For a country that endured one of the worst genocides of the 20th century only 25 years ago, Rwanda is a revelation.
As we drove through the country from the clean and tidy capital, Kigali, to the rainforests of the far southwest, I couldn’t help but be surprised and impressed by the state of things. First, there were the beautiful rolling green hills on which neat fields of beans, maize and bananas grew. The villages we passed through were colourful and organised, without the usual jumble or stray dogs scampering from under the wheels of our car. And the roads are perfect asphalt, weaving their way like shiny black ribbons through the landscape without a pothole to be seen.
And then another thing hits me, there is no rubbish. And I do mean no rubbish. The last Friday of every month is ‘National Clean Up Day’ in Rwanda and everyone from the President down takes time to make sure their village and local environment looks spick and spam. This, a ban on plastic bags, an efficient refuse collection system and education, has led to one of the cleanest countries I have ever seen. Unlike much of Africa, Rwanda has a very popular president and an efficient government and as such the country is powering ahead economically and it shows. Interestingly, tourism is the industry that leads the way.
And that’s why I am here; as part of a trip to see primates in the wild, starting with the chimpanzees of the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda before crossing the border to see gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But seeing chimps in the wild is not easy – the Nyungwe Forest covers some 6,000sqkm and is as dense as any on earth.
Not put off we are up at 5am and heading deep into the jungle by 7am. Although we can hear their whoops and howls ringing out around us, at first they prove hard to see. After 20 minutes David, our guide, stops and points to the canopy high above. There we can just make out dark shadows rustling the leaves. A large chimp suddenly leaps from one tree to another and all at once the jungle erupts in a cacophony of sound and the family group, disturbed by our presence, starts to move, some in the trees, some on the ground, deeper into the jungle.
Already the heat is up and sweat pours off us as we slip and slide through the dense foliage, down an unimaginably steep slope in hot pursuit. Giant trees rise all around us, creepers pull at our legs and arms, the sky is invisible a long way above. And then we stop and wait in the eerie silence. Training our eyes through the dappled light we see a large male 15 meters in front of us lying on his back, basking in a shaft of sunlight. We see another a little higher up a tree, grooming a young relation. As our eyes adjust we see more feeding in the canopy, one seems to be looking straight down at me. We stay for an hour doing our best to catch glimpses of them before their howls grow louder and once again they head off further down the slope into the abyss below. There’s no way we can follow. Our chimp sighting is over.
Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is becoming increasingly difficult. With human pressures squeezing their environment, what wildlife there is travels as far from us as it can get. Although not easy, seeing chimps, that most human of primates, running wild through the jungle has been a great thrill.
Now for the main event... gorillas in the Congo.