Expert Reviews – Nyungwe Forest NP

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A primate’s paradise
Overall rating

The first time I went to Nyungwe forest, I was totally overwhelmed by its scenic beauty. Just driving in on the main road gives you views over this vast montane forest extending over rolling hills into the distance. Early morning is the best time to witness this sight, as the mist rises through the dense canopy. There are 13 primate species listed and you’ll be able to tick off a few monkeys on your drive in. There are several hikes and primate walks to keep you busy for days. For most people the chimp tracking is the main reason to visit, but I was particularly keen to see the big troops of over 300 colobus monkeys that reside here. I had to scramble through thick undergrowth to get to a place our guide had heard their distinctive calls. As I sat down on the forest floor for a minute, a rare localized red-throated alethe hopped up close to me to snap up some insects I had disturbed in the leaf litter. To my delight, this bird just saw me as the harmless primate that I am. After enjoying each other’s company for 10 minutes – me taking photos and it catching insects – we went our own ways. And I did get to see the colobus monkeys as well.

A fairytale forest
Overall rating

Nyungwe only became a national park in 2004, established to protect its lush rainforest that is home to a staggering 13 species of primates. These include huge troops of colobus monkeys that look like aging hippies with long white beards, plus grey-cheeked mangabey and chimpanzees. Chimps are also the main attraction in nearby Cyamudongo Forest and we were lucky enough to see several swinging in the trees and a young mum giving her baby a piggyback.

It really is like walking through a fairy tale here, with towering mahoganies and ebony trees, and it’s home to east Africa’s highest canopy walk, Uwinka Overlook, where you teeter on a gently swaying bridge some 50m above the forest. Luckily, I don’t suffer from vertigo, but people who struggle with heights might find this unnerving! This is just one part of 130km of walking trails – you’ll have to take a guide, but they serve to enhance the whole experience and help to bring the secret life of the forest alive.

Superb forest all-rounder
Overall rating

Nyungwe protects what is the largest and arguably most impressive montane forest in East Africa. One of the top birding sites in the region, the obvious highlight is the garish great blue turaco, which is often seen gliding between the trees like a psychedelic turkey. For more serious twitchers, its checklist of 310 bird species includes 27 Albertine Rift endemics, of which three (Albertine owlet, red-collared babbler and Rockefeller’s sunbird) are otherwise found only in inaccessible parts of the DR Congo. Mammal-wise, the main draw for most is the opportunity to track a habituated group of chimpanzees, humanity’s closest evolutionary relative. But a dozen other monkey species are present, notably the large and unusually terrestrial L’Hoest’s monkey, an Albertine Rift endemic with an unmistakable bold white ‘beard’. A habituated 350-strong troop of the black-and-white Ruwenzori colobus, resident in the forest around the main campsite, is thought to be the largest single troop of arboreal primates in Africa. Other praiseworthy features of this park are the magnificent setting, high standards of guiding, and an excellent network of trails that includes the region’s only suspended canopy walkway.

Live like Tarzan
Overall rating

The first time I visited Nyungwe National Park, within the space of 24 hours I watched a habituated troop of colobus monkeys frolic in the branches of great rainforest trees, stared in wonder at a beautiful lime-green snake, was wowed by the iridescent colours of sunbirds hovering above tropical flowers, cooled off in the spray of a jungle waterfall, and watched our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, scour the forest for breakfast. Yes, Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest is a place you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Despite being considered one of the most biodiverse forest parks in Africa, Nyungwe often plays second fiddle to Volcanoes National Park and its gorillas. Yet I prefer Nyungwe. There is a large variety of activities available – from forest canopy walkways to bird watching – and diverse forest wildlife that is often surprisingly easy to see. One of the best things about the park is the lack of other tourists. Don’t be surprised if there’s no more than a handful of you sharing these rolling rainforest hills. I also really enjoyed the forest hikes to waterfalls and look-out points. Wildlife wasn’t the focus of these walks, but with the help of the expert guides there was always something interesting to see. The one – very minor disappointment – was the chimpanzee tracking. You’ll almost certainly get to see the chimps but they aren’t yet fully habituated to visitors and you can’t always get that close. If you really want to have an in-your-face chimp encounter (and yes, you do!) then Uganda’s Kibale Forest or Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains are better bets. All up though, Nyungwe is possibly the most rewarding park in Rwanda.

Fantastic forest and challenging chimpanzees
Overall rating

Proclaimed in 2004, Nyungwe Forest is a relatively new national park. The 1020km² protected area comprises dense – and largely untouched – tropical montane rainforest, prolific mountain streams, cascading waterfalls, over 130km of forest hiking trails, spectacular bird watching and exciting primate-spotting excursions. The biodiverse forest is also home to 13 primate species, including chimpanzee and Rwenzori colobus – both of which can be tracked on foot as part of a guided safari trek. On occasion, colobus monkey aggregations have been known to number several hundred animals in a single troop: quite a sight to behold.

But, for most visitors, it is Nyungwe’s chimpanzees that are the star attraction and most sought-after safari experience. Setting out early in the morning, chimps are tracked in groups of no more than eight tourists and, when located, you will have just one hour in their company. Sightings typically aren’t as consistent or as clear as the gorillas, since the chimps tend to reside in dense forest, but – provided you manage to locate them – their entertaining playfulness makes the long forest trek all the more worthwhile.

While Rwanda’s chimps are not as habituated or readily seen as those in more popular chimp trekking destinations (such as Kibale in Uganda), the Nyungwe experience is much more enjoyable. You have to work for your chimp sightings, but you get a real sense of privilege and true wilderness adventure. It is hard not to feel a connection with the towering forest of ebonies and mahoganies, as you search for our closest relatives with only a handful of like-minded intrepid safari aficionados for company.

Even if you aren’t lucky enough to enjoy a quality chimpanzee sighting, the forest’s 310 brightly coloured bird species (including 27 Albertine Rift endemics) are constantly flitting around, butterflies are everywhere, and orchids abound. But to get a real sense of the scale of Nyungwe Forest, try out East Africa’s highest canopy walkway with its gravity-defying bridge suspended 50m above the forest canopy. It’s not for the faint of heart (especially not for anyone with a fear of heights), but – for those brave souls that scale it – the views of Nyungwe sprawling out below you are unforgettable.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.8/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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