“Focus on a spot in front of you to keep your balance,” says Joseph, the yoga instructor at Rwanda’s One&Only Nyungwe House. I steady my gaze towards the dense rainforest canopy just metres away. What could be more grounding and elemental than staring at trees during a tree pose? Resting my hands in a gentle prayer position, I am one with my leafy surrounds.
That is until a fuzzy black-and-white Ruwenzori colobus monkey scuttles directly into my line of vision and sneezes lavishly before disappearing into the treetops, causing me to lose my balance and thump gracelessly out of my pose. It may not have been my most elegant asana ever but considering I’m knocking out sun salutes while inhaling the mulchy, mossy scent of Nyungwe National Park, one of the oldest and most biodiverse rainforests on the African continent, I’m not complaining.
Yoga with a monkey audience is just one way guests can get acquainted with the local wildlife at this luxurious new resort, set on a working tea plantation and featuring only 22 rooms and suites. Rwanda is known for its fabled mountain gorillas, but they prefer the higher altitudes of the country’s 13,000-foot extinct volcanoes, about five-and-a-half-hour drive from Nyungwe House. Here in the southwest, where the peaks top out at a mere 3000 feet, 25 per cent of all of Africa’s primates crowd into an ancient forest, including chattering family groups of chimpanzees. They’re best spotted on an early-morning trek, although they will wander up to the resort to check out the activity every so often. Birds call from every branch and patch of sky, most notably the honking hornbills and the Ruwenzori turaco, which looks like a parrot crossed with a pheasant and whose whooping, repetitive cry sounds so much like the babbling of chimps that it tricks me every time.
But Rwanda’s beauty goes beyond its wildlife. Compared to the African countries that traditionally take up the most space in guidebooks – like Kenya, Botswana or Tanzania – Rwanda (a country of about the same size as its former colonial ruler, Belgium) is still relatively unblemished by urbanisation or excessive tourism.
Villages dotted among the neat rows of tea are often just clusters of mud brick huts, painted in pastel peaches and yellows that pop against soft, misty skies. In this part of the country it’s unusual to see more than one car every 10 minutes and you’ll only have a maximum of seven companions on a chimpanzee trek – a limit mandated by law.
While many western countries are still squabbling over the inconvenience of taking reusable bags to the supermarket, here plastic bags have been banned since 2008; the untidiest thing you’re likely to see on the streets is a scruffy l’Hoest’s monkey scratching himself on the roadside. On the last Saturday of the month, every Rwandese diligently pitches in to clean up public areas in his or her village or neighbourhood. “What happens if you don’t, do you get in trouble?” I ask Sam, the guide assigned to me from Nyungwe House. “Nothing happens,” he replies, “but your community won’t think you’re a very good person.”
I’m feeling quite the virtuous person myself when I manage to wake up at 4:15am the next day for my trek – although if I’m honest it’s easier than it sounds thanks to a favourable Australia/Africa time zone difference. My hosts furnish me with a canvas backpack, binoculars, a rain jacket and a packed breakfast and we begin the 90-minute drive across unpaved roads (an “African massage”, my driver Oscar calls it) to the start of our expedition. The sunrise blushes across the marbled grey-and-white clouds and the streets fill with women wearing tucked and twisted lengths of bright, clashing kitenge fabric on their way to market, balancing everything from bunches of bananas and baskets of chicken to furniture on their heads.
We pull up to a group of Swiss and Swedes who are sporting the sort of high-tech hiking kit that lets you know they’ve charged up and down quite a few serious mountains in their time. Nyungwe House describes this trek as “challenging” and I’m a little concerned I won’t be able to keep up with my hardcore companions.
As we enter the forest, it seems I might be right. Although we’re marching along something that could pass as a path, the vegetation grows so thickly that our guides must cut back curtains of vines and creepers with machetes to let us through. And it’s not long before we abandon the trail altogether, when primate trackers radio to our group that a family of chimpanzees has taken up residence in a section of the forest far to our left. Chimps don’t pay much attention to paths, so our guides lead us off-piste, deep into the rainforest, sliding down almost vertical banks of red mud, finding whatever wobbly foothold we can between rocks and roots.
Once I get used to the idea that this is no sedate woodland stroll, it’s enormous fun. I’m easily keeping up with both the sturdy Europeans and the antelope-quick Rwandese guides and we’re so busy listening out for the whoops of the chimps and peering upwards into the forest canopy that we barely notice any slips or scratches.
And then there they are. A family of four chimpanzees rustle busily overhead, clumping together leaves to make nests. We stare in total silence except for the clicking of cameras, watching them fuss and fidget with their very human fingers. Following an unseen signal they then swing to the ground in unison and lope away into the forest. We watch until there’s nothing left except the sound of their distant screeches.
The hike took four hours so by the time we return to Nyungwe House it’s lunch. I’m led through the terraced rows of tea plants that surround the property to a private wooden platform with a set table and an easel and oils in case I’m moved to paint the jungle landscape after my meal (I pass; Monet couldn’t do this view justice and I’m no Monet).
Because of its remote location, the property’s executive chef Treasure Makwanise has come up with a unique dining concept where he buys whatever is freshest at the day’s markets and then serves it in a way that’s tailored to a guest’s likes and dislikes. No menus, no choices. “I want you to feel like you’re at your mum’s house – she knows what you like and how to make it,” he tells me. I’m skeptical – Treasure’s not my mum; will he really know that I’m big on spice and fish but lukewarm on anything that combines fruit and meat? Out comes a punchy carrot soup studded with pumpkin seeds, followed by piquant fish cakes made from freshwater tilapia from nearby Lake Kivu and chocolate marquise dusted with honeycomb and sweet local watermelon. Maybe Treasure and my mum had words.
By early afternoon the jetlag beings to win. I drift to the spa where my hike-hobbled muscles are massaged with essential oils of clary sage and black pepper. I’m wondering sleepily how to turn down dinner when I’m spotted, nearly toppling sideways, by Nyungwe House’s general manager, Jacques Le Roux. “Please, let us drive you to your suite, take a long bath and we’ll have some grilled fish and perhaps a glass of chardonnay sent down in a few minutes. How would that be?” I blink. The man is supernatural. That’s exactly what I’d like. Less than an hour later I’m wrapped into the cool cotton layers of my four-poster bed and fall asleep to the affectionate squabbling of the chimpanzees – or that chimpanzee-impersonating bird – echoing across the valley.
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