“You gave us some of your lions and they already have Rwandan passports,” says the proud ranger at the entrance to Akagera National Park. “We believe they’re happy here because they’ve already had cubs. And soon we’ll have rhino too and Akagera will be a Big Five park.” Adding endangered mountain gorillas to the Virungas National Park, chimps and at least a dozen other primates in Nyungwe rainforest, along with over 700 bird species, makes Rwanda a coveted wildlife destination in Africa.
At 274m above sea level, Akagera in the east is low-lying, hot and humid compared with the high-altitude coolness of the rest of the country. The park is majestically beautiful, with rolling hills skirted with Albertine Rift Valley lakes. There’s a sense of old Africa here and a deep stillness seldom found. As Sarah Hall, Marketing & Tourism Development Manager for Akagera, correctly says: “We’re off the beaten track, but not, because the park’s just two hours from Kigali. Yet there’s the sense of having it all to yourself.”
Akagera National Park is one of many success stories in Rwanda. In the past five years, animal numbers have doubled to around 12 000 and the surrounding community is being engaged and educated on the importance of the park to Rwanda’s natural heritage. There’s a Lions community football team to raise awareness of the latest leonine arrivals in the park, women’s sewing groups and more than 1 300 local schoolchildren have visited the park recently. Bee-keepers have been trained to keep hives in the buffer zone around the park, there are partnerships with fishermen and poaching is under control. Visitor numbers to Akagera have also doubled in the past five years – 32 000 people visited here last year.
After overnighting at Ruzizi Tented Camp on the banks of Lake Ihema, we drive north and the game is prolific. We see roan antelope, eland, zebra, hippos in the lakes, olive baboons, impala, endemic Defassa waterbuck, topi, buffalo, warthogs and more. Crested cranes, Goliath herons and jacanas are also in the mix. But in the Muhana Valley, we stop to marvel at the diversity of wildlife and are promptly encircled by 10 Masai giraffe, curious about our curiosity. “Everywhere you look is beauty,” says Primates Safaris’ Head Driver Guide, Alex Kagaba. “What else could we wish for?” Maybe only the remoteness of the mobile camp of Karenge, which changes location twice a year, leaves no footprint and runs on solar power. Watching wildlife on the Kilala Plains below, a crackling fire at sunset and the silence of the surrounding savannah has to be the ultimate African bush experience.
Rwanda may be just 250km east to west and 150km north to south, but getting around the innumerable hills and hairpin bends takes time. It’s a long day’s drive over perfectly paved roads from Akagera via Kigali to Nyungwe rainforest in the south-west corner of the country. All along the way, patchwork green food gardens roll up and down and over the hills in different textures. Women are the farmers here and their open-air pantries are abundant and meticulous, extending right up to their front doors. They ensure that Rwanda feeds itself and no basic foods are imported, while high-quality tea and coffee are the main exports.
Arriving in Nyungwe is a primeval experience. Tall, spindly trees reach for light in Africa’s biggest mountain rainforest. One-quarter of the world’s primate species – including chimps – along with 1 086 different species of trees and shrubs and over 140 different orchids live here. “To us, trees are more important than land,” says Alex and adds that new species of life are being discovered all the time in Nyungwe. Importantly, this rainforest supplies over 70% of Rwanda’s water and new research has shown it to be the furthest source of the Nile.
Nyungwe is another success story, with poaching firmly under control, while the park is surrounded by a sustainable harvesting buffer zone to protect the rainforest from encroachment. In the past 20 years, visitor numbers rose from 150 to 9 500 last year. This year I add one more to the total as I walk the Igishigishi trail with Alex. Tiny ferns, white mushrooms and vibrant butterflies line the forest path – and then a black-suited, white-ruffed L’Hoest monkey watching us as a sideshow.
On a shortcut mountain road to Lake Kivu, we meet a woman carrying potatoes. She’s gone all the way over the mountain to trade vegetables. Others move goods on motorbikes, but in the rural areas, bicycles are the main mode of transport. They carry loads of sugar cane, bananas and charcoal and are pushed uphill to free-wheel down the other side. A three-piece wicker lounge suite also makes it home via bicycle.
Lake Kivu is on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is low-lying and steamy. Traditional fisherman ply its waters for tiny capenta fish and head out to catch at night. Three wooden dugouts are lashed together, the middle one lit with lanterns to attract the fish and the boat on either side is slung with nets for the catch. Here fish and vegetables are staple dinners, with fresh organic fruit for dessert.
Rwanda’s topographical spine is the Virungas. The ancient volcanic chain is the natural border between the DRC and Uganda, and is also where the highly endangered mountain gorillas live. Every year thousands of intrepid trekkers come from around the globe and climb the steep volcanoes to visit one of 10 habituated gorilla groups. Golden monkeys also live in the Virungas, which was the stomping ground of renowned, slain primatologist Dian Fossey. She focused world attention on the plight of mountain gorillas and, in so doing, preserved the species.
Augustine Nzamurambaho is a local and has been up the volcanoes over 1 000 times, trekking gorillas as a guide and collecting data on them too. “They’re our forest people,” he says. “Visitors say seeing gorillas is the best experience of their lives. Some cry. Others propose marriage on the mountain. But did you hear that we now have lions in Akagera?”
Without knowing it, he completes the circle and a journey of positive revelations from a tiny country in the heart of Africa. Here the pulse is for progress, the people are inspired and daily life is clean, green and always gregarious.