I suspect it is true to write that most South Africans, if they think at all about a holiday in Rwanda, think about it in these terms: “I’d love to see the gorillas, but I hear that it is really expensive, so bang goes that idea.” And it is expensive – currently $1500 for a permit that allows you one hour with one of the troops of gorillas in the Volcano National Park. But it’s not necessarily bang to the idea of visiting Rwanda on holiday. There is much more to this small and beautiful country, with its recent tragic history than just the gorillas.
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Not many people know that Rwanda hosts one of the oldest national parks in Africa
Akagera National Park, on the country’s eastern border with Tanzania, was founded in 1934 by the Belgian colonial power. The park has been through rough times. Land pressure from pastoralists and crop farmers has led to a decrease of more than 50% from its original proclaimed size, and the genocide of 1994 had a profound impact. Refugees returning from Tanzania and Uganda once the slaughter was over moved into the park and the animal populations were decimated.
I visited Akagera in June 2005 and saw very few mammals in a two-day visit. There was an estimated pre-genocide population of somewhere around 300 lions. They were completely wiped out, as was the population of about 50 black rhinos. Uncontrolled poaching also saw the general game population dramatically reduced. But things began to change for the better in 2009 when the Rwandan government signed an agreement with the African Parks Network for the joint management of the reserve.
The last ten years have seen close to R150 million – much of it donated by Warren Buffett – spent on restoring Akagera to what it is now – an absolute jewel and well worth a visit. Much of the money was spent on security – building a 120k electric fence on the western side of the park and equipping and training mobile anti-poaching units. Every inch of the borders of the parks is surveilled daily to make sure any breaches are dealt with immediately. These measures have been so effective that poaching has been effectively halted.
There has also been a very successful reintroduction programme
Phinda Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park between them donated seven lions in July 2015. That population has now grown to more than twenty – I was lucky enough to see a pride of fourteen several times during my visit; three adult males, three adult females, four six-month-old cubs, and four that were born about two months ago. Seventeen black rhino were re-introduced in August 2017, and another five will be released in the park on the 24th of June.
It is now a Big Five Reserve
There is a healthy leopard population, very good buffalo numbers and a decent-sized elephant herd in addition to other savannah species - Maasai giraffe, zebra, topi, eland, waterbuck and more. And it is a great birding destination too. Despite its small size, just 1122 sq km, it boasts a bird list just more than 500 species. And did I mention how beautiful it is? Rolling grassland, patches of lowland and montane forest, papyrus swamps, broad-leafed and mixed woodland, and five gorgeous lakes hosting the most concentrated population of hippo in Africa and biggest Nile crocodiles I have seen anywhere in my extensive travels. Akagera doesn’t boast the large herds that you might see in the Kruger or the famed reserves of East Africa, but its natural beauty and manageability more than makeup for that.
There are various ways that one can visit
There are camping sites and hotels just outside the southern gate and one can either self-drive through the park from south to north, or make use of one of the local guide services. African Parks offers Ruzizi Tented Lodge on the banks of Lake Ihema, and, for three months of the year, operates a bush camp called Karenge. Or you can do what I did, which was luxuriate at Magashi Camp, operated by Wilderness Safaris. This exquisite tented camp opened its ‘doors’ on the 1st of May. Rwanda is determined to double its tourism revenue – its No 1 foreign exchange earner – over the next five years and is very happy to include international expertise in achieving that goal. Wilderness already operates a luxury base for gorilla trekking called Bisate, and, last year, was awarded a concession for exclusive operation on a particularly beautiful part of Akagera.
The six luxury tents all look onto the scenic hippo- and croc-filled waters of Lake Rwanyakazinga. Wilderness are past masters at this kind of upmarket safari offering. The tents are equipped with everything one could possibly want or need, but achieve this level of comfort without any out-of-place ostentation. Food is typically top-notch, locally-sourced and a contemporary twist on local dishes. Service around the camp is efficient and friendly with that wonderful blend of constant but non-intrusive attention that is characteristic of the best examples of this kind of safari lodge. The two guides, Hein and Adriaan, were on the property for months before opening, getting to know and understand local conditions and game movements, and getting to grips with the birds of the area and the best sundowner spots. They’re also training locals to take over the guiding so that, before long, the camp will be entirely operated by Rwandan citizens. There has also been a crack two-person tracking team from South Africa resident in the concession area for the last months. They go out at night and find lion and leopard and then track them for several hours, getting the animals habituated to the presence of humans and vehicles. And that is working very well. The lions and leopards we saw during my three days were completely unfussed by our near presence.
The days unfold in a way that is tried and tested in the safari industry. Early wake-up, food, very productive game drive, back to camp, more food, midday rest – which in my case means excellent birding around the camp, more food, afternoon game drive with sundowner break, and then night drive back to camp. And then, yes, more food. There is the bonus at Magashi of being able to add game and bird spotting from a boat on the lake to the mix. As you can see from the photographs, taken by guide Adriaan Mulder and resident Wilderness photographer, Dana Allan, the scenery and the animal life at Magashi is breath-taking.
Rwanda is really serious about making the country an excellent visitor experience
And my week there in May showed just how far they have already driven down the road. The ease of entry, the natural beauty and impeccable cleanliness of the countryside and the cities and towns, the genuine friendliness of the people, the fact that minibus taxis all have governors installed that makes it impossible for them to drive at more than 80k’s an hour, and the improving richness and variety of the visitor experiences on offer – all these factors collide to make a visit to Rwanda something to really enjoy and to immediately want to reprise. And Akagera and Magashi are very, very special.