Marcel and I have been looking forward to Nyungwe Forest long before we even came to Rwanda – and with good reason. This place is a true tropical rain forest. It is beautiful and filled with life.
The lodge we are staying in is hostel style, with separate rooms, but everyone shares a bathroom – including the giant moths. There is a central building where we are served meals along with all the other guests. There was a group of Dutch cyclists here last night. Quite bold of them I think to 1) bike Rwanda “Land of 1,00 hills” (and these are not small hills) and 2) do so in the rainy season. We were quite impressed with them. But the meals here are probably the best we’ve had so far in Rwanda. It’s still all very typical Rwandan food – dodo soup, beans, rice, bananas, potatoes, mystery meat – but the difference here is, it’s all flavored so wonderfully. In fact, lunch today there was a phenomenal curry sauce to spread over all the starches.
This morning, long before the sun even considered showing it’s face, we crawled from under our mosquito nets to meet our guide for the day. All Rwandan national parks are only available to the public via a guide. Here in Nyungwe, there are kilometers and kilometers of trails – but they can only be accessed via cash in hand and guide in tow. On the one hand, it makes sense from a conservation standpoint to limit access, especially to places where there are endangered species, and provide a source of income for guides. But on the other hand – it’s kind of a nuisance. Every individual trail you want to hike on costs money. The cheapest trail in the park is for less than 5 km long and $40. Most of them average around $60. Then you have to tip the guide at the end as well. It’s much cheaper for local Rwandans, which I think is good – but they aren’t going to go spend money to walk around the forest when they are surrounded by forest and spend all day outside harvesting beans. So, it’s an interesting perspective on how to manage their resources. In this respect, I prefer the American way – pay an entrance fee to the Park – then go where you want.
Our guide had told us we needed to be on the road by 5:00 am to improve our chances of catching chimpanzees eating breakfast. So we woke at 4:30 and were on the road by 5:00 sharp. Given the early nature of our departure, the kitchen prepared us with a “to go” breakfast the night before – cheese sandwiches and boiled eggs – that we ate in the car on the drive there. Now I am a car eater. During the days when I drove my car on a regular basis, I would say I took a good 40% of my meals behind the wheel. So I am pretty good at it. However, Rwandan roads are different and can make eating in the car a real challenge. In fact, there is categorical hierarchy to the roads here. There are basically four main roads in the country – all breaking out from Kigali in the four directions. These roads are paved. However, there are the German paved roads and there are the Chinese paved roads. The German built roads generally last and don’t require mandatory spare parts be in your trunk at all times. This describes the four sprouting roads from Kigali. Then there is the rest of the country. You take a step down to the Chinese built roads, which are labeled “wake up roads.” These roads are of the T2000 quality, and provide enough bumps, obstacles, and potholes to wake you up – and can be either paved, partial paved, dirt, or just rocky. These probably make up the majority of the rest of the roads throughout the country. And lastly, we get to the “African massage” roads. You may recall the pathway I tried to characterize in the blog about gorillas – it wasn’t really a road. That was an example of an African massage road – getting bounced around in the car enough that by the end you feel all nice and massaged (or in severe need of a massage). But we managed to get our breakfast down despite the manhandling the road dispensed. We drove for another 1.5 hrs. Again, not because the distance was anything daunting – but the “wake up” road required some tactful driving that can be quite time consuming. We arrived at the trail head and took off into the jungle by 7 am.
We descended very quickly into the thick of the forest. Our guide, who has had 12 years experience walking the mountains of the park, explained that we needed to move quickly to try and catch the chimps and that we could talk and ask questions on the way back. But for now – we needed to move. We hiked for over an hour and were then told to be quiet and move slowly. We stopped in the middle of the trail and about 20 yards in front of us, was a giant tree dotted with several chimpanzees taking their leaf breakfast. It was fun to watch them swing limb to limb, communicate through grunts and yells, and gingerly pick apart their meal. Admittedly, I can’t say that it was quite as thrilling as being less than 5 feet from a 200 kg silverback gorilla – but watching these monkeys play around for awhile was incredibly enjoyable.
One thing I will say about having guides though – they also work in close walk-talk (walkie-talkie) range with trackers. And without them, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to find and see the chimpanzees – so from that respect they are extremely useful. In fact, many times, even with guides and trackers, a lot of people are never able to see the chimpanzees. So we were extremely lucky today.
We then took our time walking slowly back – enjoying the sounds, sights, and smells of a rich, teeming jungle. Back at our lodge, they built an impressive fire, despite the water soaked wood. It was nice to have the smoke as natural mosquito repellant rather than lathering ourselves in DEET. Marcel and I told each other stories of our childhood before enjoying another delicious dinner. This is our last weekend in Rwanda, time is drawing closer to returning – it hardly seems possible. I’m not sure I want to go back.