Saturday, January 5, 2013

Romping 'round the Savannah

map of Akagera
It was December 31st, a beautiful warm morning in Kigali. The driver we hired to take us, six Peace Corps Volunteers, to Akagera National Park picked us up in front of our hotel, and we were soon on our way across the country, heading east. Akagera lies on Rwanda’s border with Tanzania, but Rwanda is a small country, so we were within the park’s boundaries in a matter of a few hours.

Almost immediately we began to see animals. It started with sightings of impala and monkeys in the brush not far from the road. Then we began to see more and more birds—Akagera contains 525 species of birds. But we hadn’t seen anything yet compared to what was coming.

We entered a small savannah surrounded by mountains. There were groups of zebras, different types of antelope and water buffalo interspersed. We even saw some giraffes off in the far distance. I was surprised by how close to the road some of the animals stayed. Some of them would be in the road as we approached them, and then they would run away as we got close. When they got about 50 meters away, they would stop, turn around and stare at us.

The road leading out of the valley reached a low point where it became flooded. Our driver told us that this was the deadly part of the road. He wasn’t kidding. He backed up to get a running start, then gunned the engine and plowed through the bushes on the side of the road, trying to avoid the muddy bog. But somehow we managed to drift back onto the road anyway and get stuck. I have a great video of everyone screaming as we sunk into a rut.

stuck in the mud
We ended up being stuck there for at least a couple hours. The driver said we needed big sticks to help us get unstuck, so we went off into the bush to search for some. Luckily we didn’t find any lions while we were out! (Big cats are rare to see in Akagera) Our driver had a nice large jack, but it seemed to be missing a part and so it was unusable. It seemed to me that he had never used it before and was just discovering this fact. He also had a smaller jack that worked, so we tried to shove one of the spare tires under the vehicle to give a support for it. There wasn’t enough space. The car was up to the axle in mud.

Two other vehicles came along in the meantime and people came out to help us. After trying many strategies to get unstuck, the driver finally did what we had been saying all along. A group of us pushed at the front of the vehicle while he tried to ease it back out of the rut. It was at this point that we discovered the four wheel drive was not functioning; only the rear wheels were spinning. It took a lot of effort and we ended up covered in mud, but we finally managed to get out and continue our tour.

Hippos are the deadliest mammal in Africa.
The next area we entered took us by a lake where many hippos were floating near the shore. Our driver parked us very close to the bank and killed the engine. He didn’t take notice when we pointed out that hippos are the deadliest mammal in Africa. After a few minutes we moved on to search for crocodiles. We never saw any crocodiles clearly because they move very quickly and go into the water when they hear vehicles coming. But there were many wart hogs and water buffaloes wandering around. There were also some beautiful large birds near the lake.

As we pulled away from the lake we came across an elephant in the road. It was standing under a tree in a small pool of water, washing itself. We stopped 50 meters away and watched it for awhile. When we decided it was time to pass, the driver started revving the engine. The elephant took a few steps backward, as if conceding that we could pass. But it was still very close to the road, so the driver crept us forward a little and revved the engine some more. The elephant got the hint and started to walk away. But it was a clever elephant! It walked a few meters until it was out of view behind a tree, then stopped and waited. We could still see it trying to hide there, so we waited until we saw it move a bit farther.

Although young, this elephant was enormous!
We continued on around a cluster of trees. The elephant went around the cluster and met us on the other side. It must have been about 15 meters away from the vehicle when it stamped its feet and trumpeted at us! It was very scary, but exhilarating! We watched it eat some leaves, then continued on when it acted like it was going to charge again, thankful that it let us pass through its home without tipping us on our side.

On the remaining stretch of road we did not see very many animals. There were a few antelope and monkeys here and there, but the foliage had become too thick to spot much. This stretch took a couple hours to traverse. For a while the only animal that seemed to present itself were these horse flies that would bite us even through our clothes. Most of the animals are in the north part of the park where we had entered. But as we got closer to the southern border of the park we started to see baboons again.

Pants are optional. Let it all hang out!
Finally, we reached the lodge, located inside the park, in the evening, tired and caked with mud. We were greeted in the lobby with glasses of ice cold apple juice, which really hit the spot. We headed to our rooms and washed up before we went to see what kind of damage we could do to the buffet. After dinner, we found a table and started to enjoy the various bottles of alcohol we had brought along. As we expected, the hotel staff did not appreciate us drinking beverages that we did not buy from their bar, so we headed back to one of the rooms. But the day had exhausted us, so after a large meal and a few drinks, we all fell asleep before midnight and entered the New Year happy and well rested.

Although we had mixed feelings about our driver (it was irresponsible to enter the park without tools or four wheel drive, but he did know where to go to find elephants) we all had a lot of fun. After seeing almost all of Rwanda, I would argue that Akagera is the prettiest part of the country. Visiting was a great way to bring in a New Year. And I hope that all of you have a joyful and prosperous New Year as well!

I don't know what I was pointing at.

I think these are a type of rhebok.

Adult African buffalo horns have a fused base, called a "boss"

These zebras are fat because of their large guts which allow them to digest dry grasses during the dry season.

Impala is Zulu for "gazelle"

Elands are the largest antelope in the world. These guys were the size of horses.

My shoes looked like this after spending some time stuck in the mud.