The amazing aerial walkway - just don't look down!
Canopy walkways are a ruinously expensive and high tech component of ecotourism, and not something that you'd expect to encounter in a country that's only just emerging from the trauma of a genocide ... but in this, as in so many other aspects, Rwanda continues to surprise and (positively) challenge tourists adventurous enough to explore this part of the world.
Rainforests can be disappointing places if you've come brimming over with enthusiasm for the wildlife that you expect to line up like the animal extras in a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movie. In these ecosystems, it's too easy to confuse their astonishing biodiversity (ie. number of species) with an expectation of huge numbers of animals, which you're much more likely to encounter in a plains or savannah environment. Moreover, in rainforests, the critters have an annoying habit of hanging out in the canopy, dozens of metres above your head ...
Hence the attraction of a canopy walkwalk, which allows you to get up to the level where the majority of the action is happening.
I have only the highest of praise for this canopy walkway. It is ideally situated on the flank of a slope and beautifully engineered to give you the most awe inspiring view out over the rainforest in the gully below and the surrounding forest. Aesthetically it is an elegant structure which combines delicacy of appearance with robustness of construction and is a marvel of design.
The only problem is if you suffer from vertigo ... which isn't usually something that bothers me, but seemed to kick in where only monkeys fear to tread ...
In all honesty, I cannot say that I enjoyed the experience greatly, but I was immensely impressed by the unique perspective that it offered, and extremely glad that I had done it. 'Had' (past tense) being the operative word!
The walkway is suspended over a ravine, and is anything up to 50m above ground level. It is apparently 90m long ... that sounds way shorter than it seemed at the time, but then time does tend to drag if you're scared stiff ...
This is a really terrific thing to do, but you need to be realistic about your physical limitations. The walkway is part of the circular and tongue twisting Igishigishigi trail, which is the shortest and most popular of the trails on offer in Nyungwe. It may only be 2.1km long, but it will take the estimated 1.5 hours to complete it, and the hike back out of the ravine was quite challenging, even though the trail was well laid out and the forest lends protection against the heat and the sun. You have to be moderately fit to do this, and obviously if you have impaired mobility or acute vertigo, the canopy walkway isn't for you. Our kids (aged 9 and 6) loved it, but I wouldn't suggest that you attempt it with kids any younger.
At the time we visited (March 2013), it costs USD60 per person, and you have to take a guide with you, which is good, because he'll spot a lot that you'd otherwise miss. On a practical note, don't think of trying this if it's very windy or a storm is brewing, as the mere thought of an added dimension of swaying motion in the walkway sends a shiver down my spine. I'm sure that the guides would be responsible enough not to let anyone attempt it under those circumstances, but if you're there in such weather, help them to do their job by not pushing the issue (however disappointing it might be).
A topographic challenge to feeding a hungry nation
Rwanda is probably one of the hilliest countries that I've ever visited, and flat land is at an absolute premium.
With a population density of 430.64 per square kilometre in 2010, Rwanda is the 29th most densely populated sovereign states in the world: bearing in mind that most of the more densely populated nations are city states such as Singapore, Monaco and the Vatican, this is a phenomenal population density for a largely rural country. This figure is even more mindboggling when you take into account that anything up to a million people (or approximately 20% of the population) were were wiped out in a genocide less than 20 years ago.
The extreme topography means that there is an acute shortage of agricultural land which can be used to feed the population. As a result, land in the valley bottoms is a patchwork of lush green paddy fields interspersed with fish ponds and the vertiginous angle of some of the cultivated land clinging to the hillsides gave me vertigo just to look at them.
The terrific National Museum in Butare
As a general rule of thumb, museums aren't Africa's strong point, and more often than not, the ones you'll encounter will be dusty relics from the colonial era with dated presentation and yellowing labels.
Even without this context of low expectation, the National Museum in Butare is an utter revelation. Like so much in Rwanda, it must have been funded by aid donated in the aftermath of the genocide, but in this case, the reconstruction intended was to the nation's psyche rather than its physical infrastructure. You don't need to be a genius to work out that the intent of the museum is to define and nurture a shared national identity in a country whose traumatic recent history springs directly from catastrophic polarisation between the two main social groupings - the peasant Hutus and the Tutsi elite.
The structure is brand, spanking new and beautifully designed, with a series of interlinked exhibition halls that are airy and maximise natural light. The museum aims to provide an overview of all aspects of Rwandan identity, ranging from its geology, flora and fauna to its history, culture and socio-economic background, which isn't exactly an unusual approach, but the high quality of the exhibits and presentation of the material is what lifts it into a different league. To the delight of visitors from the Anglophone world, the display materials are presented in English as well as French and Kinyarwanda.
If you've been to the surprisingly interesting Royal Palace at Nyanza on your way here (which, if you're travelling from Kigali, you'd be well advised to do), much of the exhibit dealing with Rwanda's royal family will already be familiar, but even so, there's more than enough here to keep you happily occupied for an hour or two.
One strong recollection I have of the museum is how the staff were exceptionally courteous and eager to engage with visitors - this was also a feature of the Royal Palace, and it is heartwarming to meet Rwandans who are so keen to share and explain their culture. There's also a pleasant gift shop that sells a range of Rwandan crafts, which is reasonably priced.
If you're visiting, take a few minutes to admire the impressively maintained gardens - the only adjective that I can think of that's appropriate to convey their orderliness is 'manicured'.
Chimp trekking is a rewarding pain in the neck!
Let's start with the basics: chimp trekking is a literal pain in the neck, but worth it for the outcome!
Your neck will hurt because, unlike gorillas, chimps are (relatively) light and nimble, so they nest in trees, rather than on the ground. And, again compared to their more peaceable primate cousins, they are excitable and mobile, neither of which is particularly conducive to spotting. To complicate the matter, chimps build 'night nests' high up in trees and move on daily.
So how to you manage to trek such uncooperative animals? Well, the practical answer is, "with the help of some very motivated trakers and guides", whose service you will pay for dearly in a US dollar denominated fashion, but appreciate at the end.
Trackers are assigned to follow the chimps through the forest during daylight hours (thus aiding their habituation and protecting them from would-be poachers) and they note where the animals establish their night nests. They them return early the next morning to establish that the chimps are still there, allowing the guides (who are in radio contact with the trackers) to bring the tourists in to the nesting sites, aiming to arrive there before the chimps are on the move.
We followed this routine, and dutifully trekked through the forest at dawn, primed with anticipation. We had no idea what to expect, and the first chimp engagement - a cacophany of high decibel hoots of increasing frenzy reverberating around the canopy from one troop member to another - was enough to make the hair rise on the back of our necks (a very primate response).
We were lucky enough to find a group of about ten individuals - from babes in arms to greying old males - with whom we stayed for an hour. They were busy stripping new leaves from the top of a very tall tree, and so what ensued was a tantalising game of 'peekaboo', as various limbs popped in and out of view. Then, with only a few minutes left, they decided that they had exhausted what the tree had to offer, and moved over to the next tree one by one, finally giving us the clear sightings that we'd been praying for. Quite wonderful, but I think that it will be my primeval response to their hooting that will stay with me as the most enduring memory of our encounter.
There are about 500 chimps in Nyungwe which live in small groups located in different sections of the park. Given that their locations are so closely monitored by park staff during daylight hours, your chances of seeing at least some of them if you're on a chimp trekking tour are very good (I have seen over a 90% success rate quoted in several sources, although I can't personally attest to this).
The only downside to the experience is that the chimps - at least in this location - are resolutely arboreal, and only descend to ground level as a default. In the very special hour of contact time you're allowed with them, they didn't come down to ground level once, and you are left craning your neck to get the best view possible, so bring your binoculars and the longest possible camera lens that you can beg, steal or borrow to make the most of the experience.
All I can say is that it was well worth it, but that our chiropractor has directly benefited as a result!
Chimps aren't the only primates you may see
The gorillas and the chimps are such well established megastars of Rwandan wildlife, that it's easy to overlook the fact that the rainforests of the Nyungwe and Volcanoes National Parks are home to many more species of primate.
Nyungwe has an impressive eleven species of resident primate, which is a tally that you'll struggle to better in any other park or nature reserve. These are:
Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)
Adolf Friedrich's Angola Colobus (Colobus angolensis ruwenzori)
L'Hoest's Monkey (Cercopithecus l'hoesti)
Silver Monkey (Cercopithecus doggetti)
Golden Monkey (Cercopithecus kandti)
Hamlyn's Owl faced Monkey (Cercopithecus hamlyni)
Red-tailed Monkey (Cercopithecus ascanius)
Dent's Mona Monkey (Cercopithecus denti)
Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus)
Olive Baboon (Papio anubis)
Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena)
Of course, whether you'll get to see all - or even most of these - is unlikely, and depends on a largely random combination of what the weather's like, how long you stay, how much trekking you're prepared to do, how good a guide you have and (most importantly) how lucky you are. Only chimp sightings on a guided tour are pretty well guaranteed, so the most sensible approach is to temper your expectations accordingly, and treat every sighting as a bonus.
In Nyungwe, by far the easiest to spot are the distinctive black and white l'Houest's monkey, which are often seen in the main road close to the Uwinka Interpretive Centre. However, for reasons that I can't explain, we don't have a single decent photo of them - perhaps because we got a little blase about them and were preoccupied by trying to look for the less common species? Vervet monkeys are also relatively easy to see for the same reasons: they stay in fairly large groups and are less wary of human activity than other species, which means that you have a better chance of spotting them close to roads and tracks.
Nyungwe is also famous for the huge troops of Angolan colobus monkeys, which are the largest groups of monkeys recorded anywhere in the world. There are reports of troops comprising up to 500 individuals - which is less of a troop and more of an army - which is an unimaginably large number of monkeys in one place and must be an astonishing sight.
The monkey in the main photo is a Mona monkey, which we spotted whilst we were chimp trekking.
If you're hoping to spot primates - or indeed any other forest dwelling wildlife, it really makes sense to bring a set of binoculars and/or the longest camera lens that you can lay your hands on. Even in this relatively habituated environment, the animals are still wary of human contact - perhaps because they've been hunted up until recently for bush meat? - and usually keep their distance by staying high up in the forest canopy. It adds hugely to the experience if you can actually get a good look at the animals and observe their behaviour. It's also a kindness to the folks at home if you return and inflict on them photos of your holiday in which the main drawcards are more than blurry shapes on a distant branch!
Follow this link for some practical, non-specialist guidance on photography and camera equipment.
Tea as far as the eye can see ...
I love tea. When there's tea on offer, my Irish heritage comes unapologetically to the fore, and I can happily consume mugs of the stuff all day long until it's beer o'clock.
The area around Nyungwe is prime tea growing country, and the Gisakura Reception Office and Guest House abut the tea estate of the same name. Tea thrives in the same frost-free, high altitude, high rainfall climate as the montane rainforest that it replaced, and without the intervention of conservationists, it's almost certain that much of the thousand odd square kilometres of forest that remains in the park would have been cleared for agriculture.
Tea is an extremely attractive crop, with glossy bright green leaves that seem to glisten in the sun. It's very photogenic and I had fun trying to capture the almost architectural patterns that the bushes make on the undulating landscape.
The structure shown is where the tea pickers deposit their full bags of leaves. Each labourer is compensated on the basis of weight picked, and as only the tender new tips are used for tea production, it takes a lot of effort to produce even a packetsworth of tea.
Rwandan tea is well regarded - particularly if you prefer your tea black - and makes a good gift to bring home with you provided that your home country doesn't have restrictions on the import of agricultural products.
Cattle so spoiled that they're serenaded!
I never thought that I'd get particularly excited by a herd of cattle in a paddock, but that was before I met the Ankole cattle at the Royal Palace in Rukali.
Crude puns aside, these animals have the biggest horns I've ever seen in my life. Both males and females have horns, and once you realise the ceremonial significance of these beasts to the former royal family of Rwanda, it seems only fitting that they should be blessed with such extravagant head gear.
Once upon a time, only the royal family were allowed to own Ankole cattle, and much of the ritual revolved around a culture that was bewilderingly reliant on dairy produce. The royal family apparently subsisted on little more than milk and beer, and whilst I wouldn't argue with their choice of beverages, when you look at photos of the royal family taken during the colonial period, you see individuals who were, for all intents and purposes, suffering from a privileged form of self-imposed malnutrition. Like the Masai (to whom they were distantly related), they were exceedingly tall, but they were also incredibly thin, and clearly suffering from vitamin deficiencies.
One of the most interesting displays in the royal compound is the hut occupied by the keeper of the royal milk. This was an exalted position, which was filled by a virgin who wasn't allowed to marry, and the symbolism and ritual that developed around this role is both fascinating and Freudian.
Only the female cattle were of value because of their milk producing potential. All but a couple of males retained for stud purposes were slaughtered, but it was not permitted to eat their meat, so the carcasses were simply buried. In a culture where food must always have been in short supply, it would seem to be an extraordinary waste, but of course that's exactly the sort of ritual that would serve to underpin the status of the royal family.
The cattle were so prized that they were entrusted to the care of cowherds who sang to them. Each shepherd had his own song that he sang to the beasts that were entrusted to his care, and if you visit the royal compound, you can actually witness a cowherd serenading the cows. It's a surreal and unsettlingly intimate experience, and left me feeling slightly voyeuristic.
The Ankole are beautiful animals, with mahogany coloured coats, and it's not hard to see why they were so highly prized. You're allowed to stroke the adults who approach the crooning cowherd, but the highlight is being able to meet the little calves in the adjacent shed, who will steal your heart away.
Beautiful views from the exclusive Virunga Lodge
Why am I reviewing the Virunga Lodge under the 'Things to Do' rather than the 'Accommodation' category? Simply because the rates for this exclusive hotel are such that we couldn't dream of staying here - but happily that did not preclude us from enjoying its charms for a couple of hours.
The Virunga Lodge is less than half an hour's drive from Ruhingeri, just a short detour east off the road towards the Ugandan border and Kisoro beyond (which is the most logical route if you're lucky enough to be heading onto the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and South West Uganda's many other delights). It has an exquisite location, perched on top of a hill overlooking twin crater lakes: Burera and Ruhondo, which are studded with small islands. The view is aweinspiring, and even though we were there on a rainy day, when the lakes were only visible as tantalisingly brief glimpses through the cloud, it was still one of the most impressive locations for a hotel I've ever seen.
Despite the exclusivity of the lodge, visitors are permitted provided that they don't disturb the tranquility of the ambience. We paid something like USD7 per cup of tea/coffee/hot chocolate (March 2013), but the seemingly extortionate cost of the beverages was worth it - dare I say, excellent value for money - for the opportunity to sit on the verandah and drink in the glorious atmosphere.
There is also a small circular nature trail adjacent to the hotel car park, which is a great place for bird watching: watching the hyperactive sunbirds play hide and seek in the misty vegetation is enough to bring out the inner 'twitcher' in people who are utterly disinterested in birds in their everyday life!
Hiking the watershed between Nile and Congo basins
The stunning Nyungwe National Park has many claims to fame, one of which is that it straddles the watershed between the Congo and Nile Basins.
I freely admit to having staged this photo: Small Son had announced that he needed a wee stop, and so I asked him to hold on for a kilometre or two until we reached the catchment divide. He then elected to make his small but significant contribution to the Congo Basin.
One of Nyungwe's myriad attractions is the fact that it contains a number of diverse and fascinating hiking trails, which I'd dearly love to return to explore further. We only had time to do the short Igisghigishigi Trail around the canopy walkway ourselves, but we met someone who'd completed the Congo-Nile divide trail, which is apparently 42.2 km long (coincidentally the length of a marathon?), takes 3-4 days and is categorised as being 'hard' (which rather worried me, as the one we did was classed as being 'easy' and still was no cakewalk).
Nyungwe also contains a spring which is one of the southern sources of the Nile that was discovered as recently as 2006 - I say 'one' because there are several tributaries that feed the Nile that originate in this area, and thus, this is not an exclusive claim to fame. It can apparently be reached on a day hike from the Gisovu tea factory, and all I can say is that I hope that it's more impressive than its counterpart 'southern source of the Nile' in Burundi!
For more details on these and other hikes, e-mail this address.
Farming fish for a protein-deprived population
I've mentioned elsewhere that Rwanda has a phenomenally high population density, which, when combined with an acute shortage of flat flat enough for cultivation, makes it a challenge to grow enough food to feed its people.
If it's difficult enough to grow crops to feed the nation, addressing the dire protein shortage in Rwanda is an even greater problem. Native wildlife has long since been hunted to the brink of extinction (except in the national parks), what little flat land exists is used for crop cultivation rather than livestock and many of the lakes - most notably Lake Kivu, which is by far the largest lake in the country - are not particularly productive fisheries because of their steepsided geometry.
As a result, protein - and particularly meat - is extremely expensive and beyond the budget for most Rwandans except for special occasions. The most common meats are goat and chicken, since these are the most adaptable domesticated animals, and you'll also encounter tilapia (fish) farms dotted across the countryside, often in combination with rice paddies. The wooden structures that have been constructed over the fish ponds are chicken sheds, and the chicken faeces fall directly into the water below, providing a valuable source of feed supplementation.
Engorged rivers that were once choked with bodies
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Rwanda's greenly serene and peaceful landscape is that it gives no hint of the horror that played out there less than two decades ago.
An article I've randomly selected from the New York Times on 21 May 1994 says it all:
"As many as 10,000 bodies from Rwanda's massacres have washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria in Uganda in the last few weeks, creating an acute health hazard, a senior Ugandan official says.
"Cloaking the countryside with the stench of death, the bodies -- as many as 100 an hour -- are being washed ashore in the Rakai district of southern Uganda or onto islands in Lake Victoria and have been seen as far north as Entebbe."
The bloated, putrefying corpses posed a major health hazard to the downstream communities, threatening to contaminate both water sources and fisheries. The collection and disposal of the corpses was a nightmarish undertaking for the Ugandan authorities, and to add to the horror, many of the bodies were mutilated (reports of children impaled on sticks and women whose breasts and genitals had been hacked off were common) and must have been unimaginably traumatic for the people undertaking this gristly task.
Refugee camps still remain from the genocide
Given that the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994, you could be forgiven for thinking that refugees would be a thing of the past.
Unfortunately this is not so, and there are still camps in place which accommodate people displaced as a result of the conflict. This one is just south of Nyungwe in the south west of the country, and rather than being a temporary place of refuge that it was intended as, it shows every sign of becoming a permanent fixture (if it isn't so already).
The number of people displaced as a result of the genocide was so enormous as to boggle the brain - the lowest estimates run into hundreds of thousands, and the real figure probably hovers around the two million mark. The numbers are difficult to confirm as so many fled across the border into neighbouring countries - particularly into Uganda, which has close cultural links with Rwanda - rather than into camps. Our own guide (who was of mixed Rwandan and Ugandan heritage) hosted family members from Rwanda who fled into south western Uganda, and fed, clothed and accommodated them for several years until they felt it was safe enough to return.
The dinky royal palace the Belgians built
In the 1930s, the Belgians agreed to build the Rwandan King a 'modern' palace befitting a modern African monarch.
It's hard to imagine a less impressive royal palace, and the fact that it was apparently deemed acceptable suggests that the King was either easily pleased or had no conception of the splendour and scale of other royal residences in Europe or other parts of the world. It's not just the pint sized scale of the palace that's problematic - it is a curiously characterless building built in a sanitised Art Deco style with no architecturally distinguished features, and has the air of a minor colonial office building.
The 'modern' palace was in use from the early 1930s to the late 1950s when it was replaced by a more impressive palace constructed on a hillside overlooking Nyanza. The most recent palace was in use until the monarchy was officially abolished in 1961, and is now home to what is apparently a very good museum of modern Rwandan art, which we unfortunately didn't have time to visit.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the building is the small garage which still boasts an inspection pit that was used to service the Royal Volkswagen!
Should we do the chimps or the gorillas?
Frankly, I never thought that I'd find myself trekking chimps.
I was raised on the children's show, Daktari, including Clarence the cross-eyed lion and Judy the chimp (arguably the most natural actor in the entire hammy ensemble), but primates have never been a big deal for either myself nor my husband. But if you find yourself in the Great Lakes region, which is the last bastion of the African great apes, then it would probably be remiss to pass the opportunity by, and probably for most people, that's probably the main reason why they decided to visit in the first place.
I had previously had a fabulously close encounter with orang utans in Sabah (Borneo) and subsequently got up close and personal with gorillas on the same trip (in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda). But chimps are different. Both orang utans and gorillas are esentially gentle giants, who - unless provoked - are peaceable herbivorous primates, comfortable to coexist with their environment and the visitors that come their way. Look into their eyes, and you sense an inlking of kinship, but one of distant relatives.
By contrast, chimps are aggressive omnivores, and altogether too close to ourselves for comfort. Look at the photo above, and you see a male in his prime, jaw set pugnaciously with an expression that speaks of an animal that is in control of its environment. These are animals that hunt intelligently in packs for colubus monkeys to supplement their protein and have group dynamics that mirror our own social relationships. These are our close cousins, our DNA doppelgangers, and to watch them is to gain an insight into the contiuum that links us to the animal kingdom.
In view of the budget busting cost involved, it's natural to ask the question: do I see the gorillas or the chimps? The simplistic answer is, to hell with the cost .. you've come so far (and probably at such considerable expense) that you can't not see both. The more relevant question is WHERE you decide see the apes, since this is possible in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Of the three options, Rwanda is probably the most expensive but apparently the most easily accessible. At the time we visited (March 2013) Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda offered lower fees for gorilla trekking (by a substantial USD250 per person, although you also have to factor in the USD50 visa fee for Uganda), and the chimps in Kibale (also Uganda) are apparently more commonly seen on the ground, which makes for easier viewing. At the time of our trip, the eastern section of DRC was in the midst of one of its periodic meltdowns, and thus inadvisable for all but the most intrepid of tourists.
The Kamiranzovu Marsh: the land that time forgot
Of all the extraordinary places that we were lucky enough to visit on our trip to Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, this is the one that touched me most.
The Kamiranzovu Marsh is a rare high altitude wetland that is located just to the west of Nyungwe's Uwinka Reception Centre. It's visible on the northern side of the road, although at the time of our visit (March 2013), the vegetation at the viewpoint has been neglected, so you're better to walk a couple of hundred metres back up the road to get a clear view.
I can tell you that it used to be the favoured hangout of buffalo and elephant, and that Rwanda's last known elephant was poached here in the 1990s - tragically not the only living things that were being killed in droves in these parts around at the time.
I understand that it is possible to organise hikes around the Kamiranzovu Marsh from the Uwinka Reception Centre, and it is at the absolute top of my list for a return trip to Nyungwe (which I think is by far the most interesting region that we visited in Rwanda). If you're planning a Rwanda trip, then do yourself a favour, and allow yourself at least three nights in this beautiful and underrated area to allow you to experience the chimp trekking, the aerial walkwalk and at least one of the other iconic walks such as Kamiranzovu - if you're feeling intrepid, then there is also the option of the trek along the Nile-Congo watershed.
Quite simply, I'd return here in a heartbeat - it's that good!
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