NYUNGWE FOREST, VIEWS FROM ABOVE AND FROM BELOW
If ever I have entered an enchanted forest, where I expected to momentarily see elves and hobbits emerge from behind these huge moss covered trees, or where I would run into these legendary shepards of the trees, it would be Nyungwe. I have of course no idea if Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien ever was in Nyungwe or even heard of it, but his narratives in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of the Great Forest and others our heroes had to troop through, this comes the closest, including seeing giant spider webs.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see this magnificent forest, courtesy of the Rwanda Development Board – Tourism & Conservation and of Nyungwe Forest Lodge, and while I had read up, extensively as I do when I prepare for travel on assignment, nothing had truly prepared me for the reality of it.
Steady driving from Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, takes one about 3 ½ hours, though it is advisable to make stops enroute, for instance to visit the main national museum in Huye, formerly Butare, which contains a wide variety of cultural, historical and other important collections and artifacts from present day as well as the days of the Rwanda Kingdom. Butare used to be the administrative capital during the colonial days but has until now retained its charm and attraction as the ‘cultural capital’ of Rwanda, underscored through the presence of the National University which is based and headquartered here.
The road from Kigali to Butare is scenic and in first class shape, allowing for good progress to be made. Leaving Kigali in the early morning will allow for sufficient time to stop at the museum and take a guided tour, and thereafter having a late lunch in Butare before driving on towards Nyungwe Forest National Park.
On this stretch the road is gradually getting worse, probably as most visitors would expect, but it is due to be completely re-carpeted as of next year, which then makes the drive to this magical park the proverbial walk in the park.
The best time to arrive at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, in my humble opinion, is in the late afternoon, right in time for tea, which allows for a gradual settling in, getting to the cottage without a rush, unpacking the cases, sitting on the balcony and listening to the bird song or else get acquainted with the location by taking a walk across the extensive tea plantation into which Nyungwe Forest Lodge is ‘embedded’.
With 24 rooms and one very posh VIP cottage, the lodge is small enough to be ‘private’ and yet large enough to travel with a couple of friends just as keen as seeing this gem of a forest national park.
So what are Nyungwe’s main features you may ask. Well, let’s start with the fauna found in the park and adjoining buffer areas: records kept by RDB from the ‘old’ ORTPN days show that there are 13 species of primates including as many as 500 documented chimpanzees, 75 different mammal species, over 270 species of birds including about 25 endemics, complemented by what experts say hundreds of different butterflies. Moving on to the flora of the park, the records are equally impressive: over 250 types of different trees, countless shrubs and flowering plants including yet to be fully explored medicinal plants, and standing out from them are the giant lobelias found deep in the forest, as if sprung from prehistoric times. Most of the giant tropical trees are ‘home’ to symbiotic plants, ferns, mosses and most notably orchids in all shapes, sizes and colours, making every stop to gaze at these giants of the forest different, as the guide from the park office continues his expert explanations. And not to forget the smallest ‘things’, insects, never fully catalogued so no detailed numbers were available from the park head quarters, which add to the variety of life forms found in the forest.
Elevations reach from a ‘low’ level of around 1.600 metres to as high as Mt. Bigugu’s peaks which stands 2.925 metres above sea level and constitutes the highest point anywhere in the national park. The regular rainfall, just short of 2.000 mm per annum, contributes to the unique and varied biodiversity across the 1.000 square kilometres of forest to which researchers from around the world come to see and explore.
That does not mean though that ‘ordinary’ tourists are less welcome, to the contrary in fact. RDB – Tourism and Conservation has established a series of activities, guided walks and day long hikes which are available to those very fit, moderately fit and rather not fit at all.
The guided walk for instance to the Colobus monkey colony nearest to the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, while taking off from the RDB’s visitor reception centre at the edge of the park in the direction of Cyangugu, often ends within sight of the lodge and can be done, with great ease apart from some steepish climbs down and up, by just about anyone. Some of the walks to the chimpanzees and the ‘midsized’ hikes through the forest, maybe a little more challenging but guides are happy to slow the pace down to suit the clientele. While some of the walks and hikes are dedicated to see either birds or primates or orchids or butterflies, depending on what individuals are most interested in, the guides at both starting points are able to discuss which one of the walks or hikes suits a visitor best, and her or his fitness levels, while other hikes can cover a wider range of sightings over a more extended period of time, up to 8 hours for the longest of the day trips.
As often the case, I would personally prefer a hike with a guide alone, or at best with one or two persons of similar interests who can enjoy looking up a tree, one of those giant sized trees found in the deep of the forest and measuring 40 or more metres in height, where I would gradually walk my eyes up and down its house sized stem, taking in the various types of moss, orchids and symbiotic plants which made their home in the nooks and crannies of that particular tree, and then there are thousands more to see – if you get the general drift of what my aim would be like to hike that forest.
I should probably also use such hikes to recite sections from the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, and utter elfish words in the hope that some of those fabled figures would in fact appear, which would make my forest hike a lot more interesting but would probably bore ‘normal’ tourists to no end who come for primates, birds and other ‘must see stuff’. But being only three on the occasion, plus two guides, I had ample opportunity to mutter into my beard when I thought I had seen strange creatures as the breeze made thickets move and vegetation sway, giving it faces which could have sprung out of Tolkien’s books. And if I would not generally be taken for quite ‘off the rocker’ I would swear that some of those faces did wink at me.
I did mention the word ‘enchanted forest’ a few times, so the results are even emerging here in this article.
Walking through the forest is undoubtedly a unique experience, whether one is interested in the flora and fauna alone or in some elfish stories on the side, and the growing popularity of such hikes speak volumes. Said the guide at the RDB offices where I had reported to be registered and briefed: ‘we now have a lot more visitors. The canopy walkway has made Nyungwe very popular. But here, on the ground, a lot of these visitors really see the forest from very close and then they can also see it from the canopy walk. They understand the forest better that way. We are opening new trails also, so that visitors have more choices. When you enter with us into the forest, you will not likely see any people until you come back here again.’ Well we did not, for a long time at least and then those seen in the buffer zone were picking tea while on another occasion we met a patrol of rangers on foot, got some valuable tips and off they went again disappearing behind thickets and trees as if they had never been there.
Literature about the forest and its walks and hikes is available, both in simple pamphlet style but also the glossy type of guide books which can be bought at the ranger station, or at the shop at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, or back in Kigali, to keep memories fresh of the wondrous experience of walking into the deep of a tropical rain forest, and being sure and certain to come back out and not getting lost enroute.
The RDB guides are well trained and specialize in fields of their choice, and are both cheerful and beaming with pride when their skills are recognized by amateur birders like myself – a contest of spotting and naming birds is a welcome opportunity for them to show just how good they are.
On to the ‘canopy walk’ now. Getting there requires the use of the safari vehicle as the distance to the RDB visitors and reception centre of the park from Nyungwe Forest Lodge is not for walking. Called the ‘Uwinka Overlook’ the name already tells the story. From an elevated viewpoint a sweeping view of the forest is possible from here and while the guides are ever willing to tell their stories, and the facts, a few moments of silent contemplation are probably best to take in the scale of the forest versus us human beings, before starting the walk ‘down’ to the ‘canopy walk’, over 300 stair steps and over quite a distance, and we were being ‘swallowed by the forest’ within the first few steps.
What is needed are sturdy boots, the walking stick is being provided by the guides, and a folded rainskin should be tucked away as rain often comes suddenly upon visitors to the forest, and heavily too. And, most important, to have the batteries in the camera charged and a spare at hand – besides the quintessential bottles of water, not so much for the walk down but the climb back up again later on.
The track to the canopy walk, while descending steadily downhill – one has to cover an elevation difference of well over 200 metres, down and up again – is well walked, covered by leaves and where necessary secured with railings to avoid tumbling down a very steep slope. The guides stopped on several points where views open up through the trees, as if they would make way to allow for sights across the hills and mountains, all covered with yet more trees, giant trees some of which might not have been seen close up by human eyes ever.
And then suddenly, almost unexpectedly, the pylons and wires of the canopy walk appear further below still, telling the story that ‘half time’ is about to happen, and that the character of each visitor is to be tested, as often, when seeing the almost ‘flimsy’ structure, sturdy as it in fact is, makes many back off from the crossing, which at places is a straight 200 feet up in the air.
This is the point where the guide goes into a whole series of instructions, stepping out on to the suspension bridge to demonstrate what to do and the also showing and telling of the consequences of what happens when the wrong this is done – it is at this point where the fainthearted finally decide to give it a miss and let those brave enough, or in need of some adrenalin rush, commence the crossing.
Back packs, walking sticks et al are left behind, to be picked after all three sections of the canopy walk have been crossed and when committed on to the structure there is only a way forward, yet richly rewarding those in the mid of the tree canopies and then above the trees with sights otherwise not seen.
The narrow ‘trays’, joined with bolts and kept in place with multiple steel cables, are not wide enough to even have someone pass the other, so step by step, and as told foot before foot before foot we make our way across. The second of the three sections is the longest and highest and again reminders are given how to avoid shaking and to secure cameras to the wrist with a strap – apparently a number of tourists, when looking down at the highest point to take pictures, were ‘overcome’ and dropped their camera, probably only too happy to then complete the walk ‘on the high wire’ without following it straight down. Yet, it must be mentioned that the structure is not only sound in terms of engineering but is being checked every day to make sure there are no loose bolts or chafed wires or the ‘hand rope’ being anything else but taunt.
High above the trees a scenery opens up, second to none and simple not visible from down below, showing the colours of the blossoming trees and opening up the secret world of the tree tops, where birds galore are found and where on occasions even some monkeys can be seen, though swift to disappear, shy as they are.
It is a rewarding feeling to eventually reach the third, and shortest of the suspension bridges, to have conquered, oneself first and foremost, as when down on the ground again and looking up once more to the tiny structure spanning the valley below, second thoughts might still creep up.
My fellow two adventurers, Henriette, the guide on our trip from the Rwanda Development Board and Kwita Izina ‘namer’ Anja had no qualms though, neither to cross nor to pose, and neither did the photographer on this occasion show any butterflies, yours truly of course being THE adventure addict when there is a place to climb or to jump from.
Only too soon was this adventure over and the climb back up to the reception centre is certainly more tiring and exhausting than the adrenaline driven walk down to the ‘high wire’, and the guide, mindful of the taxing climb back up those three hundred plus stair steps and steep inclines, stopped seemingly a little more often to interpret plants or to point out flowers and orchids – and thank you for that!
And then, suddenly it seems, we are back at the ‘Uwinka Overlook’, for one last fond view across the sprawling forest before bidding it Kwaheri Ya Kuonana, good bye until we meet again because two days of walks and hikes have only implanted a seed in me, that I have to come back and explore the ‘enchanted forest of Nyungwe’ some more at some time in the future.
Most visitors to Rwanda visit the mountain gorillas, or the savannah national park of Akagera, but missing out on a forest national park, when one is but a few added hours of drive or a short flight away, is something they will all regret for having passed it, when back home they read the story of Nyungwe.
Visit www.rwandatourism.com for more information on the country’s tourism attractions and best, GO VISIT! International airlines flying regularly to Kigali are RwandAir, Brussels Airlines, KLM/Air France, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines.