Nyungwe, the enchanted bubble

For most of our trip so far, we've been staying in modest to budget places. The wonderful Airport Guesthouse in Entebbe, for example, was $60 a night (breakfast included). The lodge by the river near the tree-sleeping lions was $40. But here in the Nyungwe Forest, we've splurged. This place is widely considered to be the best in all Rwanda. Now that we've experienced it, we can't imagine that's not true.

The setting is stupendous: within a sprawling tea plantation that nestles up to the edge of the largest intact montane forest in Central and East Africa. The forest is one of the wettest places on this continent, and depending on which side of the mountains it falls, rain drains either to the Lake Tanganyika (and, at least theoretically, to the Congo River) or to the Nile. In this lushly primordial paradise, biologists have counted more than 300 species of birds, 13 species of primates, and more than 1300 species of trees and plants (including 140 types of orchids). Mountain elephants once foraged here too, but a poacher killed the last one 15 years ago.

This morning we hiked with a park ranger for four hours down to the spectacular Kamiranzovu waterfalls. Gilbert shook his head in wonder, reflecting on how much people's attitudes have changed since that last elephant died. A healthy chunk of the park fees have been directed to the locals in this area, and they've really come to understand the connection, he says. Now, no one poaches in the park, or if the occasional scofflaw tries, people report him.

After the hike, Steve and I were the ones marveling — at how distinctive each of the three equatorial rainforests we've experienced has been. Like Bwindi, Nyungwe survived the Ice Age. Never logged, never burned, it's virginal, uncorrupted. But unlike dense, jungly Bwindi, the forest we experienced this morning was cool (we were hiking between 5500 and 6000 feet) and ancient. Scenes from Jurassic Park kept bombarding me. It smelled wonderful — fresh and fecund. Everywhere we looked, things were growing on other things: moss and vines and aerial roots clinging on trees rootedon hillsides choked with a universe of plant life.

It was slightly surreal to emerge from that tangled wilderness back into the oh-so-civilized tea plantation. The managers cut all the tea plants to a uniform low height (maybe 3 feet tall) so that the much-prized fresh shoots can be easily harvested from the narrow paths that are almost hidden within the profusion of leaves. Those young leaves are lime green, so intense at times they glow like neon. Views from the lodge drink it all in: the tea plants and colossal forest beyond.

Tea in the foreground, forest beyond

And, stepping into the lodge, you enter another universe: one where the profusion of soft lights never go out, where the water in the showers is hot and abundant, where the flat screen TVs come with Samsung remotes, and the staff provides pampering in the extreme. Here, fresh from the memory of those villages we biked through with Tom, I feel for the first time in my life, like a member of the 1%.

I'm not completely comfortable with that. I love being in Africa, but Africa also has these tiny privileged enclaves where you can feel richer than you feel anywhere in America. It's a bit mind-boggling.

To be honest, it's been deliciously pleasant. It ends tomorrow morning. We've hired a taxi to drive us to Rwanda's capital, stopping for two major Cultural Experiences en route. Then we'll have a day and a half of urban adventures (esconced once again in more humble accommodations), before flying off to Kilimanjaro Airport and our safari on the African savannah.

 

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