True Travel Times
While there is no doubt that Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the travel industry, completely drying up funds and affecting the livelihoods of communities across the globe, there is a chance that there might just be a positive outcome from all of this. The combination of several weeks in lockdown, endless cancelled holidays and plenty of time to reflect, has reminded us all how important travel is. While travel is a luxury for us, it is also an essential investment in order to support communities and ecosystems worldwide. Of course, this is providing we travel responsibly. If there is to be any good that comes from this miserable virus, it is the hope that this will be the catalyst we desperately needed to create a boom in sustainable travel.
Fortunately, there is an abundance of sustainable hotels and lodges across the globe, all of which have a shared ambition to promote green travel and bring a positive impact to the local communities and wildlife areas in which they operate. I was most influenced by the benefits of sustainable travel on a trip to Uganda and Rwanda in November of 2019. I spent two and a half weeks exploring these incredibly beautiful countries, most well-known for being the last places on earth (along with the DRC) where you can see the highly endangered mountain gorilla, of which only around 1,000 remain. Thousands of tourists travel to these neighbouring countries each year in the hope of seeing these legendary gorillas. For many, the visit is brief – a sort of tick box attitude is common, before continuing your journey onto the plains of the Serengeti with hopes of seeing the Big Five. Yet as I discovered first-hand, for those willing to invest more time in these countries, there is so much more to be gained.
The gorillas are, of course, a highlight. It is what we all came to see, and we won’t be left disappointed. My trek took place in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in Uganda. This is the oldest and most biologically diverse rainforest in Uganda, dating back 25,000 years. It contains almost 400 species of plants and roughly 350 species of birds. The forest is not only home to an estimated 500 mountain gorillas (roughly half the world’s population), but also several other primate species and mammals including elephant and antelope. Trekking through the forest was an experience in itself, like something straight out of Jurassic Park. As the name suggests, the forest is unbelievably dense. Long trousers, hiking boots and gloves are the order of the day, but even then, you’ll struggle to get anywhere fast without your guide’s skilful use of a machete to make temporary pathways through the ever-growing jungle. I was totally transfixed by my surroundings as we walked in silence through the thick jungle mist. As our search went on, all that was to be done was listen to the distant calls of the birds and look out for signs of life in the treetops, catching a fleeting glimpse of movement now and then. The atmosphere was eerie and mystical, and the two hours it took for our trackers to find the gorillas flew by.
Time, however, has never moved faster than it did during our one-hour encounter with the gorillas. Nothing can prepare you for the moment you take your first glance at these gentle giants. I was astonished at how mythical they appeared, and yet so humanlike. The guides are fully trained on how to respect the gorillas and keep plenty of distance, but just like a young child, these infants are curious and aren’t remotely phased by their visitors. It was an absolute delight to watch the dynamics of the group unfold before us and fascinating to see so many similarities to our own kind. The experience was indescribably magical and highlighted just how vital it is that we continue to come and see these vulnerable apes and support the conservation efforts of the park. It was a truly humbling and enlightening experience.
As precious as this experience was, it wasn’t the only thing that left a lasting impression on me. A sustainable thread was interlaced throughout the entirety of my trip, always reminding me why we were here and what tourism could achieve if handled responsibly. One of my favourite community projects was introduced to me the moment I finished my gorilla trek. We were taken to Bwindi Bar, owned by Volcanoes Safaris (a leading luxury safari company in Rwanda and Uganda and pioneers in gorilla and chimpanzee eco-tourism), just a short walk from the park headquarters. The tradition goes that once you have successfully completed your gorilla trek, you celebrate with a ‘gorillini’ at Bwindi Bar. But here’s the twist. The bar is solely run by local people and provides a practical training institution for local disadvantaged youths living near the Bwindi National Park in Buhoma. An enjoyable finish to the trek for you, and an opportunity for the community to learn valuable life skills.
Shortly after, we were taken to see the ladies of ‘Ride 4 a Woman’, a charitable organisation that was set up to support local women struggling with poverty, HIV and domestic violence. More than 300 women from 11 villages now use or work at the Ride 4 a Woman community centre, where they can learn to pedal sew, weave baskets and ultimately learn how to make a living to support themselves and their children. It was incredibly inspiring to meet these strong and brave women and learn more about the organisation from the founder, Evelyn Habasa. A visit here not only provides guests with an opportunity to support the charity by purchasing their beautiful crafts, it also raises awareness of the struggles that women still face in this area and what can be done about it.
Meanwhile in Rwanda, other worthwhile projects have been introduced at the lodges to encourage guests to engage with conservation during their visit. Virunga Lodge, that sits nestled atop a 2,300-metre hilltop with mind-blowing views of the twin lakes ‘Rhundo’ and ‘Bulera’, has introduced a community project called “One Sheep Per Family”. The project aims to provide one sheep to each of the 140 families in the Sunzu community. The sheep manure provides natural fertiliser to help each family grow crops, while selling lambs can help provide income for the family. My visit to Virunga Lodge last year fell on the 15th anniversary of the lodge, which saw the community, staff and guests of the lodge come together with government officials and conservationists to celebrate. I was thrilled to learn that through the generous support of the guests, all 140 families have now received a sheep under this successful initiative, and there were plans in place to implement the same project in this neighbouring village of Bugeyo.
The spectacular Bisate Lodge, praised for its utterly unique design of its six sumptuous villas, has similarly driven sustainable conservation in Rwanda through its pioneering reforestation project. Guests staying at the lodge can help plant a sapling in order to help the return of the numerous endemic species to the area. To date, over 20,000 indigenous trees have been planted at the Bisate site which has aided the lodge to achieve its goals to create a world-class ecotourism destination. The project encourages guests to go beyond the ‘gorilla express’ and offers them the chance to give back to the natural habitat at the same time. This sustainability ethos has become an intrinsic part of the overall guest experience, not only at Bisate Lodge, but throughout Rwanda and Uganda.
Throughout my journey, it became clear that these destinations have become leaders in ecotourism. Travelling responsibly does not mean you have to compromise on luxury. In fact, Rwanda is arguably leading the way in luxury travel. It is no surprise to me that of the ten African properties that appear in Condé Nast Traveller’s 2020 Hot List, two of those are in Rwanda (Singita Kwitonda and One & Only Gorilla’s Nest ).
For most of us, the essence of luxury travel is about exceptional and authentic experiences, but let’s hope that this virus will shake up tourism a little and remind us all to think of local communities and sustainable travel when we pick our next holiday destination.
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