Monday, July 21, 2014

Rwanda Safari in Akagera Park

Zebras in Akagera Park

I am pretty sure that you’re not allowed to leave Africa without going on a safari. Seriously. It’s part of the border control interview when you’re boarding the plane home. 

Border Control Officer: “What were you doing in Rwanda ma’am?”
Me: “Working for World Vision in Kigali”
Border Control Officer: “And when did you go on a safari?”
Me: “Uhhhh…”
Border Control Officer: “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step off the plane…”

In all seriousness, Africa is host to some of the most spectacular views and impressive wildlife I’ve ever seen, and much of the countryside and landscape is unspoiled by human development. The safari was also my first opportunity to travel outside of the city of Kigali and see some of the Rwandan countryside, including the extremely impressive hills that are spread throughout the entire country.

Six of us met up at the un-Godly hour of 5 am on a Saturday morning to travel to Akagera National Park, a 1200 km park in the north east of Rwanda, located along the Tanzania border. The park was established in 1934 to protect animal and vegetation.  It is named after the Kagera River, which flows along the east boundary and feeds into several lakes.

The safari team included three Rossers, myself, another WDI intern Therese (working for Nuru Energy this summer) and a recent ross graduate Russell (currently working at a hospital in a small village called Ruli), along with three Canadian journalism students that Therese and I met during our first weeks in Kigali. We packed into an all terrain vehicle with a removable roof, perfect for taking pictures of animals that we saw throughout the day.

The trip to the park took around 3 hours, during which time I saw my first glimpses of the Rwanda country side. The lush, rolling hills covered in green trees stood in stark contrast to the usual flat landscape of Michigan that I’d become accustomed to over the last two years. 

So many hills!

During the trip, we passed through a number of villages. At each village, children would stop and wave at the huge car full of “muzunga”s – the all encompassing East African term for foreigner. Seeing the villages was the first time that I could see people living in poverty. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Kigali is extremely developed and has most of the modern conveniences that I’m accustomed to having back home. However, as we passed the villages, I could see firsthand some of the people that World Vision is working to help.

Once we arrived in Akagera, we were briefed by the park guides on what to expect and some information about the park. Following the war in Rwanda, many refugees returned to Rwanda and settled in the savannah area of the park and converted it to farmland, reducing the park size from 2500 km to the current size of 1200 km. The farmers then killed off many of the animals, including Lions, to protect their animals. However, the park will reintroduce eight Lions from Kenya this coming August and black rhinos at another time in the future. However, the guide assured us that Akagera was home to many animals that we might see, including giraffes, zebras, buffalo, impala (a species of antelope), hippos, and over 500 species of birds. There are even a few elephants that live in the park, though they hadn’t been spotted in four days, so the probability of seeing them was very low.

Starting our safari!

Finally, around 9 am we started our safari. The dirt road was very bumpy, but our driver and guide expertly maneuvered the curves. We were lucky to have such a knowledgeable guide; he was able to bring us to many of the sites where animals were resting. He was also able to point out and explain many of the animals we encountered. For me, the highlight of the trip was the huge Hippo colony that was relaxing out of the water. It even looks like they were cuddling with each other. From a far, they looked friendly peaceful, though our guide warned us that they would love to make us into a tasty snack if given the chance.

These Hippos look like they're cuddling... but really they're planning how best to prepare some Tourist stew

Yep those are Monkeys!
This antelope was just chillin, completely unconcerned about our presence

The safari took four hours, and we were able to see Zebra, Giraffes, Monkeys, Impala, Hippos, and countless birds of various colors and sizes. I’ve included some of the pictures that I took, though they don’t even begin to do justice to the number and frequency of animals that we encountered. Even when we didn’t see animals, the views of the lakes and mountains were so spectacular that there was never a moment that I wasn’t completely engaged. We even got out of the car and had a break for lunch in the middle of the savannah, which our guide assured us is completely safe to do.
Unfortunately, there were no elephant sightings on our safari, but for me, the up-close views of the Hippos more than compensated. I’m looking forward to many more adventures in Rwanda in the coming weeks!

 Hippos and hills... welcome to Rwanda!

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