Nyungwe National Park is nestled in the southwest corner of Rwanda, a nation roughly the size of the state of Maryland. Nyungwe is several hours south of Volcanoes National Park (VNP) of “Gorillas in the Mist” fame. VNP brings people from all over the world to northern Rwanda, but some manage to also find this emerald forest in Nyungwe by Lake Kivu.
We first visited Rwanda in October 2012 at the request of USAID. Our assessment of the visitor experience and park guides’ skills led to this USAID supported trip to conduct NAI’s Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) course for thirty guides in two class groups and the Certified Interpretive Host (CIH) course for individuals from seven partner organizations within and around the park, including community cultural programs, lodges, and World Conservation Society (WCS) along with Nyungwe’s chief wardens and reception personnel.
We completed the first CIG course on January 24th and I think we enjoyed the five days as much as the guides and learned much from them. We added a day to the usual four-day training in recognition of the language and cultural challenges and we probably could have used several more. All of Nyungwe’s guides speak English well, but Kinyarwanda and French are the preferred languages of several of them.
The guides performed admirably and thirteen earned the CIG credential in the first course. They know the birds, trees, and primates of this incredible landscape quite well, but the social science and communication techniques of the CIG course were mostly new to them and they took to the requirements eagerly. We saw incredible examples of thought-provoking thematic presentations in the 10-minute performance portion of the course. They are rightfully proud of having earned the credentials.
As we said goodbye to what we know will be new lifelong friends, we turned our attention to a day of regrouping before tackling the CIHost course. We spent part of our day off with Hope (Espoir), one of our CIG students, who took us for a short
walk in the tea fields near Gisakura at the edge of the rainforest. We were met near Nyungwe Forest Lodge by a woman tracker, who took us up close to a troop of 45 Angolan colobus monkeys. For two hours we watched them as they moved closer and closer to us out of curiosity, until they were only about ten to twenty feet away. Then the tracker urged us to move back toward the tea fields where she had spotted a Mona monkey, one of the thirteen species of primates in Nyungwe we had not yet seen. The Mona had a beautiful expressive face and brought our total to nine species of primates viewed in this remarkable forest. We took about 1100 photos and video clips through the magic of Nikon 3200 and D40 cameras, including colobus monkeys jumping from tree to tree and interacting with mountain monkeys that entered their feeding area. It was amazing and Hope’s interpretation of it all was heartwarming. He brings just the right blend of stories, time to observe, questions and personal enthusiasm to the conversation.
It turned out to be one of the best days I have ever enjoyed in the outdoors. As we walked with Hope back to the reception office, we were simply overwhelmed by the experience. It started to rain just as we approached the Gisakura Guest House, where a cup of hot coffee and a delicious lunch was waiting. We have been profoundly touched by these hospitable people and the rich landscape where they work.
Nyungwe is two and a half hours from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and only a few miles from Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. It boasts thirteen species of primates including chimpanzees, 1016 species of plants, 278 species of birds and dozens of endemics (found only here). It is a naturalist’s paradise, but it is much more than that. Its mission statement reflects its global and regional significance and emphasizes a balance between conservation and tourism. Here, you can stay at beautifully located lodges surrounding the park, walk the trails with well-trained guides and relax with the amazing hospitality of the Rwandan people.
The painful civil conflict of almost two decades ago is not forgotten but peace and reconciliation have been the practice of this nation in recovering. It is a safe place to visit and Nyungwe provides incredible trails, waterfalls, dense montane rainforest, rich wildlife and unique cultural experiences.
They have protected and interpret more than 1,010 square kilometers of pristine rainforest for the future of their children and all mankind. This preserve protects more than 70% of the water used by the people of Rwanda and the headwaters of both the Congo and Nile Rivers, relied upon by hundreds of villages. Once threatened by poaching, gold mining and the burning of bee trees, the forest is now carefully managed to protect the biodiversity of the region and support local communities.
Rwanda’s gorilla tracking in the Virunga Volcanoes should be a bucket list trip for everyone in our opinion, but Nyungwe has much to offer also. If you get a chance to visit this friendly nation, do not miss Nyungwe National Park. You will be met by talented and dedicated guides, who will be happy to share their forest with you.