Pay-Per-View National Park

Nyungwe National Forest

Nyungwe Forest is touted as one of Rwanda’s top three “must see” tourist destinations, second only to Virunga National Park up north (aka the gorilla petting zoo), and Akagera National Park out east (see more here). Since we’re probably not doing the gorillas (kids under 15 are not allowed, and the latest price hike to a gob-smacking $750 per person per visit per petting session per primate puts the whole thing squarely outside of our budget range anyway), there was no question we had to do Nyungwe. So we did, in the company of great friends from the HRH program.

Located in the southwest corner of the country, straddling the Burundi border, Nyungwe is about as far from everything as you can get. After a two hour drive due south to the old sleepy capital city of Butare (formerly Huye), you head due west and climb a couple of thousand feet over the course of the next hour, until at last you reach the entrance to the remnants of the pristine mountain forest that once covered much of western Rwanda.

Oddly, the road simply continues right under the big “Welcome to Nyungwe National Park” banner, while the surroundings rapidly change from villages and cultivated land to unspoilt greenery. But it is not just any old road running through the park — this is the main road to Rwanda’s southernmost border post with the D.R. Congo at Cyangugu/Bukavu, so there’s lots of traffic (okay, it’s not like the 495 beltway exactly, but plenty of overloaded trucks coming and going). The smell of overheating brakes and revving diesel engines kinda distracts from the otherwise epic views of treetops and mountain ranges.

Sadly, the road also slowly but surely deteriorates to the point where it’s really more a series of potholes strategically placed so as to inflict maximum damage on your car and your passenger’s kidneys. Add the scattered boulders from countless landslides and the novel interpretation of left and right exhibited by the Congolese truckers coming the other way, and it’s anything but a relaxing encounter with mother nature. Don’t even think about doing any part of this drive in the dark.

Half way through the park itself, the road suddenly becomes ludicrously smooth as you come to the start (or end?) of an ambitious “road rehabilitation” project. A significant portion of the funding appears to have been spent on the massive signs that proudly announce the project – there’s one every couple of miles – but what was left to spent on the road itself will sadly soon be money down the drain. The paint on the white lines has barely dried up, but potholes have already started to form and rock slides begun to encroach on the edges of the road. I’m no expert in the fine art of paving, but it appears that the surface is simply not up to the challenge of supporting the massive load of trucks plying the route through the park.

At 8000 feet, close to the peak of the climb over the ridge that runs through the park, sits the Uwinka Overlook Welcome Center, funded in part (we’re told on every available surface) by the generous assistance of USAID. Your tax dollars hard at work. This is where much of the action is at: there’s a little edu-tainment hut complete with an elephant skull and didactic exhibits (“What can we do to help preserve the rainforest?”), and most of the trails in the park start here. The Rwandan Development Board runs this park – along with the other national parks in Rwanda – as a pay-to-play operation, and, boy, do they play tough.

First of all, you don’t simply pay a park entrance fee and then go do whatever you feel like. No, you have to hire a guide to do anything except use the bathroom or take in the view. Fair enough, I suppose, if you consider it equal parts “you don’t really want to get lost and walk all the way to Burundi” and “do your bit to keep people employed around these parts.” But the price is not per guide or per day with a guide. You pay per person per hike, and there’s this odd reverse racism at work: if you’re white (or, rather, a visitor, but same difference), you pay more. Much, much more in fact, because apparently, if you’re not Rwandan, you’re automatically assumed to be so filthy rich you should be ashamed of yourself and made to pay until you cry uncle. I can certainly see the logic: you’ve got a very captive audience who traveled a million miles to see this; why not make them show their appreciation in the shape of lots and lots of dollar bills? But somehow, even the petty bureaucrat who cooked up the exorbitant price list must have realized that he was being unreasonable, because there’s also a “resident rate,” kind of a “special price for you” if you’re staying in Rwanda long enough to probably be doing something useful for the country. There’s also an East African Community rate, so suddenly you’ve got this huge chart with 101 different fees for the various hikes.

And like so many other things in Rwanda, the actual prices don’t make a whole lot of sense. A “resident adult” gets a few bucks off most things, while a “resident child” is half price on some things, but not all of them. There’s no “foreign” child rate, either – they pay full price for everything. For some things, EAC residents get a break, for others they don’t. Go figure.

It may seem pedantic and petty, but I’m spending such an inordinate amount of time on this pricing thing for two reasons. First of all, the cost of daily living in Rwanda is so high that you’re constantly watching every cent. Cars are crazy expensive, gas is expensive, accommodations are expensive, food is expensive – and contrary to the pipe dreams of the people at the RDB, we’re not all insanely rich safari tourists who don’t care if it costs $10, $100 or $1,000 to go see a chimp or two. So the cost really, truly does matter, and while it’s hard to determine what would be a “fair” price for a hike in the rain forest, paying a whopping sixty bucks a person to walk around and look at some big trees for three hours strikes me as pretty steep.

Of course I appreciate that we’re paying for more than just the slightly bored and uninspired guide who led us along the walking path – we’re paying for the preservation efforts, the infrastructure, etc. etc. And since Rwanda firmly believes that eco-tourism is one of the tickets to the middle class fantasy world they’ve lined up for 2020, they’re compelled to maximize the income from what little eco-tourism they’ve got. More power to them – apparently, they still have a line out the door of people willing to pay for the gorilla permits, even at the new price, and there seems to be a steady flow of visitors to the newly opened Nyungwe Forest Lodge, where a night costs $200 per person (yes, it would have cost $1,600 for the four of us just to spend two nights near the forest in executive class). The park is the focal point of the Nyungwe Nziza project, supposedly an effort to promote tourism, help the local communities etc. etc. etc. The fact that the project feels compelled to occupy a swanky villa in the heart of Kigali, six hours away from the park itself, makes you wonder exactly how committed they are to the region they’re supposed to be helping.

All of that to say that we were relieved to at least have the residency status that would move us over one column in the fee spreadsheet and provide us with a small discount. Except, not. See, the Ministry of Fancy Rubber Stamps here in Kigali has so far taken well over over two months to “process” our residency permits – and they’re still busy processing, so we don’t actually have the residency permits in our passports yet. Heck, we don’t even have our passports, since they’re sitting there in the “Urgent” tray at the ministry waiting to be stamped. But we do have a very nice letter from the organization that runs our program on behalf of the Ministry of Health explaining that we’re residents awaiting the blessing of the appropriate pencil pushers. That letter has worked fine for the doctors and nurses who have visited Akagera National Park – we all got the resident rate for park fees and lodging there – no hassles, no nothing. But not so at Nyungwe.

I’ll refrain from petty name calling and ad hominem attacks, because this is a family blog and I’m just not that kind of guy. Suffice it to say that the obnoxious schmuck in charge of the cash register at Nyungwe singlehandedly managed to damn near ruin the experience for all of us with his petulant bureaucratic penny-pinching. And while Rwanda rightfully prides itself of it’s general lack of corruption, it would appear at times to simply have been replaced with an equally offensive brand of institutionalized rip-off artistry.

So, instead of enjoying the beauty of the forest and exploring all it has to offer, we spent much of our first day at Nyungwe speed-dialing everyone we could get a hold of in an attempt to convince Mr. Siborurema that we were, in fact, residents, even if we didn’t have his preferred flavor of paperwork to prove it.

Thanks to the intervention of representatives of the Ministry of Health, the Rwandan Development Board, as well as the Clinton Health Access Initiative, we finally managed to retroactively get the rate to which we were entitled, but at that point it really wasn’t about the money so much as the principle.

And to add insult to injury, when we came back the following morning to do another hike, Mr. Arrogant and self-righteous had apparently decided to take the opportunity to crank it up a notch. So, not only did he deliver a repeat performance of the previous days’ obstinacy and petty prickishness, he upped the ante by refusing to recognize the Kenyan nurse in our party as an equal player, singling her out for further humiliation and public embarrassment in some sort of bizarre intra-African put-down exercise. Apparently, black residents are somehow not worthy of the respect shown to white residents, which represents a mindset so flawed I won’t even try to articulate it.

The upshot was that on the second day, two of the nicest people you could imagine ended up sitting out the days’ hike in disgust. And so it was that Mr. Douchebag at the Nyungwe Park check-in counter not only managed to forfeit the potential revenue the park would have gotten from them, he also eliminated any stars that might have remained in this review of his establishment. Zero points for Nyungwe. You go there in spite of the welcome center, not because of it. You don’t appreciate their service, you endure it. It’s a bit like leaving a five-star restaurant and convincing yourself that you had a great evening because the food was fairly decent, even if the waiter did steal your wallet while the coat check boy took a dump in your wife’s handbag. Would you recommend a place like that to anyone else? Would you go back there?

Yes. We did see mahogany tree seed pods, and a couple of amazing L’Hoest monkeys bouncing around (no, not Colobus, not Mountain, definitely L’Hoest judging by the images). We saw a flamboyant black-and-white slug and a million marching ants. We heard some cool jungle sounds, and on the second day we enjoyed the overpriced thrill of the canopy walk. No doubt the forest is beautiful, but it’s beautiful in its own right, not because of anything the park administration has done or are actively doing – in fact, you can get probably the most impressive part of the forest experience simply by pulling over on the main road and admiring the view from there for free. Some people elect to pay an absolute fortune to be woken up at 4 in the morning to be taken chimp trekking for a couple of hours – not sure I’d bother, given that a) there’s no guarantee you’ll find the chimps, and b) big whoop, really; unless you’re Jane Goodall, it’s just going to be a bunch of monkeys playing in the woods, and c) there are equally fascinating monkeys hopping across the roads all through the park.

No, ironically, the real beauty of our trip came as a complete surprise in the form of the mission at Kibogora… but I’ll save that’s for the next post in which sparks fly and things catch on fire. Stay tuned.