Rwanda can be a bit chaotic: traffic, tons of people on the streets, accidents. But there are certainly ways to escape all these for a few days. One, is to go to Akagera National Park, Rwanda’s largest, just two hours drive from Kigali.
Set at a relatively low altitude on the border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park could scarcely be more different in mood to the breezy cultivated hills that characterize much of Rwanda. Covering an area of 1,120 kms the park is named for the Akagera River that flows along its eastern boundary and feeds into a labyrinth of lakes.
Rolling hills of Acacia bush, panoramic views across scattered grasslands, patches of thick forest and a mosaic of swamp-fringed lakes along the meandering Akagera watercourse all contribute to this park unrivalled scenic beauty.
Akagera is unique in Rwanda as the only savannah environment in the country and is home to the country big game. Large herds of buffalo, zebra, impala and giraffe are seen on the open plains while smaller antelope such as oribi, bushbuck and reed buck exist widely throughout the park. Elephants tend to stay around the lakes, which are inhabited by large numbers of hippos and crocodiles. Baboons and vervet monkeys are commonplace, less so is the secretive blue monkey. Leopard, hyena and jackal are also residents and may be seen on a night drive along with genet, serval, bushbabies, porcupine and other nocturnal wildlife. An important population of sitatunga lives in the papyrus swamps along with other rarities such as shoebill and other papyrus endemic bird species.
Magically, the air is torn apart by the unforgettable duetting of a pair of fish eagles, asserting their status as the avian monarchs of Africa’s waterways. Lining the lakes are some of the continent’s densest concentrations of waterbirds.
Camping alongside the picturesque lakes of Akagera is a truly mystical introduction to the wonders of the African bush, Ruzizi tented lodge, where we stayed for two nights (and never wanted to leave). Our tent was set in the middle of the forest, surrounded at all times by blue monkeys and the sounds of smaller (and larger) animals.
We arrived on a late Friday afternoon and decided to relax for the remaining of the day, drinking a beer on the lodge deck and reading a book. On hindsight, we could probably have gone for a 5:30 pm night drive through the southern part of the park, so as to have the next day for a full day game drive or another night drive (as to double our chances to see the nocturnal wildlife).
The game drive
On Saturday we woke up at 5.30 (quite early, but given that the tents are in the middle of the forest, the sounds of nature will wake you up shortly after anyway), had our breakfast on the deck at 6 and left for the half day game drive at 7. We were picked up from our lodge by our guide Felix and our driver for the day, Leopold, on a battered, roof-less Toyota Land Cruiser. This amazing duet took us through the park and showed us the secrets of Akagera. The drive took around 5 hours, enough to get you to the lakes half way through the park, but not to the northern, more savannah-like, part. If you want to get to the top of the park you definitely need to go for the full game drive, 8 hours. We were honestly very happy with the experience and being able to admire the animals that nature gave us in their natural habitat, and we wouldn’t have gone for a full day anyway, too long (and maybe a bit boring after a while).
Here is the video reportage of our game drive.
The night drive
We got back to the lodge around 1 pm, had our lunch on the deck and some relax before the night game drive at 5.30 pm. Can’t really explain how it can be different to spot a giraffe or a zebra in their natural habitat instead of seeing them behind bars in a zoo. The thrilling part is knowing that the park is huge and no one knows where the animals may be at any time. In this sense the night drive was the most exciting part, with the thrill of trying to spot the reflection of the car spotlight against the eyes of the wild animals. We unfortunately didn’t see any nocturnal animals, but we were lucky enough to admire two families of elephants drinking by the water pond. We watched in awe as the parents drove the two cubs away from our car, always careful not to disturb them or feel threatened since elephant charges as not so rare after all. During the drive we were constantly on the tips of our toes, hoping to spot a lion or a leopard among the trees; our expectations were increased by Videl, a 8 years old Swedish boy and his contagious excitement. The drive lasted 2.5/3 hours and took us back to the lodge in time for a dinner on the deck warmed by the campfire.
The boat ride
After another early wake up, on Sunday, our last day, we went for a bot drive at 9. It was only an hour long, but enough to take you around the Ihema lake, see hippos and crocodiles. Pods of 50 hippopotami grunt and splutter throughout the lake, while outsized crocodiles soak up the sun with their vast jaws menacingly agape.