Tamed by the wild at Akagera National Park

It is always good to have more than one perspective of something before you can authoritatively talk about. I can therefore confidently say that when it comes to Akagera National Park, I feel I am in that position. You see I’ve had the rare opportunity of visiting Akagera twice in less than a year. 
An aerial view of the elephants at Akagera National Park. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)
An aerial view of the elephants at Akagera National Park. (Allan Brian Ssenyonga)

It is always good to have more than one perspective of something before you can authoritatively talk about. I can therefore confidently say that when it comes to Akagera National Park, I feel I am in that position. You see I’ve had the rare opportunity of visiting Akagera twice in less than a year. 

Towards the end of last year I was privileged to visit the park after winning a complementary helicopter ride with the Akagera Aviation (not related to the park) and the very friendly pilot (Egide) gave me an aerial visit of the park. 

To be honest I could use a day with an Oxford dictionary to be able to exhaustively describe how breathtakingly beautiful the park and Rwanda in general look from above in a Robinson 44 helicopter.  From above I was able to see lazy hippos enjoying their routine baths and elephants walking around gracefully after also cooling off in the waters. 

Lush green vegetation was all around us only interrupted by sightings of the giraffes and herds of buffaloes running away from the noise made by the chopper. Egide was not only a pilot but one that had participated in the most recent animal census and was therefore well versed with the numbers and lots of other facts about the game park. 

By the time we returned to the airport I was feeling more like a wildlife scholar who had just flown over a game park to assess the situation. Flying above did not make feel like I had been to the park but that I had seen it. 

Well last weekend I got another opportunity to not only visit but also be hosted by the Akagera Park management. The park is managed under a joint venture between African Parks and Rwanda Development Board and all revenue is reinvested in the management of the park and conservation efforts. 

Inside ‘Landforce One’

The journey started off at the Chez Lando parking where together with other colleagues we were picked up by Isaac Ngarambe, a freelance guide in those 4x4 tour vehicles. As soon as the ride begun he informed us how his vehicle is called ‘Landforce One’ perhaps a land version of the Airforce One airplane that American presidents use to fly around. 

This car is all you would need for a safari ride. It has very comfortable seats, enough leg room, and a detachable rooftop for you to see and take better photos of the animals. But that is not all, it had two power points for us to charge our phones while travelling and a small fridge to keep our drinks cold. 

More importantly Isaac proved to be a superb guide. Not only was he a good driver but he was patient, friendly and generally well versed with his job. On our way to the park he saw an old man struggling with a bicycle that was loaded with bananas and stopped for us to help. That he even had snacks for his passengers made me realise the customer care war in this country has had some major victories. 

Forget what you heard 

Once we arrived we were received by Sarah Hall, the Marketing and Tourism Development Manager and Eugene Mutagana, the head of Law Enforcement. In short, Sarah had all the answers related to the development of the park while Eugene told us how his team has made poaching, the wrong career choice for law breakers. 

The park’s animal population is growing so well thanks to improved efforts to curb poaching as well as the illegal cutting of East African Sandalwood trees that are said to only be left in the park. The wood is apparently exported to the Arab world for perfume extraction. 

The park has an electric fence that has greatly eliminated human and wildlife conflicts. In the past, cattle keepers would poison animals that fed on their livestock on top of the real poaching. With no significant poaching being recorded, the plans to reintroduce lions could not have come at a better time. A huge fenced pen is already in place waiting to house the lions for a while as they are monitored before they can be let out in the wild. 

If you thought the game park was just a wild place that you should visit in the comfort of a 4x4 truck and then you head out then you have not been to the Akagera Game Lodge and the rather exquisite Ruzizi Tented Lodge. 

The former has been around for longer and has all the facilities you would want before heading out in the wild. A swimming pool, restaurants and rooms equipped with wi-fi connection although you would not need that if your objective was to get away from all the online notifications that make life stressful. 

Ruzizi Tented Lodge is rather a class apart. Imagine having lunch with the picturesque Lake Ihema on one side and trees and green thickets on the other? But that was not all. As we waited for our lunch to be served we spotted a young crocodile that was basking on the shores probably also waiting for its lunch. 

The sight of the crocodile got me thinking of all those films I have watched where crocodiles dine on crazy people while another part of me just thought of the now ubiquitous MTN advert where a curious child wonders, “What do crocodiles eat?” 

Besides the sightings of the crocodile, Ruzizi will give you the real luxury tent experience you are looking for. With the new luxury tent suites we saw, this is indeed a perfect spot for a honeymoon for newly weds or those who are looking for a place for ultimate relaxation. 

Camping at peak  

Later in the evening we arrived at Mutumba campsite where we met other colleagues who had come before us including Jes Gruner, the Manager of Akagera National Park. Jess struck me as this guy who had just walked off the set of those wildlife documentaries and into real life. 

He has this ‘wildlife look’ of been there done that. The kind of guy on whose back you would jump if a lion charged at you because you expect him to speak its language. He told us about the parks conservations plans and lots of amazing success stories that Akagera boasts of. 

For example in a space of two years, poaching has reduced by 50 percent and the giraffe population has grown to over 50 yet only seven were introduced about 20 years back. The park also has half of its visitors being locals, a statistic that is hard to come across in this region.

When all the talking and eating had been done, the toughest moment was next. Now I have slept outside before but never in the middle of the game park when a few minutes some brave folks were joking about how strong the jaws of a hyena are while identifying sounds of hyenas in the vicinity.

Jes had also told us that it is common to see leopards in Akagera at night. I would not mind that information if I was to sleep inside Landforce One, instead I had to make my way to my tent which for some reason was the furthest outfield. I won’t lie to you I was scared but I had to act my size. 

When I finally got in and zipped the tent, every sound became that of a hungry wild animal. There was a colleague a few tents away that snored like he had a small diesel engine in his chest. At that very moment he sounded like a huge animal that the park management was probably not yet aware of. 

Eventually the fatigue saved me from the fear and sleep took over. I woke up in one piece and to a cool breeze from the lakes miles away and a wonderful sunrise. I then took a hot shower that was an experience in itself. The shower, just  like the toilet next to it at the campsite has no door so you bathe as your eyes feast on the scenic view in front of you! It was the perfect feeling of the being tamed by the wild. 

We later had lunch at another picnic site after driving around on the rather good roads in the park and seeing lots of other animals like warthogs, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles, elands, oribis, bushbucks, and several bird species. 

There is just so much life in this place and I was lucky to be in the company of nature enthusiasts who made the whole experience worthwhile. 

If you ever want to touch base with nature in totality then Akagera is the place to go and once the lions are reintroduced I will certainly have to return and see how Simba rules over this massive jungle.

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