The once genocide-torn nation is rebuilding its tourism industry by focusing on wealthy wildlife lovers.
Rounding a corner, a collection of stilted bamboo cottages come into view, jutting out of the steep banks of the lakeshore. "That's Cormoron lodge," the driver tells me. "It opened last October, and is owned by a Belgian woman who used to be a racing driver." I get them to pull up at the little jetty and climb up along mint-lined paths to the reception. Rwanda was a Belgian colony from the 1920s until independence in 1962, and owner Nathalie Cox has spent most of her life here. Deciding to stay the night, I get my own wooden cabin, which is spacious and comfortable and has a balcony from which I can see the red glow of Democratic Republic of Congo's live Nyiragongo volcano. In the morning, the lake looks so inviting I can't resist taking a dive off the jetty and then borrow a kayak to spend a couple of hours paddling around the islets off the coast, and shouting the occasional amakuru, or good morning, to fishermen in their wooden dugout canoes.
Finally it's time to hit the road and my driver turns up in a classic Toyota Land Cruiser to take me to Nyungwe Forest—an area of nearly 1,000 sq km teeming with wildlife, including colobus monkeys and chimpanzees. There may be potholes and endless twisting bends along the dirt road, but it is a stunning drive with the road snaking around the cliffs and the lake providing a dramatic backdrop. With the window down, the smell of eucalyptus wafts in, and the cries of local children who rush to the roadside to call "Muzungo, muzungo" (the regional term for tourist, from the Swahili word to wander aimlessly) and occasionally ask for pens or francs, but more often just wave and smile.
Acres of tea plantations herald our arrival at Nyungwe Forest Lodge, which was built with a substantial investment from Dubai World Africa (a subsidiary of the Dubai's state investment company). "That's the helipad," says my driver signaling a clearing up ahead. It seems that every lodge worth its salt has one. And then the building appears, an imposing structure of dark wood and stone walls. Staff are awaiting our arrival with cold towels and juice and we are escorted into a spacious lounge with stylish modern furniture, arty coffee-table books and a blazing log fire—the sort of place you might find in South Africa. I am then taken to my private chalet, one of many scattered widely among the tea plantations, with a private deck overlooking the forest beyond. The rooms are huge with kingly bathrooms and I can well believe that each one cost the rumored $1m to build and furnish.
The lodge isn't the only new opening in the forest: there is also a canopy walk, the first of its kind in the region, and I am keen to get there before it closes for the day.
It's a leisurely 20-minute stroll into the forest from the Uwinka Visitor Centre to the start of the walk. My guide points out epiphytic orchids, high on the trunk of a mahogany tree, and the blood-red leaves of the "welcome" tree. "When they fall, they create a red carpet," he explains.
The canopy walk itself doesn't look too daunting from the ground. It is 90m long at its main section and 50m off the ground. I begin with cocky confidence, but as I get halfway across the main section, the vertigo kicks in. Below me, clouds are wisping up through the trees like smoke and from this height the canopy below resembles hundreds of heads of broccoli. I hold on tightly to the metal wire at chest height and try to look out at the horizon, rather than down. After all, if I can fly in a helicopter with no doors, this should be easy.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
Antonia Windsor is a freelance travel writer who works mainly for the Guardian.
Photograph of a female mountain gorilla by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images.