The drive from Kigali towards Volcanoes National Park is a steep and winding 3 hours with gorgeous scenery of terraced lumpy hills, distant misty mountains and the chance to see the bustle of activity along the roadside. People push bicycles loaded with sacks of potatoes, huge stalks of bananas, sugarcane up the steep inclines and everywhere people are walking with loads of various shapes and sizes on heads or backs. It is Friday, market day, so it seems everyone is on the move and we pass through several large villages bustling with color and activity. As in Kigali, everywhere is spotless, not a single piece of litter and every few miles we pass a government worker sweeping leaves and debris from the roadside path.
As we near our destination we drive through well-tended fields of vegetables, blankets of white flowered pyrethrum, edged often with silvery-blue young eucalyptus trees.
Bisate Lodge is inspired by the palaces of Rwandan Kings past and it is a truly unique place. Set on a steep hillside the steps are plentiful and at this altitude they quickly take your breath away. Slow and steady is the key. The lounge, bar and restaurant have a sleek and natural vibe with the basket-weave arching walls, cow-hide rugs, chunky woods and sparkling green glass chandeliers, overall giving a rich and heavy organic contemporary feel with a touch of whimsy.
The six guest villas have an almost hobbit-house feel nestled into the hillside with happily puffing chimneys. With the same curved basket-weave design inside they offer everything you could wish for with a double-sided fireplace to warm both the bedroom and bathroom, comfy chairs by the fire, a bathtub with a view. Speaking of the view; all the villas and the main areas face the Virunga Mountains with Mt Visoke straight ahead and Mt Karisimbi to the left. In the saddle area between these two mountains is where Dian Fossey set up her Karisoke camp - I plan to trek there in a couple of days so it’s nice to get an idea from a distance of where I’m going.
In the afternoon, a local guide, JP, takes me on a short tour of the local community, explaining the lifestyle of the local people and the way that Bisate Lodge is working with the community. We stopped by at Maria’s house where she was sorting potatoes from the harvest with her daughter-in-law Betty. Maria was quite shy but Betty, holding her beautiful fat-faced baby, explained that the basic mud house they are living in is temporary and they are about to start building a new house soon. Outside they have two cows and Betty, explains that the adult cow was given to the family through the one cow for each family government policy but that the calf will be given in turn to another family.
A little further along the track we visit Colette’s house. She also has a nursing baby whom she is feeding while she peels potatoes for dinner. Her family has several buildings including a storage barn, kitchen, outhouse and a main concrete-clad and concrete-floored house. They also have an innovative water collection system that channels rainwater from the roof into a large tank. JP explains that they share this water with their neighbors since there is no water supply in the village. Colette also makes baskets to sell and is part of the local women’s cooperative. Along with the gift shop at the entrance to Bisate they also weave and sew items for the lodge. On our way back we stop in, buy a basket and chat to Audrey who is the finance manager for the coop. She tells me that they have managed to buy the building we are in which previously they were renting and that they are paying the health insurance for all their members. Next month they will meet to decide what to spend money on next. The community visit was very relaxed and the ladies very easy to talk to. As we walked along the track between the fields we were greeted by friendly ‘hellos’ and the children all smiled and waved. The people here are poor by any standard but they have fertile soil and hopefully with the continued support of Bisate and gorilla tourism in general their living standards will improve and a fresh water source will be installed. I was told that education is improving; there is now a secondary school locally whereas previously it was necessary to pay for boarding school and very few local children continued their education past primary school.
Back to Bisate for dinner and an early night after preparing for tomorrow morning's gorilla trek.