda, where during the genocide the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, sheltered more than a thousand people). Visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, vital to understanding the context of where you are. Drive two and a half hours to Akagera National Park, staying one night at Ruzizi Tented Lodge on the edge of Lake Ihema, then two at Karenge Bush Camp for your Big Five safari. Spend a full day driving to Volcanoes National Park—don’t be tempted to use a helicopter; the drive is a breathtaking lens on everyday Rwanda—and two nights at Bisate Lodge. For your gorilla trek, request to see the Susa primates if you’re fit, or the Sabyinyo group if you’d rather do a shorter hike. Finish with two nights at Virunga Lodge, for its views of Lake Burera and its reflective feel: terraced rose gardens, private parterres, and a library with a roaring fire. For my logistics, I used Daunt Travel, an agency with a strong ethical practice and a keen eye for luxury.