A walk on the wild side

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There’s more than one must-visit mountainous rainforest in this Land of a Thousand Hills. Robin Griffiths looks beyond Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to discover the incredible biodiversity of the Nyungwe Forest, including its endangered chimpanzee communities

12464005453_d4c834fb42_oIt’s barely 6am and I’m awestruck as I stare across the epic landscape of tea plantations and rainforests shrouded in a deep heavy mist, adding a layer of mystery to a day already so full of intrigue. I am in the Nyungwe Forest and today we are hoping to catch a glimpse of our closest relative – the chimpanzee.

Nyungwe – deep in Rwanda’s south-west, sharing borders with Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is one of the world’s oldest living forests, apparently hosting life even as long ago as the Ice Age. Today, it’s one of Africa’s most abundant in wildlife, with 13 primate species, over a dozen distinct mammal types and more than 300 species of bird.

Chimpanzee trekking started here around 10 years ago when Nyungwe was first designated a national park. The trail leading us into the shadowy rainforest is worn completely flat, and is precariously slippery. I had bought good walking boots pre-trip but at times still struggle to stay on my feet, but the guides, all of them wearing rubber Wellington boots, are sure-footed and offer support throughout the trek.

I am in a group of eight, and as the stunning terraced landscapes and tea plantations give way to a denser, darker and altogether more foreboding jungle, our guide softly explains to us that, unlike the gorillas we are hoping to see later in our trip, the chimpanzees are not as trusting of human presence and we should expect an entirely different encounter.

Ahead of us, trained trackers are already looking for nests – which chimpanzees create and destroy each night, making them much harder to locate than gorillas – and listening out for calls. Although the area we are exploring is relatively small, at two or three square miles, the density of the vegetation is incredible and makes sightings much less of a formality.

Suddenly, somewhere up ahead and seemingly out of nowhere, whoops, screams, and a series of short, maniacal cries reverberate around the forest. My senses are buzzing. There are chimps everywhere and the atmosphere is intense as they shout, climb and beat their chests. They are all around us, offering fleeting glimpses among sounds of crashing branches. I get the impression they are letting us know whose house this is and I only hope they understand that I am fully aware and completely in agreement.

And then, after perhaps 10 minutes of watching the show in amazement, as quickly, but much more quietly, than they came, they are gone. The forest is silent once again.

After a few more hours, and despite having a reasonable level of fitness I am starting to feel the effects of the altitude, the terrain and the adrenaline comedown. We have seen L’Hoest’s and mona monkeys, been feet away from troops of preening colobus monkeys and been amazed by a family of chimpanzees – but just as I think the day is drawing to a close we hear a loud whooping nearby. “It’s the alpha male calling the rest of the group to him,” our guide explains. At the next clearing, he points up. The powerfully built alpha sits in a tree and we stop for a moment to reflect and look on as he feeds. I’m breathless. Getting here was strenuous but it’s then I realise that it’s not the terrain that has affected me so, but simply the excitement of being this close to such a great ape in its natural habitat.

Robin travelled with Kuoni (kuoni.co.uk) on a four-night Chimps of the Nyungwe Forest itinerary, and twinned this with gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park.

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