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When choosing Rwanda as a holiday destination, many people are keen to see the country’s rare primates and learn about its dark past. But those who work in the tourism industry are keen to show visitors a new Rwanda. Not one that is dismissive of its history – but one that offers more than museums and gorillas.

For the last seven years, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) has been focusing on the rainforest 200km to the west of capital city Kigali in a bid to attract adventurous travellers. Created as a national park in 2004, Nyungwe is full of waterfall treks, colobus monkey spotting and canopy walkways – and thanks to the recently improved road infrastructure from Kigali – is easily accessible.

“In the past people would often have stayed in Rwanda for just a few days, perhaps as part of a wider Africa trip,” said Manzi Kayihura, president of the Rwanda Tours and Travel Association. “Now in just the span of a week, people can travel south to Lake Kivu, relax and take in the amazing scenery, and then drive to the largest mountainous rainforest in all of Africa, Nyungwe. And let’s not forget visiting the towns and villages along the way.”

Nyungwe National Park, rich in fauna and wildlife, is also a good alternative for those who cannot afford the expensive $750 permits needed to visit Volcanoes National Park in the country’s northeast, where the mountain gorillas live. Nyungwe is most famous for its 13 different species of primates, and chimp trekking is available for a much cheaper $90 (email nyungwe.reservation@gmail.com or reservation@rwandatourism.com). 

The park is also home to the world’s biggest group of colobus monkeys. “More than 500 monkeys live among the trees in Nyungwe as part of one group, which is extremely rare,” said RDB guide Cesar Dushimirimana. “Normally they live in groups of about 15 individuals.”

It is impossible to spend less than an hour watching and capturing these fascinating animals on camera. The longer you stay and watch them, the more their personalities emerge as they swing from tree to tree, playing, teasing each other, cleaning themselves and feeding.

Afterwards – if you have the energy – the 10km waterfall trail will take you to the waters that are said to be the source of the Nile. The path is steep at times, but there are places along the way to rest between each of the four falls and guides will often provide walking sticks to help you along the way. Hikes are $50 and are organised in the morning from 7 am to 1 pm from the Gisakura Reception Centre near the Gisakura Guest House, which can also help you book.

Nyungwe is also home to 275 bird species, including the great blue turaco, a stunning crested bird that calls loudly as it flies from tree to tree. To spot it and the rest of the forest’s inhabitants at eye level, a recently built canopy walk brings visitors 150m above the rainforest ground, where guides run up and down the swinging walkway with no fear. Hourly tours, $60, are organised from 7 am to 3 pm at Uwinka Visitor Centre, located 30km east of Gisakura village.

For the less daring, a short helicopter ride may be the best way to experience the land of a thousand hills. Akagera Aviation can pick you up from Kigali and drop you off at the park’s first and only five-star eco lodge, Nyungwe Forest Lodge, right in the centre of a tea plantation. End your flight in style with one of the lodge’s famous passion fruit caipirinhas on the terrace and watch the sun go down.

Next year, 20 years will have passed since the horrific genocide in Rwanda that left approximately one million people dead. While it is impossible to forget such an atrocity happened, Rwandans are keen to separate the past from the present, focusing on what has been achieved since 1994.

The Nyungwe project is not only a destination for adventure travellers. It also represents the communal efforts of their people to unite and built a brighter, positive future for Rwanda. A Rwanda that they hope more people will want to come and visit.

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