From your elegant, elevated ‘nest’ at Uganda’s safari destination Bisate Lodge, as the magical mists lift, gaze out on two extinct volcanoes, Bisoke and Karisimbi. Where legendary primatologist Dian Fossey ran her research station, Karisoke, in the saddle between them, honoring both their names. Where she nearly single-handedly helped save the mountain gorilla from extinction. Where today you can hike through the rainforest, up to nearly 3 000 metres, to visit Karisoke’s haunting ruins and Fossey’s grave, next to her beloved gorilla, Digit. Where the gorillas, now numbering more than 1 000 throughout the Virunga massif, await you – your allocated family, who for one precious hour will deliver one of the most astonishing encounters of your life.
Rwanda has become one of the most thrilling safari destinations on the continent, and Bisate – on the edge of Volcanoes National Park in the country’s north-west – is arguably its crown jewel. Opened in 2017, it already has 29 awards under its belt, and continues to inspire superlatives.
Bisate Lodge’s gorilla trekking is just one adventure here to be combined with a community visit and golden monkey trekking
Gorilla trekking is the star attraction, but Bisate offers a host of other adventures, some in the park and others on lodge property. Such as golden monkey trekking; birding; the Dian Fossey hike; scaling Mount Bisoke; exploring the nature trails around the lodge and the impressive reforestation project; or a visit to the Guardians of Gorillas village nearby, run by former poachers-turned-conservationists.
Or, at the very heart of Bisate’s being, a visit to the local community, a group of villages collectively called ‘Bisate village’, whose people and the lodge have a symbiotic relationship. Many of them helped build Bisate, work there today, and have a significant role in its future. When you hear the sounds of village life rising from below, chances are you’ll feel welcome, integrated, and definitely in Africa.
We spoke with Ingrid Baas, Wilderness Safaris Rwanda Operations Manager, and Ally Bauer and Jason Glanville, Bisate Lodge Managers, about why Bisate deserves all of its awards, and more:
What makes Bisate special? What are the activities/services offered and the highlights of a stay there, the aspects that guests really seem to love? Do most guests come to see the mountain gorillas, or are their interests more diversified?
(Ingrid) First of all, the breathtaking view! Bisate itself is situated within the amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone, the elevated main area and rooms gazing directly onto the slopes of 3 711-metre high Mount Bisoke. Next to it – often shrouded in cloud – is Karisimbi, at 4 507 metres the highest volcano in the range. Beyond, in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, sits the rugged peak of Mikeno. Climbing above the lodge to the hilltop plateau gives 360-degree views of the entire Musanze District, and looking eastwards views of the other three volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park (VNP) – Sabinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura.
Secondly, Bisate’s sophisticated architectural and interior design, rooted in Rwandan building tradition as exemplified in the design of the Royal Palace of the traditional monarch at Nyanza. (I’ll say more about the lodge’s design in a minute.)
Thirdly, the reforestation project that has seen more than 50 000 indigenous trees planted from saplings grown in the on-site nursery. Guests are able to visit the nursery and spend time with the Bisate agronomists to learn about the reforestation project and the various species of trees. Guests will also be gifted a sapling during their stay, which they will have the opportunity to plant, with the help of our nursery team. They will also receive a tree-planting certificate with the GPS co-ordinates of their tree. As a result of the reforestation, many different wildlife species have returned and are now resident on the property; these include golden monkey, tree hyrax, serval, side-striped jackal, Egyptian mongoose, and numerous bird and butterfly species. Guests staying at Bisate will truly feel that they are immersed in the forest, with a tree canopy full of birdsong embracing them.
What recommends Bisate further are the activities on offer – diverse, bucket-list experiences. Firstly, of course, gorilla trekking in the VNP, one of the most special wildlife encounters one can possible have. But also golden monkey trekking, community visits, stunning nature trails, trekking to Dian Fossey’s former research station, and climbing Bisoke volcano.
Last but definitely not least, as I should probably have started with this, is the remarkable Bisate team. Many of our guests have mentioned that the highlight of their stay is to get to know the staff and experience their heartfelt and genuine service, from shoe cleaning to the delicious food and drink, from the in-room massage treatment to the attentive small gifts in the rooms. A stay at Bisate is made complete by the staff who welcome each guest as part of their family.
Definitely seeing the gorillas is a main reason for guests coming to Bisate. But it’s the whole package – all of the above – that makes Bisate.
(Ally) There are so many things that make Bisate special! We have a genuinely warm, kind, hard-working, and fun team who c
reate a magical atmosphere at the lodge. The design and interiors of the lodge are magnificent, and true reflections of Rwandan style and culture. Bisate is just such a soulful place. Bearing witness to the growth and establishment of a forest is incredible. Most guests come to see the gorillas and golden monkeys, but also find themselves enjoying our nature trail, nursery visits, and tree planting with our agronomists.
(Jason) Bisate is unique; it has such a different feel to other lodges on the continent. One thing that strikes you as you drive into the property is the change of scenery. Passing the community farmlands, you get a good sense of what Bisate used to look like. Once you first glimpse the lodge, you see the vegetation change into what you would expect of a forest. The reforestation of the area is in plain sight. The lodge buildings are striking, yet seem to effortlessly blend into the lush surroundings.
Most of our guests are blown away by the people they meet here, the generous smiles and warmth that greet them. All our staff value the guests and their experience with us.
We have an exceptional nature trail that offers guests the chance to escape the world and take in the views of the national park, either on their own or with one of our nature guides.
One of the most special Bisate experiences: we encourage guests to plant at least one tree while here, such a valuable, lasting way to remember their journey.
What do YOU most love about Bisate?
(Ingrid) Bisate has it all, an amazing team of staff, the conservation of the area through the reforestation and the rehabilitation, a very strong connection with the community and through this some of the best community commitments and projects, plus the unique design and fantastic service. Pure luxury with a strong purpose that all guests love. All employees at Bisate, including myself, are proud to be part of such a special lodge.
(Ally) The beautiful view in all directions, constantly changing as the clouds move by. My favorite is when the clouds form caps over the tops of the volcanoes.
(Jason) I feel the connection between nature and humanity here. Compared to other safari lodges located in more remote parts of Africa, the experience here blends the two in a way that people can grasp and touch. When you look and listen closely, you can feel the presence of nature, but there is always a reminder that we are still part of the community. You pass the children playing in the potato fields and see the cattle grazing nearby, and then out of nowhere a jackal pops out from the side of the road. Our camera traps are such a great way to see what goes on behind the scenes. I think people would be surprised by what animals are around. It emphasizes the importance of conserving the area, and of connecting the community to that mission.
What does the name ‘Bisate’ mean?
(Ingrid) Bisate means ‘pieces’, referring to the pieces of volcanic rock found all around the lodge’s site – an eroded volcano, with part of the crater still visible. The area surrounding Bisate Lodge is called Bisate, including Bisate village.
The volcanic rock is used in many of the design elements of the lodge, such as the pathways, wall cladding, shower tiles, and the fireplace finishes in the villas and main area.
(Jason) One of the first things you see when you arrive here are the volcanoes. They play such an important role for the area and are all connected to one other. Although most of them are dormant or extinct, the area that Bisate is situated on was once a much bigger volcanic cone that erupted many years ago. You can see evidence of this throughout the area. The community uses the rocks for building, and we used them in building our lodge. That’s what the name refers to, all the pieces of rock that were strewn over the area. It’s a great story that reminds us of how this place came to be.
Please talk about the wildlife experience at/around the lodge. The gorilla and golden monkey treks in Volcanoes National Park, as well as other wildlife viewing/sightings potentially available to guests – and any particularly thrilling/interesting wildlife encounters that you, the guides, and guests have had.
(Ingrid) Gorilla trekking is an incredible encounter. One cannot help feeling a connection with the gorillas, such gentle giants. Your allotted hour with the gorillas makes you feel humble and privileged as they allow you to be in their presence and part of the family interaction. With much other game viewing, you might have fantastic sightings, but from a game drive vehicle and therefore disconnected. With the gorillas you are on their level, either standing or sitting down while the gorilla family just minds their own business. The close relationship in our DNA is undeniable when you look at their hands, their facial expressions, or how they interact with each other – for example, holding and caring for a newborn.
The golden monkeys are fun and active. When visiting a group of golden monkeys in the park you will see a big group at the same time. They are beautiful monkeys and very photogenic. It’s difficult to get a picture of them sitting still, as they’re usually jumping and climbing. Through the reforestation efforts at Bisate and the growing forest and bamboo, it is now possible for guests to see golden monkeys at Bisate too. A small group of golden monkeys is regularly sighted around the lodge, but since they’re still a bit shy the best place to see them up close and to take that photograph will be in the park.
Besides the activities in the park, guests can participate in birding and the search for other wildlife on the Bisate property. There are a number of walking trails available; the distances are not very long but the terrain is hilly and scenic, with the hilltops offering magnificent vistas across the area. From certain points on a clear day one can see all six volcanoes in the Virunga massif. There is a wide range of wildflowers, and beautiful forest lobelia, hagenia, hypericum, and dombeya trees. Part of the trail goes through a bamboo forest. At certain points along the trail guests will see our community beehive project, with both traditional and more modern beehives. Besides many birds and butterflies, on the property guests have the chance of seeing chameleon, side-striped jackal and, as mentioned, golden monkey. Serval frequent the property, regularly seen on the lodge’s camera-trap images. The signposted walking trails are available as a self-guided activity, though guests can also be accompanied by a Bisate guide. This is a wonderful opportunity to relax, take in the surroundings, and enjoy the outdoors, and in the cooler, wetter months knowing that your comfortable villa has a cosy fire warming it up for your return.
(Ally) Gorilla trekking inside Volcanoes National Park has to be one of the most personal wildlife experiences a person could have. Trekking through the forest, you are truly immersed in the gorillas’ natural habitat. What the gorillas share with you in your allotted hour with them is nothing short of amazing. It becomes clear that each gorilla has its own unique personality.
Golden monkey trekking inside the park is fun, and generally not strenuous as the monkeys’ preferred food is bamboo – found mostly at the lower altitudes. Because the golden monkeys live in large groups, there’s a lot going on, a lot to see. You find yourself watching a particular monkey doing something entertaining, only to be interrupted by another monkey coming close to your feet to grab a bamboo shoot.
Due to the ongoing reforestation at Bisate, as Ingrid mentions, we have seen the return of many mammal and bird species to the property – each generating great excitement among staff and guests alike.
(Jason) With our reforestation and camera trap projects, there have been some really memorable wildlife encounters. But one that stands out was seeing a tree hyrax for the first time – not a species I expected to see at Bisate. The treks in the park offer an incredible opportunity to get up close to some of Africa’s most iconic mammals. Guests often come back with stories of how they didn’t expect to see the gorillas in such an intimate way. The photographic advantage of being so close and on foot also gives people insight into the daily lives of the gorilla family they’ve been assigned. It truly is a life-changing encounter. Aside from golden monkeys, the other species of animals you may see in the park include buffalo, elephant, and bushbuck.
What are some of the key bird species of Rwanda that guests can expect to see?
(Ingrid) Guests will be able to spot different birdlife from the comfort of the balcony of their villa or while relaxing on the balcony of the dining area. Of course on the lodge’s several nature trails the chance of seeing various birds improves. White-starred robin, variable sunbird, Augur buzzard, yellow-bellied waxbill, and different weavers are common.
(Ally) Rwenzori double-collared sunbird; black-headed waxbill; Augur buzzard; streaky seed-eater; brown-necked parrot.
(Jason) Being a high-altitude and unique biome compared to other Wilderness Safaris locations, this areas boasts some specials to look out for. The endemic species of the Albertine rift that have been spotted on the property include the Rwenzori batis and Rwenzori double-collared sunbird. Another exciting family of birds that frequent the grassland areas here are the waxbills. We have several species to look for, but my favorite are the yellow-bellied waxbills. They resemble the swee waxbill found in southern Africa. We have a few specials that are migratory. One of my favorite birds on the property is the white-starred robin.
How does the Bisate experience complement a visit to Magashi? And how will it integrate with/complement Wilderness Safaris’ upcoming new camp in Gishwati?
(Ingrid) Visits to Bisate Lodge, Magashi, and in future Gishwati, will complement each other perfectly. All three destinations are luxury experiences without being pretentious, with the same eye for detail, intimate atmosphere, and personal service from the attentive staff. Their guests will all be treated to excellent guiding, delicious meals, and beautiful, comfortable rooms. However, the design and overall experience at each camp are totally different, in combination giving our guests all that Rwanda has to offer. From the safari experience (including the chance to see large mammals and predators on game drives and boat cruises) at Magashi, to chimpanzee trekking in a mountain forest at Gishwati, to Bisate Lodge with the gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, and much more.
(Ally) Already, the combination of Bisate and Magashi offers guests an amazingly diverse experience. Moving from the dramatic, often misty, high altitudes around Volcanoes National Park, east to Akagera National Park, where Magashi is, the landscape changes to rolling hills, savannah, and vast lakes, with warmer temperatures. The wildlife experience gained from visiting both Bisate and Magashi is unbeatable: not only can guests experience the endangered mountain gorillas but also have a totally holistic safari experience. Gishwati will enhance this experience even more. Where else will guests be able to enjoy gorillas, chimpanzees, and all the savannah animals within the borders of one small country? Gishwati is an amazing story of hope, perseverance, and true conservation in action.
(Jason) The experience one gets if visiting both Bisate and Magashi really ties together what Rwanda is all about. The classic safari feel of Magashi, in a warmer climate with incredible savannah wildlife, couldn’t be more different to the montane climate and spectacular mountain gorilla treks within Volcanoes National Park. Bisate offers a chance to get up close and personal with the iconic species on foot. This will also be the case with Gishwati’s chimpanzees in future, though at lower altitudes with a slightly more ‘rainforest feel’. The three destinations offer quite different experiences, thus wonderfully complementing each other for a well-rounded trip to such an ecologically diverse country, particularly for its size.
What’s your favorite time of day in/around the lodge and why?
(Ingrid) The early morning hours are my favorite at Bisate. On a clear morning you get the absolutely stunning views of the volcanoes. On a mysterious, misty morning you feel that you’ve landed in a fairy tale. This is also the best time to spot golden monkeys in the bamboo forest in front of the lodge.
(Ally) When guests return from gorilla trekking. They are usually so happy and excited that everyone wants to talk at the same time, to share their experience. Otherwise, the mornings are my best – it is often crisp and clear. I am also just a ‘morning person’.
(Jason) This really depends on the weather. We can get a lot of rain here at Bisate, expected for this area. One of my favorite moments is when the mist starts rolling in and the ambience of the lodge changes. It’s perfect for sipping on a warm coffee by the fire watching a blanket of mist moving through.
And your favorite season there? Please give us a sense of the difference between the seasons, in terms of landscape, weather, wildlife sightings etc.
(Ingrid) The weather at Bisate is unpredictable, it can change any minute. We often experience all four seasons in one day. You can have beautiful sunny weather then later, the same day, a huge rainstorm. It can be very foggy (as per the book/film Gorillas in the Mist) and sometimes suddenly a strong wind picks up. We even occasionally experience snow and hail. One minute you feel like warming up at one of the fireplaces with a glass of wine and the next minute you might be sitting in the sun on the balcony eating homemade ice cream. Being at an altitude of 2 650 metres, surrounded by volcanoes, makes for interesting weather! The area experiences high rainfall throughout the year, making it lush, green, and fertile. The most rain is likely to fall in March, April, November, and December.
(Ally) We do not really experience typical seasons at Bisate (or in Rwanda) because we are close to the Equator. There is not much change in temperatures or day length throughout the year. The main changes are in rainfall; April certainly sees the most rain. This is wonderful for all the trees that have been planted in the months prior, gearing up reforestation specifically for this time. Outside of this, though, the weather changes fairly constantly throughout each day, so the view is always changing. We have such a nice mix of sunshine, low mist, rainy days, and lovely, moderate temperatures.
What kind of community and conservation work is Wilderness doing/supporting in the area? That Bisate is involved in?
(Ingrid) Every guest will partake in the reforestation initiative, acting as a conservationist and helping to create more habitat for wildlife.
The community work we are involved in is not an easy and short answer. Since Bisate opened in 2017, its relationship with the surrounding Bisate community has grown from strength to strength. None of us would actually know how to run Bisate without the community; I believe that the community can also no longer imagine their daily lives without Bisate Lodge. The people in the community (many helped to build the lodge) feel a connection, a sense of belonging, to Bisate Lodge. They are proud of the lodge. We, lodge and community, have a mutually beneficial relationship nurtured on a daily basis.
For the initial Bisate property (the property was expanded within a year of opening), 172 plots were purchased under the supervision and guidance of the Musanze District Authority, the National Land Centre, and the Tuzamurane Co-operative. A close partnership with the newly constituted 320-member Tuzamurane Co-operative was formed, and has continued to grow ever since.
The Tuzamurane Co-operative was initially mainly involved in the lodge’s development – including the tree nursery, roads, construction and more. When the lodge opened for guests, many employees were recruited from the surrounding community, many of whom were (and are still) members of the Tuzamurane Co-operative.
On a daily basis the co-operative and Bisate Lodge work together, as the co-operative is responsible for supplying much of the lodge’s fresh produce; they also supply handicrafts. Early on the lodge set up a sewing project in their community, while a bee-keeping project was also developed for the co-operative on the Bisate property.
Our guests are part of this relationship and have the opportunity to meet and interact with some of Bisate’s neighbors, learning a little about their way of life in a respectful and authentic manner. Guests can take a guided visit to the nearby community and meet members of the co-operative, including the farmers who cultivate and sell their vegetables to Bisate. This can be organized with one of the Bisate guides; there’s no need to pre-book.
The next important project for the Tuzamurane Co-operative will be the establishment of a large-scale indigenous and agricultural tree nursery. This nursery will provide indigenous saplings to Volcanoes National Park when the park expansion begins, and will also provide agricultural trees as a food source for the community. The first phase of this project has already begun and is sponsored by guests who visit Bisate Lodge.
With many of Bisate’s employees being members of the families who originally owned and farmed the land, there are many stories to share. There is Aloys Nzabonimpa, trainee chef at Bisate, who was born at the top of the Bisate hill; Ezechiel Bangakira, security guard at Bisate, who used to farm his potatoes where the managers’ house is currently located; and Innocent Nshimiyimana, staff chef at Bisate, who was previously the chief of the Tuzamurane Co-operative and was involved in the original land purchase from the start. Innocent was out on his farmland when he met the Wilderness Safaris team investigating the Bisate property as a potential area to develop their new lodge. Together with his friends Jean Moise Habimana (current agronomist at Bisate Lodge) and Emmanuel Sekazuba (current maintenance employee at Bisate Lodge), he showed the Wilderness Safaris team around, and when it was time to start negotiating the land purchase he drove the process for the families in the community.
Bisate engages with the community through a number of projects and eco-friendly operating systems. Over 1 000 families have been supported by in-kind donations from the guests or the lodge, such as solar lights, blankets, shoes, clothing, sport outfits, school supplies for the little ones in the nursery etc.
At the request of the community, a water infrastructure to harvest water inside the park and distribute it to six villages close to the park and to Bisate Lodge was completed at the end of 2019. Some repairs had to be done after recent heavy rainfall and landslides, but these are completed and all water taps in the communities are working well. This project was completed in partnership with The Fossey Fund and the Rwandan Development Board, and now provides clean water to 5 000 people that living in six villages near the lodge. The project was fully funded through generous donations from Bisate Lodge guests.
During the COVID-19 challenges we have funded community-based medical aid for a year for 244 people in the village.
We sponsored a beehive project, with several traditional and several more modern beehives on the Bisate property. The Bisate community harvest the honey. In future we hope to have sufficient honey for the community to sell it to the lodge.
Between the months of April and July 2020, during lockdown and lodge closure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the families most in need from five villages surrounding Bisate Lodge received food parcel donations:
– April: 157 families consisting of 565 people
– May: 156 families consisting of 620 people
– June: 158 families consisting of 634 people
– July: 166 families consisting of 723 people
Bisate works with Wilderness Safaris’ dedicated non-profit environmental and life skills program, Children in the Wilderness (CITW), through its partnership with Bisate Primary School. Impacting 60 children, the school has two active weekly Eco-Clubs. Bisate Lodge and its guests contribute to CITW Rwanda’s Eco-Clubs and learning-improvement projects. The projects have included providing Internet to the computer learning centre and library; new desks for the schools; school materials; water tanks to harvest the rainwater from the roofs; and handwashing stations to ensure hygiene in the classrooms.
Bisate Lodge has also facilitated scholarships for 80 students from Bisate Secondary School for the duration of their six-year schooling. This sponsorship includes school fees, uniforms, school bags, and supplies. The students are all former Eco-Club students who graduated from Bisate Primary School and have moved on to secondary school. They are part of the first CITW Youth Environmental Stewardship (YES) Club in Rwanda.
In 2019 we organized the very first Conservation Camp in Rwanda. Over four days Eco-Club learners from four schools in the Bisate region learned and shared more about conservation. Although last year due to COVID-19 we could not organize the Conservation Camp, we hope to be able to do this again during the next school year.
(Jason) From the beginning, Bisate has been involved with projects that benefit communities in the surrounding area – key to forming a positive relationship between us. Projects have included donations to the primary and secondary schools in the Bisate community; fixing up the water systems that feed into the community; and providing food donations to the most needy during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also work with several co-operatives in the area on our reforestation project. This is a great partnership that allows us to reforest and conserve the area, but also to help educate community members about the benefits of conservation for long-term, sustainable tourism. We have invited the local schools for tree planting and donated indigenous trees to the children to plant at home and at the school. Our indigenous nursery and bamboo greenhouse have enough supply to donate to several organizations for planting outside of the national park. This will contribute to the park expansion that is ongoing throughout the area.
Tell us about the Olympus photography experience at Bisate.
(Ingrid) Guests staying at Bisate can look forward to using a new camera, the Olympus Tough! TG 5, during their stay at the lodge (we have one camera available per villa).
On arrival guests will be offered the Tough! TG-5 and receive a complimentary SD card. The Tough! TG-5 camera features 4K video and RAW capture, and is the ultimate partner for the most challenging adventures – ideal for exploring Volcanoes National Park and gorilla trekking.
The Olympus Tough! camera is waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof, and dustproof, ideal for adventure travel. Being waterproof, it allows you to take pictures in the often challenging rainforest weather. Its robust interior protective structure also means that if you do happen to have a gorilla sit on your camera (unlikely this will happen), you can rest assured that it will still work perfectly! The camera’s ability to deal with low light is also key to taking great images of gorillas and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
Being lightweight and easy to operate, the Tough! is ideal for hiking or to use during a visit to the Bisate community. Chat to your guide, who will be able to assist with tips or guidance – helping you capture that award-winning wildlife shot!
(Ally) These cameras are ideal for trekking because they are water-proof, smash-proof, small, and lightweight, making them easy to carry in a pocket or a backpack. Guests use them for the duration of their stay and before departing, keep the SD card with all their pictures on it. We also have two pairs of Olympus binoculars that guests can use. These are mostly used by guests who have an interest in birds; they take them along when they do the Bisate trails. These cameras are ideal for trekking because they are water-proof, smash-proof, small in size and lightweight, making them easy to carry in a pocket or a backpack. Guest use them for the duration of their stay and before departing, keep the SD card with all their pictures on it. We also have 2 pairs of Olympus binoculars that guests can use. These are mostly used by guests who have an interest in birds and they take them along when they do the Bisate trails.
(Jason) We provide guests with a waterproof/drop-proof ‘point and shoot camera’ for the duration of their stay. This is a great option for guests who are worried about taking their phones and cameras to the park, especially in the wetter months.
What items are essential for guests to bring while on safari there?
(Ingrid) Good hiking boots! And some warm clothing for the more chilly days. Bisate Lodge can provide a rain jacket, gaiters, gloves, and backpacks to the guests going gorilla trekking. But of course you can bring your own to ensure that it all fits perfectly.
(Ally) Good walking shoes/hiking boots.
(Jason) It is very much encouraged to bring good rain gear for your stay here at Bisate. The elements can be difficult to navigate through in the forest on rainy days. The most important item would be comfortable hiking shoes/boots. Treks can last for several hours and the terrain can be undulating and difficult in the mud. The park guides provide you with a walking stick and porters can help you with your belongings, but what you wear on your feet is vital to making the experience an enjoyable one.
What are your favorite areas to visit around/in camp and why? Which spots are guests’ favorites? Which places are best for sundowners?
(Ingrid) My three favorite places in the lodge are the tree nursery, with all our baby trees growing so that they can be planted on the property in future; the top of the hill taking in the beautiful view of the volcanoes; and in front of the fireplace in the Bisate lounge, sipping a caffe latte made by one of the Bisate baristas.
(Ally) I really like to take a slow walk through the indigenous tree nursery to see all the saplings growing from seeds. Our nature trail takes you around the rim of a large volcanic crater which is very beautiful, a good place to look for jackals and golden monkeys.
(Jason) The nature trails at Bisate. I often like to get out onto the trails and look for some new bird species. The trails have incredible views of the park and volcanoes. There are several benches along the way where you can sit and take in the natural beauty of the area, enjoying the sounds and sights.
However, sundowners are best enjoyed in the main area bar, close to the warm fire and intimate setting of the lodge. The sun sets around 6 pm here year round, and the temperature drops quite rapidly at night.
Please talk about the décor/design at Bisate, in the rooms as well as the common areas.
(Ingrid) The richly detailed interior exhibits surfaces and screens made from a variety of woven materials with strong resonance in Rwandan culture. Bisate’s interior design is drawn from a variety of aspects of the Rwandan lifestyle, particularly the colourful textiles and use of texture. The emerald green colour in the textiles and chandeliers is reminiscent of the verdant greens of the rainforest, as well as the vibrant markets that dot the villages throughout the country. Following through with our commitment to the principle of recycling, the chandeliers are made from recycled glass, and the ‘ibyansi’ milk jug motif is reused across a number of elements. Many of the furnishings are decorated using ‘imigongo’, an art form unique to Rwanda. The use of black and white cowhide also reflects the rural way of life in the villages, and volcanic stone is used in the fireplaces to echo the volcanoes of the adjacent Volcanoes National Park.
The design is absolutely stunning, and I don’t think we have ever received a guest who did not say ‘WOW’ when entering the main building or the villa. Most importantly, the lodge and villas feel cosy, welcoming, and warm. Guests describe their villa as their ‘nest’ or ‘cocoon’ and are so impressed by all the cultural elements and finer details.
(Ally) The inspiration for the design of Bisate Lodge is the King’s Palace, reflected in the rounded shapes of the lodge and villa buildings, the spires sticking up from the middle of each dome, and the thatching that surrounds them. Inside the lodge, lots of local materials were used, creating a truly Rwandan feel. These materials include small, red bricks; lots of volcanic rock; handmade balustrades; woven ‘shields’ on the roof; and lots of woven grass mats on the walls. The chandeliers – made from green glass and intended to look like upside-down forests – not only provide beautiful, warm light but also remind us just how inspirational nature can be. The lodge is also decorated with beautiful traditional artefacts such as ‘agaseke’ baskets, traditional milk pots, and shallow bowls. The wood-burning fireplaces create a warm ambience.
The rooms at Bisate are all nestled onto Bisate hill at various heights. Each forest villa faces in the direction of Bisoke and Karisimbi volcanoes, so each has an outstanding view. Now that our trees have had some years to grow, it feels like you are high up in the trees in the forest. Inside each room, local materials (as mentioned above) have again been used. Each room has a wood-burning fireplace, with double-sided glass so that the fire can be enjoyed from both the sitting area and the big tub located centrally in the bathroom. The volcanic rock shower comes with a great view.
(Jason) Bisate has a uniquely Rwandan feel – it’s difficult to compare to anywhere else. The understated luxury of the rooms offers a welcome, supremely comfortable experience at the end of an often challenging hike in the national park.
What is the dining experience at Bisate, and some highlights on the menu?
(Ingrid) Bisate’s cuisine is a combination of local Rwandan flavours infused with contemporary cuisine. Our produce is foraged from our very own vegetable garden and from local farmers within a five-kilometre radius of the lodge. Bisate Lodge endeavours to create an indigenous farm-to-table dining experience, with mostly fresh and local ingredients.
After hiking and trekking at the lodge or in the national park, guests can look forward to slow-cooked, hearty but healthy dishes showcasing natural ingredients. Local ingredients used in planning the menus include coffee; fresh honey and honeycomb; avocado; climbing beans; mango; kale; papaya; plantain; passion fruit; pineapple; macadamia nuts; tomarillos; and chilies.
Trying as much as possible to reduce our ‘foodprint’, we serve dishes with mostly local ingredients. We cater for any dietary requirements and individual requests are always possible. By now the chefs can make almost everything happen and create magic in the kitchen.
For many of our guests, the Bisate ‘dusabane’ dinner is one of the highlights of their stay. Dusabane means ‘coming together, and sharing together’. Rwandan culture is the central theme of the evening and the Bisate team explains to guests the use of traditional baskets and pots, the ways of traditional cooking, and how sharing food and drink is so much part of the Rwandan lifestyle. The Bisate team also performs beautiful songs and dances between the different courses, in traditional Rwandan dress.
(Ally) At Bisate, we try to champion the wonderful fresh produce that can be found growing in the surrounding areas in the rich volcanic soils. All of our pastries (biscuits, croissants, pain au chocolat, bagels, muffins, etc.) are homemade. For lunch, we start with a large, rustic salad with a Bisate dressing (very popular and the recipe is requested a lot) and a daily soup made with fresh vegetables. Some of our most popular lunch main courses include slow-cooked beef ragu with homemade parpadelle pasta; smoky chicken skewers with chapati breads, guacamole, and tree tomato and corn salsa; zucchini noodles with bust tomatoes and avocado sauce; and Ikirayi-Kinigi potatoes with Rwandan climbing beans, avocado, and yoghurt-herb dressing. Our prettiest dish is the Imboga platter, consisting of a variety of fresh, crispy vegetables; tempura vegetables; falafel balls; pickled peppers; and a variety of dips and accompaniments. We offer a variety of sorbets and ice creams, all homemade, for dessert; our chocolate ice cream is a big hit.
Our dinner menus provide guests with lots of choices and cater for all preferences and dietary requirements. Apart from meat dishes on each menu, guests can also choose vegetarian or vegan options. In the evenings, our waiters can suggest a wine from the wine list to pair well with a guest’s selection. Some of the most popular dinner dishes include: Bisate butter chicken with nasturtium raita, tree tomato salsa, and labneh; roasted butternut with squash puree, spinach, chickpeas, feta, and tahini; sesame aubergine with maple carrots, cumin puree, and spiced roasted nuts; cassava gnocchi with fresh pea puree, crispy capers, and oyster mushrooms; roasted cauliflower with cashew crème, avocado chimichurri, and pickled red cabbage. For dessert, our passion fruit souffle is the star of the show.
Guests love the ‘dusabane’ dinner and often get involved by trying to carry baskets on their heads.
(Jason) Our menu is a great blend of wholesome Rwandan food with a refined luxury touch. We offer a lot of locally produced plant-based meals for guests who would prefer a healthier option, as well as more indulgent, rich meals perfect for replenishing the body after a long trek in the park.
Does the lodge have a signature cocktail?
(Ingrid) Favourite cocktails at Bisate include the Gorilla Smash, the Golden Monkey, and the Ginger Monkey. To make at home:
2 tots bourbon
1 tot Cointreau/Triple Sec
20 ml lemon juice
2 pinches fresh mint
fresh mint to garnish
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and add four ice cubes. Shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler with more ice cubes. Garnish with fresh mint.
2 tots vodka
1 tot Cointreau/Triple Sec
15 ml lemon juice
20 ml sugar syrup
1 knob fresh ginger, grated
passion fruit to garnish
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with some ice cubes, shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler and garnish with a passion fruit slice.
2 tots bourbon
1 tot Cointreau
1 tot lemon juice
1 tot sugar syrup
1 knob fresh ginger, grated
1 ginger slice, to garnish
Combine the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with four ice cubes and shake well. Double strain into a whisky tumbler and garnish with ginger slice.
What makes you most proud of Bisate, and working there?
(Ingrid) Since I am no longer permanently based at Bisate, I notice the growth of ‘our forest’ every time I visit the lodge. The Bisate area is returning to its natural state, and with this bringing the true forest feel, including the birds, butterflies and mammals.
For more than a year before the lodge’s opening, we started with the reforestation project, germinating over 100 000 indigenous tree seedlings each year. More than 50 000 indigenous trees are nurtured into complete independence from the care of the lodge.
It is amazing to see the progress and how the area is recovering and that is something that makes me proud every time we visit.
However, I am most proud of our Bisate team. When we started in 2017, most of them had no or limited experience in the hospitality industry. All of them have grown so much and are now confident, experienced, and skilled employees who can handle any possible challenge that might come their way.
(Ally) I am most proud of the incredible growth of many of our staff members in a relatively short amount of time, and of their motivation and dedication to achieve their goals.
(Jason) I am most proud of the conservation and restoration of the indigenous forests here on the property and surrounding area. It’s something I get to see every day and is a constant reminder of what is possible in the world. If we put our passion and focus to work, we can make a difference.
Who comprise the Bisate staff? Please tell us a bit about their backgrounds, training, service, relationships with guests etc.
(Ingrid) Honestly all members of the Bisate team are the most wonderful personalities. Aside from those I’ve already mentioned, many come from the local communities and have worked their way up at the lodge in a short time. For example, there is Benjamin Nsekuye Furaha, the F&B Manager, who started with Wilderness Safaris in Rwanda in March 2017. Benjamin’s passion for service is apparent to everyone he meets, and he is also a most dedicated conservationist. In his free time he loves to work in the Bisate vegetable gardens, looking after the fresh produce for the lodge; otherwise he spends his time on the nature trails looking for new birds, insects, and mammals. Orlane Delice Umutesi also started in March 2017, as the masseuse for the lodge. Since that time she has worked her way up to Head Masseuse and Trainee Manager, and has been appointed Floor Manager for the new Bisate Day Lounge.
(Ally) We have quite a big team at Bisate, made up of a lovely mix of people from different parts of the country.
Our security team of ten are all from the local communities surrounding Bisate Lodge. They are a strong team who take their important role very seriously. They are all honest, hard-working individuals who spend their days patrolling the Bisate property, rain or shine, day and night. They also escort guests to and from their rooms at night, lighting the pathway and chatting with the guests.
We have a team of three camp hands, also from the local community. They are the ones who walk up and down Bisate hill the most, carrying and moving anything and everything from wood for the fireplaces to guest luggage, to gas bottles and deliveries. They also chop all the wood, trim the grass on the helipad, and generally help out wherever they can.
Our three agronomists, likewise from the local community, do an amazing job of overseeing reforestation, taking care of the nursery (seeds and saplings) and the bamboo greenhouse. They also show guests around the nursery and accompany guests during the tree planting activity. Passionate about nature and the outdoors, they are most excited when they see animals on the property. Jimmy is a master chameleon finder!
Charles and Emmanuel, the maintenance team, are always busy fixing, mending, maintaining, and checking on things. From pumps, to generator, electrical, plumbing, they have it covered.
Our housekeeping team of seven make sure that each and every guest arrives to an impeccable room, clean and cosy with a nice fire going too. They also make sure that guests’ shoes and clothes after a trek are delivered timeously to laundry and returned the same evening to be ready for trekking the next day. Although the laundry team of three are seldom seen by guests, they’re highly appreciated. Guests are truly amazed when their muddy hiking boots are returned to them looking as good as new.
Our kitchen team of ten is a wonderful group of chefs, some from Kigali and others from the local community. Food can be a tough one to get 100% right as people have such different requirements and tastes, but our chefs have been hitting the nail on the head, delivering delicious food and receiving great feedback. Under the supervision of Jean Marie and Angelus, they are going from strength to strength. Jean Marie and Angelus are both excellent at motivating the team, love trying new things, and are always able to keep a cool head and calm demeanour – not always the case with head chefs!
Our service team of six are all well versed in the bar, coffee service, and dining service. They are a fun and bubbly team and get along very well with our guests. I love it when I see guests in the bar being taught by the service team how to play ‘igisoro’ (a local game). I think they often let the guests win, but they always have a good time!
Benjamin, our F&B Manager, is definitely the silverback of Bisate Lodge. He leads by example, and is an incredibly hard worker who often needs to be told to go and take a break. He is a true gentleman, ever the professional. He is passionate about gardening and growing his own fruits and vegetables at his home in Kigali. He loves to use his harvests to cook local dishes and shares his passion and knowledge with his children.
Patience is our assistant manager and an integral part of the Bisate team. She is efficient and accurate in everything she does but also has a wonderful sense of humour! She does an excellent job at overseeing the housekeeping and laundry teams and is well respected by her peers. She also calls Kigali home; when she’s there, she loves to cook and spend time with her family.
Orlane is our head masseuse but has, over the years, taken on more of a junior management role at Bisate. She has and will continue to grow in leaps and bounds. She is not only an incredibly hard worker, but one of the kindest people I have ever met. When off, Orlane often travels to Kigali to spend time with her son.
Jean Pierre, our community guide at Bisate, has also been taking on more of a junior management role. When Jean Pierre started at Bisate, he was part of the security team. He was quickly promoted to the laundry team, and then soon promoted again to the housekeeping team, and then again to community guide, followed by trainee manager. This sums up JP – on the move and going places. He has recently finished building a house in Kinigi for himself and his new wife and baby.
Jeanine is our lovely masseuse who delivers consistently great massages and also gets mentioned often by guests. She is a joy to be around and is Bisate’s number- one fan – she just loves all things Bisate and everybody here. She does not like it when there is not much for her to do and thrives when she is busy. When not in massage, Jeanine spends a lot of time in other departments, learning from others.
(Jason) We have a large staff portfolio here at Bisate. Each and every member has an important role either behind the scenes or in the service team. Each department has gone through training at some point in other fields and all strive to continue their growth here.
What feelings/impressions would you most like guests to take away with them?
(Ingrid) We know that our mission has succeeded if guests depart and feel like they are saying goodbye to friends, not to the lodge staff. Most of our guests are blown away by their experience in Rwanda and cannot wait to return. This shows in the high number of repeat guests who have already travelled multiple times to Bisate Lodge and to Magashi. Guests will take away a full experience of What the Wilderness Safaris Bisate Lodge, Rwanda has to offer!
Rwandan culture, the conservation efforts, the amazing and welcoming communities, the breathtaking scenery and fantastic wildlife encounters.
(Ally) I hope that guests leave with a deeper connection to nature as well as to the remarkable people of Rwanda.
(Jason) The first word that comes to mind is ‘wholesome’. I hope that guests leave with a greater feeling of unity with the world around them, both with the people they have met here and the nature they have to come to experience.
Looking to the future: are there any plans to change Bisate in any way, or any new, recent developments there?
(Ingrid) Very soon Bisate Lodge will enhance the guest experience by accommodating early arrivals and later departures in the new Bisate Day Lounge – the only lodge in the area to offer this service as part of our fully inclusive offering. In the Day Lounge, guests will be able to shower, change, enjoy a light meal, an in-room massage, or simply relax and enjoy the lodge’s peaceful environment. This additional facility, to be offered at no additional cost, comprises four spacious change-rooms, each with a full bathroom, as well as a welcoming lounge space. Located close to the main lodge but hidden from view, the Day Lounge will have the same feel as Bisate, embracing authentic Rwandan décor and architecture and featuring local materials such as volcanic rock cladding on the walls and locally made red brick. The informal lounge area will feature a fireplace, while the dining area will have sliding doors that open to uninterrupted views of a garden landscaped with an assortment of vegetables, offering ample space for relaxation. The boutique shop will feature a range of local Rwandan artefacts and keepsakes for guests to browse through and purchase before heading off on the next leg of their journey.
(Ally) The most exciting new development will be the completion of the Bisate Day Lounge. Construction is almost finished!
(Jason) We are always looking to develop and improve Bisate. Our reforestation efforts can always grow and go beyond the property to the surrounding areas on a larger scale. We are busy building a wonderful day lounge for our guests to enhance their complete stay here, even their departure. Our future may also see an additional lodge to be built on the property, which will add more value to the Bisate experience. With the help of the people here, anything is possible. I think everyone is on board to continue to grow this amazing product.