Kate Collins chats to Rob and Ingrid Baas, incoming General Managers for our newest lodge – Bisate in Rwanda. Our Zambian and Namibian guests might recall meeting them at our camps in the Kafue or at Sossusvlei… here’s to a happy reacquaintance if you have – or a happy introduction if you haven’t!
Where is home and what brought you to Africa?
We are lucky to have two homes. Africa and the Netherlands. Home is wherever we unpack our bags. We are always on the move and feel at home as soon as we have unpacked and stored our travel bags.
We both grew up in the north west of the Netherlands and studied in Amsterdam. Rob studied Business Economics and Ingrid Modern Dance at the School for Theater and Dance. We met in 1995 in Amsterdam and in the years after our studies we travelled a lot, always looking for interesting cultures and untouched nature. These journeys brought us to stunning places in Asia, South America and Africa, and our desire to live abroad started to develop.
In 2006 we travelled for a month through Zambia and fell in love with this country. We both had good jobs in the Netherlands and our lives were stable and comfortable. But… we missed adventure, nature and different cultures. That same year we made the decision to quit our jobs in the Netherlands, leave our family and friends and move to Zambia. Without any background in the hospitality industry but with a lot of passion and commitment we followed our dream. Family and friends thought ‘we will see them back here in three months’ time’, but it turned out to be different.
We started our hospitality career in South Luangwa National Park and this was followed by almost seven years Kafue NP. After Zambia we lived for almost three years in Sossusvlei, Namibia. We are thankful for the opportunity Wilderness Safaris has given us. Our African dream has been amazing and is charging still full steam ahead!
How did your journey with Wilderness Safaris begin?
Whilst we were working in South Luangwa we heard that Wilderness Safaris was starting the operation in Kafue National Park. Immediately we knew that we had to try and join, to be part of the development in Kafue. We met with Charles van Rensburg in South Luangwa and luckily he was crazy enough to give two inexperienced Dutchies a chance as relief managers for the Kafue camps.
The relief management was a great opportunity for us to learn about camp management. We did not only relieve managers in Zambia, but also in South Africa at Rocktail Bay and Rocktail Beach Camp, as well as in Namibia at Little Ongava.
One year later Wilderness employed us as camp managers and from that moment we developed into General Managers, Concession Managers and later on Area Manager and Service Manager.
Since 2007 we have been involved in Children in the Wilderness (CITW) and since that very first camp we were committed to the CITW programme, becoming CITW coordinators for Zambia.
You have worked in Kafue at our camps, what did you enjoy most about working in this area?
The Kafue NP is a wild and remote area that covers more than 22,000 square kilometers. The wildlife is amazing and truly wild. The jewels of the Kafue are the Busanga Plains and the Kafue River. The Busanga Plains is situated in the north-west of the Kafue: a wetland that slowly dries up during the dry season and fills up again when the rains arrive from early November. The most amazing experience is to open the Wilderness Camps in the Plains at the beginning of the season around April/May. The area is still flooded and to experience the incredible bird life, the thousands of red lewche and lions hunting through the water is something you will never forget!
Besides the incredible, true wilderness experience, we have mostly enjoyed working with the Kafue team. The Wilderness employees in Kafue National Park are one of a kind and we have been fortunate to be part of this.
How long were you based in Kafue?
We were based in the Kafue for almost seven years. Our Zambia team was fantastic and we made friends for life in this part of Africa! We left the Kafue to join Namib Sky Balloon Safaris in Sossusvlei Namibia. In Sossusvlei we worked closely with the Wilderness Camps of Little Kulala, Kulala Desert Lodge and Kulala Adventure Camp.
What do you miss most about living in Zambia and working at the camps?
The Zambian staff! Amazing people with great humour and fantastic loyalty to their work. Although we left the Zambian team in early 2014 to move to Sossusvlei Namibia, we are in weekly contact with many of them.
What has living and working in the bush taught you about yourselves… and life?
The years we worked in the remote Kafue taught us to always make a plan on the ground and that many things are possible if you use the local knowledge of your employees. Many times we experienced that you can achieve much with little means. In April 2008 we were opening Lunga River lodge in the remote north east of the Kafue NP. Access was limited and the logistics were an absolute challenge. The opening date was set but our supplies were coming in bit by bit and not always in an efficient way. One of the things that we had to do was to paint the lodge. The paint arrived but no brushes and rollers. What to do? The staff told us that the night before a puku had been killed by a leopard and that we could use the tail and hide of the puku for our brushes. Within an hour several ‘local’ paint brushes were made and Lunga River Lodge opened with freshly painted walls and furniture.
What makes the work you do so rewarding?
To employ somebody from the community in a scullery position and to see the same employee years later as the Head Chef proudly presenting a dish to our guests in a premier camp is absolutely rewarding.
Now to Bisate: Why the move? What excites you about working and living in Rwanda?
To move from Namibia to Rwanda is such an amazing contrast. From the desert to the rainforest, from 824,000 square km to 26,000 square km, from 2 million people to 12 million people and from southern Africa to Central East Africa. This, together with the history of Rwanda, the 1994 genocide followed by the incredible upliftment of the country in the decades following, makes it a fascinating place to work for us.
Bisate will be more than a lodge. Its vision of reforestation and rehabilitation means that each guest will contribute to biodiversity conservation and local community engagement. This will be a world-class example of sustainable conservation tourism making a dramatic, positive and far-reaching impact on the unique fauna and flora of a precious, increasingly rare, habitat. It is a unique project for Wilderness Safaris and we are proud to be part of it, and are confident that we, together with our team, will make Bisate Lodge a big success!
What unique experiences can guests expect at Bisate?
Bisate lodge has a unique location. Being built on an eroded volcano close to Volcanoes National Park and surrounded by local communities creates a surreal feeling. Culture, community projects, conservation projects, fascinating presentations, fantastic views of the Bisoke volcano and the unique design of the lodge will contribute to the overall wow factor of the lodge. We hope this, together with the amazing Rwandan team at Bisate and the superbly luxurious offering, will make our guests’ stay at Bisate something that they will never forget!
As you are still new to the area, have you discovered any cool spots to hang out?
We visited the Genocide Memorial immediately on arrival in Kigali. We felt we needed to experience this as soon as possible in order to understand Rwanda and the people in a better way.
The local market in Musanze is a colourful and fantastic shopping experience. Lots of colours, fresh fruits and vegetables and people everywhere. You can choose any fabric and the seamstresses will create a beautiful skirt or blouse for you.
What is the top wildlife to see in the area?
The most well-known is the mountain gorilla and this is the reason most guests visit Volcanoes National Park. The gorillas exist in family groups overseen by massive silverbacks, roaming their home ranges in search of favoured food sources among the vegetation.
The gorilla experience for our guests does not end at the park boundary. At the lodge itself discussions with, and presentations from, gorilla experts will cover topics such as their genetics, their endangered status, their diet and behaviour.
However the mountain gorilla is not the only interesting animal living in Volcanoes NP and at Bisate we will focus on all other species as well. Golden monkey, buffalo, forest elephant, southern tree hyrax, side-striped jackal, genet, bushbuck, black-fronted duiker and serval are just a few examples, and that’s not even mentioning all the birds, butterflies and reptiles!
What was it like to see a gorilla for the first time? Tell us about your experience
We have decided to wait to go on the gorilla tracking experience until we have accomplished our first goals within our operational plan. It is such a highlight and special experience that we are delaying it until we have reached a few milestones in the preparation of Bisate Lodge.
Where do you like to travel to on your bush breaks? Do you have any other favourite African countries? If so, why?
We absolutely love traveling and use every opportunity to see more of Africa and other parts of the world. We still enjoy being on safari when we are on leave and have visited and camped in remote wildlife areas during our breaks. Each year we dedicate one of our holidays to visit family and friends in the Netherlands. It is always great to see them and we try to combine the trip with an area that we have not yet seen in Europe. Hopefully we will be able to visit Scandinavia when we next travel to the Netherlands, or maybe Poland as that is still on the wish list as well!
What one animal would you most like to see?
We have been extremely fortunate and have seen many different animal and bird species all over the world. Every wildlife sighting is special also the more common animals, we are privileged to witness the behaviour in the wild.
If you set your mind on one species, it normally means that you will not find it; however, if you are open-minded you will experience the most special ‘little moments’.
Out of our four Wilderness Safaris values, which is the most important to you?
All four values are equally important to us. However if we had to choose one it would be respect. Respect for yourself, your colleagues, our guests, the environment, the community, different opinions and views, all living creatures big and small.