In March of this year I was lucky enough to be hosted by One&Only Resorts on a life changing trip to the mountains of Rwanda. This quick five night jaunt wound up being the last long haul traveller this lifetime frequent flier undertook before the pandemic gripped the US and grounded us all – I couldn’t have picked a more important, culturally significant or visually amazing “last trip” to have taken.

Upon arrival in Kamembe, we were transferred by private car and driver to One&Only’s Nyungwe House – located in southwest Rwanda (on the Burundi border south of lake Kivu) this luxury resort is set amongst acres of tea plantation. As we pulled in we were greeted by tea pickers moving at lightening speed. The House is on the edge of Nyungwe National Park, and covers over 1000 km of some of the last mountain rainforest habitats on the planet.

After a leisurely lunch, we shook off our jet lagged cobwebs from a dizzying perspective – a canopy walk on hanging bridges 75 meters above the forest floor.

The mornings in Rwanda do necessarily start before the sun rises – but it was well worth it to encounter one of East Africa’s last intact chimpanzee population in their natural habitat. Guided by expert trackers, we took a challenging hike to observe these playful and fast moving creatures as they dashed through the flora wild and free.

The afternoon was well spent in the spa, because that hike was no joke. And our dinner was an epic and singular traditional African BBQ at the Boma, where we gathered around a fire pit and enjoyed vibrant music and dance performed by a local cooperative under the stars.

The following morning I skipped the hike in favor of a private tour of Chef Treasure Makwanise’s gardens. The gardens themselves were wonderful, lush and bursting forth with delicious offerings; but more impactful by far was listening to Treasure talk about his family background and experience immigrating from South Africa to Rwanda as a homeless teenager, and the hard work and perseverance that went in to making him the Executive Chef at such an esteemed resort at the young age of 27. His journey was poignant, remarkable, and was shared with me so easily and simply that I’m not sure he realized what a gift it was to hear it.

The following morning we began our transfer bright and early to our next stop – One&Only Gorilla House. The trek begins with a short flight to Kigali.

Kigali is a sparkling city – you could search high and low and see not a drop of litter, graffiti. Our driver guide proudly tells us that what keeps the country clean and organized is ‘Umuganda,’ or community service.  Umuganda is practiced on the last Saturday morning of every month: a member of each household in Rwanda must participate for at least three hours in cleaning, fixing or maintenance of public spaces. The activity is more than just community service, it’s seen as a social gathering and woven into the fabric of their community.

It’s important for context to remember and consider the all to recent complex historic events that shaped Rwanda’s current culture. We spent the afternoon at the Kigali Genocide Museum and Memorial, which is a must to gain even a peripheral understanding of the country.

The memorial was opened in 2004 to mark the tenth commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. It is the final resting place for up to 259,000 victims of the genocide and serves as a place where people can grieve for their lost loved ones and remember them. It also serves as a museum where both local and international visitors can learn about the history, implementation, and consequences of the genocide.  The memorial also runs a number of education programs, both onsite and in communities across Rwanda with a mission to prevent mass atrocities from ever occurring again in their communities.

After that prolific experience, we finished our journey to Gorilla House. Cushioned in the foothills of the breathtaking Virunga Volcanoes mountain range, One&Only Gorilla’s Nest makes the magical possible – five star luxury with every creature comfort in the middle of an other worldly exotic natural habitat.

A pre-requirement for gorilla trekking is a meeting with a Gorilla Doctor or conservation experts, these Doctors are dedicated to conserving wild mountain and eastern lowland (or Grauer’s) gorillas through life-saving veterinary medicine and a One Health approach. The international team of veterinarians is the only group providing these critically endangered animals with direct, hands-on care in the wild. We learned about what to expect during our trek, the proper gear to wear, and the terrain that we might be assigned to.

Once again we were up before dawn, but so excited that coffee wasn’t even a necessity. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is often described as “life-changing” and with good reason. With only an estimated 880 Gorillas left in the world, to see these gentle creatures in their natural habitat are a truly unique moment. Hikes in the mountains can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours+ depending on the family allocated to your group and their location. The journey back can take just as long, but we were totally carried along by the euphoria experienced after coming face to face with a Silverback. We were lucky enough to see a family with a baby, two young “toddlers” and an adolescent male. The pictures are incredible but even they don’t really do the trip justice.

The next morning we grabbed a jeep ride back to Kigali for our flight home – after being off the grid for five days, it was surreal to hear about COVID and come into JFK where many people were wearing masks already. The memories of this special trip carried me forward these past months, and I’ll forever be grateful and changed by the opportunity to experience this amazing country.