Nyungwe’s majesty is imposing. Its primal presence unleashes itself onto you while you’re still safely seated inside a vehicle along the road. One moment the road is winding through a characteristic rural Rwanda landscape of rolling tea plantations and artificially terraced hills, the next a dense tangle of trees rises imperiously from the fringing cultivation. The road takes on sharper turns, clinging improbably to steep forested slopes, offering grandstand views over densely swathed hills that tumble like monstrous green waves towards Burundi. From the comfort of one’s seat, Nyungwe maintains its glorious nature effortlessly and draws your eyes to it all.
I had the most difficult time getting to Nyungwe. Granted that it is bisected by the surfaced trunk road from Huye to Rusizi (Cyangugu), it is only easily accessed by car. Getting around without private transport was tricky during the time of the presidential campaign season. No buses were heading to Rusizi from either Huye or Kigali. I basically had to hitch-hike a grossly overpriced bus from Kampala on its way to the Congolese border town Bukavu.
At the door of the bus I was met with a scuffle, as women with market wares and children on their backs pushed and shoved with official-looking young men on their way to work, I presumed. I had to scrum to get onto the bus. Inside, there was a visible mix of peoples. Travellers from Uganda going to Bukavu are predominantly Congolese so there was a lot of Bantu-laden French and Kiswahili being thrown around, loudly and without discipline. The bustle at the bus door as men shouted in Kinyarwanda had left me more lost than I already felt. But I had to find a way to get off this bus a bit past the midway mark. So I made acquaintance with two Rwandese men who’d crammed into the bus alongside me. We’d been the last three to enter.
Inside, a woman did not want to, and all the same didn’t lift her sack from the seat next to her as I stood in the alley, darting my eyes looking for space. She’d defended herself saying there was plenty of space at the back – but the back was crammed with baggage and bedding. The man I did manage to seat beside at the back happened to be seated diagonally, for some reason. I too had to sit diagonally, my back at an angle to the backrest. I’d been told it would be a two hour ride at its maximum, so hopefully not for too long.
My eyes wanted to shut at this point.
But all these frustrations were lifted once the bus, an hour into my journey, entered the dank interior of the intimate and confining forest reserve lands.
I arrived at Uwinka Overlook at 1038Hrs, one and a half hours after leaving Huye, as the sole passenger to alight. Hell, the only Kenyan on it with almost everyone else a Congolese, some sparse Ugandans and Rwandese therein. The Uwinka Reception Centre lies alongside the main road and is well signposted, 90km from Huye. This is the starting point for several trails, including the canopy walkway, and it is also very close to some good sites for general birdwatching and primate viewing.
I was here for the canopy walk scheduled to start at 1300Hrs. I took the time to explore the small museum that seemed newly built. Here’s where I learnt that Nyungwe is a true montane rainforest, typically receiving in excess of 2,000mm of precipitation annually. It is one of the oldest forests in Africa, one reason why it boasts such a high level of biodiversity; more than 1050 plant species have been recorded, 120 butterfly, 85 mammals, 310 bird, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species. The park is the most important catchment area, supplying water to 70% of the country. While waiting, I also enjoyed WiFi and a meal of fish at the café.
At 1300Hrs I joined a band of four at the start of the Igishigishigi trail. The air was rent with sounds of Turacos, perched on trees around us. The 2km long trail connects one hill to another hill and to another hill and is thus quite a steep descent.
Protais, a fellow I’d met at the Overlook, was walking ahead of me in black brogues. I just shook my head while staring at his awkward posture in motion. To think we still had to climb back up the same path!
Our guide was burly and towering, but with a soft voice engulfed by a fervent passion for nature. This I learnt as he went on about this and that coniferous tree species, a red-crested turaco that we spotted on while on the trail, algae and moss-covered rock on a river bed, and most of all on the tree canopies. He had a lot to say on the tree’s high arching canopies.
The canopy walk was somewhat bouncier than I’d imagined but as high as I’d pictured. They tell you not to look down, mostly due to the vertiginous nature of the wobbly contraption. But I had to have a look. True to it, I felt like the deep green of the trees was calling to me, to my feet – that they wanted me to crowd surf among them.
Up there, on top of all these tall trees, surrounded by one of the purest airs on this planet, one feels a certain kinship to the earth – a sort of tug at your being, and thoughts of time and how fleeting the human endeavour is sometimes. One is confronted by a maternal, ageless presence – a producer and sustainer of aliveness.
But maybe that’s just me because Protais was behind me shaking like a wet leaf lodged behind a jet engine. And from the corner of my eye, I could see him try to take a few deep breaths, dread pressing down on his chest…