The land of a thousand hills: trekking and tracking in Rwanda
Mike Wells escapes the crowds in Africa’s most densely populated country tracking chimpanzees and trekking to the source of the Nile in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park.
Tiny landlocked Rwanda lies right in the centre of Africa. Known as the pays des mille collines (land of a thousand hills) and with an altitude mostly between 1500m–2500m the country has a mild climate (by central African standards). This, combined with fertile volcanic soils has led to the densest level of population in Africa. There are people everywhere. Most of the rainforest that for thousands of years covered a gnarled post-volcanic landscape has been stripped to provide agricultural land, mainly for subsistence farming but also for a few large tea and coffee estates.
We spent two weeks travelling in Rwanda. Wherever we went, be it by four-wheel drive car, on foot or by bicycle, we were surrounded and often followed by crowds of friendly but inquisitive local people including many children. On one occasion we were invited to attend a wedding as guests of honour, while in a remote village miles from anywhere I found myself being asked to address a congregation of hundreds of parishioners attending a Sunday morning Anglican church service. I spoke in English, which the pastor translated into Kinyarwanda, bringing greetings from one Anglican community to another.
There are two ways to escape from this press of humanity. You can book into one of the upmarket luxury lodges that have sprung up to service a growing tourist industry or you can head for one of the country’s three National Parks. We did both.
Rwanda’s National Parks were established by Belgian colonial authorities between 1925–1934. All three are different. Virunga in the north covers the mountainsides of five high volcanoes and is famous for its groups of habituated gorillas, Akagera in the east is savannah lowland with typical fauna including lions, elephants and giraffes, while Nyungwe in the south has a landscape of rolling rainforest covered volcanic hills with a wide variety of primates and exotic birds. All three are protected from deforestation and poaching by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), a government agency that employs park wardens and rangers, controls development inside the parks and issues permits to tourists who wish to visit. The contrast between the parks and the immediately adjoining land is noticeable. Forest clearance generally runs right up to the wall or fence that surrounds each park, leaving them as islands of natural forest surrounded by agricultural land.
Trekking in the Nyungwe National Park is only permitted if accompanied by a park ranger and all walks must be booked through the park offices. There are 17 guided walks offered by the park authorities, many of which run once a day. These vary from the easy 2km/1.5hr Buhoro trail (which translates as‘slow’ trail) to the challenging 42km/3–4 day Congo–Nile Divide trail, of which more later. We walked three of these trails, getting a range of experiences. First we walked the popular Ishigishigi (tree fern) trail, a short two hour walk that includes a spectacular three-stage 200m canopy walkway strung between trees 40m above the forest floor. This was an unnerving experience as the narrow metal walkway swayed gently as we crossed. Later the same day we walked the Isumo (waterfall) trail which leads through tea plantations before descending into the forest to visit a pretty waterfall. This gave close-up views of a troop of L’Hoest’s monkeys accompanied by the sounds of turaco birds in the trees above. Our guide Narcisse was a fascinating character who had worked as a ranger in all three of Rwanda’s national parks. His English was excellent, helped by some time in Britain promoting Rwanda’s parks and visiting bird sanctuaries.
The next day we went chimpanzee tracking, the star turn in Nyungwe and the local equivalent of gorilla tracking in the Virunga Park. The trek requires a pre-dawn start as the animals are more easily seen in the early morning before they move deep into the forest. We met Narcisse at 05.00 and drove on rough dirt roads for 90 minutes to reach the trailhead soon after dawn. Once out of the car we were joined by armed guards and offered walking sticks. Narcisse used his radio to contact trackers who follow the chimpanzees as they move around and ascertain the current location of the troop. These trackers live in the forest spending their nights in huts near the animals. Their presence, and that of the armed guards, helps to deter poachers. An hour’s walk brought us to the chimps where we were able to first watch them high in the trees and later, try following them as they pushed through the undergrowth of the forest floor. Our only photographs tended to be of Chimpanzee backsides as we ran after them. There is an hour limit with the animals and all too soon we had to leave. Chimpanzee tracking is not cheap ($90 each), but compared with the $750 cost of gorilla tracking it is a bargain.
On the 6th of August 2016 we achieved something that had eluded the greatest 19th century explorers, including Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.
We stood beside the source of the Nile. In truth, no great effort was needed as the source in thick forest on the slopes of Mt Bigugu is reached by a broad track cut through the rainforest by national park rangers. It starts beside a carpark for 4WD vehicles and ends, after walking for 45 minutes, at a muddy clearing with a small trickle of water and a sign declaring this to be the source. I felt underwhelmed and a little disappointed. In writing my series of cycling guides to Europe’s great rivers I have visited the sources of the Danube, Loire, Moselle, Rhine and Rhone and all were more impressive than this little clearing in the jungle. The recognised source of the Nile is a frequently moving location. Not that the source moves, rather geographical knowledge traces it further and further into the densely forested mountains which probably explains the rather transitory appearance of the current source. This spot has been on the map only since 2006 and may move again in the future.
While the walk was easy, it was costly to undertake and required planning two days before. In order to enter the Nyungwe forest one needs permits ($50 each) from the national park warden in Gisakura a three hour drive away on the other side of the park and a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the trailhead. When purchasing our permits we were instructed to rendezvous with a park ranger at a car park beside the edge of the forest. We drove up a rough track that climbs 1000m to Gisuvu, a far more challenging journey than the walk itself, to arrive at the meeting point. There was a sign indicating the start of the Nile Source Trail, but no sight of the ranger and no other vehicles. However, there were lots of children playing and a few adults carrying bundles of firewood. We ‘phoned the park warden (yes mobile phones work deep inside an African rainforest!) who told us the ranger was on his way. When he approached an hour later, on foot and from the other direction, one of the adults (a lookout?) ran into the forest and was followed out by about a dozen firewood collectors carrying bundles of illegally cut wood who scurried off before the ranger reached them.
Had they been caught they would have been liable to a fine, but I did not fancy the odds of an unarmed ranger successfully apprehending a dozen peasants with machetes.
After this brief excitement, the walk, gently ascending at first, was unmemorable. About half way, at the only path junction, where the trail crossed the Congo-Nile watershed and started to descend, was a single waymark. In truth we did not need the ranger and could easily have made the walk unaccompanied, however we would have been liable to arrest had we been caught. The RDB justify their policy of accompanied visits only on the grounds of visitor safety. There were no obvious safety problems, but as the $50 fee goes towards protecting the forest, employing rangers and raising revenue for the government it just about received our approval, though it is rather a lot for a 90 minute round trip on an easily graded waymarked path.
The source of the Nile can also be reached from the south, but this is a long and challenging 42km walk that takes 3–4 days with overnight wild camping. As it follows a spectacular ridge along the watershed between the Congo and Nile river basins it is known as the Congo–Nile Divide Trail. Accompaniment by a park ranger is again mandatory, but this time well worth the money ($100 each) as wayfinding is difficult. En route the trail passes an earlier pretender to the title ‘Nile Source’ in a sedge marsh. This was identified in 1898 by German explorer Richard Kandt, long before GPS satellites and even before Rwanda was first mapped by Belgian colonial authorities in 1937. It kept its title for nearly 75 years.
After our ‘strenuous’ walk to the source, we decided to treat ourselves to a night of luxury and booked in at the guest house of the nearby Gisuvu tea estate. This small lodge (only three bedrooms but with a comfortable private lounge and dining room) sits on a 2400m hilltop, surrounded by tea plantations with views in all directions. Despite being only two degrees south of the equator, its position on top of a mountain provides a pleasant climate with a cooling daytime breeze coming up from Lake Kivu far below. At night it becomes cold and a log fire is lit in the lounge every evening. Affairs are conducted by a houseboy who cooks meals, serves drinks and makes the fire aided by a maid who cleans and makes the beds. Mostly used by senior managers of the tea company (British owned but based in India) and buyers from tea producers in Britain, it is available for tourists when empty, which judging by the entries in the guest book is most of the time. As it was a weekend no tea plucking was going on. However the general manager gave us a guided tour of the factory where tea plucked the preceding day was being processed and drove us around parts of the vast estate showing us different kinds of tea and the small houses provided for employees and their families. Gisuvu grows tea mostly for the British market, supplying both Taylor’s Yorkshire tea and Unilever, makers of PG Tips and Lipton teas, an apt connection as for many years PG Tips advertising in Britain featured chimpanzees and nowadays uses a puppet monkey!
Mike Wells has been a keen long-distance walker and cyclist for over 20 years. He has walked all the major British trails, the GR5 through the Alps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean and has explored the Italian Dolomites' Alta Via routes. He has also walked in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway and Chilean Patagonia.
Mike has cycled the C2C route across northern England as well as the Camino and Ruta de la Plata to Santiago de la Compostela. He has completed an end to end traverse of Cuba, a circumnavigation of Iceland and a trip across Lapland to the North Cape.