Nyungwe National Park is located in south western Rwanda in a town called Cyangungu near Lake Kivu and near the border with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park currently occupies 970 km² of land and started as a forest reserve in 1903 before becoming a full National Park in 2004.
Nyungwe forest is the parks most valuable resource. It is the largest remaining montane forest in Africa and has been in existence since the Ice Age period. Nyungwe Forest is believed to be one of the sources of the great River Nile. Because of the alternating mountainous, hilly and flat terrain in the park, the plant diversity is amazing. Over 1,060 plant and tree species can be found in the park with the taller tree species like the Carapa, Cyathea manniana, Engtandophrama, Newtonia and the Prinaria exelsium standing at heights of 1,900m above sea level. Species like the Balthacaria, Hagenia Syzygium, Macaranga and Podocarpus thrive at heights of 2500m and above. The Sub Alpine vegetation consisting of Shrubs and Bamboo like the Podocarpus, Erica johnstoni and the Phillipia live at heights of 2,950m above sea level. Other vegetation species like mosses and ferns are found throughout the forest.
The mountains (Mount Bigugu), vegetation and trees found in the park as well as its location within the Albertine Rift provide combine to provide perfect home for several wildlife and bird species. 85 mammal species are found in the park of which 13 are primates. The primates in Nyungwe National Park include the rare owl faced monkeys, golden monkeys and Colobus angolensis (Angola Colobus).
Because of the rich variety of plant and animal life in the forest, the government of Rwanda has used significant resources with support from other conservation organizations to position the park into one of the top tourism attractions in Rwanda. This has led to the virtual elimination of poaching in the forest and sensitization of locals about the importance of conserving trees and wildlife.
Things to do while at Nyungwe Forest National Park
Travelers to Nyungwe National Park can expect a memorable experience given the amazing set of activities open to visitors in the park. The park is blessed with amazing views of mountains, water bodies and green vegetation that allow for great forest walks and wildlife activities. While visiting Nyungwe Forest, visitors can do any of the following activities:-
Chimpanzee tracking: Nyungwe forest is currently the best place to track chimpanzees in Rwanda. Nyungwe forest has about 400 individual chimpanzees that live in different clans. Only two groups are habituated. Chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe Forest is a year round activity. Every morning groups of tourist set off as early at 4:00am under the guidance of experienced guides to search for one of the two habituated clans found the Uwinka and Cyamdungo sections of the park. One needs to be prepared for the demanding activity which requires following highly mobile primates who do not necessarily follow the main trails but can wander off to thick untouched forest. However, once they settle down, visitors get a chance to spot the primates sitting on top of the trees, feeding and grooming. After watching the group dynamics for a while, you will be surprised by how much they behave like we humans. In order to have the best experience, trackers should come with long sleeve shirts and pants, hiking boots, a hat, a rain jacket, a walking stick and binoculars for spotting the chimps on top of trees. Do not forget to pack lots of drinking water bottles and light snack to renew your energies. In order to have a comfortable time tracking the chimps, we recommend that you hire the services of a porter to help carry any extra heavy luggage and equipment. A chimpanzee trekking permit costs $100 and can be got directly from the Rwanda Development Board or by using the services of a good tour operator to get you one.
N.B: Many tourists find chimpanzee trekking in Nyungwe forest challenging because they have to take long hours before finding the chimps – sometimes with no success. The best place to track chimpanzee is in Uganda’s Kibale Forest National park. The chance of seeing chimpanzees in Kibale is over 95%. Chimpanzee trekking in Kibale is also less strenuous as visitors do not need to move too far to find the chimps. There are more habituated clans in Kibale Forest and the total number of individuals is over 5000.
Tracking Monkeys: Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda is one of the best places to spot small primates in Africa. Although Chimpanzee tracking is the dominant primate activity, some tourist come with the purpose of seeing the other smaller primates like the Angola Colobus Monkeys, Dent’s Mona Monkeys, Grey Cheeked Mangabeys, Hamlyn’s Monkeys, L’Hoest’s Monkeys, Olive Baboon, Red tailed Monkeys, Silver Monkeys, Vervet Monkeys, White and Black and Colobus monkeys. Groups of golden monkeys have been spotted in the park but because of their small numbers, finding them is difficult. The most popular species among tourists is the arboreal Ruwenzori Colobus that feeds on leaves and is identifiable by the contrasting black and white (tail and whiskers) colors. All the monkey species move in troops that can go beyond 100.
Nyungwe’s small primates can be tracked using four trails – The Kamiranzovu Trail which involves walking through orchids and marshes to spot some of the primates. The Bigugu Trail takes you up to the peak of Mount Bigugu to see more of the monkeys already sited in other trails and others only seen in higher altitudes. If you are interested in Colobus Monkeys, then the Waterfall Trail that starts from around the Gisakura Guest House up to the Tea estate is just perfect. The Unwika Campsite Trail is the last trail and is divided into two – Red (10 Km) and Grey (1 Km). This trail allows you to spot several primate species and over 400 Colobus Monkeys.
Forest and Canopy walks: Visitors interested in taking walks in Nyungwe forest have two alternatives – a canopy or low ground forest walk. Nyungwe National Park is special because it is the only national park where nature lovers can go for a true canopy walk. The canopy walk in Nyungwe forest is the best in East Africa.The canopy walk starts at the Uwinka Visitors Center and goes through a hanging platform that is about 45 meters above the ground. From these heights, visitors get spectacular views of the rainforest, animals and birds.
There is no doubt that the canopy walk is amazing and adventurous, but it can be scary for those with a fear of heights. Those who fear heights should instead go for the Forest walks. There are several hiking trails which go up to the forest interior. The trails are painted in different colors allowing visitors to spot the forest animals and birds in the interior. Some of the trails require 8 hours to complete. The Igishigishigi Trail is the shortest while the Bigugu Trail leading up to the mountain is the most difficult taking at least 5 hours to complete. The water fall trail is designed to lead visitors to the beautiful waterfalls of the forest. Nature lovers with time to spare usually take time to complete each trail at a time. By the end of their time in the forest, they would have discovered and explored everything there is to know about this old forest including the primates.
Birding walks: For those who love birds, Nyungwe forest is arguably the best place to go birding. According to Birdlife International, Nyungwe National Park has over 300 bird species of which 27 can only be found in the Albertine region. Because of the biodiversity in the park and particularly its rich collection of birds, Birdlife International considers it the most important site for conservation in Rwanda. The top bird species to look out for while walking through the established tails in the forest are the Archer’s Robin Chat, Barred long Tailed Cuckoo, Blue Turaco, Chapin’s flycatcher, Doherty’s Bush Shrikes, grey-chested kakamega, Handsome Francolin, Lagden’s Bush Shrikes, Mountain Sooty Boubou, Pockefellers’s sun bird, Purple Throated Sunbird, Red collared mountain Babbler, Rwenzori Double Collared Warbler, Rwenzori Nightjah, Rwenzori Turaco, Rwenzori Batis, White Bellied Robin chat, White Tailed Flycatcher and the Yellow Eyed Black Flycatcher.
Because some of the bird species inhabit specific sections of the park, one needs to take a guided bird walk. Bird walks need to be booked with the Rwanda Development Board at a cost of $50. The Birds Guides have knowledge about the characteristics of most of the bird species and where to find them. Their best method of identifying them is by bird calls. We recommend that you use more than one of the established trails to ensure that you have spotted most of the bird species. The dry season is perfect for birding because migrant birds usually flock the forest to find food and escape harsh winter conditions in Europe.
Biking through the Congo Nile Trail: The Congo Nile Trail passes through Nyungwe National Park allowing visitors to bike through this particular section. Biking of cycling through the Congo Nile Trial offers perfect opportunities to explore the park as a whole. As one meanders through the trail by bike, they are bound to encounter countless bird species, primates and other forest wildlife. It is also a perfect way to see all the beautiful tree and plant species that makes the forest so attractive to nature lovers. Camping is a must while biking through the trail. It is therefore important to carry along the right clothing, camping equipment, snacks and water.
Note: Activities in Nyungwe Forest go on throughout the year. However, the best time to visit Nyungwe National Park like in most countries of East Africa is during the drier months of June through August and December to January. During these months, the rains are less intense and forests less thick and muddy.
Accommodation in Nyungwe National Park
There are several lodges, hotels found near the Nyungwe Forest. These offer three categories of accommodation – Luxury, Midrange and Budget. Travelers interested in a campsite can find a few established ones near the park reception centre. It is important to book accommodation before your arrival date as some of these lodges receive many travelers during peak seasons of the year. Many of the lodges require one to show proper identification (passport) before checking in. Additional charges may apply even after booking and hence you need to move with your credit card.
One & Only Nyungwe House: This is the only true luxury (five star) lodge near the forest. It was formerly Nyungwe Forest Lodge but now under One & Only hotel group. It’s located in the middle of a tea plantation with 6 high end wooden villas and 22 Luxury rooms. This lodge offers magnificent views of the Nyungwe Forest and the tea plantations. The lodge does not only offer the most comfortable rooms, but is also the best place for tracking primates in the park including chimpanzee.
Kitabi Eco-Center: Is located in Kitabi with beautiful views of Mount Kitabi. The lodge has services like an in-house restaurant, morning continental breakfast. The lodge specializes in international dishes, a play ground for children, ample parking space and spacious terrace.
Nyungwe Nziza Ecolodge: Nyungwe Nziza Ecolodge is found in Kitabi and offices good midrange and budget rooms that offer free WiFi, a lounge and barbecue. There is early morning continental breakfast that is served in rooms or at the general restaurant. The restaurant serves local and international dishes including tasty Pizza. The area around the lodge has good biking trails and bikes can be rented on arrangement.
Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel: This hotel is located near the park headquarters and was opened in 2011. This hotel offers great views of the forest Mountains and offers front desk services, a general restaurant that serves drinks to all residents and a sitting area with TV. Other services include barbecue facilities, shuttle services, a banquet and meeting facilities. The room balconies offer good views of the mountains and forests. Because of her location in the middle of the park, it is great place for hiking.
Gisakura Family Hostel: This hostel is located besides the major road in Gisakura. It is a great option for the budget traveler. The hostel has simple but good facilities with very friendly staff. Those traveling in groups will find this hostel convenient because of the shared rooms and restaurants with inexpensive meals.
EAR Gisakura Visitor Centre: This EAR Gisakura visitor centre has an advantage in its strategic location in the forest with easy access to the main road. Its four bungalows offer a serene environment for nature lovers because of the forest trees. The trees around the bungalows allows for clean air and great shade even in drier seasons of the year.
Gisakura Guest House: This guest house is built 2 kilometers away from Nyungwe Forest National Park with beautiful gardens. The guest house is built with simple design but with functional rooms that are affordable and ideal for the budget traveler. The showers and toilets are designed to be shared and kept impeccably clean by very friendly staff. Lunch and dinner costs about $8 and is served at the general restaurant.
KCCEM Guesthouse: KCCEM is a scenic guesthouse that offers great value for the budget traveler. It is located on the park’s eastern boundary near Kitabi booking office and has twenty self-contained rooms built in 5 brick blocks. The Guesthouse is neat and clean in and out. The guesthouse offers wonderful views of the mountain and forest. There is a canteen that serves local and international dishes.
Café Resto Bar Keza: This place is located in the centre of Gisakura and is popular among tourists interested in good and acceptable budget rooms. There are 10 small but self-contained rooms with hot showers that are kept clean. The bar section of the establishment is frequented by locals who come to watch weekend matches.
Uwinka Campsite: For visitors who prefer camping, the Uwinka campsite built at the reception centre of the Park is a great choice. It is the only campsite in Uwinka with many suitable spots offering great views of the forest. One of the sites has a wooden platform that shields the tents from heavy rains during the wet season. Water can be got in buckets for showering.
Note: Apart from the hotels, lodges and campsites discussed above, other accommodation facilities worth checking out include the Rustic Resthouse, Peace Guest House along the shores of Lake Kivu, Golden Monkey hotel, Hotel Credo,Hotel Ibis Butare, Hotel Faucon Butare and Ten to Ten Changugu Paradise.