With all the attention focused on gorilla trekking in the land of a thousand hills, it is easy to forget that Rwanda can include classic savanna experience with the Big Five in it.
Big Five is used in reference to lions, elephants, leopards, giraffes and rhinos.
At a relatively low attitude along the Tanzania borders lays the Akagera National Park with archetypal African savannah landscape of tangle acacia and brachystegia bush, interspersed with open grass lands and dozens of swamps-fringed lakes that follow the meandering cause of Akagera River.
Akagera National Park with all its complex mix of terrains, vegetation and animal’s life comes as an exciting surprise after the steep cultivated hills and breezy climate that characterize the test of Rwanda.
A few weeks back, alongside a group of International Journalists, we were fortunate to be hosted by the Rwanda Development Board to Visit the Akagera National Park.
On our first day of the trip, we spent a night at Akagera Game lodge, one of the finest in the park, where we were treated to a wonderful breakfast — the next day — as we headed to the briefing center.
At the park’s entrance, it’s mandatory that all tourists must report at the reception to be briefed before heading off to the park and be assigned a tour guide in case they need one.
Ours was a lovely soft-spoken gentleman called Anaclet Nsengiyumva, who gave us all the necessary information and even invited questions to make sure we all understood.
This took 20 minutes, before we began our six-hour game drive.
The 1994 Rwanda Genocide that divested the entire country took a toll on Akagera National Park, the biggest in Rwanda seating on 1122sqkm right now.
Scores of animals died during the ethnically inspired massacre.
When the horror was finally over, thousands of refugees who had fled the country came back home looking for land to settle in since they had been displaced.
The land was in short supply and people began encroaching on the National Park, which weakened the Eco-system through grazing cattle, leading to many animals disappearing.
In 1997 the government intervened by splitting the park and giving locals a portion of it, fencing off the remaining part with electric perimeter and also increased anti-poaching patrols.
This brought Akagera back to life.
Right now, Akagera is home to over 8000 large mammals and almost 500 species of birds with vast lakes and swamps.
The Big Five Destination
I must be honest l did not expect to see a lot in the park, given its history but to my surprise I got awesome experiences.
Just as they say,”Every day brings better memories in the world of nature”.
As we began the game drive, we continued asking questions and within a few minutes we could see warthogs, antelopes and a few birds which made us anxious to see the first big five.
After a while l heard my colleagues shouting, “Driver stop, stop we can’t afford to miss taking a photos of the Rhinos”.
We took pictures and moved ahead but by this time I was too excited to even blink.
“Most of the animals are found in the northern part of the park where we are heading now,” Nsengiyumva, our tour guide, said.
Hippo’s Beach, Lake Mihindi
At the northern side, our first stop over was at Lake Mihindi famously known as the Hippo’s beach, where we all got out of the vehicle to get a clear view and closer shots of a group of hippos resting.
Crocodiles were there too resting on the shores of the lake. It’s also a great spot for bird-watchers for we saw many types of birds around the shores.
It was labeled “INGWE” — in Kinyaranda — meaning Leopard.
In my mind, I knew we had no chance of seeing a leopard, and for the travelers that have done game drives know that it’s almost impossible to see a leopard in the park but this time, luck was on our side.
As we drove on, an adult leopard was seen sleeping under a tree by the road side.
We approached it very carefully. Surprisingly, it was deep asleep and it was woken up by the many clicking sounds of cameras.
On seeing us, it looked scared before jumping away.
Thanks to the open space, we could still see it, for some time, before it finally hid from us.
This marked the beginning of the surprises I got from Akagera.
Lunch with the Buffaloes at Kilala plain
The Kilala plain, famously known as the picnic area, is a wide open space for most animals to feed and spot predators from a far before they reach them.
This was the best place for us to have our lunch so it was served and just a few meters from us; three buffaloes were also having their own lunch.
By now we had spent five hours in the park and l had not realized it since I was enjoying every second of the game drive .
After lunch, we proceeded, and a few meters from the picnic area we found a group of giraffes that seemed to be enjoying their play time.
Interrupting the big cats lunch
After driving a few meters a head of the giraffes, a one Moses, a staff member of RDB, shouted “lions”. We all reached for our cameras.
The two were Ngabo and Shema, just after a fresh hunt. This felt like l was watching a documentary. At some point I thought I was in a dream.
Ngabo was hesitant to eat after realizing that we were closely watching them, so he moved to the next tree for shelter.
Shema moved a bit, but it seemed like she was too hungry to wait so she continued eating as Ngabo looked on from a distance.
Out of sympathy, the driver decided to pull back so that Ngabo could join Shema and eat.
And indeed Ngabo came to have his meal.
After a short while, we pulled back, watched them for a few more minutes and left.
We all agreed that it was wise to go and let them eat in peace.
Unfortunately, we did not see elephants.