Community & Conservation Rwanda Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Sabyinyo: A perfect landing of greener pastures.

As Rosamond Halsey Carr aptly stated in her seminal novel ‘A Thousand Hills’, “Rwanda in 1949 was a land of enchantment – a wilderness where people and animals lived in harmony untouched by the outside world.”  This statement is still accurate today, 72 years on.

Arriving at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge felt like stepping into an enchanted forest. Set in 31 acres of arable land located in the Volcanoes National Park (gorilla country) with Mount Sabyinyo (its namesake) as its majestic backdrop and the cloud ringed Bisoke volcano. Hydrangeas and wooden balustrades line the walkway and steps leading up to the main lodge, with expansive views over the verdant landscape. Each step is accompanied by the cacophony of colourful birds rejoicing in their landscape, and, occasionally, the chattering of our resident and playful golden monkeys who live in the nearby bamboo forest.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge Rwanda

An exquisite view of Mount Sabyinyo from the lodge.

Nico and I (Natasha) decamped from the United Kingdom and left the bustling city life of London in favour of quite literally, greener pastures, and Sabyinyo is the perfect landing.  It is ideally located for tracking the region’s endangered mountain gorillas or climbing several of the extraordinary volcanoes in the national park.

Mount Bisoke Rwanda

Natasha and Nico at the top of Mount Bisoke.

Nestled at around 2500m, the Virunga volcanoes can claim to be one of earth’s most beautiful pristine landscapes. From Sabyinyo and beyond the main lodge and the cottages you have the most awe-inspiring views of the Virunga massif – a range of mountains straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are surrounded by the most exquisite verdure and fertile soil, which is perfect for the growing of vegetables, (more about those later).

Morning light over the tops of three volcanoes: Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno.

We have taken up the post as General Managers of the lodge, working with a fabulous staff, from reception, to housekeeping and kitchen, not to mention the gardeners, maintenance and our trusty Askaris (security).  The staff in their ‘kitenge print’ uniforms, a colourful patchwork of greens and blues, are a nod to the surrounding forest and occasional blue skies.

It is our first time in Rwanda, which has come to be known as the Switzerland of Africa for its diplomacy and hilly backcountry. Everything is run like a Swiss timepiece, particularly with the current Covid restrictions, PCR testing is efficient and swift. Activities, notably the ‘bucket list’ gorilla trekking, are organised by the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and whether it is these majestic primates or a hike to the Mount Bisoke crater or the grave of Dian Fossey, the organisation is flawless.

Park Warden Francis Bayingana placing a flower on the grave of Dian Fossey.

We have travelled extensively around Africa, however nothing compares to being on the edge of the gorillas’ habitat beside the Volcanoes National Park. Sabyinyo is a pioneer of gorilla eco-tourism and the lodge invests heavily in local projects.

gorilla trekking rwanda

Mountain gorilla – photo credit Simone Osborne

The lodge is community-owned through SACOLA (Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association), and each stay contributes not only to the local community, but also to the park’s vital conservation efforts.

 

A classroom at St Pierre school in Musanze, supported by SACOLA.

In our short time here, we have been out and about engaging with and visiting our community projects, from schools, water points, roads, houses and health clinics to the planting of vegetables, including avocado trees, potatoes, tree tomatoes etc.

Plantation of potatoes for the Ntirenganya’ association which is made up of 25 members and SACOLA.

Immaculate, head of the tree tomato co-op, standing in the plantation.

This positive narrative is one to which we subscribe, and highlights the importance of tourism, whose contribution is essential to maintain conservation and the neighbouring communities.

Avocado trees donated by SACOLA.

From the outset, Sabyinyo (and the Governors’ Camp Collection) understood that travel is an effective way to empower people to merge tourism with the community and its surroundings. The lodge is integrated into the community and the landscape in a way that speaks to contemporary Africa.

The official ‘handing over of a house’ to a genocide survivor in August 2021

Beyond the gorilla trekking and the legacy left by Dian Fossey, the abundance of bird life in our midst has been a wonderful discovery. I am an amateur, but keen ornithologist and have been accompanying one of our wonderful staff members on early morning sightings of bird life, including the Doherty Shrike with a bright red forehead and throat, which is endemic to this particular area.

gorilla trekking Rwanda

Mountain gorilla – photo credit Simone Osborne

We grow and harvest our own vegetables, and since our arrival nearly three weeks ago, Nico has set in motion a ‘farm to table’ ethos, using the freshest of ingredients, and with our wonderful gardeners, developing the flower garden with edible flowers, vegetables and herbs. Nico’s love of food and all things culinary were crystallised through Poonie’s kitchen – a restaurant his mother owned in Sri Lanka, and he has brought his knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to our kitchen to ensure our guests enjoy the finest produce and food.

And now a little bit about us, Nico grew up in the hospitality industry, having spent his formative years in Sri Lanka, whilst being educated in England. He trained in hospitality management and has worked across Central America, Europe and Asia in this field as well as honing his skills with management training programme at, a private members’ club in London. He acquired the skills and knowledge from each head of department, moving from kitchen duties, housekeeping, staff rota management and setting budgets and P&L management.

I have a background in art history and journalism and working in PR and events for luxury companies’ notably CHANEL, leading projects across the spectrum of public relations and celebrity realms. Born and raised in London, I moved to Paris after I graduated in History of Art. I started my career as a photo editor and archivist at the International Herald Tribune before joining the fashion industry bible Women’s Wear Daily.

Being at Sabyinyo requires a level of care and attention to detail for clients who are accustomed to the highest quality of service.  As we have discovered in our short stint at the helm of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, the staff are exceptional and their welcome has made this a home from home for us. This warmth and hospitality extends to our intrepid guests who enjoy the highest standards of service and comfort.

The effects of Covid-19 on conservation tourism in Africa in general have been seismic, our dial has shifted from the UK to working with tourism, conservation and community projects towards the same end, long-term commitment to community and wildlife.

We are looking forward to sharing our projects in Sabyinyo, from vital conservation efforts to working with our neighbours to empower them to benefit from tourism and to appreciate and protect this remarkable place.

 

This article and images are courtesy of Natasha and Nico at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge.

Gorilla images used in this blog and our September newsletter have been kindly shared by our guest Simone Osborne.

To find out more about the Governors’ Camp Collection of properties, or to book a memorable wildlife safari with us, please see www.governorscamp.com

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