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.

Edvard Munch and the Sooty-Cheeked Mangabey

I don't remember enough of the the particulars of Edvard Munch's biography to recall whether his angst was of purely Scandinavian distillation or if, like many artists of the time, he went on exotic journeys, which then fueled his depressive aspect. He seems most unlikely to have ever travelled to the Albertine Rift, one of the least and last visited slivers of central Africa, a mountain chain of cloud forests defining much of the Congo's eastern frontier with Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. Nonetheless, a few days ago, there in the Nyungwe Forest, I thought of him.

Had Munch come here and observed the diverse array of primate species that dwell in these dark, damp and fog-shrouded forests I am certain he would have been much taken with the Sooty-Cheeked Mangabey, an extraordinarily gloomy-looking monkey with a very long tail.

Furred entirely in dismal gray tones, the unhappy Mangabey sports for facial decoration twin charcoal black streaks under its eyes, like those worn by American Football players to protect their vision from the glare of their own rosy cheeks. (What a bizarre, pseudo-military, macho affectation--nobody does this in any other sport, do they?[Update: Yes, apparently, baseball, see comments]). Worse, the pinched and panicked look on the Mangabey's face seems to permanently express the particular grief of constipation. I hope these photographs, taken in the dim and misty depths of the forest interior, are suitably pathetic.

(Mangabey images mine, as are all uncredited photographs in these pages: Munch images hooped absolutely without permission from here, according to my own personal and constantly evolving fair use doctrine. Anyone with legitimate issues contact me and I will do my best to resolve them.)


Out of Office Notification

I'm on Safari, spending the next ten days in two of Rwanda's spectacular National Parks. First I'm off to Akagera, the vast big-game savannah and impenetrable papyrus swamp that marks the country's eastern border with Tanzania, then on to Nyungwe in the extreme southwest, where thirteen species of primates live in primeval cloud forest. See you soon!


Visitors from Mars

Last night we had our "wrap party" for the current video shoot in Rwanda. It was our sixth such "last supper," and over dinner we joked that had Anne known how many times she would be here on the current film she could have constructed a mud-brick McMansion years ago on the hillside and saved herself a pile of money and many hours of commuting. The village in which we work is two hours from Kigali, where we stay in luxury at the Novotel Umubano. The tradeoff for being able to take showers in comfortable hotel rooms looking out over a swimming pool, and having a reliable source of electricity for plugging in battery chargers, watching the day's videotape and downloading digital audio to hard drives, is that we do a lot of driving on horrific dirt roads. (Anyone who thinks that Anne and I can't do without our creature comforts, however, should go back and read some of my posts from October and November of last year, when the two of us were living in subzero conditions in tents in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica). Leaving at 6AM is a grim enough prospect, and one that only gets us up into the hills by about 8, which is practically mid-morning in rural Africa. The result is that over various trips we've only once really managed to see the village waking up, and that required leaving Kigali in the middle of the night.

I wanted to record the sounds of the village at dawn, and so on the last night of shooting I convinced James Gakwerere to spend the night with me in what passes for the village square. James is the best cameraman in Rwanda, and he has been working with us for years, whenever he can get time off from his job at Rwanda Television. Much hilarity ensued.

The trusty tent set up on the village green. While actually putting it up we had a fascinated crowd of about thirty villagers gathered around. "I can't believe he can fit his whole house in that little bag" and "it looks like a voiture with no wheels" were two of my favorites of the remarks James translated. They questioned whether I would fit in it, so I jumped in and lay down to demonstrate, to a chorus of guffaws.

Jean-Paul, one of our regular interviewees, lounges after dusk with James and, in burgundy fatigues, the local civil defense. Civil defense are dudes given training and arms, and they patrol day and night to keep the peace. Someone in the village decided we and our crazy muzungu toys probably ought to have protection, and so this guy slept out on the grass beside our tent with his AK47, waking us frequently with a drunken, tubercular hacking cough. It's our fault, however, since we fueled him with several bottles of urugwagwa, the vile local pit-fermented banana brew he is seen drinking here out of an antique Primus beer bottle.

Lounging tentside.... Ouch! That stalk of hay stabbing me in the eye is the price I paid for trying to look sultry. We wanted our own beer, of the non-banana variety, so we conscripted my young friend Jacques, an-eight-year-old with excellent bicycling skills, to ride off into the night and fetch us these two bottles of warm Mützig. He was gone for ages and had to get them from a cabaret on the crest of the next hill, which tells you something about the local economy. Photo: James Gakwerere

The Junior Filmmakers of Ruhango club meeting.


An Unlikely Ornithological Hot Spot

There are many tragic legacies of Africa's colonial past, but none quite so absurd as the eighteen-hole golf courses that are still to be found at the center of many African cities. These country clubs, where they have survived, were nurtured, financed and protected from squatting post-colonial natives by lingering moneyed white elites clinging to their conception of civility as tightly as they held their gin tonics. In a later phase local potentates assumed control, playing golf on weekends the way Americans do, to seal business deals and cement their status; in a nation that cultivates every square inch of its rolling red earth what could better demonstrate power and wealth than to swing one's clubs the length of eighteen expansive frivolous fairways? In Zimbabwe, my friend L.... tells me, Harare has at least five golf courses virtually in the center of the city.

Seen from the ladies tee, the ochre Umubano Hotel looms in the distance above the eighth fairway. Labor is cheap, and so greenskeeping is done entirely by hand; the greens are picked over by women, while the fairways are cut by men with machetes, known here as pangas.

The Kigali Golf Club, Rwanda's only course, has survived both independence and genocide. Manicured and sprinkled, it occupies the greater part of the valley below the Umubano Hotel, which, perched atop what was once one of the city's outlying hills, is now almost centrally located in this rapidly expanding city. Strolling the fairways below, one sees in every direction on the surrounding hillsides the white stucco walls and red clay rooftops of fresh housing developments and condominium schemes. Perhaps it has survived as an island in a frenzy of real estate development because the wet bottoms between the hillsides where it is laid out are the least desirable; like Hollywoodians, Kigalians like living on the hilltops the best.

Kigali homes jostle for space above a man-made lake just beside the golf course. Developers hope to turn it into a "water-park," and on my recent visit the far shore was littered with recently unpacked Disneyesque foot-peddled boats in bright plastic colors; smiling blue dolphins, grinning rubber ducks and so on. This will doubtless have a negative impact on the birds to be found, but last week I found White Faced Whistling ducks, Spur Winged Geese, countless Pied Kingfishers and a Pink-Backed Pelican enjoying the waters. Here, if you look very closely along the shoreline, a Marabou Stork patrols the shallows.

Walking down to the links one begins on the same busy boulevard that houses the presidential palace, beside a new multi-story apartment complex where, at the corner of the hotel grounds, a dirt road descends through a cross-section of the Kigali economy. At the top are large houses hidden behind walls festooned with tropical flowers. Their tall sliding metal garage doors are attended by private security guards. The residents, many of them working for international NGOs, come and go in luxury SUVs blowing their horns impatiently outside their own homes to inspire the guardian to pull open the gate. Lower down the steep track the houses become more modest and the walls are not so high; security is left to the alert eyes of the neighborhood. Approaching the green fields one soon finds oneself in a warren of adobe houses, each blending into the next, roofs repaired with lengths of blue plastic sheeting. The steep, narrow passageways between the houses double as sewers when it rains. In this part of the neighborhood there is no plumbing, and many of the residents poach their H2O from the pipeline feeding the water hazards of the golf course. It is a surreal sight to see groups of women trudging down onto the course with their yellow twenty-liter plastic canteens as a foursome of golfers strides by in crisp pressed polo shirts, drivers extended over one shoulder.

The eighteenth tee is tucked back amongst the reeds in a particularly swampy bit of the course. Errant drives here are bound to result in lost balls buried deep in the heavy marsh growth. To the right of the tee is an impressive stand of bamboo, home to a colony of weaver-birds, a family of yellow, orange, cinnamon and black-plumaged birds like large brightly colored sparrows that reaches its highest diversity in central Africa. Most, but not all species are highly colonial, and weave nests near one another, like bird condominiums. The form of the weaving and the positioning of the entrance hole is unique to each species, so that the well-versed weaver-watcher can identify the species just by seeing the nest. Unfortunately I am not a well enough versed weaver-watcher to be able to tell you specifically who lived here.

That the golf course lives on is a happy circumstance for Kigali birdwatchers. Or at least for me, since I have never met another binocular-toting geek wandering around down there while I was dodging golf balls. The ersatz marshy areas, which anywhere else in Rwanda would be subjected to amateur draining efforts and opportunistic cultivation of corn, rice or maize, have stands of reeds and bullrushes full of weaver-birds, and there are several almost intact clumps of second-growth forest, with dense underbrush, where warblers lurk and sparrowhawks pounce. Over my five or six trips here at various times of year I have seen 118 different species of birds in the hedgerows and forest patches of the golf club or on the artificial lake next door. Most, of course, are the common garden birds of central Africa, but there are always surprises to be found; the water, the height of the trees, and the expansive green all act to attract, much as New York's Central Park, tucked amongst skyscrapers, is a renowned migrant trap.

Although we are only a degree below the equator, Rwanda in July is much like the United States in that, ornithologically speaking, bird movements are in part dictated by "post-breeding dispersal." The chicks of the spring and early summer breeding season are now grown and hungry and ready to forge out on their own. Often, however, they do not have the discerning eye for prime habitat of their elders, and so, in their search for new berries to eat and better bugs to gobble, in July they often end up in places they might not normally call home, like the Kigali Golf Club. In July, rarities and oddities can turn up almost anywhere. This is a female, possibly immature, Black Cuckooshrike. I have also been seeing many of them in the patchy scrub of the rural hillsides where we film, although on other trips at other times of year I found them to be scarce.

The pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other unnatural treatments that make most golf courses in the United States comparatively barren of birds do not seem to be in use here. On a recent walk I heard, coming from the spiky acacia trees shading the borders of the long grassy fairway of the thirteenth hole, the coarse screechings of the Gray-backed fiscal, a noisy and gregarious shrike that hunts for locusts, lizards and other small prey. Beyond the green, in a dense scrub that captures errant long balls, I have often seen the spectacular, skulking Crimson-breasted Gonolek, another shrike that keeps low and to the center of the shrubs. Today he doesn't seem to be there, but an array of sunbirds patrol the flowering trees for nectar and, hunting from an evergreen branch just beside the green, I see a bird I have never seen before in Rwanda, the Gray-headed kingfisher.

I need your help. Although I got close enough to take this and several other excellent photographs of this raptor, I was unable to conclusively identify it. You'll have to take my word for it that in flight it showed a single, broad white tail band. Largely because of the tail I suspect this is an immature Western Banded Snake Eagle, but this one seems awfully gray about the back, where, Stevenson and Fanshawe's Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa tells us, we should expect all brown. I don't have an awful lot of experience with Snake Eagles, and it has been almost ten years since I last saw one, so I just don't have that confidence. This is a probably another example of post-breeding dispersal, a young bird looking for new horizons.

The right hand edge of this fairway marks the boundary of the course, bordered by a tall hedge of umuyenzi, a succulent with spongy, tubular leaves often used to grow garden walls. The plant offers a natural defense against intruders because its sap is toxic, and caustic, but it is easy to slip through a well-worn shortcut and emerge unscathed on a pedestrian highway that crosses the valley here, at the foot of a recently constructed berm. The lake above the berm holds a great variety of water birds, and, in the northern winter, often has some waders marching in the shallows. The lake is home to literally dozens of Pied kingfishers. Two Gray-crowned cranes keep an eye on me. The ducks swim away from the shore-edge and concentrate in the middle of the lake while swirls of the huge and hideous scavenging Marabou Stork float on the warm thermals far overhead.

The closest thing Kigali has to a forest are these tropical patches of woodland tucked away on the golf course. They offer shelter to a surprising array of species. The other day I saw here a somewhat scruffy and battered immature female Narina Trogon, also doubtless in post-breeding dispersal. This is a species generally associated only with dense and relatively undisturbed quality forest. Gray Capped Warbler is resident in the undergrowth, and Mackinnon's Fiscal, a shy, solitary and retiring shrike, is often to be found hunting here.

Sunbirds are the African analog to South America's hummingbirds, glistening, iridescent nectar-eaters that flit quickly and aggressively from one cluster of flowers to the next. The males are brilliantly colored with shining throats of green, purple, scarlet, copper or gold, while the females tend to the drab and the annoyingly similar and difficult to identify. Still, I feel confident in telling you that this is a female Bronze Sunbird.

Back on the course, a quick walk to the eighth tee, where crossing a dirt road brings one to the farthest reaches of the course and dark corners of damp woodland not far from the clubhouse. Hanging about near the eighteenth is always profitable. I find a Klaas' cuckoo, one of Africa's small, glistening emerald-backed cuckoos, and get some decent photographs of a pair of Green-headed sunbirds. A party of golfers finishing out the seventeenth look at me quizzically, but return my wave. They stop short of inviting me to the nineteenth hole, however, and I slip silently back into the woods, headed back across the course towards the Umubano and home.

Those bird gluttons who really want to know more will find my complete species list for the Kigali Golf Club in the comments.


Does anyone else find this unsettling?

I'm referring to the teutonic font complete with umlaut, the high impact red and black graphics, the marauding crusader flaunting the cross of St. George on his shield, his sword of wrath held high as he rears back on his horse, preparing to trample unwashed heathens and infidels under his white steed's hooves of justice and righteousness.

It might just be time for a rebranding campaign, as nobody seems to have thought about changing the label on Rwanda's favorite beer since the country was a German colony, way back before World War One. The beer is French in origin, from the town of Mützig in Alsace, that part of the Franco-German borderlands that seems to be continually confused as to whether it is in France, or part of Germany. Today, apparently, Heineken owns the brand.

How do you say "Wash me!" in Kinyarwanda?

Up in the hills, we returned from filming an interview to discover this written on our car. There is nothing racist about it; if you are insulted by hordes of scruffy little children rushing out of their houses and screaming the equivalent of "HEY, White People!" at you, all day long, every day, then you are probably too sensitive to visit rural East Africa. We've been filming in the same district for four years, and there the chorus has evolved and become more personalized. Often, little children we don't recognize at all come hurling out of their compounds yelling "ANNA, ANNA," the name of Anne Aghion, our fearless leader. If you look closely at this picture you will see that someone (else?) has written "Ana" just under the letter "M." This, of course, is how new words are added to the lexicon, and perhaps a couple of decades from now all white female visitors to Rwanda's countryside will be mysteriously greeted by chants of "Anna, Anna."


The June-Bug Conundrum (great unused names for bands dept.)

Wednesday was a day off, so I strolled down the hill below the Umubano Hotel to my favorite birding spot in Kigali, the Kigali Golf Club, about whose birds I will soon tell you ever so much more than you are likely to want to know, in an upcoming post. Today it is all about bugs, namely these flying Junebugesque yellow and black monsters. About twice the size of the iridescent critters I know as Japanese beetles, these were clustered in a localized swarm, gorging themselves on the nectar of a flowering tree by burrowing neck deep into the octopus-like tendrils of its orange blossoms. Some have pairs of small yellow spots dotted on their black rorschach backs, some don't. I'm wondering if its a gender thing. One thousand pixels wide for your viewing pleasure; click on image to load.