They may pale in size when compared to the hulking masses that are the mountain gorillas, but there is no denying the affinity that we humans have for chimpanzees. Sharing an estimated 94% of our genetic material, chimps display an incredible range of human-like behaviours ranging from tool use to waging war.
Chimps are highly sociable creatures, and one of the few primates to form complex communities ranging upwards of 100 individuals. During the day these communities break down into smaller units that forage for food, a behaviour that has been dubbed ‘fission-fusion’ by anthropologists. Since they cover a greater daily distance than the relatively docile gorilla, chimpanzee tracking (US$90 per person) is a much more uncertain enterprise.
Chimpanzee habituation in Nyungwe is still very much a work in progress, and although you will almost certainly encounter them, it might not be all that close up. This is especially so because Nyungwe's chimps seem to spend longer periods of time high in the tree tops than many other East African chimps.
Much like gorilla tracking, you need to be prepared for lengthy hikes that can take up to several hours. However, the vegetation on the forest floor is much less dense than in the Virunga mountains where the gorillas live, so the walk is generally a little less tiring. In the rainy season you have a good chance of successfully tracking the chimps on the coloured trails (a network of trails of varying levels of difficulty), though in the dry season they have a tendency to head for higher elevations.
Although there are groups of chimps throughout Nyungwe, the habituated group that most people are taken to is actually located in the Cyamudongo Forest, a very small, isolated 'island' of forest surrounded by tea estates a little over an hour's drive from the park office at Gisakura. This group consists of about 40 individuals. At certain times, though, visitors might be taken to see a second habituated group, the Uwinka group, which is the largest with around 65 individuals. That said, this group, which is usually found within 12km of the Uwinka Reception Centre, is harder to access. Whichever group you end up visiting, having a car is something of a necessity for chimp tracking, as you’ll need to arrange transportation for you and your guide to the trailhead. Be prepared for an early start – usually 5.30am from Gisakura. Porters are available at Cyamundongo (US$10).
Visits are limited to one hour.
Colobus Monkey Tracking
A subspecies of the widespread black-and-white colobus, the Angolan colobus is an arboreal Old World monkey that is distinguished by its black fur and long, silky white locks of hair. Weighing 10kg to 20kg, and possessing a dexterous tail that can reach lengths of 75cm, Angolan colobus are perfectly suited to a life up in the canopy.
Colobi are distributed throughout the rainforests of equatorial Africa, though they reach epic numbers in Nyungwe Forest National Park. While they may not be as a charismatic as chimps, colobi are extremely social primates that form enormous group sizes – one of the two semi-habituated troops in Nyungwe numbers no fewer than 500 individuals.
As you might imagine, finding yourself in the presence of literally hundreds of primates bounding through the treetops can be a mesmerising experience. Curious animals by nature, colobi in Nyungwe seem to almost revel in their playful interactions with human visitors.
Troops of Angolan colobus maintain fairly regimented territories, which is good news for those planning a colobus track (US$60 per person), as the semi-habituated group in Nyungwe tends to stick to the coloured trails. While watching wildlife is never a certainty, generally the trackers can find the colobus monkey troop in an hour or so.
There is a smaller, and often more accessible troop, of around 50 individuals near the Gisakura Tea Plantation. Be sure to ask which troop you’ll be tracking when you make your reservation. This second troop is less worthwhile to visit as the walk is only about two to five minutes from the Gisakura park office and it feels like a lot of money to pay to stand in a tea field looking at monkeys you could almost see without leaving the park office!
Trekking Nyungwe Forest
In addition to tracking primates, Nyungwe Forest National Park has a number of superb walking trails that mostly begin at the Uwinka Reception Centre.
It’s not possible to walk in the park without a guide, and one is included when you pay your trek fees. Walks begin at set times; the first departures are around 9am, with further departures around 11am and 2pm.
This network of trails was constructed in the late 1980s in an attempt to open up Nyungwe to tourists. While tourism in the national park remains relatively low-key, these six trails are nevertheless reasonably well maintained. Each trail is marked with a different colour. Hikers can choose trails ranging from the 2km-long Buhoro Trail, a proverbial walk in the woods, right up to the 10km-long Imbaraga Trail, which winds steeply up forested slopes and requires about six hours. Some of the most popular trails include the Igishigishigi Trail (2.1km, about 1½ hours), which has spectacular tree ferns and great views, and the Umuyove Trail (5.5km, 3½ hours), which has birds, colourful flowers, a waterfall and large mahogany trees. The Irebero Trail (3.6km, three hours) is noted for its stunning viewpoints.
Although you need to specifically request to engage in either chimpanzee or colobus tracking, in theory you could run across either primate while hiking the coloured trails. Even if you don’t come across these two star billings, you’re likely to spot some of Nyungwe’s other 11 primates, as well as a whole slew of birdlife, and possibly even the odd mammal or two.
These trails originate from the Uwinka Reception Centre and cost US$40 per person.
A number of walking trails are also available in the Kitabi area and begin at the Kitabi Booking Office. They're much less known than the ones around Uwinka. A guide is also compulsory and is included in your trekking fee (US$40 per person).
Waterfall (Isumo) Trail
While not as popular as the nature walks, the Waterfall Trail (per person US$50) is a stunner of a hike and one of the highlights of Nyungwe. It’s one of the few treks that start from the Gisakura side of the park and takes three to five hours to complete depending on your fitness level. The trail winds up and down steep hillsides through primeval-looking rainforest where the trees are festooned in vines and mosses and the air is heavy and damp. The highlight (quite obviously) is a remote waterfall, where you can take a shallow dip and refresh your body after the hot and humid hike.
If you have your own wheels, the Kamiranzovu Trail (per person US$40) starts somewhere between Uwinka and Gisakura, and runs for about 4km to Kamiranzovu Swamp. Sadly, the last elephant was shot here in 1999, though the swamplands are still your best bet for spotting other large mammals. Even if you don’t come across any other fauna, this trail is particularly famous for its rare species of orchids and birds, including the greater swamp warbler.
Nyungwe has something of a legendary status among birdwatchers in East Africa, and is by far the country’s top spot for birdwatching with some 300-plus species, which include no fewer than 27 Albertine Rift Valley endemics. However, the dense forest cover means actually getting a good view of a bird (or any other animal for that matter) can often be frustratingly hard, which means that only serious birders are likely to get feathered into excitement by many of the park's birds.
For those people, the dirt Rangiro Rd, which starts 1.5km east of Uwinka, and the Imbaraga, Umuyove and Kamiranzovu Trails are all highly recommended for birdwatching. The paved road through the park permits viewing at all levels of the forest: expect mountain buzzards and cinnamon-chested bee-eaters perched along here, plus numerous sunbirds, wagtails and flocks of waxbills. Other commonly sighted birds include francolins, turacos, African crowned eagles, hornbills and even Congo bay owls.
There are six specialist birding guides based in Nyungwe who need to be booked in advance for specalist birdwatching trips (per person US$50) – email or call one of the park's two reception centres. There are more than 27 endemics in the park, including Rwenzori turacos as well as other large forest species such as African crowned eagles and various hornbills. Depending on what you hope to see, the guide will choose a trail that maximises your chances of spotting your quarry.
If you’re unsure of what to ask for, opt for the dirt Rangiro Rd. Thanks to the frequent changes in elevation along this route you have increased chances of spotting a good number of Nyungwe’s fine feathered friends.
Now’s your chance to relive your Indiana Jones fantasies. The construction of a 160m-long and at times 70m-high canopy walkway is a big draw for visitors after something unusual. You won’t encounter much wildlife while on the metallic suspension bridge, but you’ll certainly appreciate the jungle anew from this unique monkey’s-eye perspective. Access to the canopy walkway, which is on the Igishigishigi Trail, involves a preliminary 20- to 30-minute hike from Uwinka. Canopy tours begin at set times (8am, 10am, 1pm and 3pm), last about two hours and are guided (per person US$60).