If the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park form the single best reason to take a safari in Rwanda, then the less-known Nyungwe forest is probably the best reason to prolong your stay. Extending for 1,015km squared over the mountainous South-west of Rwanda, Nyungwe protects the largest remaining tract of medium altitude forest anywhere in Africa, forming a contiguous forest block with the 370km squared Kibira national park is neighbouring Burundi. Nyungwe is the most important catchment area in Rwanda, providing water to some 70% of the country, and its central ridges form the watershed between Africa’s two largest drainage systems, the Nile and the Congo indeed, a spring on the slopes of the 2,950m mount Bigugu was recently established as the most remote source of the world’s longest river. As with other Albertine Rift forests, Nyungwe is a remarkably rich centre of biodiversity. More then 1,050 plant species are known to occur in the national park, including about 200 orchids and 250 Albertine rift endemics. 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.
Statistics aside, Nyungwe is, in a word magnificent. The forest takes on a liberating primal presence even before you enter it. One moment the road is winding through a characteristic rural Rwandan landscape of rolling tea plantations and artificially terraced hills, the next dense tangle of trees rises imperiously from the fringing cultivation. For a full 50km the road clings improbably to steep forested slopes, offering grandstand views over densely swathed hills that tumble like monstrous green waves towards the distant Burundi border. One normally thinks of rain forest as the most intimate and confining of environments. Nyungwe is that, but as viewed from the main road, it is also gloriously expansive. Vast though it may be, Nyungwe today is but a fragment of what was once an uninterrupted forest belt covering the length of the Albertine Rift the stretch of the Western Rift Valley running from the Rwenzori mountains South to Burundi. The fragmentation of this forest started some 2,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Iron Age, when the first patches were cut down to make way for Agriculture, it is thought, for instance, that the isolation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest from similar habitats on the Virunga mountains occurred as recently as 500 years ago. It is over the past 100 years that the forests of the Albertine Rift have suffered most heavily. Take Northwestern Rwanda’s Gishwati forest, which extended over a comparable area to Nyungwe as recently as the 1930’s but had been reduced to two separate blocks covering a combined 280km squared by 1989, and now covers little more than 6km squared. Nyungwe has fared well by comparison, bearing in mind that it is now the only substantial tract of forest left in Rwanda. First protected as the 1,140km squared, Foret Naturelle de Nyungwe in 1933, the reserve was reduced by about 15% between 1958 and 1979 thanks to encroachment by local subsistence farmers, who also harvested it as a source of honey, bush meat, firewood and alluvial gold an estimated 3,000 gold planners worked the Nyungwe watershed in the mid-1950’s.
Fortunately, Nyungwe’s extent has remained reasonably stable since 1984, when a co-ordinated forest protection plan was implemented under the Wildlife Conservation Society. This in turn led to the establishment of research projects by the likes of Amy Vedder (Angola colobus ) and Beth Kaplin ( L’Hoest’s and blue monkeys ), the creation of vast network of tourist trails in the late 1980’s and the first reasonably comprehensive biodiversity survey as undertaken by Dowsett in 1990. The tragic events of 1994 had little long-term effect on Nyungwe, which was formally accorded national park status in 2004. For most visitors, the main attraction of Nyungwe forest is its primates. Chimp tracking can be arranged at short notice, and several other monkeys are readily seen, including the acrobatic Rwenzori colobus in troops of up to 400 strong the largest arboreal primate troops in Africa and the beautiful and highly localized L’Hoest’s monkey. Nyungwe is also highly alluring to birders, botanists and keen walkers. One of the joys of Nyungwe is its accessibility. Not only is the forest bisected by the surfaced trunk road between Butare and Cyangugu, but it is serviced by a well-organized and moderately priced guesthouse and campsite, and easily explored along a well maintained 130km network of walking trails. For all that, Nyungwe features on surprisingly few tourist itineraries through Rwanda. Partly, this is because the forest trails generally require more stamina than their counterparts in volcanoes national park, without the enticement of mountain gorillas to justify the effort. Another factor is simply that the park has long lacked any genuine tourist- class accommodation, as have the two closest towns, Butare and Cyangugu.
All this is to change, however, as Nyungwe enters into a phase of unprecedented tourist development in 2009. Among the offerings in the pipeline are a pair of upmarket private tourist lodges scheduled to open in early 2010, a total overhaul of the Uwinka visitors’ Centre and construction of suspended canopy walk there.