The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Nyungwe (and its Chimps?)

Stella and I hired a car and headed off to Nyungwe National Park on the other side of Rwanda, with our young American friends Jared and Michelle, for the long weekend of 1-4 July. The 1st July celebrates independence from the Belgians in 1962 and the 4th is the official end to the genocide of 1994 and is now named Liberation Day. Extended holiday weekends are rare indeed here with Easter not even warranting a four-day office break!(Easter Monday is, oddly, a work day in this very Christian country).

Another opportunity to get out of Kibungo was not to be missed. I had been looking forward to visiting Nyungwe's tropical rainforest ever since arriving in Rwanda but the distance (up to nine hours of travel) had put it on the backburner. There is also the issue of cost when living on a volunteer's allowance. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB), which is responsible for tourism, charges very high prices, in US dollars, to foreigners for every conceivable thing you might want to do in each of its three national parks - Volcans, Akagera and Nyungwe. Even discounted with our residents' passes, it is still $60 a head to go chimp tracking or $55 to walk in the forest over a couple of days. Looking at birds is extra as that is considered a different 'product' and thus must be charged at a different rate according to the Book of Mediocre Marketing that some bureaucrat has obviously been mightily impressed with. Here's a way round the problem. Just say that, despite your dangling binoculars, your main product is 'walking' and you will be issued with the cheaper pass. Most of the Rwandan guides think it's a daft pricing system too.
Looking towards Burundi
You also need a car to have a chance of seeing the chimps or to get to many of the trailheads and they cost a fortune near the park, hence the decision to rent a cheapie in Kigali and, with me as the designated driver, risk the consequences of getting behind the wheel (and on the right side of the road) for the first time in over six months. The trick to stress-free driving in Rwanda is to enjoy it every time someone cuts in front of you without warning or pulls out unexpectedly. Nobody seems to get angry at rule breaking and driver incompetence and, since road rage is usually a product of indignation over others' perceived etiquette breaches, I've decided that a certain amount of chaos on the roads, where everyone is at fault, definitely has its upside. Outside Kigali there is also very little motor traffic.
Nyungwe Forest
Despite all the police and military personnel hanging about, I have never seen anyone stopped for bad driving, gross flouting of standard road rules or excessive speeding - and that's strange in a way given what sticklers Rwandans are for rules elsewhere. The police, however, like to stop buses, then wander up and down the sides looking in the window to spot anyone with facial terrorist tics like squinty eyes and quivering mouth. I usually smile broadly and nod acknowledgement because I know that clearly demonstrates my complete innocence despite my suspiciously bushy eyebrows.
In search of the Red-collared Mountain-Babbler
The road surface is wonderfully good until you reach the Park entrance when the potholes start to multiply. Where are the Chinese when you need them? Rwanda is such a crowded country bereft of natural forest that there is something truly strange about entering a habitat where suddenly there are no people and the landscape is as it has been for millennia. The rainforest is simply spectacular. Instantly there were troops of monkeys, L'Hoest's and Silver, patrolling the road verges.
Carruther's Mountain Squirrel
The Park extends for over 1000 square kilometres in the mountainous south west of Rwanda and is the largest area of montane forest to be found anywhere in Africa. This is a tiny part of what used to be a forest belt running all the way northwards along the western or Albertine Rift Valley. I will let the Rwanda Bradt Travel Guide describe its variety. "As with other Albertine Rift forests, Nyungwe is a remarkably rich centre of biodiversity. More than 1050 plant species are known to occur in the national park, including about 200 orchids and 250 Albertine Rift Endemics (AREs). The vertebrate fauna includes 85 mammal, 278 bird, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species (of which a full 62 are endemic to the Albertine Rift) while a total of 120 butterfly species have been recorded. Primates are particularly well represented, with 13 species resident, including a population of about 400 chimpanzees, some of which are semi-habituated to tourist visits." So, all those critters were going to be a lot to spot in around two days minus the travelling! And anyone who has visited a rainforest knows how tough it is to see things through all that foliage.
Entrance off main road to hotel with track going up to the left. Who would know? Here we were even up before the locals
Jared and Michelle wanted to camp but without a tent and, most importantly, a decent mattress that wasn't going to work for us so we booked into a hotel that was way outside our normal price range. (There is a dearth of reasonably priced and accessible accommodation in the area). Our brand new hotel, the life savings of a local Rwandan businessman, was also built on top of a hill and involved driving up a narrow rocky road past shabby mud dwellings. I felt embarrassed to be waving out of the car window at the little kids in rags humphing jerrycans of water up the hill as we were about to be waited on hand and foot. Apparently the hotel boss is seeking to expropriate the land on which the houses sit so that he can widen the road and make it more convenient for our big cars to pass through. Annoyingly for him, the house owners are keen to be properly compensated for being re-located. The boss was actually a nice guy and said that the local community was right behind the hotel and the job opportunities that it provided to cleaners, kitchen staff, maids and that bloke who lifts the bar to let your car into the compound. But then he would say that, wouldn't he? All the waiters and reception staff seemed to come from Kigali and had obviously been trained in the East African code of table hovering except when you craved a cold beer, when they became strangely absent. It's the beer that'll get you the big tips guys!
The Top View Hotel and our hire vehicle
We were sharing a table with a top American birder, his wife and two guests and he confidently asked for his eggs 'easy over', a term that is not commonly heard in these parts where the language of English haute cuisine is chips and fried egg. Anyway, back his eggs came picture perfect so I thought I would try but I couldn't help myself and slipped in 'fried egg' before uttering a very self-conscious 'easy over'. Mine came back shrivelled with a crusty sunny side sneering up at me. I obviously need to work on my request skills.
Our accommodation with spectacular view
On the first night we went back to our room to discover five hot water bottles arrayed on the pillows and under the bed covers. Lovely idea although a little excessive perhaps. It wasn't that cold at an altitude of 2000 (tropical) metres. But there was no hot water in the shower as they'd forgotten to plug in the heater and there was no bedside lamp although lights were blazing everywhere else. There was also a little wood fire in an adjacent room. It was the randomness of the nice touches versus the absent ones that struck. On the second night all the hot water bottles went missing and we can only assume it was because the American and Korean Ambassadors as well as the Rwandan Finance Minister were chowing down at the next table and needed copious bedtime mollycoddling to go with their taxpayer funded junkets.

Gosh, when is he going to get to the chimps I hear you bellow into your computer screens? Well, the news is that the chimp experience was somewhere below underwhelming. We pursued them down a steep, heavily vegetated hill slope where they were supposed to be checking out any feeble colobus monkeys from a 400 strong troop in the vicinity. Jane Goodall commented on this predatory chimp behaviour years ago and it is common, apparently, with this Nyungwe mob. However, they lost interest in these fabulous monkeys and scampered further down the hill as we descended to hide in the tall grass and munch on caterpillars and termites from rotting tree stumps. So they were hidden from the view of even the official chimp trackers whose job it is to monitor their movements and, hopefully, present the 'product' to the visiting tourists.
Happy birding crew
Chimping in Rwanda is not the virtual cast iron certainty that gorilla-ing is further north and that's a fact! So back up the hill we went to do some birding while our official guide walkie-talkied with the trackers in the hope that the chimps would have had enough protein for the day and want to climb to the tree tops for a snooze, a bit of greenery or maybe even some frenzied hooting whereupon we might have been able to get our money's worth out of the experience. For a young English couple who were with us and didn't have proper binoculars to look at the hornbills, turacos and trogans that we saw, it had cost $125 for the car and driver and $90 each for the tracking without the resident's card. Over $300 is not cheap for standing around most of the morning! But hey, it's providing employment and keeping chimps out of the bush meat market that prevails elsewhere in Africa so we mustn't complain. Anyway, who cares if chimps are our closest genetic companions with 98+% of the same DNA. Like Lady Gaga or Robbie Williams they are hugely overrated. I much prefer vegetarian colobus monkeys!
At the divide between two great river systems
But, it was in the course of our chimpless morning that we first met David Shackelford the ace birder - he of 'easy over' fried egg fame - and his delightful party. So, from disappointments, magical things sometimes grow (apologies to Archie Roach). We got to spend the rest of the weekend with a guy who has seen 8201 birds in the whole wide world (he is in the top 10 listers) with one of them a new sighting (the red-collared mountain babbler) on this trip. We saw it too!! It's rare, it's endemic and it's a smasher. With David's knowledge of bird calls and the use of playback to bring in the skulkers, the help of the local guide Narcisse and the keen eyes of the more youthful members of the party, we saw some outstanding wildlife.


  1. Another excellent post Denis, we continue to enjoy reading about your adventures. The birding experiences sound fantastic - you've seen so many wonderfully exotic creatures I imagine it would be hard for you to choose a favourite. Good to see a photo of you both looking so very well and happy!

  2. Great to hear from you both. Very best wishes, Denis