It is not just the accommodation that is memorable. One evening, a special guest joins us for cocktails: Gaspar Nzayisenga, one of about 50 vets working for the Gorilla Doctors. The vets monitor the health of the wild gorillas, although they intervene only when injuries are either human-induced or life-threatening.
“We are looking for things that impact their feeding behaviour or their movement, and rate them as mild, moderate or severe,” Nzayisenga says, explaining that affected individuals are monitored daily. Intervention is a last resort, and is carefully planned to avoid affecting not just the gorilla but also its group.
The pod-shaped villas of Bisate Lodge make for memorable luxury accommodation.
“We never take a gorilla away from its group, and we try to avoid having any gorillas in the troop noticing what we are doing,” Nzayisenga says. That may mean tracking an individual for hours until it is out of sight of the rest of the troop, giving the vets free rein. Most commonly, they use dart guns to deliver antibiotics or anti-inflammatories. If a wound requires more active intervention, the vets wait for an opportunity to get the animal alone, put it to sleep and quickly treat the wound.
Fireside chats with remarkable individuals such as Nzayisenga are among the highlights of a trip on which every day brings an encounter with the extraordinary. The itinerary, which hopscotches its way from South Africa to Zambia, Botswana to Rwanda, Ethiopia to Egypt, includes plenty of big game sightings in the Masaai Mara (including lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard), and dinner beneath the pyramids in Cairo.
It would be gruelling, were it not for the private jet that ferries us from one point to the next, letting us skip the many small annoyances that can make travel so tedious.
Our support team – which includes a tour manager, assistant and doctor, as well as the flight crew – are logistical wonder workers. On departure mornings, our luggage is whisked from our hotel rooms; when we reach our next destination, it is waiting in our rooms. Boarding is a streamlined process; we are waved through the priority lines for customs and immigration, and our jet is ready to go as soon as we are.
A Kenyan Masaai warrior applying face paint.
Best of all, we’re aboard a Boeing 757, which normally seats 140 but has been converted to seat just 40 passengers, meaning we can all recline on business-class leather seats. The service, champagne and three-course meals make each journey so relaxing that it’s almost a disappointment when we land.
There are remarkably few hiccups along the way. Perhaps the most dramatic occurs at Kigali airport, where our boarding is delayed, causing a chain reaction of events culminating in the Dom Pérignon, which is handed out every time we board, not being chilled to the right temperature. Our unflappable tour manager, Jo Taylor, issues a pre-emptive apology. “Bear with us. I promise you there will be plenty of chilled Dom when we arrive, and the beer and wine on board are properly chilled, so please enjoy some of those instead.” Crisis averted.
In an itinerary packed with unforgettable experiences – from soaring in a helicopter high above Victoria Falls to visiting Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent his decades-long imprisonment – some of the most memorable are the most unexpected. Few of our group have any idea of what to expect from Ethiopia, but our visit to the rock churches of Lalibela proves to be one of the highlights of our trip.
The mighty and misty Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Lalibela is now a sleepy place, but from the 11th to 14th centuries the town, then known as Roha, was the national capital. It was during this period that the 11 rock churches, which now boast a UNESCO World Heritage listing, were built. Many cultures have carved holy places into cliffs; the Ethiopians are among the few that have carved them out of cliffs, a much more demanding project.
Starting at the top of the cliff, they first separated a large block of stone, then slowly carved down towards the ground. (Local legend has it that King Lalibela did the work himself, assisted by a squadron of angels.) To hollow out the interiors, our guide Johannes tells us, they first carved the doorways and then slowly chiselled their way inside. “It’s incredible to think that they did this without blueprints,” he marvels.
The local tufa stone is easily carved, which made the feat possible in the first place. However, it is also very vulnerable to water damage – a fact the builders took into account, constructing the churches and their external platforms on a slope, so the rains would quickly drain away.
Built without blueprints: an Ethiopian Orthodox church at Lalibela.
With their dark, high-ceiling interiors, the atmospheric churches are still in constant use. The Ethiopian Orthodox church remains strong in this country and Johannes tells us the Lalibela…