Rwanda has four national parks: Volcanoes in the north-west (where the mountain gorillas roam and where I’m planning to go in dry season), Akagera in the east (where my tent nearly caught fire), Nyungwe Forest in the south-west, and the recently established Gishwati-Mukura in the west (which is just one year old and so far not much is known about how to visit and what to do there). I went to Nyungwe back in November together with friends visiting from the UK. It’s mostly famous for chimpanzees but other attractions also include different species of monkeys and picturesque hiking trails 🙂
Nyungwe is a montane rainforest, which means that although it’s very green and looks like a jungle, it’s not hot at all, and at night it’s actually quite chilly. It’s proper mountains after all – the hills, covered with lush vegetation, reach nearly 3,000 m a.s.l. (and the lowest point is at 1,600 m a.s.l.). It’s the largest forest of this type in East Africa and one of the oldest rainforests on the continent. It’s also the main catchment area in Rwanda, supplying 70% of the water to the whole country. According to some scientists, the source of the Nile is located in Nyungwe – although neighbouring Burundi has also claimed it and built this lovely little pyramid at the site (as a reference to Egypt where the Nile ends) 😉
Nyungwe is home to over 1,000 species of plants, including 200 types of orchid and 250 species endemic to this region. On top of that there are over 100 species of butterflies, over 300 species of birds, dozens of mammals (including 13 species of primates) and reptiles… It’s simply an incredibly diverse part of the world. However, it’s the chimpanzees that attract tourists, and they were also at the centre of our plans for the trip. It all worked out quite differently, though, which is not particularly surprising in Rwanda where you always need to be prepared for modifications to any plan 😉
Nyungwe is about 4 hours’ drive from Kigali (or longer, depending on the weather, and on trucks you might get stuck behind as they crawl at 20 km/h and you can’t overtake them on a winding road), via the city of Huye (formerly Burare) where we stopped for a break at… an ice cream parlour. Yes, there is a lovely ice cream place in Huye called Inzozi Nziza (Sweet Dreams) and it has an interesting history. This was the first ice cream shop in Rwanda, established in 2010 by a female drumming group called Ingoma Nshya, with the assistance of two American ladies (who in 2007 opened a chain of ice cream parlours called Blue Marble Ice Cream in New York, and then set up a non-profit organisation Blue Marble Dreams). Inzozi Nziza was their first project. The whole story formed the basis for a 2012 documentary “Sweet Dreams” which was screened at various international film festivals and received very positive reviews. Apart from delicious ice cream (the flavours change, depending on ingredients available; during our visit they had cream and honey) the parlour sells fresh juices and light meals. For us, the winner was chapati stuffed with avocado and boiled egg. I could eat that every day! 🙂
After this pleasant break we finally arrived at our first stop in Nyungwe. That night we stayed at KCCEM guesthouse just by the eastern entrance to the park. It’s very basic but beautifully located by a tea plantation. The rooms were clean (and cheap!), the food good, and the staff very friendly. The bright green of the tea leaves contrasted nicely with the dark background of Nyungwe Forest, especially in the warm light of the afternoon sun. We went for a short walk and then enjoyed cold beers with a view 🙂
The next day we set off to Uwinka Campsite in the centre of the park. The road is regular tarmac but the traffic is nearly non-existent so we could admire the landscape on the way. It turned out that the “campsite” actually meant wooden platforms hidden in the dense foliage, and we got there at the right time to claim the one with the best view! There were two tents pitched there already, and we were allowed to use them instead of putting up our own (at the additional cost of $10 per person). Now we only needed to find out about the available hiking trails. And that’s when the hard part begins 😉
First of all, it’s necessary to book chimpanzee tracking in advance, which we knew, of course. I actually spent a week sending emails into space (it’s better than phoning as at least you have some proof, otherwise you risk being told that nobody knows anything about your phone booking) but finally confirmation arrived. Well – one sentence: “confirmed for 23 November”. No signature, no idea who it was from. We had talked to the reception before as well, and had been told that chimp tracking starts at Gisakura office in the western part of the park but it’s possible to pay for it at Uwinka and credit cards are accepted. Well, they’re not, as it turned out. We were told by a rather grumpy staff member that we would need to drive to this other office (half hour one way) to pay by card, or pay cash at Uwinka ($90 per person for our friends, $60 for me and T. as residents). We didn’t have that much money on us, especially that we had also planned other hiking routes, and we had just enough for those. The guy we were speaking with just shrugged and proceeded to talk to the next customers in line. It was Monday morning and we wanted to maximise our time in the park, therefore we quickly picked one of the routes from the list and decided to leave the whole chimpanzee malarkey for later.
We got lucky: our guide Evariste turned out to be fantastic (you are not allowed to hike on your own in Nyungwe). Not only was he simply very nice, he also spoke excellent English. His knowledge about the park was impressive and we listened to him with pleasure. He told us he’d been working at Nyungwe for 10 years (he used to be an actor!) but he was also studying for a degree and had plans to do something quite different after graduation, namely create a specialist database of Rwandans and their skills to make it easier for people to find jobs, and for employers to find adequate workforce. Evariste explained it to us in great detail, and even though I thoroughly support him in this, I also think the park will lose a lot when he goes…
The Umugote trail (that’s the Kinyarwanda name for Syzygium tree which grows abundantly on this route) is about 4km long and moderately difficult, which was good for us. As I mentioned earlier, Nyungwe is a montane rainforest, so even though we already live at a certain altitude (Kigali lies at approx. 1,500 m a.s.l.), those few hundred metres extra did make a difference. We panted a bit at the beginning but soon caught the rhythm of the hike and savoured the beauty of surrounding nature. Evariste was telling us lots of interesting things about the trees, bushes and flowers, and how they are used by humans and animals. We didn’t encounter any monkeys but there were lots of birds. However, it’s the views that stole show – just have a look 🙂
After over three hours we returned the base very happy and only a little tired, but also very hungry 😉 We didn’t feel like arguing with the staff member again about the chimps and payment (he didn’t seem to like us very much) and decided to wait until the next day, especially that we weren’t 100% sure that booking really existed as the man was being rather vague about it. We couldn’t phone the other office to verify this either, as there is practically no reception in Nyungwe. So we just examined the board listing all the other trails and booked one for the next morning. And the rest of the afternoon was spent on our tent platform, relaxing 🙂
To be continued!