by Michael Buerk
They call him, in the local language, “The Special One” — but he’s far more important to far more people than any failed football manager.
Just by lolling around, breakfasting on bamboo and idly scratching, he generates more money than many footballers too. We’ve each paid $1,500 for permission to spend an hour in his presence. He need do nothing but be himself and not kill us. And on his huge, hairy shoulders rest the hopes and dreams of an entire country.
There is more to Rwanda than gorillas. All the richness of African wildlife in fact, in a country a third the size of Scotland. A country that is, compared with the rest of the continent, clean, efficient, and safe. But gorillas are what are driving a surge in upmarket tourist development and making this country what many tour operators bill as this year’s hottest high-end holiday destination in Africa. That, in turn, underpins a remarkable story of national survival and recovery.
It’s a land of a thousand hills and even more contradictions. A place where some of the world’s worst mass murderers are forgiven and walk free, but being caught with a plastic bag can — in theory at least — end you up in jail. A place that was a byword for destruction that now champions conservation and has some of the greenest government policies on the planet. A place where, a generation ago, up to a million people were butchered in just 100 days, that is now one of the most peaceful countries in Africa.
Rwanda is compact enough to see in a week: Africa writ small. It’s easy to get there. Next month RwandAir will up the frequency of its London and Brussels to Kigali flights to five times a week (and this month sees the launch of its first Chinese destination, Guangzhou).
From Europe, you arrive early in the morning, threading through the velvet green valleys with their African rich red earth. The temperature when you land is pleasant. It’s only just south of the equator but altitude has cancelled out latitude. Year-round, it feels like midsummer Surrey.
We head east, out through the Kigali suburbs into the countryside. It’s unsettling at first, not because of reminders of its bloody past — rather the opposite. It’s Africa in a very un-African way. It’s trim and neat. There’s no litter anywhere. The roads are good and well marked. Every few hundred yards, a woman is brushing dust and dirt from the pavements. Everybody is driving, not just carefully, but with exaggerated courtesy. The heavily armed police you see everywhere might have something to do with it, but you get the sense that everybody is on their best behaviour and has bought into the idea that they are living in Africa’s Switzerland.
It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to the Akagera National Park, which stretches for nearly a hundred miles along Rwanda’s eastern border. It’s one of the most scenic of Africa’s savannah reserves, bounded by a low mountain range on one side and forest-fringed lakes and the Akagera river on the other.
We stay in the Ruzizi lodge, a tented camp in riverine forest on the banks of Lake Ihema. It’s “glamping”, not camping — the tents are handsomely furnished with a comfortable double bed and en-suite bathroom. They are linked by raised boardwalks to a lounge and bar and a viewing platform built on stilts over the lake. It’s there that we eat posh safari food under the stars, then breakfast in the morning with three huge hippos and a baby just yards away blowing bubbles and burping in the shallows.
Akagera’s recovery matches that of Rwanda as a whole. It was all but destroyed in the aftermath of the genocide. The park was swamped by half a million refugees and their cattle. Poachers killed off much of the game and the 300 lions were all shot or poisoned to protect the cows. It’s been reduced to half the size it once was, but is now fenced, patrolled and restocked.
There’s plenty to see and in a long, 12-hour, day you can cover most of the park. The chances are you won’t see another vehicle. There are plenty of zebra, giraffes and baboons as you head north on a bone-shaking dirt road along the ridge of the Mutumba Hills. The plains in the north are covered in antelope and patrolled by whiskered, prancing warthogs. All the big five are here again: the seven lions reintroduced from South Africa in 2015 are now a pride of 22, and 18 eastern black rhinos, out of a worldwide population that now numbers fewer than 1,000, arrived in 2017. They’ve got more protection than Donald Trump, tracked night and day by rangers with a special helicopter permanently on standby.
It’s a top-end destination and becoming more so. On a tongue of land poking out into Lake Rwanyakazinga, Wilderness Safari last month opened a new, five-star camp, Magashi — 100 per cent solar-powered, entirely free of single-use plastics, and $650 per head per night.
We cross the country, breaking our journey in Kigali, then continuing south. The countryside is bustling and beautiful, with emerald-green paddy fields and groves of banana and eucalyptus. But every town, almost every village, has its genocide memorial, often built on the bones of thousands of Tutsi victims, hacked to pieces or buried alive, 10 deep, in pit latrines. You suddenly realise there are no dogs. Anywhere. They apparently feasted on massacred corpses and have been almost entirely done away with.
Our brilliant driver/guide, Suleiman Ndizeye (known to all as Sula), is tall and rangy. We assume he is Tutsi, but dare not ask. It’s considered bad taste now, even illegal under ill-defined laws that criminalise “divisionism”. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president since 2000, is an efficient autocrat who divides opinion. Many observers and human rights groups criticise his repressive tactics. Opposition leaders have been jailed. A change of constitution in 2015 allowed him to run for a third term, and in 2017 he was elected with 98.79 per cent of the vote. But he has also won praise from Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates and Ban Ki-moon, and under his leadership the once traumatised country has a growing economy and dramatically improved healthcare.
A key part of government strategy is premium tourism. It doesn’t get much more upmarket than One&Only’s Nyungwe House, which opened late last year and where nearly half the guests arrive by helicopter. It’s set in a lush working tea plantation on the edge of Nyungwe Forest, east Africa’s largest block of mountain rainforest. The accommodation is in state of the art wooden chalets with air-conditioning, open fireplaces and private decks. The setting, the service and the food rank alongside the best of Africa’s game lodges. The chef, Treasure Makwanise, is Zimbabwean. A teenage runaway, he was picked off the streets of Cape Town less than a decade ago and is now one of Africa’s leading executive chefs.
The main attraction in the Nyungwe Forest is the chimpanzees. We spend a morning tracking one of the biggest bands. You hear them long before you see them, an excited hooting from one individual first, then others join in a mounting crescendo. They swing through the trees around us, and a big male shambles past on the path.
There are 13 species of primate here, not just chimps, and a gut-wrenching forest canopy walkway strung 40 metres high above the trees. The birds are worth the trip in themselves; on the way back, we are buzzed by a hornbill that looks, and sounds, like a pterodactyl.
Rwandan tourism is high-cost and low volume, nowhere more so than in our third destination, the Volcanoes National Park, home to more than half the global population of mountain gorillas. They are less rare than they were; surveys last year suggest there are now more than 1,000 worldwide and in November they were taken off the “critically endangered” list. Here, they live in 20 distinct bands, tracked day and night by rangers. They’re still threatened, though: chief park warden Proper Uwingeli tells me his men destroy 2,000 poachers’ traps a year.
Twelve of the bands are earmarked for tourism. Just eight people a day are allowed to see each group for around an hour. The cost of the permits was doubled, from $750 to $1,500, in 2017. The tourist numbers dropped but are recovering. Clare Akamanzi, the whip-smart, Harvard-educated chief executive of the Rwanda Development Board, told me she had been nervous about the decision but it was the right one. “We’re a small country and need to protect what we have,” she says. “We’re now making more money from fewer people — exactly what we want”.
Fewer, but richer, people and the uber-luxury operators are crowding in. We stay in the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, which was opened (by Kagame) in 2008 and extensively refurbished in 2017. We have our own stone, colonial-style cottage, 2,515 metres up on the grassy mountain slopes. It’s very country house, with log fires, warm hospitality and exceptional food.
There’ll soon be top-rank competition. One&Only’s Gorilla’s Nest lodge will open its doors in August. And Singita, perhaps the poshest of safari groups, is due to launch its eight-suite Kwitonda Lodge in August — prices start at $1,500 per person per day (not including the permit). In all, there are now a dozen small upmarket lodges in and around the park, open or just about to, and all reliant on what is — to my mind — the most moving wildlife experience on Earth.
We’re driven down dirt tracks to the edge of the forest, then follow the trackers through the thick, slippery vegetation, clawing our way, sometimes being dragged up the steeper slopes, for a couple of hours. And then — there they are.
Agashya, The Special One, is three times the size of a human, superhero strong, a vegan demigod. Soft with it, you think — or at least hope. He’s untroubled, curious, looking us over with his liquid brown eyes as he chomps his way through his endless bamboo salad.
We’re supposed to stay seven metres away but nobody’s told the gorillas. Agashya brushes past us as we crouch in submission, panting sycophantically, as we’ve been taught. He treads on somebody’s foot, fingers a tripod and lopes unhurriedly away.