The once genocide-torn nation is rebuilding its tourism industry by focusing on wealthy wildlife lovers.
"You can take the door off if you like, you'll get better photographs." Before I've even nodded my consent, pilot Jean de Dieu already has the door of the bright blue chopper in his hands. "Let's hope it doesn't rain," I venture feebly as I assess the seat-belt situation.
I'm on the tarmac at Kigali airport in Rwanda, about to get a lift to the Volcanoes National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorillas, in a Robinson R44 helicopter. "We get a lot of tourists who want us to drop them off there," says de Dieu, as though he is running a taxi service.
That Rwanda attracts the kind of tourist who prefers to charter a helicopter than make the long journey by road is testimony to the remarkable transformation the country has undergone since the 1994 genocide destroyed its infrastructure and its reputation. This is just the kind of tourist President Paul Kagame was hoping to attract when he began promoting travel to the region in 2003. By focusing on high-value, low environmental-impact tourism, Rwanda has attracted considerable foreign investment over the past few years, with a host of new openings aimed at the discerning tourist.
The trend began in 2007, when Kenyan hotel group Serena, part of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, took over the management of two properties and turned one into a five-star hotel in the capital Kigali and the other into a four-star property on the lakeside resort of Gisenyi. Then, in 2008, Governors' Camp opened Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, right at the foot of the Virunga volcano chain and very close to the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park, prompting Virunga, the area's original lodge, to undertake an extensive refurbishment. Last year a new lakeside lodge opened in Kibuye and a five-star property began to draw tourists to Nyungwe Forest, one of the largest remaining cloud forests in Africa. Visitors already seem to be taking note: revenue from international tourism rose 14 per cent last year.
We float up over the capital like an unleashed balloon, and the terracotta roofs of the neat hillside houses remind me of Tuscany, although they soon give way to the silver glint of tin. Rwanda is known as the land of 1,000 hills and from the air that seems an underestimate. The entire country is ruffled and pocked into slopes of varying gradient, every inch of which is tightly terraced. Soon, the dormant volcanoes of the Virunga mountain chain come into view and below us are lakes so still they look like pools of clouds. As we fly towards the three peaks of Sabyinyo volcano—one in Rwanda, one in Uganda and the third in Democratic Republic of Congo—the sienna slates of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge emerge from the foliage of the foothills. We inch towards a shaved patch of grass, while a crowd of children huddle together to clap our descent.
Owned by a community co-operative and managed by Governors' Camp, the lodge comprises individual cottages, each with a butler who comes to wake you in the morning with a fresh pot of coffee, gets the fire going and takes away your muddy boots to clean them when you come in. It's the kind of place in which I could happily spend a week, slumped in a sofa with a couple of good books. But it would be foolish to come all this way and not see the mountain gorillas, which are Rwanda's star attraction.
There are just 64 permits issued each day by the Rwanda Development Board, and groups are never larger than eight people. When I arrive for my briefing in the town of Musanze, I am assigned a family of 29 gorillas called Susa, and I'm joined by three young couples. The authorities must have thought we looked fit, because Susa are hiding out high up in the forest, and it is a strenuous two-hour trek through an eerily serene bamboo forest and up into a tangle of Hagenia abyssinica trees. However, the first sight of a fluffy black head emerging above the vegetation is an immediate distraction from the pain in my calves. We are able to creep incredibly close to these magnificent beasts without them so much as flinching; indeed, a large male silverback strolls right past while my attention is diverted elsewhere, giving my leg a punch in the process. Along with two silverbacks are some females, including one who is seven months pregnant, and a couple of boisterous youths. I spend an hour watching them and attempting to take a decent photograph, before descending to Virunga Lodge for a restorative massage and a lazy afternoon in a hammock.
Next stop is the lively lakeside town of Gisenyi on the border of Democratic Republic of Congo. The Serena hotel in Lake Kivu has become a favored spot for weekenders from Kigali, with a private beach glinting with mother-of-pearl; big comfortable sun loungers, and a range of water sports. However, I've been tipped off that there is newer lakeside luxury on the shores of Kibuye, further south, and so I negotiate with the people who run Serena's motorboat and get them to take me the two-hour journey by water (saving me a four-hour road trip). As we jet past the huge palm fronds and banana plants of small forested islands, I lean back, let the sun beat on my face and feel as if I've been transported to the Caribbean.
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.