Nyungwe Forest National Park is Rwanda’s most important area of biodiversity, with no fewer than 1000 plant species, 13 species of primates, 75 species of other mammals, at least 275 species of birds, and an astounding 120 species of butterflies. It has been rated the highest priority for forest conservation in Africa and its protected area covers one of the oldest rainforests in Africa. Despite its huge biodiversity, Nyungwe is little known outside of East Africa.
Nyungwe’s strongest drawcard is the chance to track chimpanzees, which have been habituated over the years to human visits. While chimps tend to garner most of the spotlight here, sightings of troops of other monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, olive baboons. Vervet monkeys and diademed monkeys are virtually guaranteed. Another highlight is the simple pleasure of hiking along well-maintained trails over the lush, green valleys of the equatorial rainforest.
They may pale in size when compared to the hulking masses that are the mountain gorillas, but there’s no denying the affinity that we humans have for chimpanzees. Sharing an estimated 94% of our genetic material, chimps display an incredible range of human-like behaviors ranging from tool use to waging war.
Chimps are highly sociable creatures, and one of the few primates to form complex communities ranging upwards of 100 individuals. During the day these communities break down into smaller units that forage for food, a behavior that has been dubbed ‘fission-fusion’ by anthropologists. Since they cover a greater daily distance than the relatively docile gorilla, chimpanzee tracking is a much more uncertain enterprise.
Chimpanzee habituation in Nyungwe is still very much a work in progress, and although you will almost certainly encounter them, it might not be all that close up. This is especially so because Nyungwe’s chimps seem to spend longer periods of time high in the treetops than many other East African chimps.
Much like gorilla tracking, you need to be prepared for lengthy hikes that can take up to several hours. However, the vegetation on the forest floor is much less dense than in the Virunga mountains where the gorillas live, so the walk is generally a little less tiring. In the rainy season you have a good chance of successfully tracking the chimps on the colored trails (a network of trails of varying levels of difficulty), though in the dry season they have a tendency to head for higher elevations.
Although there are groups of chimps throughout Nyungwe, the habituated group that people are mostly taken to is located in the cyamudongo Forest, a very small, isolated ‘island’ of forest surrounded by tea estates a little over an hour’s drive from the park office at Gisakura. This group consists of 40 individuals. At certain times, though, visitors might be taken to see a second habituated group, the Uwinka group, which is the largest with around 65 individuals. That said, this group, which is usually found within 12km of the Uwinka Reception Centre, is harder to access. Whichever group you end up visiting, having a car is something of a necessity for chimp tracking, as you’ll need to arrange transportation for you and your guide to the trailhead. Be prepared for an early start -usually 5:30am from Gisakura. Porters are available at Cyamundongo. Visits are limited to one hour.
Colobus Monkey Tracking
A subspecies of the widespread black-and-white colobus, the Angolan colobus is an arboreal Old-world monkey that is distinguished by its black fur and long, silky white locks of hair. Weighing 10kg to 20kg, and possessing a dexterous tail that can reach lengths of 75cm, Angolan colobus is perfectly suited to live up in the canopy.
Colobus is distributed throughout the rainforests of equatorial Africa, though they reach epic numbers in Nyungwe Forest National Park. While they may not be as charismatic as chimps, colobus are extremely social primates that form enormous group sizes-one of the two semi-habituated troops in Nyungwe numbers no fewer than 500 individuals.
As you might imagine, finding yourself in the presence of literally hundreds of primates bounding through the treetops can be a mesmerizing experience. Curious animals by nature, colobus in Nyungwe seem to almost revel in their playful interactions with human visitors. Troops of Angolan colobus maintain fairly regimented territories, which is good news for those planning a colobus track, as the semi-habituated group in Nyungwe tends to stick to the colored trails. While watching wildlife is never a certainty, generally the trackers can find the colobus monkey troop in an hour or so.
There is a smaller, and often more accessible troop, of around 50 individuals near the Gisakura Tea Plantation. Be sure to ask which troop you’ll be tracking when you make your reservation. This second troop is less worthwhile to visit as the walk is only about two to five minutes from the Gisakura park office and it feels like a lot of money to pay to stand in a tea field looking at monkeys you could almost see without leaving the park offices!
This network of trails was constructed in the late 1980s in an attempt to open up Nyungwe to tourists. While tourism in the national park remains relatively low-key, these six trails are nevertheless reasonably well maintained. Each trail is marked with a different colour. Hikers can choose trails ranging from the 2km-long Buhoro Trail, a proverbial walk in the woods, right up to the 10km-long Imbaraga Trail, which winds steeply up forested slopes and requires about six hours. Some of the most popular trails include the Igishigishigi Trail (2.1km, about 1½ hours), which has spectacular tree ferns and great views, and the Umuyove Trail (5.5km, 3½ hours), which has birds, colourful flowers, a waterfall and large mahogany trees. The Irebero Trail (3.6km, three hours) is noted for its stunning viewpoints.
Although you need to specifically request to engage in either chimpanzee or colobus tracking, in theory, you could run across other primates while hiking the coloured trails. Even if you don’t come across these two-star billings, you’re likely to spot some of Nyungwe’s other 11 primates, as well as a whole slew of birdlife, and possibly even the odd mammal or two.
These trails originate from the Uwinka Reception Centre.
A number of walking trails are also available in the Kitabi area and begin at the Kitabi Booking Office. They’re much less known than the ones around Uwinka. A guide is also compulsory and is included in your trekking fee.
Nyungwe has something of a legendary status among birdwatchers in East Africa and is by far the country’s top spot for birdwatching with more than 300 species, which include about 27 Albertine Rift Valley endemics. However, the dense forest cover means actually getting a good view of a bird or any other animal can be really frustrating, which means that only serious birders are likely to get feathered into excitement by many of the park’s birds.
For those people, the dirt Rangiro Rd, which starts 1.5km east of Uwinka, and the Imbaraga, Umuyove, and Kamiranzovu Trails are all highly recommended for birdwatching. The paved road through the park permits viewing at all levels of the forest; expect mountain buzzards and cinnamon-chested bee-eaters perched along here, plus numerous sunbirds, wagtails, and flocks of waxbills. Other commonly sighted birds include; francolins, turacos, African crowned eagles, hornbills, and even Congo bay owls.
There are six specialist birding guides based in Nyungwe who need to be booked in advance for specialist birdwatching trips to contact one of the park’s two reception centers. There are more than 27 endemics in the park, including Rwenzori turacos as well as other large forest species such as African crowned eagles and various hornbills. Depending on what you hope to see, the guide will choose a trail that maximizes your chances of spotting your quarry.
If you’re unsure of what to ask for, opt for the dirt Rangiro Rd. Thanks to the frequent changes in elevation along this route you have increased chances of spotting a good number of Nyungwe’s fine feathered friends.
Now it’s your chance to relive your Indiana Jones fantasies. The construction of a 160m-long and at times 70m-high canopy walkway is a big draw for visitors after something unusual. You won’t encounter much wildlife while on the metallic suspension bridge, but you’ll certainly appreciate the jungle anew from this unique monkey-eye perspective. Access to the canopy walkway, which is on the Igishigishigi Trail, involves a preliminary 20- to 30-minutes hike from Uwinka. Canopy tours begin at set times (8 am, 10 am, 1 pm and 3 pm), they last for about two hours and are guided.
Kitabi Cultural Village
You could head to this lovely venture perched on a ridge about 300m from the main road, for that end of the earth feeling. You would be hard-pressed to find a more peaceful setting to pitch your tent, within a grassy, manicured property blessed with sensational forest views. The ablution block is in top nick.
This campsite is currently the only option at the park’s reception center at Uwinka. There are different spots to choose from, many with impressive views overlooking the forest and one on a wooden platform under a shelter that’s a godsend in the likely event of rain.
The ablution block is cleaner than average, though showers and toilets come in buckets.
Gisakura Guest House
This guesthouse offers accommodation in cramped and simple but functional rooms that share communal showers and toilets and are set in a beautiful garden. It’s well managed and the staff is very friendly and helpful, but it’s hard to not think that it’s overpriced. There’s an onsite restaurant.
Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel
High on a hill above Gisakura, this efficiently run place has large and finely decorated cottages with panoramic views, excellent bathrooms and a tiny lounge area with the fireplace lit on most cold nights.
The dining and reception area occupies an impressive circular building with a tall thatched roof and traditional paintings on the walls.
One and Only Nyungwe House
Located in the heart of a tea plantation with a stunning jungle background, the former Nyungwe Forest Lodge, now part of the famous One and Only chain, is one of the most exclusive lodges in the whole Rwanda, with 22 fancy rooms and suites in six opulent wooden villas.