Living the high life in Nyungwe

Monday September 17 2018


Canopy walk at Nyungwe park, Rwanda. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI 

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I tentatively placed my right foot on the rope bridge. It swayed slightly. Then my left, and it swayed again. A few shaky steps forward and my heart was thumping, my stomach turning.

I was sure the bridge would topple over and I would fall into the trees, 70 metres below.

The canopy walk is located in the middle of Nyungwe rainforest in southwestern Rwanda. It was built in 2010.

The walk starts at Uwinka centre, where the skull of the last elephant lies. The elephant was killed in 1999 by poachers, and, in 2016, Rwanda announced plans to reintroduce the species into the park.

A message next to the skull calls for “constant vigilance” against threats in the forest.

I was visiting the park with a group of fellow journalists from all over the world. We walked along the Igishigishigi trail, which is rated “easy” — I’m not sure why it’s rated so low as the climb back was quite strenuous.

On the way to the canopy walk, we spotted a couple of shy silver monkeys in the trees. Nyungwe is home to 13 species of primates.

A round trip to the canopy is just over two kilometres. The 200-metre canopy is divided into three sections.

The first and second part lead to a fixed platform. Each section can take a maximum of eight people at a time, at least two metres apart, preferably more. More people means more sway.

The first part of the canopy walk slopes upward, the second is fairly straight and the third brings you back down to earth.

To return, you can either use the bridge, or a path through the forest. I opted for the bridge. After surviving the first walk through, the return trip via the swaying bridge was a breeze.

Looking out from the highest point, I had a bird’s-eye view of the forest below. The farthest hills were blue-green and hazy.

I stopped in the middle to listen to the rich music from some of the 278 species of birds, and to look out for more primates. I called out to the monkeys, but they declined my offer to come out to play.

Full of confidence, I danced my way back to the starting point.

The Nyungwe rainforest is located between the basin of the River Congo to the west and the basin of the River Nile to the east.

Nyungwe covers more than a thousand square kilometres of rainforest. The forest has some 13 hiking trails.

Some are as short as an hour and a half of walking, others can take up to three days with camping in the forest.

One trail leads to a tropical waterfall. Our guide informed us that the hike was rated “medium” and would take about three hours for the round trip. He warned that it could rain, so we should carry our raincoats to stay dry.

We set off, full of enthusiasm, as the trail was mostly downhill. The vegetation on the trail is similar to that found in the Mt Kenya forest reserve on a trail that also leads to a waterfall. Moss clings to the base of “bearded” trees, and the ground is mostly damp.

We crossed makeshift wooden bridges, passed by a small waterfall, down steep, slippery and rocky slopes, and up again to a large waterfall.

I could hear the sound of the falling water before we arrived, thundering into a pool before flowing downstream.

We picnicked by the waterfall, spray wetting our faces, as one of the group took a dip in the pool at the base.

Making our way back was the toughest part. We had to go back the way we had come, and this time it was uphill. Heaving, panting our way, step by step, we got to the top. Although the rain did not fall, we were drenched — in sweat.

After a brief rest, we went to see the Angolan colobus monkeys. Lucky for us, we spotted some at the edge of the forest as we stood by the side of the road and didn’t have to do any more hiking.

The monkeys were playful, chewing through twigs, swinging and jumping between trees. They are habituated so we were able to see them quite close.

Colobus are herbivores, and their main predators are the omnivorous chimpanzees! Sounds cannibalistic, eh!

And having covered just two of the 13 trails, a return trip is in order.