At 5.30am on January 11, I took off in a jeep from Kigali to visit Akagera National Park. The drive to Akagera, located in Eastern Rwanda on the border with Tanzania, is about 2.5 hours long. We drove through peaceful rice fields and sleepy villages and it was a refreshing change from the bustling pace of Kigali. We arrived at the entrance to the park around 8.00am.
After paying the required entrance fee, we drove through to the visitor’s centre, where we stopped briefly. The visitors centre is comprised of several adjoining rooms with posters providing information on the geography, history, and continued sustainability of the park.
A small room to the right hand side of the centre displays antelope skulls and a full crocodile skeleton. A small but attractive gift shop is located in a nearby room, offering postcards and traditional handicrafts.
After signing in at the front, we began our drive through the park. Akagera is one of Africa’s oldest national parks, and historically occupied almost 10% of the surface area of Rwanda until 1997, when it was downsized by two thirds due to land pressure following the Genocide. Akagera spans 112,000 hectares and boasts the largest protected wetland in central Africa.
We stopped briefly at the Akagera Game Lodge to pick up our packed lunches. The Akagera game lodge is one of three options for overnight visitors to the park, and offers 60 rooms, a restaurant and an outdoor pool among other amenities. The lodge has a safari chic vibe, with thatched huts and animal skin rugs adorning the lobby.
Within minutes of beginning our safari we had seen our first troop of baboons lounging by the side of the road. These were soon followed by a party of guinea fowl who passed by in front of us. It wasn’t long before we also witnessed a group of several zebra gazing off into the distance, oblivious to our existence. On our way to one of the lakes we also encountered a vervet monkey, which reminded me a little of the lemurs I’d seen a few years ago in a national park in South Africa.
We stopped at a nearby lake for lunch, which had a few crocodiles and hippos. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of either, apart from the occasional hippos head peeking out above the water.
After lunch we continued along the main road through the park. Akagera provides several trail options based on one’s time frame and what animal they are most interested in seeing. There is for example the giraffe area and also the Rurona loop in the southern part of the park, a short circuit combining open grassland, views from ridges and a drive along the lakeshore. We took this route, driving past Akagera’s largest lake (Lake Ihema). Here we spotted more hippos, this time a group of around eight, one of which emerged almost completely from the watery depths.
Continuing on we saw several giraffes in the distance, playfully banging their heads and wrapping their necks around each other. A couple baby giraffes stood by watching patiently, their spindly legs barely supporting their gangly bodies.
Other highlights included spotting a herd of water buffalo far out in the plains. My personal favorite was seeing a group of leaping impala and curious which I’d never seen before. These mahogany elk like creatures radiated elegance, their soulful eyes gazing at us intentionally.
The only thing we didn’t see on our safari were elephants, which was slightly disappointing but not entirely surprising, given that there are fewer elephants at Akagera than, say, giraffes or baboons. Overall I would highly recommend Akagera National Park to both tourists and locals as an excellent day trip or weekend excursion. It’s an excellent way to view exotic wildlife in their native habitat and an adventurous experience.