Camping in Rwanda, Part Deux (highlands version)

The contrast between Nyungwe Forest and the Akagera National Park (see Camping in Rwanda, Part One) could not be more extreme. From the baking sun, whining locusts in the trees and a bronzed landscape of blonde hillsides and shimmering lakes I traveled in a few hours to dense, wet, closed forest. At 2400 meters above sea level Nyungwe is chilly and shrouded in clouds. Here the distinction between the rainy and dry seasons, so crucial to Akagera's animals, might better be characterized as the drenched season versus the merely soggy.

The attraction here are the Albertine Rift endemics, both simian and avian. A series of mountain chains running down through the heart of the so-called Great Lakes region of Africa, the Albertine Rift is home to at least 30 species of birds that occur nowhere else. Its plant and insect life is similarly exotic and restricted in range, and Nyungwe is home to no less than 13 species of primates, one of the highest totals for any location on earth. L'Hoest's Monkey is common, and often found patrolling the shoulder of the lone switchback highway that crosses over the mountains to Cyangugu and South Kivu state, in the Congo.

L'Hoest's Monkey

Blue Monkey

At Uwinka camp, on a high mountain ridge, there were no other campers, and I chose the most remote campsite, amongst the dripping epiphytes and soggy mosses of the forest interior, beside a thatched bungalow with a central hearth for cooking. "Est-ce que vous êtes capable d'allumer le feu?" Asked the park ranger. Are you able to light your own fire? His tone suggested he had never yet met a muzungu with these skills. Although I indignantly answered Of course! as if I were some sort of tinder-box wielding eagle scout, it transpired that my campsite came equipped with a kind of African National Parks version of a Filipino house-boy, a young man who, while I was camped out in the middle of the woods, brought me hot water with which to bathe. At the end of my first day, a long mountainous trek in search of the Handsome Francolin, I limped into my campsite to find a blazing fire and a steaming bucket awaiting my bath. I half expected him to stand by holding a towel for me as I lathered up.

My digs at Uwinka

Having had luxurious views of the Handsome Francolin, a skittish, quail-like bird that is actually one of the more common Albertine Rift endemics, but a bird I had missed out on during my last visit to Nyungwe four years ago, I bedded down for the night in the trusty tent.

Superlecker Spargelcremezuppe mit Ramen-nudeln

At 5:50 AM I awoke in a panic; I was due at the headquarters at 6 for Chimpanzee-tracking, a thrill I had forgone on my last, entirely bird-obsessed, visit. The outing is based on the extremely lucrative Mountain Gorilla tracking concession in Volcanoes National Park, which pulls in $700,000 a month in foreign currency earnings just in permit fees. Park rangers, full-time chimp trackers, follow the roaming bands of chimps as they feed during the day, watching them bed down at dusk (Chimpanzees make leafy, mat-like beds high up in the trees each night, used once only), and then returning at dawn to follow them as they move on. Guides, bringing tourists like myself, then coordinate with the trackers via walkie-talkie and determine how best to get the muzungus to the fruiting trees which the chimp pack has chosen for that day's gorging. They range widely, and fast, and spotting them can be a literal half hour walk in the park or an experience more closely resembling the crossing of the Andes on foot.

The "oh-so-very" Handsome Francolin, Francolinus nobilis

In the pre-dawn darkness I scrambled up the steep trail to the guard post, where I found my fellow-travelers, an Indian-American “in software,” living in Mumbai, and the Irish publisher of a “businessman’s lifestyle magazine,” from London. The former was one of the few legitimate tourists I have met in Rwanda; a wildlife aficionado, he had arrived directly from Volcanoes National Park where he had done two back-to-back gorilla trekking excursions. The latter had accompanied a posse of humanitarians from the British conservative party who were touring and participating in various aid schemes, a jaunt he claimed was not quite so completely a publicity stunt as it might sound. I judged him politically suspect but gratefully piled in his car anyway, as I didn’t have one.

Ten kilometers down the road the vehicles left us, and the three rangers, on the side of the road. It was about 6:30 in the morning. “Well,” said Claude, the ranger who had taken me bird-spotting the day before, “unfortunately they are quite far down. There’s quite a walk ahead of us.” The day-before-yesterday, he had told me on the yesterday, the entire group of chimps had been within half an hour’s walk of the headquarters. Chimpanzees move fast over long distances, looking for the best fruiting trees.

I was alarmed to see that my friends had daypacks stuffed with camera equipment, changes of trousers, biscuits and camelback hydration packs; in my stumbling, sleepy getaway I had brought only my camera, binoculars, and half a liter of water. We started down a steep track, winding around the side of the mountain, the valley to our left, the rising hill to our right. We walked fast, ignoring tantalizing birdcalls in our rush to descend and locate the chimps.

I’m generally opposed to these sorts of organized outings for this very reason; all too often they resemble forced marches, with no time for stopping to look at "lesser" wildlife, or just to experience the grandeur of the forest. We were on a mission, however, and, concerned by Claude’s ominous scouting report, I put my head down and hurried on.

A tranquil forest scene

After an hour of dishearteningly steep descent on a trail cut into steps, the future retracing of which made me pant for breath just thinking about it, Claude’s walkie-talkie crackled with an update from the trackers. Soon we heard an unearthly screaming and chattering, which seemed still to come from far below us in the valley. At a meeting of four paths, we paused, and suddenly, there beside us, was a ranger we hadn’t met before. A handful of female chimps were feeding nearby, he said. We waited. The tracker disappeared. I proposed to Claude that he and I move gently down the track away from the group in hope of seeing a bird or two.

When we had gone a hundred meters or so around a contour the tracker came running back up the path towards us. “Quickly, quickly!,” he said, urging us forward in a sort of shouted stage whisper. I looked behind me. The others were out of sight beyond the bend. We were already a team, we three. Should I abandon them? “Go,” said Claude. “I’ll tell the others.” I rushed headlong down the trail, following the tracker towards a majestic grove of towering trees. He stopped, pointed. Up, far up. I got the binoculars to the eyes and saw her, very briefly, before she saw us, and immediately bolted, shimmying down the trunk and away. The magazine publisher jogged up just in time to see the dark shape of the ass end of a female chimpanzee, flailing away through the mid-story canopy. The software guy, hard on his heels, nothing.

We stood staring longingly up into the trees, as if she might return. “Too shy,” said one of the rangers. The huddle of Rwandans in their green ranger’s fatigues looked at one another with resignation, sharing a look that suggested they knew that their day, which had been so close to being over, had only just begun. “These females,” said Claude, “they are just too shy when they are traveling with the babies. But the trackers say they think the males will be in some fruiting fig trees, beyond the next mountain. We’re going to try for that. I told them it is a good thing we have a strong group of tourists today.”

I thought: beyond the next mountain? The trackers had already melted back into the forest, like Viet-Cong. We set off again, fast, but the sweaty rush to chimpville was only beginning. When we next paused, many ridges further away from where the jeeps had dropped us off hours earlier, Claude simply pointed down over the edge of the trail. “This way.” It looked impassable, a clifflike steepness overgrown with mats of liana and shoulder high underbrush. He went, we followed. It was like walking down a woven web of ropes. There was no ground, just an abyss of compressed vegetation in which to put one’s trust. I am convinced that the descent we made would have been impossible on dry ground; without that choked infinity of vines, branches and trunks we would have fallen right off the side of the mountain. Twigs and leaves whipped our faces and tore at our clothes, but they stopped us from plunging down to the valley floor.

On a parallel spur, visible through the soft edges of the clouds wherever there was a break in the canopy, chimps were feeding. The foliage in those distant treetops moved and swayed unnaturally. We heard eery screams, then, apparently, cackling. In return, we trudged and grunted, slipped, slid and swore. Finally, soggy of foot and streaked green with trails of chlorophyll, we arrived at the foot of the looming fig trees. All was still. “Where did they go?”
“Shhh,” said Claude. “They are here.”

With DNA 97% identical to theirs, it's no wonder you like figs so much.

We heard a rustle in a branch in front of us, visible through a gap between trunks. The branch bobbed up and down. A chimp emerged onto a mid-high branch, some seventy-five yards off, and began acrobatically picking off fruits and stuffing himself. As he ate his fill, we watched until we too were sated, passing binoculars around and snapping one blurry and backlit photo after another. I’m not sure that we actually high-fived, but the mood was certainly of three men who might at any moment break out in an orgy of self-congratulatory palm-slapping.

At last we declared that we were satisfied. The rangers huddled again, and debated. It appeared that we were, as the saying goes, somewhere in the back-ass of beyond. Should we go up through the impenetrable tangle of impossible steepness, or down? The goal being to hit a real trail as soon as possible. Down looked easier, and Claude suggested that the drivers, when we could reestablish radio contact with them, could be instructed to drive down a jeep track to a village on the valley floor, where we might rendezvous with them.

Having seen chimps, we were now rather less motivated. Adrenaline had ebbed. Feet were sore, not to mention moist. It was a hard slog, and I believe it was a good hour of bushwacking before we finally reached the beaten path. After our time in the dense underbrush the narrow dirt trail seemed to us like a broad and sunny boulevard. We paused and I took tiny sips from my much diminished supply of water. Claude radioed. "Unfortunately," he reported, "the drivers are saying they don't have enough petrol to drive down into the valley. They are afraid they won't be able to get back." Our prolonged chorus of groans perhaps reminded the rangers of the chimpanzees they spend so much time with. Looking up at the cloud-shrouded ridges above us, it was impossible to see how far up we would have to climb. "Where's the helicopter?" I asked Claude. "I thought the tracking fee included a helicopter." He laughed, nervously, and set off up the trail. Steely adventurers all, we bravely marched behind. The ascent was long, but finally we emerged at the top, back on the trans-montane highway. Congratulating one another, and ourselves, we piled back into the jeeps and drove back up to the camp, where I looked forward to a hot meal:

Epuisé of Ramen a volonté in West African peanut butter sauce with "overripe" tomatoes



Anonymous said...

Figs, you say? Well, here are a couple for you. (See Dante, Inferno, xxv.2)

You perhaps forget that it's the other three percent that makes all the difference.

They say it's a cold world said...

Over dinner the other night on the Red Hook deck, "Mom" informed that "Dad," who much likes figs (as do, I might argue, most sensible humans) took the now-famous Chimpanzee-DNA photo caption as an ad-hominem attack directed against him personally (reminding one of that Carly Simon song about the song being about you, but that's another story). The Dante reference above, then, is to the upraised fists of Italy, thumbs thrust skyward between index and middle fingers, in that national gesture equivalent to the now internationally better known raised central digit. Apparently this rude wave is known to Italians today, as it was to the poet, as "the figs." We meant only to suggest that figs are a popular fruit with much of our vast readership, just as they are popular with the chimpanzee population. Any similarity between the names "Mom" and "Dad" in this comment and actual people is unintentional and entirely coincidental.

Unknown said...

Handsome Francolin
Great Shot of a superb bird
We are creating a web site about all of the world’s birds, at http://worldbirds.awardspace.com/
You have a number of photos we would like to use.
We would give full copy-right, credit and a link to a web site of your choice.
If you would like to contribute please contact Keith Murdock at worldbirds@googlemail.com
Good birding