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Land of a Thousand Hills - Kigali to Nyungwe National Park

RWANDA | Tuesday, 15 October 2013 | Views [1884]

Day 6

The outside of the building was peppered with bullet holes. Inside the back lower left corner a concentration of holes on both walls and on the floor along with two larger holes in the floor marked where most of the bullets had been aimed and where 2 grenades had exploded respectively. On the back wall of the building a gold coloured plaque was mounted showing the faces of the ten Belgian UN peacekeeping soldiers killed on 7th April 1994, the day after the Presidents’ plane had been shot down and the beginning of the genocide. On one side of the plaque was a Rwandan flag and on the other was a Belgian flag. A blackboard at one end of the room was covered in messages, some from the soldiers’ relatives, most asking why and condemning the killings and those responsible. Ten stone pillars stood outside the building, each one with horizontal notches cut in the stone, the number of notches on each signifying the age of the soldier that the pillar represented. Most had been in their twenties.

Memorial site to the 10 UN soldiers killed in 1994.

On the day of their deaths the UN soldiers had received the order to go to the Prime Minister’s house to escort her to the national radio station where she would make a speech appealing for an end to the violence. When they arrived at her house early in the morning the Belgian soldiers were attacked by Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) soldiers, disarmed and arrested along with five Ghanaian soldiers who were responsible for protecting the Prime Minister. Following their arrest, the soldiers negotiated their surrender with the promise of being taken to a UN base. The soldiers from Ghana were set free, but the FAR soldiers took the Belgians to the Kigali camp where they were tortured and then killed.

The memorial stood close to the Serena Hotel in Kigali where I had stayed the night before. Amon had told me about it when he dropped me off the day before. The memorial and building couldn’t be seen from the road but the guard at the gate kindly went out of his way to show me where it was. It was quite a shocking and sobering start to the second part of my trip but worth a visit just to understand another part of the history and the darker days of Rwanda. It made me appreciate even more the peaceful and forward looking country that I was experiencing.

As always Amon was right on time to pick me up at the hotel. Today we were driving southwest to Nyungwe National Park, Africa’s largest protected mountain rainforest and home to thirteen species of primate including Chimpanzee and Angola Colobus Monkey. The forest park is in the Albertine Rift, a zone that contains more endemic birds, mammals, and amphibians than any other region in Africa. The Albertine Rift is a 1200 km long valley in central Africa and is the western arm of the East African Rift that is created by the pulling apart or rifting of tectonic plates. I was hoping to see chimpanzees in the area but I’d heard they’re a little more elusive than the gorillas so I was expecting a tough hike to find them, if I was to see them at all.

Before reaching the park the landscape was very similar to that going west from Kigali. Hilly lush green farmland with terraced fields dominated the scenery. Unlike the first part of my trip, I was the only passenger on this journey. It was great to get the chance to talk with Amon one on one about Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, our families, travelling and the sights along the way. In every direction I looked the country lived up to its’ name of Land of a Thousand Hills. In the marshlands rice was grown and in one area I could see the bright orange coveralls worn by prisoners who are put to work in the fields. This initiative gives prisoners agricultural skills which they can use to gain employment when they finish their term, instills a sense of social responsibility and self discipline and provides the prison with food rather than relying totally on tax payers’ money.

As we got closer to the national park the farmland was taken over by bright green tea plantations filling the valley floors. As Nyungwe National Park came into view I was mesmerized. This was my first ever sight of such a huge tropical rainforest. The densely packed forest canopy looked like bunches of broccoli heads with their intensely green rounded bushy tops, some tinged with orange. Over 200 species of tree could be found in the park. It was so beautiful and looked impenetrable. I couldn’t imagine how long it must have taken to build a road through this forest that went on as far as the eye could see. The forest canopy reflected the curves of the landscape as the road rolled up and down and around the hills. Random patches of fog hung between the trees, giant ferns grew between, up and over the trees, and vines hung down from the branches adding to the mystical prehistoric atmosphere of the forest. The forest is hundreds of thousands of years old and the presence of humans is thought to date back at least fifty thousand years.

Rainforest

My lodge for the night was located on the other side of the park. Driving through the park we stopped a couple of times to view some Mountain Monkeys that were hanging out in the trees above and at the side of the road. Some shied away when we stopped, but it was such a privilege to see them even briefly in their natural environment. Large trucks were common on this road that led to Congo and as a result the road was quite worn but there are plans to improve it in the future.

Mountain Monkey

 

We exited the forest and passed through more bright green tea plantations. Just off the main road a dirt track led down to the Nyungwe Forest Lodge and my bed for the next few nights. The main lodge, a beautiful single storey dark wood and stone building with floor to ceiling windows was situated right in the middle of the tea plantation with my wooden cabin for the night located at the border between the plantation and the rainforest. It was stunning. The main lodge was a long open plan building split into a restaurant and a communal lounge area, both of which had large log fireplaces crackling at either end. It was the perfect place to relax in the evening, do some writing, enjoy dinner and chat with the lodge staff and other guests.

Nyungwe Forest Lodge

 

Day 7

My wakeup call came at 4am. This morning I was heading into the forest to look for chimpanzees. I could hear the rain falling on the roof. So far I’d been lucky with the weather. The mornings when I was out hiking had been dry and the thunder showers had only come in the afternoon but my luck looked it was going to change today. That was what waterproofs were made for though and no amount of rain was going to put me off. Other than the lodge staff I was the only one up this early and after a tea and a light snack I was handed a packed breakfast in a brown paper bag for the road. Just before 05:00 Amon picked me up and drove me to the park office where we met the guide. The other people who had booked the trip had cancelled probably due to the rain which was great for me since I now had a private guide for the morning.

We drove past tea plantations and farmland to a small forest about an hour from the office that at one time would have been part of the larger national park forest but due to cultivation it had been disconnected. There is a plan being proposed to claim back some of the land and replant a forest corridor to reconnect the area with the main forest in order to give the animal population a larger space to live in. This is another great example of how Rwanda considers conservation to be a priority. As daylight broke, people emerged from their homes to start work in the fields. The rain was beginning to clear and dense low cloud hung around in patches moving slowly across the land with the light wind. We stopped in a clearing and three porters emerged in the hope of gaining some work for the day. A man called John stepped forward to greet me. He was my porter for the morning on this trip.

 The first part of the walk was a gentle downhill but the rain had made the trail muddy and slippery. We walked quickly as the guide explained that it was necessary to start early as the chimpanzees were active early and began a rest period around 09:00. The trail got steeper down into the valley and the trackers came over the radio to say they had already found the chimps. About 10 minutes later a voice came from the bush below the trail. A tracker had come up to lead us down. We left the trail and took a tiger line down the hill through the thick bush. Vines hung from the trees and lay across the ground hidden under foliage and it was easy to get your feet tangled and caught in them but I managed to keep myself upright. We crossed another trail and continued straight down the hill through more bush.  I could see another 3 trackers who were standing looking upwards towards the top of a huge fig tree.

Through the early morning mist I could see the silhouette of a chimpanzee picking figs off the tree near the top. The fig trees bear fruit in June, July and August. All of a sudden a chimp began to communicate starting in low pitched relatively quiet vocals that soon built up to high pitched intermittent screams. A number of other chimps joined in and then all went quiet again. We stood in position watching them but our position wasn’t optimal. When the low cloud passed through we could see only silhouettes but when it was clear the sun was in our eyes looking up so we moved to the other side of the tree. It turned out to be a great move.

Chimp in the fig tree

The chimps were spread out on the fig tree and I could see they shared the tree with Mountain and Mona Monkeys. The small monkeys don’t always live in harmony with the chimps however. Although today they were happily sharing the tree, chimps are unpredictable and some days may attack a monkey and eat it. We watched and listened for some time as the chimps fed on the figs, chased each other around the branches, climbed up and down the trunk and when I zoomed in with the camera I could see a couple of them watching us. The chimps moved quickly and it was hard to get good photos due to the thick foliage and the lighting but it was just amazing to watch and listen to them. The chimps often followed the monkeys as they jumped from branch to branch. The chimps are much heavier than the monkeys and the fig trees are seriously tall so this can be a fatal move for a chimp if a branch isn’t strong enough to hold it.

Chimp climbing down the trunk.

The dominant male chimp gave the signal to move on and the chimps one by one began to climb down the tree trunk. The guide whispered that each of the chimps usually follow the same route down so I kept the camera on the same tree as they moved on. It was lucky to see the chimps in the fig tree and to see them climb down close to us but the best was yet to come. From our new position we stood close to a fallen tree near the tree where the chimps came down. I couldn’t believe it when a few of them used this fallen tree just a few feet away to move to another area. The chimps were much bigger than I expected them to be and they looked so powerful. Their features weren’t soft like the gorillas. The majority of the chimps had moved on but a few remained in the fig tree so we continued to observe them. It wasn’t long before some of the chimps moved back again crossing the fallen tree right in front of me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I’d been. Once again I felt so privileged to be in this amazing country.

Chimp moving across the fallen tree.

 

Just as we were getting ready to leave two of the males got into a confrontation. The chimps were screeching at each other from the top of the fig tree and one chased the other down and onto the ground in front of us. I could see them through the bush as they ran past continuing to scream loudly at each other. As they ran off into the forest their voices faded and I hoped the confrontation would remain a purely verbal one.

Time passed quicker than I would have liked and it was time to head back to the car. I tipped and thanked the trackers then we started the climb back up the hill. The altitude here was 2500m and my lungs could feel it as we hiked up but it felt good to get a good burn on the muscles and push myself physically after eating so many good meals in the last week so we powered on resting only to get a picture of a huge fig tree just like the one the chimps had been in. When we returned it was just before 09:00 and the day was just starting. The cloud had lifted and the sun was lighting up the forest canopy. It was a beautiful morning. I cracked open the packed breakfast that the lodge had supplied and shared it with my guides and John my porter. I thanked John, tipped him and waved him goodbye as we started back to the lodge.

Amon dropped me off at the lodge and I had the rest of the day to relax and enjoy the grounds of the tea plantation. I went to take a look at the small infinity pool that overlooked the rainforest. Beside the pool sat four mountain bikes that were available for cycling around the plantation. It was a stunning spot. In a room below the pool was a small gym with a floor to ceiling view of the forest. I went back to my cabin, changed out of my hiking boots, grabbed my camera and went back to get a bike. As I cycled around the plantation paths the tea pickers greeted me with “good morning”, waves and smiles. The dark clouds were beginning to roll towards me as lunchtime approached and seemed to enhance the bright green of the tea plants. I enjoyed a quick gym session with a view then had a relaxing swim in the pool stopping now and again to watch for monkeys.

Pool at Nyungwe Forest Lodge

I didn’t see any monkeys from the pool but after the downpour of rain stopped later in the afternoon I could hear what sounded like animals jumping from tree to tree from my room. I looked out the back from the deck to see groups of Mona, Mountain and Grey-Cheeked Mangabey monkeys running from tree to tree mostly following the same line of travel. They were a good 20 to 30 metres away. I heard a rustle in the trees next to my deck and turned around to see a Mangabey monkey walking along the thick branch right in front of me. He stopped and we stared at each other for about 20 seconds. I tried to remember if the door was closed behind me and wondered if he was eyeing up the fruit in the bowl but I didn’t dare turn my back on him. Further away we heard a big crack as a branch collapsed under the weight of a larger monkey jumping onto it. The monkey in front of me quickly turned and ran off to join the rest of the groups. There was never a dull moment here!

Swaleh had been my server at lunch today and he greeted me as soon as I walked into the main lodge in the evening. It was raining again and I came up to enjoy the log fires and some wine before dinner while writing up the days memories. Swaleh was a very tall young man with a huge smile that could light up a room. He was originally from Uganda and had started a university course in civil engineering but was now working to save up some money to finish his studies, although he didn’t seem in a rush to go back to studying and seemed to love working at the lodge which I could completely understand. As I sat writing, all the lodge staff would stop on their way past and chat, asking about the day and making sure I was being looked after. I really enjoyed talking with them so was happy when they had the time to stop for a good while to talk. I was booked to go on a trip to see Colobus Monkeys the next day but it didn’t start until 10:00 so after a beautiful dinner I headed back to the room to enjoy a long sleep with no early wake up.

 

Day 8

The phone rang at 8am. I was already up and getting ready for the day after a restful night. It was the front reception. Amon wanted to talk to me. I had been booked to see the Colobus Monkeys but he had another option he wanted to put to me. A park guide was leading a 4 hour nature walk to a waterfall located in the rainforest and only one other girl was on the trip. There was a chance of seeing the Colobus and other monkeys on the way too as well as learning about the multitude of plants, birds and other animals that inhabited the forest. I was already packing my bag and getting my boots on by the time I put the phone down. Amon knew me well enough now to know that I loved to go on long hikes and the Colobus Monkey trip was only 1 hour long so for me the 4 hour hike was a huge bonus. I rushed to get ready and by the time I had some breakfast he was back at the lodge to collect me.

We drove to the office to pick up the other girl and the park guide then drove back through the tea plantation to the start of the walk. It was a stunning morning and Lake Kivu could be seen from the plantation. Across the other side of the lake was the Democratic Republic of Congo. A German lady that I had met at the lodge who works in Rwanda had been telling me about the reserves of methane that were discovered in Lake Kivu that if harnessed safely could provide electricity for the Great Lakes region for hundreds of years. Approximately 300m below the surface, Lake Kivu's water is full of dissolved gas. According to a 2012 BBC report the lake contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometres of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometres of methane. Bacteria in the lake convert the CO2 sourced from the volcanic rock to methane. In a similar situation in Cameroon in 2010 CO2 had been released from a lake in a cloud that suffocated and killed 1000 people. An earthquake or volcanic activity in the Lake Kivu region could set off a similar release, but hopefully the gas can be harnessed safely and put to good use.

Beyond the tea plantation and in the direction we were headed lay the dense rainforest. I had sat on the mountain bike taking photos the previous day looking up the valley we were about to head into and wished that I could go exploring there. Little did I know at the time that my wish would come true thanks to Amon and I hadn’t even mentioned my thoughts to him. My hiking companion, a girl from Germany, had come here to visit her cousin who was married to a Rwandan. After meeting his family she had travelled to all three national parks by herself using public transport and she confirmed my thoughts about Rwanda now being a safe place to explore. She had no problems, not one, while travelling around the country alone.

Our guide for the hike was like a walking encyclopedia when it came to the animals, birds and plants of the Nyungwe National Park, some of which could be found nowhere else in the world. He had grown up just to the south of this area and as a child had witnessed the native plants being used for medicinal purposes. He told us a story of the only accident that has ever happened on one of his hikes. A person had slipped on a wet stone step. When the man had fallen down he cut his arm on a sharp rock. He pointed out the rock to us and then showed us a plant that happened to be growing nearby. He had seen the leaves of the plant being used to stop bleeding in the village where he’d grown up so he covered the cut arm with leaves. The bleeding stopped. He had already told us about other plants that could be used for ailments such as stomach problems, malaria, fevers and tuberculosis and it made me wonder how many other cures could be found in this natural pharmacy.

Waterfall trail through the rainforest.

 

As we walked along the trail we stopped to say hello to four local researchers who were working the area. As part of our guides’ training he had spent 3 months learning from these researchers after finishing his university studies in natural sciences and conservation and every five years he had to take an exam so studied constantly. The researchers had worked in this forest for nearly 20 years. It was no wonder he was such a mine of fascinating information. In our western world of manufactured pharmaceuticals where one drug is often required to counteract the effects of others I’m sure we could learn so much from native cultures with regards to natural remedies.

The trail descended down to a small river then climbed back up. All along the trail we learned about this forest that was teaming with life. We observed stunning birds with vividly coloured plumage, discovered the fruits and the medicinal plants, talked about the different primates and other animals that inhabited the forest and wondered at the vastness and beauty of this enchanted world. I was glad to hear that due to the altitude here snakes were not common as it was too cold. We descended down to a river and I could hear the thunderous roar of the waterfall. I could see the edge of the gushing water crashing down into the river and the spray bursting out in all directions. Even from down the river I could feel the cool spray hit my skin. Lush greenery filled the forest floor and lined the river. Across the other side of the river I could see huge caves with vines and plants hanging down over the entrances. I got my jacket out and put my camera away to protect it from the spray and we continued up to a dead end where we stood in front of the waterfall. The spray felt so refreshing after the hike. The power and volume of water spewing over the edge and crashing down was huge. It was so loud we had to shout to be heard. The cliffs surrounding us were covered in thick foliage and flowers including a beautiful crimson red “firework flower” and a type of yellow begonia that has never been found in any other part of the world other than on this side of this national park.

Waterfall at the end of the trail.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more beautiful the sun broke through the clouds. Beams of light shone down on us and on the lush green cliffs and vivid rainbows appeared in the waterfall spray. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a fantasy world. It was breathtaking. It was hard to believe that this small river would eventually flow into the mighty Congo. Not far from here was the divide that separates the waters that flow to the Congo River from the waters that flow to the Nile. One of the many hikes in the national park leads to this divide.

Rainbows in the spray.

Sadly all good things usually come to an end and we started to make our way back up the hill. I learned just as much on the way back as I did going to the waterfall from our guide. There was nothing he didn’t know about when I asked. As we emerged from the forest and back into the tea plantation it was like stepping out of a fairytale and back into reality, albeit a still beautiful one. The clouds were building and the sky was turning dark. As we walked back to the office through the plantation the heavens opened. It was warm and I figured since we didn’t have far to go there was no point in digging to the bottom of my bag for waterproof trousers. It actually felt pretty good to cool off and it was a source of amusement to the lodge staff when they saw the front of my trousers had been soaked but the back was bone dry. There was one last surprise before the end of the hike. Close to the park office the guide pointed to a small bunch of trees. In the trees I could see a number of Colobus Monkeys sheltering from the rain under the leaves. I could see their beautiful black and white furry faces as they huddled together. It had been the perfect end to a great little adventure.

Amon was at the park office when we got back. I was so grateful that he’d suggested going to the waterfall. He’d done such an amazing job during my whole trip to Rwanda and he couldn’t have suggested a more perfect last hike for me. As we drove back he said that we would leave the next morning at 07:00 to head back to Kigali. He was driving on to the Uganda border after dropping me off. There a driver would pick him up and take him home to his family in Kampala, Uganda. I wanted to say thank you to him for doing such an incredible job and for being a great companion on the journey so I invited him to join me for dinner and a few drinks that night at the lodge.

When I entered the lodge Swaleh was there to greet me as usual. The evening was cool. I’d hardly sat down and the log fire was being made up and lit. I tried to say there was no need to light it just for me since I was the only one there but they insisted that they wanted to do that for me. In no time the flames were giving out a wonderfully comforting heat. I sat by the log fire with my red wine and caught up on my journal in between talking to the lodge staff before Amon came for dinner. As always dinner was beautiful and afterwards we went back to the lounge area by the fire and chatted over some more wine. It was a fantastic evening and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish the trip. It’s probably just as well that the bar closed or we could have sat there all night by the fire talking. It had been a long day and it was an early start and an especially long day ahead the next day for Amon so we said goodnight and I headed back to my cabin.

Day 9

The next morning I was all packed up but I wished I could have continued the adventures. I was really sad to be leaving this part of the country and to be leaving Rwanda the next day. We said goodbye and thanked the lodge staff and drove back through Nyungwe National Park forest. As we drove out of the park and towards Kigali I looked back at the dense forest knowing that I’d only just scraped the surface in the short time I’d had there. I can’t wait to return. Many people spend only a few days in Rwanda to see the gorillas then move on to Tanzania, Kenya or Uganda. I’m so glad I stayed in Rwanda and visited the south as this part of the country is so vastly different to Volcanoes National Park and so stunningly beautiful in such different ways.

Breakfast with a view.

 

On the way back to Kigali we stopped in Huye where a large museum can be found covering all sorts of subjects including the language, music, geography, earth science, conservation, traditions, and arts of Rwanda. Maybe it was because I wanted to delay the end of my journey but I managed to spend over an hour and a half looking at the exhibits and artifacts and I could have easily taken longer. There was so much to see. Most fascinating to me were the old black and white photographs from the early 1900s showing pre-colonial life in Rwanda.

On the drive back to Kigali a large gathering could be seen not far from the road in Kabgaye where a Catholic Church mission was established in 1905. The town became the centre for the Catholic Church in Rwanda and the oldest cathedral can be found there. As we drove through town, a handful of men in suits walked across the road and shook hands with the gentlemen waiting at the other side. Casually Amon said “That’s the Prime Minister”. No fuss, no bodyguards or guns were in view and there to the side of me stood the Prime Minister of Rwanda. A little further down the road a car came screaming by with a man hanging out of the window holding a small red stop sign. Amon pulled over. A number of cars came speeding by and Amon told me to look out for the president who apparently sometimes drives himself around. Sure enough a minute later a black car with the President in the front went zooming by. The gathering had been to celebrate 100 years of the seminary being there. It had been an unexpected surprise.

As we arrived in Kigali I got a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want this trip to end and I’d made such a good friend I hated to have to leave so soon. I’d seen so much but it had been too short a visit. There was so much more I wanted to do in Rwanda. I checked back into Hotel des Mille Collines where I’d stayed the night of my arrival in Rwanda while Amon parked the car then he came in to say goodbye. As he left I felt like my right arm had been chopped off (literally since the drivers’ seat was on the right of the Land Rover) and I missed his company and guidance.

Day 10

I enjoyed my last 24 hours in Rwanda alone listening to the bands that played by the pool bar the previous night and during the day on the Sunday, relaxing in the hotel gardens, exploring the area around the hotel and writing down as much as my memory would allow.

At 17:00 it was time to leave for the airport. I was sad to be leaving but looking forward to seeing my own family back in Scotland and I hoped Amon had made it safely back to his own family in Kampala. As I walked out onto the tarmac to go to the plane it felt like I’d only just arrived there the day before. Time had gone too quickly but I know I’ll be back to get through the new list of things I want to do in Rwanda and I have a feeling it’ll be sooner rather than later.

 

Tags: chimpanzee, eco lodge, forest, monkey, nature, nyungwe, rwanda, tea plantation, waterfall

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