Monday, 4 January 2016

Chimpanzees, Jungle and Waterfalls - Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda 11-13 December 2015

11 December 2015 – Goma, DR Congo to Gisakura, Rwanda
I needed to delay my normal Rest and Recreation leave due to the implementation of a new system at work so instead I decided to take a long weekend and drive down the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu to visit Nynugwe National Park. This park was famous for having Chimpanzies and also lots of different types of monkeys.
I borrowed one of our work cars and left early in the morning. The border crossing went smoothly and after only 10 minutes I was on my way. 
Leaving Gisakura
As I had all day to get to the lodge I decided to take the scenic route beside the lake. This route was the Congo Nile Trail which I had cycled part of it earlier in the year. I had memories of this being an easy dirt road winding around the edge of the lake. Obviously what seems a nice dirt road when on a mountain bike is not the same as when you are in a car.

Being Rwanda, land of 10,000 hills, it was hilly and being beside a lake it was windy. The first 10 km were easy with the road in good condition but then it started degrading quickly, not helped by this being rainy season which resulted in a lot of mud. My speed was hovering around 30 kph but I was loving the scenery and the friendly people. The landscape was predominantly coffee plantations with some small plots of terraced hills growing crops. 
Still on the good part of the road, looking out at Lake Kivu
It was market day in one of the villages so I had to contend with lots of cows blocking the road and for some reason the cows were not coping well with the car. One cow took off and the owner ended up chasing it for 3km down the road (I was watching the odometer) with me crawling at 5km an hour behind it.

Livestock heading to market
Market day in one of the villages
Village above Lake Kivu
Another delay was the flocks of Turkeys being tended by small boys.
Coffee Beans
Typical mud brick hut

My trust steed - Toyota Prado with diplomatic plates so I don't get bothered by police.
Turkey Herding Boys

Children's job to find some firewood.
Coffee Washing Station
Once past the market town the road deteriorated even further and I started to be challenged by the local bridges, which were just tree trunks laid across the gap. One in particular was pretty scary. It was just wide enough for the tyres and on the right was a raised log and on the left the log had partly broken and was sunk well below the remainder of the logs. I lined the car up then got out and moved to the front to check the positioning of the tyres. After moving the car again I was happy it was lined up. There was about 2 cm of bridge on either side of the tyres but I was concerned I would slip down onto the broken log. After a lot of indecision, and once a good sized crown had gathered to watch I closed my eyes and gunned the engine hoping momentum would get me across if the log broke. Thankfully I was through, to the disappointment of the watching crown. I am always amazed at how in DR Congo and Rwanda you seem to be in the middle of nowhere with no people around but the minute you stop there will be a large crowd of people crowding around the car, peering through the window at the novelty of a Mazungu (Swahili for foreigner).

The bridge, it looks a lit wider in this photo than it looked in real life
After a few more of these bridges I drove through a village and the road seemed to be getting narrower. By the time I was passed the road was heading downhill and narrow enough that there was no way to turn around. I tried to reverse but it was too slippery and the tyres just kept spinning. After checking google maps (downloaded the night before) it looked like the track linked up to another road at the bottom of the hill. I asked a group of children if this was the case and they said yes. So I continued down the narrow track which by this time was single track with a little grass to the side which rapidly turned to mud and I was sliding around a lot. As I was going down I was thinking I was glad this was downhill as I didn’t think I would be able to go up this. Finally I reached the bottom only to see the road ended at the lake edge. There was definitely no link back to another road. After some colourful language and anguish I drove onto the lovely looking grass patch to turn around, only to discover it was actually a marsh and I promptly got stuck. As I sat there with the car slowly sinking into the mud, looking at the lake in front of me all I could think was how I was going to live this down at work when they came to rescue me. Thankfully the children who had said there was a road had followed me down the hill and they pushed me back onto the firmer surface and I headed back up the road. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I though and with differential lock supporting the 4WD I managed to get back to the village and see where I had missed the turnoff.
I had now taken 2 hours to cover 20 km and was starting to get concerned about making it to the National Park in time to pay for the Chimpanzie Trek so decided I’d had enough of the scenic route and headed inland to a better road. Goole Maps had this road listed as a good road so using GPS to navigate the maze of little roads I managed to reach the ‘good’ road.
Compared to what I had been on it was good – I managed to get up to 40 kph in some places. 

I think these are greens to feed their cow
Finally I reached a sealed road and then started making some progress. This road was in really good condition and they were working to finish improving it. However it is still Rwanda so there were very few times where I could go faster than 60 kph. This was not only due to the hilly, windy nature but also the danger of goats, chickens and children darting randomly in front of me. Luckily there was very little traffic. The scenery was beautiful as I would in and out of bays and headed up for a while giving great views of the lake and into DR Congo across the other side of the lake.

Rice Fields
Inlet of Lake Kivu
Children walking through the rice fields
One of the many road hazards to watch out for. These cycle taxi do not stay to their side of the road.
Village above rice paddy
Finally 7 ½ hours after starting I completed the 169km journey and reached the Gisakura Guest House. The guest house was basic with shared bathrooms but in a lovely setting right next to some forest and with lots of gardens. It was only USD32 so great value. It was in the same location as the Gisakura Park HQ so I paid my fee for the Chimpanze Trek the next day. I thought it was good value at $90. If you want to see Gorillas in Rwanda it will cost you $750. I then sat in the garden watching the Vervet Monkeys playing in the trees and reading.
Dinner was a set menu served at 1830. It was chicken, chips and salad and was very nice. I then retired to the shelter of my mosquito net and read for the rest of the evening.

12 December 2015 – Chimpanzee and Canopy Walkway - Gisakura, Rwanda
It was an early start because the best time for viewing the Chimpanzee is early morning before they start moving around. The chimpanzee are not actually in the main park but in Cyamudongo Forest 1 hour away. At 0500 I was in the carpark. There was one other vehicle there. The guide introduced himself and then told me I would be driving them to the trek start. This was unexpected as I was expecting us all to get into the ranger’s vehicle. We drove for 20 minutes on a sealed road and then onto a dirt road that was very muddy in parts. I was glad I was in a 4WD. We were following the other vehicle and it was going very slow and struggling with the rough and slippery road. After 30 minutes we reached the carpark and got ready.
There were two other tourists, the guide and one assistant guide. We started out and as usual I positioned myself to be at the front behind the guide. The track was in very good condition but one of the other tourists was struggling as her shoes had no grip and she kept slipping over. After only 10 minutes I heard a disturbance in the trees above us and we saw some black and white monkeys in the trees high above us. I can’t remember if they were colobus or L’hoest Monkeys. 5 minutes later the guide was showing us a large tree and we saw some more monkeys in the trees above us. I was surprised at how quickly they were moving through the jungle. These were smaller and brown and white. The guide said they were Mona Monkeys. We also saw a squirrel.
After another 15 minutes the guide stopped us and let us know the chimpanzee were just ahead. They were in some thick bush but then two came towards us. On dropped onto the track in front of us and then headed away down the track. Then the second one dropped down and when it saw us started slapping the ground hard enough to feel the vibrations under our feet. It then headed down the track, still slapping the ground. I tried to take photos but it was too dark under the thick jungle canopy.
Too dark to get a clear shot of the Chimpanzee on the path ahead
Chimpanzee on the path just before it headed into the jungle
We followed these two chimpanzee a few hundred meters down the track before they headed back into the jungle. We continued down the track another hundred meters and then into the jungle where the spotters had seen a couple of chimpanzee. They were very hard to spot as they were high up in thick bush. We then moved to place where there were a couple more but once again they were hard to spot so we headed back to the first group.
Difficult spotting the chimpanzee high in the trees

This was a very different viewing experience from seeing Gorillas. Gorillas stay on the ground together in their family group most of the time and are much easier to see. Chimpanzee have big family groups but they separate into pairs or groups up to 4 in number to forage high up in the trees.
Once back at the first place we finally go to see a Chimpanzee clearly. It was still high up and hard to see but luckily my camera has 60x zoom and I got a great view, including seeing evidence of the huge bladder this young male had.
Finally a clear view, only with a 60x zoom camera
Very long demonstration of a huge bladder

After watching for a while we called it a day and started back up the trail. It had been downhill all the way there so uphill on the way back at a very slow pace. The other tourists were not very fit. One small excitement on the journey back. As we ere resting I saw some ants and was trying to take a photo. I was careful to keep off their trail and was watching to make sure I didn't get any on me. I finished and walked up to the others and the guide started talking about fire ants and said that was what I was looking at. I was dubious as they did not look like fire ants and looked like an ant I had painfully encountered before - Dorylus better known as Driver Ants. Unfortunately I was to prove him wrong as after a minute or so of talking I felt a bite on my thigh and slapped it. Then I felt a bite on my stomach and lifted my shirt to see the Driver Ant with its mandibles firmly pincering my skin. Luckily I only had two on me.  The interesting thing I have found about these ants, which I have encountered before, is they do not bite immediately but climb up your legs and then seem to give off a signal so once they are in position from mid thigh to stomach they all start biting at once.

Heading back up the hill
Guides and the other two tourists
Rain Worm
One small excitement on the journey back. As we ere resting I saw some ants and was trying to take a photo. I was careful to keep off their trail and was watching to make sure I didn't get any on me. I finished and walked up to the others and the guide started talking about fire ants and said that was what I was looking at. I was dubious as they did not look like fire ants and looked like an ant I had painfully encountered before - Dorylus better known as Driver Ants. Unfortunately I was to prove him wrong as after a minute or so of talking I felt a bite on my thigh and slapped it. Then I felt a bite on my stomach and lifted my shirt to see the Driver Ant with its mandibles firmly pincering my skin. Luckily I only had two on me.  The interesting thing I have found about these ants, which I have encountered before, is they do not bite immediately but climb up your legs and then seem to give off a signal so once they are in position from mid thigh to stomach they all start biting at once.

It took 45 minutes to get back to the car. As we pulled up their car had a wheel off and the bonnet up with some serious looking repairs in progress, not what you want to see when you are ready to go. Luckily the guide did not insist on waiting for them and we drove back. 

Tea Plantations
After giving the obligatory tip (they should have given me a tip for driving them!) I headed back to the guest house for some breakfast. When I went to the toilet I saw the ant that I had slapped on my thigh was till firmly holding on, despite being dead. It took quite a bit of force to get it's mandibles separated enough to detach it from my skin.
Driver Ant with mandables still holding on despite having been killed over an hour ago
I then relaxed until 1200 when I drove deeper into the National Park. I was driving along admiring the jungle when I saw a monkey on the side of the road so I stopped and took some photos thinking how lucky I was to see it. 5 minutes later more of them so once again I stopped, excited to get so close to them. Thereafter I saw them at regular intervals for the next 20 minutes and calmed down about seeing them. These were L’hoest Monkeys which like to graze in the open areas beside the road.
The transition from tea plantations to jungle heading into Nyungwe national Park
L'hoerst Monkey on the side of the road
L'hoerst Monkey
At the Uwinka Park Headquarters I was booked in to do the Igishigishigi Trail 2.1 km which leads to the canopy walkway. There were two other people doing it and they were then doing another walk. I Inquired about this extra walk and was told it was just under 2 km and would cost me $50 so I declined. The guide offered walking sticks but given the short distance I declined, despite the insistence of the guide. We followed a good condition track down hill and after only 10 minutes saw some monkeys, Blue Monkeys this time making it primate species number 4 for the day. 

Blue Monkey
Blue Monkey
Blue Monkey
We then walked another 5 minutes and the Canopy Walkway came into view. It is made up of three sections; 45m, 90m and 24 m. The longer stretch was 57m above the forest floor. The walkway was built in 2010 by a Canadian company and the guide reassured us by saying it came with a 30 year guarantee. We were give strict instructions on how to walk by keeping our feet exactly in the centre and to hold onto the blue side ropes, sliding our hands along and not taking the hands off. If we wanted a photo we had to tell the guide and wait until everyone was stopped before taking a hand off to handle the camera. I was surprised by how little bounce there was, especially compared to the swingbridges I am used to in NZ. 
After the first segment we stopped on a platform to take some photos and then headed to the middle of the 90 meter segment and stayed looking down on top of the forest canopy and across the valley at the forest. Unfortunately there was no wildlife to look at but it was peaceful just absorbing the forest colours, textures and sounds. 

Our Guide explaining how to walk on the canopy walkway. 
The second 90 meter section of the canopy walkway
Looking down into the forest
Berries on the tree high in the canopy
We then moved on to the last segment and started walking back up the hill. At a junction I headed back to the park headquarters while they continued on their very expensive trail.
Inpatients Flower
Ferns, makes me feel at home
Easy walking on this trail

I drove back to the lodge stopping at the viewpoint to the Kamiranzovu Marsh and seeing more L’hoerst Monkeys. 

L'hoerst Monkey crossing the road at a sensible place
Kamiranzovu Marsh
At the lodge the Vervet Monkeys were back so that made 5 species of primate in one day.

Vervet Monkey

Monkeys watching attentively as they saw a dog

I read my book and then spoke to some of the other tourists who I had dinner with and retired to bed.

13 December 2015 – Isumo Waterfall at Gisakura, Rwanda and return to Goma, DR Congo
Today was a later start so I had time for breakfast before meeting my guide for the day. The plan was to walk the Isumo Trail (10.6 km) which has the Isumo Waterfall as the highlight. We started walking through the tea plantations before reaching the jungle. My guide was entertaining and we were talking non stop until we reached the jungle. 

Start of the trail
Tea Plantations
My Guide

Then we were quiet to absorb the sounds better. The jungle trail was in good condition and followed the contour above the river. Not long after entering the jungle we saw two Giant Blue Turaco which had been on my ‘to see’ list. 

Great Blue Turaco

I was loving being in the jungle and really enjoyed the walk. We wound down to a stream and crossed on a bridge before heading back to the river. We were going at a good pace and the guide commented on how well I moved on the rough terrain so I told him about doing Te Araroa. I think he had mistaken me using walking poles for needing assistance and had not believed me when I said I was a fast walker. I guess they get people saying that a lot but then struggling on the rough ground and going slowly. I explained the benefits of the walking poles and let him and the intern guide have a go. 
Looking up the stream from the bridge

Unknown Caterpilla

Loved the tree in the middle of the picture

Beautiful trail


After 1 hour 10 minutes we started hearing the waterfall and it rapidly got louder. In another 10 minutes we dropped steeply to the river and the waterfall came into sight briefly. We then followed some slippery rocks beside the river and arrived at the waterfall. It was a lot of water forced into a narrow gap and then falling 17 meters into a beautiful green amphitheater lined with vibrant green ferns, lianas and flowers. 

Stream just below the falls. The trail heads up on the right

My guides

Looking down from the falls

Isumo Falls

There were also many caves in the cliff walls. The blast of the water thundering down was loud enough that we had to shout to be heard and the spray quickly drenched me. I was reluctant to leave but I couldn’t spend all day there so we left. The guide told me to go in front so I was able to stretch out and walk at a good pace, while still stopping anytime I saw anything interesting. 

Plain looking green plant until you look underneath

Under the leaves are these neat flowers

The only Butterfly I managed to get a photo of

Lovely trail to walk on

We headed back to the same bridge then the trail branched off and we headed up the hill. I was enjoying going at a good pace but it seemed like the intern guide was struggling and they kept pointing out interesting things while he recovered his breath. One good thing was seeing a squirrel, which may be common for many people but as we do not have any in NZ I was interested. 

After a short time we arrived at the jungle edge on a road just above the 5 star Nyangwe Forest Lodge.  I had looked at this as an option for accommodation but as the prices started at USD 250 it was a little outside my price range. It was in a beautiful setting of tea plantation looking out into the jungle. We walked down do I could have a look and I could see why it was so expensive. 
Looking down at the exclusive Nyungwe Forest Lodge

After having the satisfaction of tracking mud through their reception area we headed back up the hill and returned via the tea plantations and some Eucalyptus Forest back to my more humble lodge.

After a quick shower I was back in the car heading back to Goma. I decided to follow the google maps route which was fine for the first 100km and then onto good condition dirt road so I was confident of making it for the 1800 boarder closure. 

Local Bricks on the google maps 'main road'
I got back onto the part of the road I had mountain biked earlier in the year but the road seemed to be heading inland and I was getting nervous that I had missed a turning. I stopped and confirmed I was heading in the right direction a few times but it was taking longer than I remembered and I was starting to stress about the border crossing time. Finally I reached the main road and made it to the boarder with 10 minutes to spare. Luckily the line on the Rwandan side was short and I drove across, parked and went to the DRC customs where there is a separate window for foreigners. There were two guys in front who took ages and then at 1800 exactly I was at the window, last person for the day.
I drove the short distance to our house and the guards were impressed with the filthy state of the car, unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of and they had cleaned the vehicle by the morning.

It was a great long weekend trip. I loved the Ngungwe National park. The only issue was the need for a compulsory guide and the high prices to walk the trails. I like hiking by myself and dislike being restricted in speed or having constant chatter. Also coming from New Zealand where national parks are free, having to pay to do a walk doesn’t sit right. I have no issue with daily national park fees as that is what funds the maintenance of the trails and conservation within the park but I disliked having a flat fee regardless of the length of the trail. However overall I enjoyed my experience.

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