Travel: All you need to know about hiking it up in Rwanda

An intrepid hike through a Rwandan rainforest offers a sumptuous treat of flora and fauna in the wilderness

By Kalpana Sunder

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Published: Fri 27 Oct 2023, 6:38 PM

It feels like a prehistoric scene from Jurassic Park. I am suspended high above the misty rainforest canopy and pristine wilderness, on a long and narrow bridge, listening to bird sounds and the howls of golden monkeys. I am at the Nyungwe National Park in southwest Rwanda near the border with Burundi, with its primal mountain rainforest habitat, a biodiversity hotspot covering 1,000sqkm, and home to over 1,000 plant species and orchids, more than 300 species of birds as well as hundreds of butterflies. It also has grasslands, swamps and bamboo forests.

Nyungwe is one of the oldest and biggest rainforests of the continent, dotted with gurgling streams, extensive swamps, waterfalls and trails. The region’s catchment area feeds two of the world’s largest rivers, the Nile and the Congo, and it also provides most of the country with fresh water. The park is fringed by tea estates and large plantations which provide eco experiences to tourists, as well as serve as buffer zones to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. The country’s fertile volcanic soil and high elevation produces a full-bodied black tea with a great flavour.

Nyungwe has 130km of trails – from those that take several hours to cover to one where you can walk for three days, camping and spotting primates and birds. I am taking the relatively easy Igishigishigi Trail (named after tree ferns) from Uwinka Visitor Centre, listening to bird sounds and spotting a group of golden monkeys swinging on the branches of tall mahogany and ebony trees. Our guide, David Nduwe, is a local, and a part of the community engagement programme which trains locals as guides, giving them a chance to benefit from tourism.

I am plunged into a sun-dappled world of thickets and clumps of ancient trees that look like broccoli heads, with ferns, mosses, and wildflowers lining our narrow path. We pass open woodlands and thickets of Albizia, and small benches to rest. I am glad I took the walking sticks that the guide offered as I make my way through slippery sections and steep descends. There are over 13 primate species in the forest and you can also trek to see the chimpanzees. We hear that the forest is home to clawless otters, lithe servals and bush babies too. I am enthralled by the visual feast and the shrieks that I hear as I catch sight of jewel-toned sunbirds and bee-eaters.

We finally climb down from mud to metal at the Canopy Walkway, a suspension bridge (held together by aluminium poles and rope) that traverses 74m above a ravine covered with forests with a series of three interconnected swinging metal bridges and steel platforms covering 160m. Swinging on the narrow bridge with space for just one person to pass, I make my way on the first section, like I am walking on a tightrope, climbing on to a platform. The vertiginous bridge is not for the faint hearted, but I am in heaven, spotting butterflies and golden monkeys with nostrils that point downwards, munching on yellowish parinari fruits, and babblers, francolins and sunbirds flying above us. David assures me that the bridge is safe and it can even support twenty cars or five elephants.

I feel on top of the world as I swing on to the next section of the bridge, looking down at the surreal scene below: a canopy of rainforests and trees with cauliflower like crowns, lichens and orchids clinging on trees and the forest floor covered in fifty shades of green. I watch the play of clouds and feel one with the forest, sky and the spectacle of nature unfolding in front of me. We sit down by the bridge, watching the sun cast burnished shadows and start our return journey.

The dark clouds gather and soon it starts raining. We try to hurry along the trail, pulling our raincoats and capes on, panting and out of breath, as we follow David back to the reception centre. The fittest go back quickly and the less fit ones persevere. Walking through wet soil, leaf litter and rocky stretches in the eerie fading light, we finally make it back, just as the sun sets.

The next day, while some of my friends trek to the Ndambarare Waterfall, I take a gentle walk through the winding paths of the lush tea estates in Gisakura to reach a part of the forest that is populated by a troop of black and white pied colobus monkeys with a U-shaped cape of white hair around their shoulders that contrasts sharply with their black mane. Their name is derived from the Greek word for ‘mutilated’ because unlike other monkeys, colobus monkeys do not have thumbs.

We see them active and social, grooming each other, some eating the lichens and leaves on ficus trees, others jumping from branch to branch like trampolines, and playing with each other. They are the most arboreal of monkeys, rarely descending to the ground with their mantle hair and tail acting like a parachute. I am sad to hear that they are often hunted by chimpanzees.

The showstopper of the afternoon is the great blue Turaco bird which we spot on the branches of a fig tree, with its alarming shrieks, grey-blue plumage, yellow green breast and an arresting blue-black crest. David tells us that it’s a gregarious bird that plays a great role in seed dispersal. Community involvement is very crucial to this place and current projects around the park include beekeeping and programmes training locals to become tourist guides. It’s heartening to know that 10 per cent of the park revenues are used to fund community projects, which includes schools and other educational institutions. We end our time in Nyungwe visiting the IVOMO community project that allows tourists to get a feel of the tea estates by picking tea leaves and interacting with the tea workers as well as understanding the process. Tea was introduced in Rwanda in 1952 and thanks to the cool climate, volcanic soils and the rolling hills, it grows abundantly in this land of a thousand hills and it is one of Rwanda’s main exports today.

Our guide, Rick Masumbuko, who started his career working as a guide in the Nyungwe forest, now showcases local culture through community tourism. We walk through the meticulous rows of tea with local tea pickers, trying our hand at picking leaves and filling our baskets. Rick shows us how to hand pound the leaves and dry them before brewing tea. We sip on a cup of black tea with a drop of local honey as we sit outside with a view of the emerald tea estates. The centre also has a small souvenir shop that sells bags and jewellery made by local women to generate some income for them. As we drive off towards Lake Kivu, the largest lake in the country, we are left with memories of hovering over misty treetops, walking on a tightrope bridge and picking leaves in emerald green tea estates.

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