Pristine and atmospheric, the forests in Nyungwe National Park are absolutely enchanting. As home to chimpanzees, rare mammals and 300 bird species, it’s a treat for nature lovers. Johann Groenewald reveals what to expect.
On 1 October 2020, African Parks signed a management agreement for the Nyungwe National Park with the Rwandan Government. For the next 20 years, African Parks will look after the sustainable management of this very important forest area. Spanning 1,019 square kilometres, Nyungwe’s vast forests are interspersed with marshland and the park is home to 13 species of primates. That’s a quarter of Africa’s primate species! In addition to chimpanzees, it also protects the extremely rare Hamlyn’s and L’Hoest’s monkeys.
The news took me back to an unforgettable experience we had in Rwanda during 2019. My wife and I visited the country and were on our way to see the Gorillas when we decided to take a road trip around Rwanda first. After Kigali, which was well worth a visit, we headed for Nyungwe Forest. There is a beautiful highway cutting through the middle of the forest, making it very accessible.
Also read: Road tripping through Rwanda
Where to go
The main area of Nyungwe National Park is a pristine mountain rain forest and high-altitude wetlands. The altitude ranges from 1,600m to around 2,950m. We were blown away by the density of the forest where you can walk only on well-established hiking paths. We’d stopped because the park happened to be on our way to Lake Kivu, but it turned out to be a highlight of our trip.
Nyungwe Forest is very popular for chimpanzee trekking excursions. For these you might want to book in advance. We opted to take a guided forest walk instead. The forest is only accessible on foot and there are plenty of hikes to explore the surrounds. The guides are very knowledgeable and a must if you are new to the area.
You simply head out to either the Uwinka Visitor Centre in the middle of the park or the newly developed Gisakura Visitor Centre on the park’s western boundary. Both visitor centres have excellent facilities and at Uwinka there is a well-run campsite in the forest. Both visitor centers are reached by driving along the NR10 highway and accessible with a normal sedan. You can reach the park within an easy day drive from Kigali.
What to look for
If you are a keen birder and not familiar with the birds of Eastern Africa, then this forest is a feast. Forest birds are difficult to spot and even more difficult to capture on a photo! However, we found the roads which cut through the forest allowed good opportunity to spot the beautiful Great Blue Turaco (Corythaeola cristata). A good low light lens is recommended.
Another highlight for visitors is the 13 species of primates found here. We found L’Hoest’s monkey (Allochrocebus lhoesti) to be quite a common sight along the NR10 highway.
Where to stay
We stayed at one of the guest houses on the eastern boundary of the forest. Since we did not have camping gear with us, we did not consider any campsites. But if I had to visit again, I would most certainly make use of the Uwinka campsite. This campsite is tucked away in the forest and you set your tent on a wooden deck which has a verandah. Remember that this is a rainforest so you will very quickly appreciate being off the ground and under a roof. There is also the option to rent a tent which I would certainly consider. Spend at least a few nights to allow yourself time to do various hikes.
From Nyungwe Forest we drove to Lake Kivu and along the way were treated to beautiful scenes of tea plantations and rice paddies and, of course, the lake. All on good tar, so you can consider renting a car in Kigali and do this as a self-drive road trip of Rwanda.
I am delighted in the knowledge that this very special place will be taken care of in the best of ways. We look forward to seeing which additional tourist infrastructure will be developed in the area.