Rutted Roads & Nightime Hippos: A Weekend in Akagera

A few weeks ago, a friend Keilah and I took a trip to the far east of Rwanda, home to Akagera National Park, which straddles the border with Tanzania. It represented a few first experiences for my time in Rwanda: my first time being a 100% total tourist (without any work!), first time to stalk the Big 5 (in this country at least), and the first time to rent and drive a car. The thought of driving, completely controlling the vehicular movement of my person, excited nearly as much as spotting a warthog by the watering hole. We rented a mint green Rav4 (this country, like Burundi, is half sponsored by Toyota) and any fear I had of driving in Rwanda dissipated the moment I clicked the seat belt and eased the sticky clutch toward first gear. Ah, my old friend.

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Akagera roads: Red dirt or tracks through grass, take your pick

The drive from Kigali to the beginning of red dirt roads was an easy one, windy and two-laned, never faster than 70 kilometers per hour, with speed limits enforced by police officers every ten feet (or so it seemed). Driving had one key advantage over taking the bus, besides the control: “no one offers you a chicken,” Keilah and I realized as we drove along the roads heading east, noting the number of chickens, freshly slaughtered, held out to our car as we whizzed past in a minty green blur.

Akagera isn’t far from Rwinkwavu, down the same road that I’ve travelled twice before to get to the Ready for Reading center where Keilah and I led training in December. The road, previously maneuvered on the backs of motos whose drivers seemed to know every divot and pothole, slipped easily beneath the wheels of the Rav4. I adjusted to the feel of being on horseback (while in the Rav) and tilted to the side. I also became quite accustomed to the road taking the wheel for me and stopped my frightened yelping, even if it took an hour of bumpy sideways-ness.

We stayed at a glorious heaven on earth, the Ruzizi Tented Lodge. I couldn’t contain my glee at the place: heavy-duty glamping tents propped up on individual decks, all facing the lake and fringed with the jungle growth. Monkeys traipsed through the trees. Breakfast was held at sunrise. It was ridiculous. If an when I ever write a book, I’m doing it there: nothing but the sounds of nature, the swish of leaves, the odd hoots of monkeys, the buzz of whatever strange insects were to be found. It was Adult Summer Camp, complete with Chardonnay.

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Patio at sunset, making up for every night I’ve had in Rwanda when I lost power & internet

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Grading? Class prep? What papers? What work?  

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Walkway to our tent with monkey escort

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Sunrise breakfast overlooking Lake Ihema in the park

Keilah, on her fabulously-titled blog “Rwandering,” wrote a post with the highlights: driving, lake, hippos. Did I mention hippos? For those unaware, hippos are fascinating animals. They look all cute and fat and cuddly, but are known to be more deadly than sharks. Don’t scare a hippo unless you have a death wish: according to this site, they kill 3000+ people per year. More than jellyfish (didn’t figure that one either, did you) and sharks combined. During the day, they stay on the edge of the lakes, reveling in the cool water that protects their delicate skin. At night, they forage for food on land which translated to 600lb land manatees tripping through the overgrowth, snorting and snuffling like old men with headcolds. I woke up about ten times the first night, thinking that there was one in our shower.

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Hey there, sunshine 

In Akagera, you have a few options. Get a driver, join a safari group, or DIY, either by yourself with the map or with one of the community guides. We opted for the community guide, a fella named Emmanuel, and began an 8-hour trek through the park. I always strive to be that person who sees Africa beyond the cliched images of safaris and savannah. But, you know what? I’m only human, and these animals are SO.SO.COOL.

For the best effect, please scroll through the following animal photos, curated for your viewing pleasure, and read the captions in your best Richard Attenborough whisper.

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GIRAFFE! (freaking out in whisper as not to scare her)

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Impala in the shade of a something tree

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Water buffalo, with terrifying horns that got very close to my car window

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This reminded me of the “Beatles” vultures in The Jungle Book for some reason. Don’t start that again!

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No! Don’t run away! Come back, my pretty!

Until next time,

L

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