Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Nyungwe Forest Adventure

Tuesday 7th July 2009

Last Saturday was 4th July, liberation day, a national holiday in Rwanda marking the Rwandan Patriotic Front's liberation from Habyarimana's dictatorship that had wracked the country with genocide. The day was celebrated with a massive concert at the national stadium and a week of talks, lectures and discussion on the theme of liberation: this year's slogan being "Dignity is our Strength".

“Rwanda today is a nation renascent, a country in an advanced stage of rehabilitation, and one looking to a brighter future. The high level of political stability and peace since 1995 has encouraged the repatriation of millions of refugees, while the main instigators of the genocide are being tried at the Arusha Tribunal in Tanzania and in the Gacaca courts in Rwanda….

During its tenure in power, the RPF has placed strong emphasis on reconciliation, and has largely succeeded in forging a sense of national, rather than ethnic, identity in Rwanda.
The autocratic and divisive political structures that formerly denied minorities a meaningful political voice have been replaced, for instance with the implementation of cellular councils that involve local communities in important decisions at grassroots level. Furthermore, although poverty remains endemic to Rwanda as it does to most other Africa countries, economic liberalisation and civil stability have stimulated a consistently high annual economic growth rate since 1995, and today there is a tangible economic buzz about Rwanda that bodes well for its long-term future. Tourism will play a pivotal role in fostering the economic infrastructure and prosperity that nurture future political stability.” Quoted from Rwandan tourism website.



In need of some light relief, instead of going to the liberation day concert I took a tourist trip out of town. I went to visit Nyungwe forest with an international group of 5 fellow volunteers: Hanna (Finnish), Jammie (Canadian), Noam (Israeli), Chloe (American), Gia (American) and Frank (Rwandan). Chloe and Gia had been in Kigali for only 24 hours and Frank is an ex WE-ACTx employee.

Nyungwe Forest national park, in south western Rwanda, is a popular tourist destination, being one of the last remaining forest areas of the country and home to chimpanzees (but unfortunately we didnt see any). The park is located south of lake Kivu on the boarder of Burundi and was established in 2004. It ranges in altitude fro m16000m to 2950m above sea level and covering an area of approximately 970 km² of rainforest, bamboo, grassland, swamps, and bogs. The nearest town to the forest is Cyangugu, 54 km to the west. According to the brochure, the Nyungwe forest has a pre-historic atmosphere, rich in biodiversity, supporting 250 different types of trees and shrubs and a vast range of flowering plants, including over 100 species of orchid and giant Lobelia. Through a maze of well kept trails, walkers are guided to various viewing points to enjoy the stillness of the forest. I was in for a treat and happy to have taken the opportunity to be a tourist in this amazing country.

One of the challenges of planning a trip with a group of people where no one in particular is in charge, is that arrangements are talked about but can remain unarranged. Everyone thinks someone else is taking care of things. Last Thursday evening we found that Hanna had bought us all a ticket for the bus but no one had organized accommodation. On the morning of our departure after several phone calls to different guest houses, we managed to find one that wasn't full and booked three rooms. Thankfully we were sorted.





We gathered just after noon at cafe Bourbon - a Starbucks type coffeehouse at the Union Trade Centre shopping mall where all the Muzungus (white people) hang out. Itching to go we waited impatiently for Jammie’s takeaway cappuccino and sandwich and my banana cake. We had a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and our bus was due to leave at 12.30. A few of us were worried we might miss it or find our seats had been double booked. Apparently it happens. 10 minutes later, snacks in hand, we all hurried out towards the bus stop getting there with a few minutes to spare. It soon arrived and after only a shortly wait, during which time we bought apples and chatted to locals, we boarded and were directed to our ticketed seats clustered at the front of the bus. I sat next to the driver in what is known as the CEO seat and enjoyed the whole journey there spellbound at the stunning views and chatting to my fellow passengers: a young student of tourism who lived in Kigali and worked in Chyangugu (six hours away) at the weekends; a student from Uganda who was studying in Australia and revisiting other East African countries on his summer break; and a very quiet fellow sitting in the front seat next to me. It felt so good to be with people in a friendly lighthearted way after the intensity of the work I’ve been doing and the recent genocide memorials visits. Unable to talk with the quiet young man sitting next to me - he spoke almost no French or English, and I almost no Kinyarwandan - we became ipod friends listening to Chris Berry and Pangea’s 'Dancemakers' album. Bobbing our heads, tapping our hands and feet and now and again sticking a thumb up to each other and nodding our mutual pleasure of this funky intercultural Afro beat, pop band.





The lush emerald green landscape whizzed past us, too fast for me to take decent photos. Rwanda’s economy is small and mainly agricultural with coffee and tea as the main export crops. I saw many fields of tea and bananas -the staple crop. Other main crops are corn, cassava, sweet potato and other roots, peas ,beans, melons and sorghum (a type of cereal grain). I saw a few fields of sunflowers and every now and then a crop of mud bricks laid out by the roadside to dry in the sun. Flowers splash colour everywhere - bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani, roses and lots of others I don’t know the names of.

After a five-hour bus ride, our bus driver, Jean Pierre, dropped us off at the guesthouse just before dusk. It seemed there had been some misunderstanding and we had missed our stop and were at the ORTPN which was the wrong guesthouse and was fully booked. We called the Gisakura guesthouse where we had booked rooms to say that the 7 of us would be making our way there within the next hour.

“Ahh! Seven? But there is only one room.” came the reply.
“But we booked three rooms.”
“No, there is only one room. No space for seven.”
Another misunderstanding!

We discussed our options. It was dark; there was no public transport and not many cars traveling through. Cyangugu, the nearest town, was too far away so we decided to walk the fifty minutes back up the road to Gisakura guesthouse. The landlady surely wouldn’t turn us away at night – it was just one night. We’d all squeeze into the one room. Noam headed out to the road, saw a car and stuck her thumb out. We persuaded the driver to give us a lift up the road to our guesthouse and to wait until it was clear we were all going to be able to stay there - thank goodness Frank was with us to negotiate. The landlady was lovely, concerned about the misunderstanding and eager to help make us more comfortable. In no time she had organized an extra double bed, brought us water and offered us a meal. We declined the meal and ate the picnic we had bought from Kigali. We sorted out payment, ordered breakfast for 6am and then romped noisily on our two mattresses, happy and relieved.





Our four-hour, 14-kilometer waterfall trail walk started at 8.00am. We met our guide, Robert, who asked if everyone was in good enough shape and offered us all a walking staff. Robert kept us informed about the flora and fauna of the forest as we went along and was happy to answer all questions asked. We were instructed to leave no litter, not even biodegradable waste like banana skins or apple cores, as this would encourage monkeys to expect food and hang about causing mischief. We were also asked to take nothing away which was tough, as usually, I gather a few things for my cabinets of curiosity: seeds, pods, leaves, petals, fragments of bark, termite-patterned bits of wood, bits of fur, remnants of malting skin, dried flowers, etc. part of an on-going art project collection of mementos from my numerous encounters with nature around the world over the last ten years. It was a fabulous day of walking, paddling, talking, looking, listening, connecting with the forest, taking photographs and being generally enthralled by the boundless wonder of nature.



Just after setting off on our walk we came across a colony of fire ants. A fire ant bite can cause several health problems, sometimes serieous. Captivated by the expansive views in the beautiful morning light, a few of us stopped to take photos and missed Robert's warning not to stand still for too long. As we rejoined the group I saw people dusting down their clothes. I looked down and let out a horrified yelp. My clothes were covered in ants. The skin all over my body shrank as I went into my infestation phobia reaction, hopping and jumping around, frantically stamping my feet trying to shake off what seemed like hundreds of ants but was probably more like 30. They crawled up to into my trousers and shirt in no time - I now know where the phrase 'ants in your pants' comes from! They didn’t give up easily and I had to scrape them off my clothes and fish them out of my undies- luckily I didnt get bitten.

The path wended its way through tea plantations and slowly into the forest, progressively getting more dense and dark. I was reminded of the Australian rain forest I visited near Brisbane and felt the same appreciation for the wild exuberance of the forest: the countless species of trees, plants and flowers, the numerous shades of green moss, the cushioning of mulch under foot, the carpets of purple, pink or white petals, the fallen logs



that had been thrown down across the path in the midst of a storm and had been sawn through to free up the footpath. The moss covered vines reminded me of old Tarzan movies and looking up at the sky through the filigree of leaves reminded me of Islamic ceramic tile art. There wasn’t much in the way of larger animals and no monkeys, though we'd seen a few on the roadside as we travelled into the forest on the bus.



Walking through the Nyungwe forest was mesmerizing. At times was engrossed in conversation, taking photos or walking alone. I slowly dropped in to a more reflective frame of mind. Pondering my experience of being in Rwanda so far, remembering loved ones at home and thinking of the hundreds, probably thousands, of people that had trodden the same footpath - smelling the earthiness of the damp undergrowth and cool freshness of the air, enjoying the visual stimulus of shapes, colours and the filtered light - marveling at the wondrous interior of the forest as if in another world. I stopped now and again to rest and look out at the view when the forest opened out.

As we walked back, I stopped to change my shoes and lost sight of the group. The path forked and I didn’t know which way to go: right towards the tea plantation or left to what looked like more forest. I had a moment of indecision and near panic. But I had been feeling so happy and content from the walk that I was able to avoid a sense of panic and trust that I would find my way. I started to see several Rwandans, strolling slowly, arm in arm. I was enjoying the loveliness of the light and the green of the growing tea. Finding myself walking along something of a thoroughfare, I asked a few people here and there, in English and dodgy French, the way back to the ORTPN guesthouse. They looked at me uncomprehending. I came across a massive congregation of people who had just spilled out of a church – it was Saturday afternoon, perhaps it was a wedding or special service. Three mixed race looking men, walked towards me and introduced themselves. They were from Cape Town and working on the tea plantation. They were happy to hear I had recently visited Cape Town and we exchanged news. They gave me directions back to the ORTPN guesthouse and I carried on more confidently. Walking along the main road I suddenly heard my name. It was Robert. He was on a motorbike looking for me. Ahh! Georgina where did you go? I told him my story, very pleased that I had turned left and taken what turned out to be a slightly longer and more adventurous route back. I hopped on the back of his bike and was at the guesthouse in a few minutes, in time for a quick bite before the bus back to Kigali.



Robert led us to a place where we could swim. Those of us who took the plunge were at first shocked to the marrow by the cold, then revitalized, warmed and delighted by the experience. As we walked back through the forest, I wondered if Robert ever tired of guiding people through the forest. I asked him. He smiled and said he enjoyed his job very much, loved the forest and especially liked leading the more difficult red trails that took 6 hours and led walkers through much more challenging terrain.

As we walked back, I stopped to change my shoes and lost sight of the group. The path forked and I didn’t know which way to go: right towards the tea plantation or left to what looked like more forest. I had a moment of indecision and near panic. But I had been feeling so happy and content from the walk that I was able to avoid a sense of panic and trust that I would find my way. I started to see several Rwandans, strolling slowly, arm in arm. I was enjoying the loveliness of the light and the green of the growing tea. Finding myself walking along something of a thoroughfare, I asked a few people here and there, in English and dodgy French, the way back to the ORTPN guesthouse. They looked at me uncomprehending. I came across a massive congregation of people who had just spilled out of a church – it was Saturday afternoon, perhaps it was a wedding or special service. Three mixed race looking men, walked towards me and introduced themselves. They were from Cape Town and working on the tea plantation. They were happy to hear I had recently visited Cape Town and we exchanged news. They gave me directions back to the ORTPN guesthouse and I carried on more confidently. Walking along the main road I suddenly heard my name. It was Robert. He was on a motorbike looking for me. Ahh! Georgina where did you go? I told him my story, very pleased that I had turned left and taken what turned out to be a slightly longer and more adventurous route back. I hopped on the back of his bike and was at the guesthouse in a few minutes, in time for a quick bite before the bus back to Kigali.

We got the 3pm bus back. Unfortunately the ride home was not as delightful. For the first couple of hours the bus hurtled at breakneck speed down hill, the driver swerving at speed and not always avoiding the numerous potholes. We were all sat at the back of the bus, nauseous and struggling not to be sick over our fellow passengers. This time I had the worst seat on the bus - the middle of the back row. I was thrown up and down and side to side and had to relax as much as possible, becoming a reed in the wind, to avoid injury from all the jarring movement. Things eased off once we got beyond Butare with both the decreased gradient and heavy traffic slowing our driver down. The sundown was not as spectacular as the dawn had been and darkness fell thickly. Without electricity, there were very few lights on the hills, just the odd flicker and a few oil lamps in roadside shops. I was amazed at how people walked around effortlessly without torches, some still carrying loads on their heads, well versed with balancing in the dark. As we reached Kigali the hills lit up and slowly the throng of people on the streets increased. We got off the bus a little stiff and tired but totally content. We walked home slowly, enriched and enlivened by our trip and quietly looking forward to the dinner we knew would be waiting.

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