Three months in Africa and I still hadn’t seen one monkey. I decided to try to rectify the situation by traveling out to Akagera National Park, which takes up almost the entire eastern border of Rwanda.
My three friends and I hired a 4x4 from a tour company which, when split among us, cost about $50 each. Not too bad for a safari. The driver picked us up in Kigali at 5:30 in the morning, and we started the seemingly endless drive to Akagera. It was about 2-3 hours away, but it felt like ages. (If you go, bring a pillow with you—the drive there and back is exhausting!)
The variety of Rwanda’s terrain never ceases to amaze me. Akagera is almost entirely savannah grassland, interspersed with lakes and tropical forests. Very different from the high hills and volcanoes of Gisenyi and Ruhengeri in the northwest! Akagera used to be three times its current size—but after the war, many Rwandans who hadn’t lived in Rwanda since 1959 (the first genocide) or who had been born and raised outside the country, returned. The only land available for them was in the national park, and the area the animals inhabited was dramatically reduced. The government, in response, formally reduced the park’s size by 2/3, and placed strict restrictions against further encroachment.
Despite its smaller size, it’s still vast—and surprisingly devoid of animals. There have been efforts to repopulate the terrain, which was devastated during the 1994 genocide—people fleeing the génocidaires killed and ate the animals in the park. The park has since received lions and giraffes from Kenya, but there are so few that you are lucky if you see them.
We arrived at Akagera at about 9 am, and picked up our complementary tour guide from the office. He gave us a choice of a short game drive, just in the southern area, or a long game drive, about 6 hours, which covers the entire park. We decided on the latter, and braced ourselves for a long day in the car.
Here’s a chronology of our day:
9 am- Arrive at park entrance, manage to convince park reception that we are Rwandan residents, laugh when the woman at the desk asks us if we’re all from the same country and realize that all four of us are from different countries (USA, Canada, UK, Italy). I love the diversity of the expatriate community.
9:10 am- One last pit stop, next to park headquarters. Admire the strange finches that build nests that hang from the tips of branches. The male finches build the nests, and the female decides who to mate with by entering the nest when it’s complete. The women agree that it was nice that the men did the work, for a change.
9:30 am- We veer off the beaten path. It rained that morning, so the grassland was muddy. After some searching, we came upon a herd of buffalo with curiously curved horns that kind of make them look like Dutch milkmaids. Birds are picking flies off their backs.
9:45 am- Through the brush, we finally spot our first giraffe. They’re tall, but they seem shorter than the ones at the zoo. A mother giraffe is accompanied by her baby, which is probably six feet tall and has a fat neck. With a slow and awkward gait, she walks toward her mate, who has tall horns with fuzzy crowns. They nuzzle. It was astonishingly adorable, like some African postcard. More giraffes emerge from the brush. I can see eight of them. They don’t seem to mind us. I hope one of them will stick out their long, black tongue, but none do. We take our photos and move on.
10 am- Impalas with black-and-white-striped bottoms see our car and start bounding away. Our guide tells us the monkeys are coming up.
10:30 am- We approach one of the many lakes and encounter some of the strangest birds I’ve ever seen in my life. The guide tells us they’re called “marabou storks.” They’re about three feet tall, with bodies like penguins, stick legs, and vulture-like heads with long, straight beaks. They are damn ugly. I suppose they are scavengers, and the guide confirms. There are hundreds of them. If you squint, they resemble a crowd of Alfred Hitchcocks.
10:45 am- Our vehicle pulls up to a lake shore. Little eyes peer at us from the water. The hippos are already in the lake, which is good news from a safety perspective, because they’re safest when they’re in the water. We gather on the shore and take rather disappointing photos. One hippo stirs, then arches his back out of the water like a whale. He roars at us and starts moving toward us aggressively. We all scream and run back to the car.
Our guide, meanwhile, stays planted on the shore, and laughs. “He wanted to scare you,” he says. “It looks like he did a good job.”
11:00 am- Our guide promises we will see monkeys soon.
11:10 am- My friend finds that something is biting her legs, even though she is wearing pants. It turns out that they are ants, and we laugh that she has “ants in her pants.” She does not think it is funny.
11:30 am- Invasion of the tse-tse flies. Holy Crap. They fill our car and sting the driver, which is when we become aware that they are not friendly flies. No longer are we laughing at the ants that were biting our friend, because we’re being attacked from every angle. The anti-mosquito spray that I brought has no effect on them.
I consult my Rwanda book and find that tse-tse flies are attracted to dark colors, especially blue. I look around the car and find that two of my friends are wearing blue, and the third is wearing dark blue jeans and a black sweater. The latter soon finds himself covered with flies, which are biting him through his jeans. We all move away from him. I thank my lucky stars that I’m wearing orange and green.
Noon- Tse-tse flies surround our car, knocking against the windows. They seem to be more intelligent than other insects, and that scares us. We manage to kill all the flies that are inside the car. There is no AC, so the car becomes suffocatingly hot, since we can’t open the windows.
1 pm- Our car climbs the Mutumba, or the highest point, of the park. The view is magnificent: rolling hills dotted with the occasional acacia tree, those beautiful savannah trees that look like bonsai and have wide, flat canopies. We eat the lunch we brought with us while looking out over a lake. In the distance, we can see Tanzania.
1:45 pm- Back in the car. We had left the doors open, so we have again been inundated with tse-tse flies. My friend is attacked again. I realize that I have not been bitten once.
1:50 pm- I ask the guide where the monkeys are. He says they’re coming soon. I don’t believe him. I ask him where the elephants are, and he says he doesn’t know. I ask him where the lions are, and he says he hasn’t seen one in a long time.
2:30 pm- Where are the animals? We’ve been driving around and seeing nothing. Our guide points out several different birds to us, but we admit that we can’t really differentiate between one little black bird and another little black bird.
3:00 pm- Zebras everywhere. Several scurry away from our car and stand in a star formation, one zebra looking in every direction. Together, it’s impossible to differentiate one from another. Magnificent defense mechanism! There are tens of them, and many baby zebras. As we try to take pictures, they run away, resulting in many “bum shots,” as we began to call our pictures.
3:45 pm- More zebras. We are in zebra-land. Leopards are rumored to roam the park, but there can’t be very many of them, because the population of zebras is astonishing.
More impalas, and we see topis, which are a kind of antelope.
3:55 pm- We interrupt a family of warthogs, tails straight up in the air. They run away in a perfect line, adults in the front and rear, and babies in the middle. Our car gets stuck in the mud, so we can’t get close enough for a picture.
4:30 pm- The sun starts to descend as we enter the elephant terrain. No elephants are found. I ask where the monkeys are. The guide finally admits that while there are hundreds of monkeys, they take shelter in the dense forest when it rains. We ask him why he didn’t just tell us before. He shrugs.
There is a lodge in Akagera where monkeys roam around like cats. They sit at your table, they hang out in your bedroom, they hug your legs…We don’t have time to stop by there, because it’s too late in the day. Argh.
5:15 pm- We drop off our guide in town outside the northern entrance to the park, where he catches a taxi-moto back to headquarters. We thank him with a $20 tip and head back to Kigali.
Despite the lack of monkeys, it was a good trip. The most remarkable aspect of Akagera, I think, is the remoteness. For the first time since I arrived, I couldn’t see any other human life—no sign of it. It was refreshing to see open, uncultivated, unexploited land. There’s a lot of potential for a thriving game park; tourism is still down after the genocide (and the subsequent insecurity through 2000), but if they bring in more animals, tourism would increase substantially. If not… I fear they may let returnees settle the rest of the land, and the savannah would be transformed into a field of banana trees and sugar cane, like everywhere else. What a pity that would be.