Tourism in Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Nyungwe Forest National Park is the largest remaining area of montane rainforest in East Africa extending for 1,015 sq. kilometers through the mountainous region of Southwest Rwanda. Nyungwe forest joins Burundi’s 370 sq. km Kibira National Park forming a large contagious forest block at the border of these two countries. Nyungwe Forest National Park supplies water to 70% of Rwanda hence being the largest water catchment area in the country. The ridge in the park separates the two largest drainage systems in Africa; the Nile and the Congo Rivers with the spring in the slopes of mount Bigugu (2,950m) now regarded as the most remote source of the Nile, the world’s longest River. Nyungwe has a vey rich biodiversity just as the case is with other forests along the Albertine Rift with more than 1,050 plant species including 200 orchids and 250 Albertine Rift Endemics (AREs), together with at least 120 species butterfly species. There are over 85 mammals, 310 bird, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species and 15% of all these are Albertine Endemic Species.
Nyungwe forest National Park is most known by its visitors for its ultimate primate safaris with all the 13 primate species ready to receive travelers. Chimpanzees are the popular animals in the park with 500-1000 and these can easily be tracked at any time. The monkey population is also high including the acrobatic Rwenzori colobus and the localized L’Hoest’s monkey. Nyungwe also a suitable destination to birders, botanists and walkers with about 130km walking trails as well as boasting as the region’s only suspended canopy walk area.
Nyungwe forest contains over 200 tree species with one of the most outstanding upper canopy in the region which reaching 50-60m in height with slow-growing hardwoods as the majority among the trees making nature walks a great adventure through the thick canopies. These include giant trees like the African mahogany, water-berry, mulanje cedar, forest newtonia and smooth-barked albizia. The mid-storey canopy is made up of a much larger variety of trees and smaller trees grow to 5m tall which are seen in large numbers along the ravines of the Isumo waterfall trail. There are also 2-3m-tall giant lobelias in the montane moorland and can also be seen along the roadside. The higher altitudes of Nyungwe are dominated by bamboo plants, large areas of grass together with a huge variety of small flowering plants including over 200 species of orchid and the wild begonia.
The swampy areas of Nyungwe include the Kwamiranzonvu marsh, which is the largest with 13sq. km and can be explored while on the guided kamiranzonvu marsh trail.
Mammals in Nyungwe Forest National Park include all the 13 primates population well represented with the common chimpanzee and eight types of monkeys all available. In total the park has an estimated 86 different mammal species with some being rare forest inhabitants. Out of the big five, the leopard is available though in small numbers and only lucky tourists will be able to see one. Nyungwe had a big population of the big five especially elephant, buffalo and leopard in the pre-colonial times, unfortunately buffalo and elephant are now extinct with the last buffalo have been shot in 1976. Away from the big five, the park inhabits a number of small predators, which include the golden cat, wildcat, serval cat, side-striped jackal and three types of mongoose, Congo clawless otter, common and servaline genet together with the common and palm civet. The bushbuck is the largest antelope found in the park, the forests harbor three types of duiker that include the black-fronted, yellow-backed and the endemic Weyns’s duiker. Other mammals in the forest include the giant forest hog, bushpig, and squirrels like the monkey-sized giant forest squirrel, Derby’s anomalure squirrel and the rare tree hyrax.
The monkey population in the park represents about 20-25% of the total number in Africa with only Kibale Forest in Uganda the only close Park for comparison in East Africa making Nyungwe primate safaris outstanding compared to other Parks in the region. Most of these primates are listed on the IUCN red list as vulnerable or endangered with Nyungwe offering the main stronghold for at least two of them. Apart from Chimpanzee tracking which is by far the most popular tourist activity in the park, the other most celebrated primate safari is that of the Rwenzori Colobus, a member of the more widespread Angola Colobus restricted to the Albertine Rift. The rest of the monkeys in Nyungwe Forest National Park are guenons as they are arboreal forest dwelling omnivores with unique colorful coats and males having bright red or blue genitals. These guenons include the L’Hoest’s monkey, which is the most striking of all in the park, the silver monkey, and owl-faced monkey, Dent’s monkey, red-tailed monkey, the rare Vervet monkey, the olive baboon and the grey-cheeked mangabey found in the forest interior.
Apart from chimpanzees and monkeys, Nyungwe is also a home to other primates including four types of Prosimian which are small nocturnal primates closely related to Madagascar’s Lemurs than any other African mainland primates. These include three species of bushbaby or galago and the sloth-like potto.
As for birds, Nyungwe is probably the best bird watching destination in Rwanda with over 310 bird species dominated by forest endemics, 27 are Albertine Rift Endemics including Albertine owlet, red-collared babbler and Rockefeller’s sunbird, which are not recorded elsewhere along the Eastern side of the Albertine Rift. Nyungwe’s thick and dense vegetation can be the only obstruction to bird watching since many birds tend to stick to the canopy but every corner you take for a better view yields. Among the incredible birds that you should not leave Nyungwe without seeing include; the great blue turaco, a chicken-sized bird with garish blue and green feathers, the paradise flycatcher, and a long-tailed blue, orange and sometimes white bird often seen around the guesthouse, the gigantic forest hornbill, the re-throated alethe. Others that impress include a drab Chubb’s cistticola, green pigeon, Ross’s turaco, red-breasted sparrow hawk and the white-headed wood hoopoe. Among the 27 avian Albertine Rift Endemics found in Nyungwe Forest National Park the common ones include; handsome francolin, Ruwenzori turaco, red-faced woodland warbler, collared apalis, mountain masked apalis, yellow-eyed black flycatcher, Ruwenzori batis, stripe-breasted tit, regal sunbird, blue-headed sunbird, purple-breasted sunbird, dusky crimsonwing and strange weaver.
Although primates and birds tend to attract more attention at Nyungwe, the Park’s large number of smaller animals is also another attraction worthy searching for. There is a population of 12 species of snakes recorded in the park and the chilly climate of the area is to blame for their poor representation, however this may probably be good news to most visitors. Colorful lizards often hang out on rocks and the forest harbors at least five species of chameleon. There are also over 100 different types of colorful butterfly in Nyungwe Forest of which 40 are regional endemics. The outsized beetles and bugs are also present together with the vast columns of army ants that always move across the forest trails. It is better to admire them from a distance of at least a meter as they can give a painful bite if mistakenly stepped into.
Chimp tracking is more pronounced at Cyamudongo forest, which is an isolated parch of montane forest covering an area of about 6 sq. km. It is situated about an hour drive Southwest of Gisakura via the Shagasha tea estate. About 25 chimps are harbored at Cyamudongo and are now the target of daily chimp-trackers out of Gisakura. Chimps are usually found either feeding high in the trees or moving swiftly along the ground. Chimp tracking at Nyungwe is limited to one daily group of eight participants who must be at least 16 years and above.
Trails and Other Activities
In addition to chimpanzee tracking and bird watching, a varied section of walking possibilities and other excursions is available within Nyungwe forest National Park. Uwinka reception center is the main trailhead for most trails and canopy walkway and also a god site for primates and bird watching. Other good walking options can be found out of Gisakuru reception center. The reception centers are open from 7am to 5pm. Most of the trails in Nyungwe are named after their potential attractions that lie along the paths and visitors always leave the trailheads with high expectations of what they are going to encounter while on these trails.
The most prominent trails in Nyungwe Forest National Park include; Ngabwe trail on the slopes Ngabwe near the East boundary of the Park, Bigugu trail which leads to Bigugu peak the highest point in the park. Uwinka trails and canopy walk, Uwinka has the park’s most extensive network of trails including the short Igishigishigi trail as the most popular hike and it is similar to the famous one in Ghana’s Kakum National Park which was opened in October 2010. In addition to Igishigishigi trail, other trails from Uwinka reception center include; Imbaraga trail, Umuyove trail, Umugote trail, Buhoro trail and Irebero trail. Uwinka reception center is also a site of a worthwhile interpretation center and canopy walkway. Other trails away from Uwinka are; Kamiranzonvu Marsh Trail leading to the largest wetland habitat in the park, Karamba Birding Trail, the best trail for bird watching, Gisakura Tea Estate Trail, Isumo Waterfall Trail, Congo-Nile Divide Trail which follows the spectacular ridge that forms the continental divide between the Congo and Nile watersheds, Muzimu trail rewards with wildflowers and non-forest birds.
A gentle walk on a 200 meters long trail 50 meters above the forest is something you cannot miss out in Nyungwe forest national park. These 2 hours start from Uwinka tourist reception center rewarding travelers with breathtaking views the national; park, wildlife, neighboring communities and birds from above. Canopy walk is done at a cost of 60usd, which is relatively cheap compared to, the experience. For security purposes, all children below 6 years are not allowed to take part in the canopy walk.
Source of the Nile
The Newly identified source of the Nile near Gisovu tea factory can be visited through advanced arrangement with the RDB. From the trailhead, it may take around 45-60 minutes while driving there from Gisakura or Kitabi takes 3-4 hours. However, it is easier to reach the trailhead from Karongi which is a 60-minute drive following the Rusizi/Changugu road.
How to get to Nyungwe Forest National park
An organized tour with an agent in a 4*4 is the easiest way to reach the park. From Kigali it takes about 4-5 hours, 2-3 hour from Huye/Butare and 1hour from Rusizi/Kyangugu. Minibuses from Huye to Rusizi are also available dropping you off either at Uwinka or Gisakura depending on where you want to camp. However, the park is better explored using private transport.
Where to stay/Accommodation
Accommodation for all categories of visitors is available in and around Nyungwe forest National Park. Nyungwe forest lodge is luxury with 24 rooms while Nyungwe Top View Hotel is upmarket with 12 rooms. The moderate accommodation facilities within Nyungwe include Gisakura Guesthouse, Nyungwe Eagle Nest and Nyungwe Nziza Lodge. Budget visitors can either go to KCCEM Guesthouse or Uwinka Campsite.
Jeans, a thick shirt and good hiking shoes are ideal outfit for the steep and slippery forest trails. A waterproof jacket will help you during the rainy season of March to May and September to November. It is also very important to note that unguided exploration of the park is forbidden and a fee is charged for all activities.
Conclusively therefore, Nyungwe forest national park is the best place to explore the beauty of nature. Book a Rwanda safari to Nyungwe forest national park, trek the famous chimpanzees, canopy walk and bird watching rewarding you with a memorable experience.