Camping in Rwanda, Part One

Only about a two hour drive west of the capital, Kigali, Rwanda's Akagera National Park is a collision between a series of parallel acacia-clad golden mountain ridges, and the Akagera River and its broad valley, which cuts through them. After filling my cooler with ice at the renovated Akagera Hotel, a formerly decrepit relic that on my last visit was literally occupied by baboons, I drove north along the "mountain circuit," and then cut down a valley to continue along the edge of the marsh.

Camp One: There are a variety of possible campsites dotted about the park, and every intersection of two jeep trails is marked by a numbered cement pillar corresponding to a point on the map, so assuming one stays on the tracks, it is almost impossible to get lost. As the sun started to set, I chose a campsite and drove back up onto the ridge to sleep on this promontory overlooking the valley. Note my immaculate tent installation in the lower right hand corner.

Camp Two: On the shores of Lake Rwanyakizinga. This is one of the best spots for elephants in Akagera, and although I thankfully didn't encounter any right where I camped, I saw one on the way in, about a kilometer before I arrived, and then three more grazing in the papyrus when I left the next day. Not one unnatural sound intruded to disturb the snorts of the hippos, the kloo kloo kloo calls of the fish eagles and the splash of pied kingfishers dive bombing the lake.

The immeasurably baritone belches and yawns of the hippos grazing on the far spit, half laugh and half cough, were so loud that I felt certain they had to be coming from the reeds just in front of me instead of from a thousand meters across the water, where I could see them wallowing. Through the binoculars I watched families of warthogs coming down to feed, their tails held straight up, perpendicular to the ground. A goliath heron, the world's biggest, roamed the shore and varieties of antelope snuck down to the water's edge to drink, looking about in paranoid fashion. You would be extraordinarily lucky to see any of the big cats here, but the antelope certainly know that there’s always the possibility one could be about.

Fire, and dinner: a double dose of Ramen with blanched tomatoes "Al Fresco"

The next morning I walked along the shore and found a few hippos that had moved over to my side of the lake in the night.

Elephants are most easily found in the northern reaches of the park, perhaps because fewer people drive all the way up there. Although they are not easy to see, signs of them are everywhere, from enormous chunks of dung left in the track to sizable acacias rendered into puny matchsticks.

When the elephants are feeding they will snap trunks in half or uproot entire trees to get at the uppermost leaves. Along parts of the northern lake circuit there are patches of forest that look as though they have been devastated by a tornado, and in many places I had to drive off road to circle around downed trees.

Camp Three: Perched on a high and breezy mountaintop overlooking the spectacular chain of lakes and vast papyrus swamps along the Akagera River. I won't presume to tell you what you are thinking. But what I think you are thinking is something like: "that's funny; his tent doesn't look nearly as spiffy at Camp 3 as it did at Camps 1 and 2.... It doesn't look quite so much like a tent commercial." If this is indeed along the lines of what you were thinking, then you absolutely have a point. After driving four hours of kidney-lurching rutted jeep track up the side of the mountain, fighting a near-constant assault from battalions of tse-tse flies streaming in through the windows and into my ears, I was ready for a quick dinner and a good sleep. Only when I finally arrived at Camp 3 and got the tent out of the car did I make the unpleasant discovery that I had left the tent poles back at Camp 2. Luckily I had a boom pole in the jeep with which I managed to improvise this elegant structure. Still, rain would have been most unwelcome.

This is what comes of what I was thinking that morning when I packed up, which was "hey, I have a car, with three empty seats in it. Why bother to pack up the tent in its bag? I'll just cram it all in here somewhere.”

The tent calamity did nothing to diminish the indescribable tranquility of sitting out on my own personal remote scenic overlook, soaking up the approaching evening as the sun lowered in the sky behind me. Thinking that the light was just getting nice for some landscape photography, I got up and went to get the camera from the car. Looking up at the ridgetop I saw, sticking up out of the grass and peering at me, this immediately recognizable neck.

I pursued the confused beast, who was probably wondering what on earth had gone wrong with my tent setup, and why I had put it directly in the way of the usual giraffe route down to the river.

The next morning, after a slight detour to collect my tent poles, I continued the “lake circuit,” reaching the very northernmost section of the park, where some of its most spectacular savannah is to be found. Wild game was abundant.

I had forgotten to bring my Kingdon, and my large ungulate identification skills are a little rusty, but I believe this is a magnificent buck Kudu, with one of his wives just to the left. [UPDATE: Oops, my bad. This looks much more like a Defassa Waterbuck, Kobus ellipsiprymnus.]

Even the non-birder will appreciate the spectacular plumage of the Southern Carmine Bee-Eater. My complete bird list from two trips to Akagera can be found in the “comments.”

I’m good enough with my large ungulates to know that these are Cows. Cattle remain the major threat to the park. Before the genocide Akagera was three times its current size, but the turmoil of the war led to large-scale invasion and settlement of the park by refugees and squatters. It is still a huge park proportionate to the size of the country, and the current borders are well protected. These longhorns are outside the park perimeter but in places where the route runs near the edge of the park territory the graze line exactly followed the park boundary markers, with long grass on the park side and nubbly razored stubble on the cow side. Unless significant numbers of visitors come to Akagera and deposit their hard currency in the park coffers it will be all to easy to understand if over time the current rules are relaxed and grazing cattle are again allowed inside. Population is extraordinarily dense in Rwanda, and protecting a vast, unpopulated wilderness like this park requires a major political tradeoff. I drove for three days without seeing anyone else, camped where I chose, saw abundant wildlife in great variety, and spent as much on the entire experience as I might have paid just in one day's entrance fees at a game reserve in Kenya or Tanzania. This is a major bargain, and you should rush over and visit right away.


They say it's a cold world said...

June 2003 and July 2007 Bird List

great cormorant
long tailed cormorant
grey heron
goliath heron
purple heron
great egret
intermediate egret
little egret
squacco heron
cattle egret
striated heron
black crowned night heron
little bittern
hadada ibis
glossy ibis
white faced whistling duck
egyptian goose
spur winged goose
black shouldered kite
african fish eagle
brown snake eagle
african harrier hawk / gymnogene
augur buzzard
long crested eagle
coqui francolin
hildebrandt’s francolin
red necked francolin / red necked spurfowl
helmeted guineafowl
grey crowned crane
african jacana
water thick knee
bronze winged courser / violet tipped courser
long toed lapwing
spur winged plover
senegal lapwing
crowned lapwing
wattled lapwing
common sandpiper
red eyed dove
ring necked dove
laughing dove
emerald spotted wood dove
blue spotted wood dove
african green pigeon
meyer’s parrot
ross’s turaco
bare faced go away bird
levaillant’s cuckoo
white browed coucal
pennant winged nightjar
african palm swift
white rumped swift
speckled mousebird
blue naped mousebird
malachite kingfisher
grey headed kingfisher
woodland kingfisher
striped kingfisher
pied kingfisher
little bee eater
southern carmine bee eater
lilac breasted roller
eurasian hoopoe
common scimitarbill
crowned hornbill
african gray hornbill
yellow rumped tinkerbird
yellow fronted tinkerbird
spot flanked barbet
red faced barbet
black collared barbet
crested barbet
greater honeyguide
bearded woodpecker
cardinal woodpecker
rufous naped lark
flappet lark
banded martin
rock martin
lesser striped swallow
mosque swallow
red rumped swallow
african pied wagtail
yellow throated longclaw
plain backed pipit
common bulbul
yellow throated leaf love
trilling cisticola
tabora cisticola / long tailed cisticola
white chinned prinia
tawny flanked prinia
yellow breasted apalis
grey capped warbler
gray backed camaroptera
greencap eremomela
red faced crombec
pale flycatcher
southern black flycatcher
swamp flycatcher
african dusky flycatcher
gray tit flycatcher / lead colored flycatcher
white browed robin chat / heuglin’s robin
red capped robin chat
white browed robin / red backed scrub robin
sooty chat
white headed black chat / arnot’s chat
mocking cliff chat / mocking chat
chinspot batis
african paradise flycatcher
black lored babbler
arrow marked babbler
white winged tit
collared sunbird
scarlet chested sunbird
marico sunbird
red chested sunbird
copper sunbird
african black headed oriole
gray backed fiscal
northern puffback
black crowned tchagra
black headed gonolek
tropical boubou
slate colored boubou
sulphur breasted bush shrike
gray headed bush shrike
fork tailed drongo
pied crow
wattled starling
greater blue eared glossy starling
rüeppell’s long tailed starling
violet backed starling
red billed oxpecker
yellow billed oxpecker
grey headed sparrow
baglavecht weaver
slender billed weaver
spectacled weaver
black necked weaver
holub’s golden weaver
village weaver
red headed weaver
grosbeak weaver
peter’s twinspot
red billed firefinch
red cheeked cordonbleu
crimson rumped waxbill
common waxbill
pin tailed whydah
yellow fronted canary
cinnamon breasted rock bunting
golden breasted bunting

Anonymous said...

my favorite is the brubru

Africa Love said...

Great post. Keep it up!