NYUNGWE, A RETURN TO THE ENCHANTED FOREST
Few places fuel my imagination as does the Nyungwe Forest National Park, with over 1.000 square kilometres the largest still intact montane forest in Eastern and Central Africa. It’s unique location, adjoining Burundi’s Kibira Transfrontier National Park, makes it part of Africa’ largest continuous protected forest area. The park’s importance as a water tower is increased by the fact that it is home of the continent’s main water divide, from where the ultimate headwaters of both the River Nile and the Congo River spring. It is here that, depending on which side of the ridge the rain falls, it will drain into either the Congo or the Nile basin. And rain does fall aplenty across the forest, with annual rainfall in excess of 2.000 mm, making it one of the wettest places in Africa.
Nyungwe, made a fully fledged national park in 2004, has since then attracted an ever growing stream of visitors, who come to enjoy Eastern Africa’s first, and still only canopy walk. It was built at the same time as the Uwinka park reception centre, conveniently located on the main road through the park from Huye to Rusizi, formerly known as Butare and Cyangugu. The canopy trail through and above the treetops, some as high as 70 metres, is about 200 metres long and, the hike from and back to Uwinka included, takes approximately 3+ hours to complete.
(One of the Nyungwe trails takes visitors along the Kamiranzovu Trail to the waterfalls of the same name)
But, as previously explained, Nyungwe is much more than just the canopy walk. A network of trails has since been opened up, accessible from both the Gisovu side and the Gisakura side of the forest. From short trails, like observing one of the many Colobus colonies which take often less than an hour to hikes from 4 to 8 hours and the multi day hike across the entire forest, the variety and availability of easier and more challenging hikes now draw adventurers, forest lovers and seekers of solitude to Nyungwe. Besides the canopy walk, another 8 trails are now open and the 3 to 4 day Congo Nile Divide Trail has basic camping sites available where hikers can spend the nights. Arguably the toughest hike is the climb up to Mt. Bigugu, which depending on physical fitness, weather and trail conditions can take between 6 to 10 hours and takes those successful to the peak at 2.950 metres, the highest point of Nyungwe.
Once inside the forest visitors find a rich biodiversity, over 310 species of birds, many of them endemic, 13 species of primates, about 140 species of orchids, over 240 species of trees and 1.068 identified species of plants, including 250 endemic to the Albertine Graben.
Accommodation is available as far as Rusizi, less than an hour from the forest, or even the more distant Huye, but closer by does the Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department offer basic overnight services at their Gisakura park sub-headquarters. Visit www.rwandatourism.com for more details about guiding services, available campsites and budget accommodation at Gisakura. A short drive from there is the Nyungwe Top Hill View Lodge, which offers a spectacular vista from the top of one of the taller hills, while the 5 star Nyungwe Forest Lodge, owned by Dubai’s Istithmar World and operated by Shamwari is definitely my personal favourite. Set at the very edge of the forest, inside the Gisakura tea plantation, the 22 villa rooms and 2 suites face the forest, which, when the lodge was built was the regulatory distance away but has since silently crept up towards the villas as if either to embrace them or engulf them, some of the branches just feet away now from the balconies. Visitors arriving during a hot afternoon are greeted with iced towels while those like me, arriving after nightfall when the temperatures have dropped into the chilly range, get hot towels to wipe the dust and the sweat of the journey. The cold fruit juice is happily replaced by a cup of steaming tea, a harbinger of the hospitality one can expect while at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge.
It is here that all creature comforts are met, and after a long hike into the forest await scented baths, hot showers with a water pressure putting many a city hotel to shame, a fully fledged Spa where sore muscles can find cure and then followed by fine cuisine and attentive service. Generously designed lounges with big open fire places invite for afternoon tea and of course those quintessential pre- and post dinner aperitifs and digestives. Coffee table books are available to leaf through and the lodge’s boutique has many of those available for sale, to take these priceless memories home and show off a little to friends and acquaintances, and give them the taste to visit too, if for no other reason but to get even. I am yet to enjoy staying at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge for more than one night at a go, but that is something I have promised the General Manager Jerry Were to take care of during a future return to the ‘Enchanted Forest’.
Getting to Nyungwe is made easy by RwandAir’s double daily flights from Kigali to Kamembe, which take just half an hour, and the lodge will arrange pick up and drop off, with one of their 4×4’s, at a cost of course. For those with plenty of loose change in their pockets, there is a helipad right near the lodge and flights by helicopter are available from Kigali’s Kanombe International Airport. Most visitors though at present still arrive by car from Kigali, a 225 km drive which, depending on the number of stops enroute to take pictures, or pay a much recommended visit to the National Museum in Huye, can be anywhere between 4 ½ hours to a full day.
This trip was jointly organized by the partners in the Ereka Group, namely www.newdawnassociates.com, www.eagle-ride.com and www.victoria-international.com with support from www.rwandair.com, www.rwandatourism.com and hospitality partners like www.serenahotels.com, www.nyungweforestlodge.com, among others.
Previous articles about Nyungwe can be accessed via these links: http://atcnews.org/2012/06/23/nyungwe-the-enchanted-forest-waiting-to-be-discovered-and-explored/