Extending for 1,000 square kilometers across the majestic hills of southeast Rwanda, Nyungwe National Park is the largest block of montane forest in East or Central Africa, and one of the most ancient, dating back to before the last Ice Age.
Nyungwe National Park is located in south western Rwanda in a town called Cyangungu near Lake Kivu and near the border with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park currently occupies 970 km² of land and started as a forest reserve in 1903 before becoming a full National Park in Rwanda more recently.
Nyungwe forest is the parks most valuable resource. It is the largest remaining montane forest in Africa and has been in existence since the Ice Age period. Nyungwe Forest is believed to be one of the sources of the great River Nile. Because of the alternating mountainous, hilly and flat terrain in the park, the plant diversity is amazing. Over 1,060 plant and tree species can be found in the park with the taller tree species like the Carapa, Cyathea manniana, Engtandophrama, Newtonia and the Prinaria exelsium standing at heights of 1,900m above sea level. Species like the Balthacaria, Hagenia Syzygium, Macaranga and Podocarpus thrive at heights of 2500m and above. The Sub Alpine vegetation consisting of Shrubs and Bamboo like the Podocarpus, Erica johnstoni and the Phillipia live at heights of 2,950m above sea level. Other vegetation species like mosses and ferns are found throughout the forest.
Because of the rich variety of plant and animal life in the forest, the government of Rwanda has used significant resources with support from other conservation organizations to position the park into one of top tourist attractions while on a safari in Rwanda.
A uniquely rich centre of floral diversity, the forest has more than 200 different types of tree, and a myriad of flowering plants including the other-worldly giant lobelia and a host of colorful orchids. Nyungwe is most alluring for its primates: 13 species in all, including humankind’s closest living relative the chimpanzee, as well as the handsome L’Hoest’s monkey and hundred-strong troops of the delightfully acrobatic Angola Columbus.
The most important ornithological site in Rwanda, Nyungwe harbors’ almost 300 bird species of which two dozen are restricted to a handful of montane forests on the Albertine Rift. The avian highlight of Nyungwe National Park is the great blue turacos – an outlandish blue, red and green bird which streams from tree to tree like a procession of streamlined psychedelic turkeys. An extensive network of well-maintained walking trails leads through the forest to various waterfalls and viewing points. A comfortably rustic rest house and perfectly situated campsite lie alongside the main road, and the reserve can readily be visited as a day trip from the towns of Butare and Cyangungu. Nyungwe does, however, deserve more time: anybody who wants to track chimps and see several varieties of smaller primate will need two days there – and dedicated birdwatchers might never want to leave!
Things to Do in Nyungwe National Park
A biodiversity spectacle; this is the best way to describe 1,015sq kilometers of land filled with over 85 mammal, 310 bird, 1,050 plant, 120 butterfly and 38 reptile species. Nyungwe Forest National Park is the place where this entire fauna and flora thrives and blooms. It takes a drive on roads winding through tea estates and a roadside parade of Rwenzori Colobus monkeys to get to the Southwestern end of Rwanda where the park is located.
Nyungwe forest is currently the best place to track chimpanzees in Rwanda. Nyungwe forest has about 400 individual chimpanzees that live in different clans. Only two groups are habituated. Chimpanzee tracking in Nyungwe Forest is a year round activity. Every morning groups of tourist set off as early at 4:00am under the guidance of experienced guides to search for one of the two habituated clans found the Uwinka and Cyamudongo sections of the park. One needs to be prepared for the demanding activity which requires following highly mobile primates who do not necessarily follow the main trails but can wander off to thick untouched forest.
However, once they settle down, visitors get a chance to spot the primates sitting on top of the trees, feeding and grooming. After watching the group dynamics for a while, you will be surprised by how much they behave like we humans. In order to have the best experience, trackers should come with long sleeve shirts and pants, hiking boots, a hat, a rain jacket, a walking stick and binoculars for spotting the chimps on top of trees. Do not forget to pack lots of drinking water bottles and light snack to renew your energies. In order to have a comfortable time tracking the chimps, we recommend that you hire the services of a porter to help carry any extra heavy luggage and equipment.
Although Chimpanzee tracking is the dominant primate activity, some tourist come with the purpose of seeing the other smaller primates like the Angola Colobus Monkeys, Dent’s Mona Monkeys, Grey Cheeked Mangabeys, Hamlyn’s Monkeys, L’Hoest’s Monkeys, Olive Baboon, Red tailed Monkeys, Silver Monkeys, Vervet Monkeys, White and Black and Colobus monkeys. Groups of golden monkeys have been spotted in the park but because of their small numbers, finding them is difficult. The most popular species among tourists is the arboreal Ruwenzori Colobus that feeds on leaves and is identifiable by the contrasting black and white (tail and whiskers) colors. All the monkey species move in troops that can go beyond 100.
Nyungwe’s small primates can be tracked using four trails. The Kamiranzovu Trail involves walking through orchids and marshes to spot some of the primates. The Bigugu Trail takes you up to the peak of Mount Bigugu to see more of the monkeys already sited in other trails and others only seen in higher altitudes. If you are interested in Colobus Monkeys, then the Waterfall Trail that starts from around the Gisakura Guest House up to the Tea estate is just perfect.
Canopy Walk in Nyungwe forest:
Apart from chimpanzee trekking and nature walks, one of the best canopy walk trails in Africa is found in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest. The forest canopy walk was introduced in 2010 in an effort to diversify tourism activities in the country. The canopy walkway is 50 meters high hence offering an aerial view of the forest and the creatures therein. The walkway sways left and right as one move from one point to another hence requiring some confidence to complete the walk. You need to be warned in advance if you have a fear of heights.
Visit Coffee and Tea Plantations
Rwanda is known for exporting some of the finest tea and coffee in Africa. In fact, tea is the leading export of the country while the quality of the coffee has won many international awards. Coffee and tea farming is aided in part by the fertile volcanic soils, high altitude and good weather in the country. Coffee and Tea plantation tours can be organized for tourists who are interested in learning about how the two cash crops are grown/processed. The tours involve observing how the workers plant the crop, pick, select, wash, dry and turn them into final products ready for consumption. Every tour should end with tasting locally prepared coffee- also known as African tea (Coffee or tea mixed with milk and other flavors). Contact Pfunda tea plantation if you are interested in one of their tours.
The Congo Nile Trail:
The Congo Nile trail is a new addition by the government of Rwanda as it diversifies the tourism attractions in the country. The Congo Nile trail is 140 miles long and can be traversed using a motorcycle, bike or on foot. If one decided to walk, it may take 10 days to cover the entire trail. The Congo Nile Trail is one of the best biking trails in East Africa. The trail rewards bikers with amazing scenery and all that is good about the Rwanda countryside ,beautiful rolling hills, tea plantations, rural villages, lake Kivu and Nyungwe National Park. By the time one completes the trail, they would have an understanding of how the local people go about with their lives. Accommodation is not a problem along the way as there are many campsites and hotels to choose from. You could even move with your own tent and set it up outside churches or schools. You can hire a bike and someone to accompany you from a reputable tour operator.
For those who love birds, Nyungwe forest is arguably the best place to go birding in Rwanda. According to Birdlife International, Nyungwe National Park has over 300 bird species of which 27 can only be found in the Albertine region. Because of the biodiversity in the park and particularly its rich collection of birds, Birdlife International considers it the most important site for conservation in Rwanda.
Because some of the bird species inhabit specific sections of the park, one needs to take a guided bird walk. Bird walks need to be booked with the Rwanda Development Board at a cost of US$50. The Birds Guides have knowledge about the characteristics of most of the bird species and where to find them. Their best method of identifying them is by bird calls. We recommend that you use more than one of the established trails to ensure that you have spotted most of the bird species. The dry season is perfect for birding because migrant birds usually flock the forest to find food and escape harsh winter conditions in Europe.