It takes six hours by car to cross Akagera National Park, Rwanda. My first wild animal safari in Africa. As you can guess, I was totally excited. Sure, I have already seen all those animals at the zoo, but it’s a different thrill to observe them in the nature, freely running and following their daily routine. So… early in the morning, armed by my excellent mood and fully equipped for the wildlife, I found myself on the way to Akagera.
Akagera is about three hour drive away from the Rwandan capital Kigali. Most of the roads are really good, the best asphalt you can expect, no holes, fully flat and comfortable. Just the last eight kilometres were driven through a bumpy dirt road. But not so bad, even found it charming. The journey to Akagera itself is kind of an adventure. We passed beside very poor villages. The road is overcrowded by pedestrians, both sides and it’s hard a vehicle to be met.
The drivers attention is mostly focused on not to cause any accident, because of the hundreds of walking aside people. Another type of traffic accident is unlikely to happen, because of the lack of cars on the road. Only 10% of all Rwandans owe or drive a vehicle. Most of the citizens are pedestrians or bicycle riders. Time to time, out of the city, could be seen also motorbike riders. The usual way people to move from a place to a place is on foot. That’s why obesity in Rwandan is unlikely to be faced. On the contrary, the locals are mainly tall, thin and beautiful, especially the women.
So, back to my trip. In about three hour drive, we are finally in front of the doors of Akagera National Park. Looks impressive and appealing to me. Right to the reception, where no queue of tourists, no hectic arrangements, no noisy crowd. The receptionists are sleepy and not very interested in our appearance. There is no a single hint of any attempt of customer care. They are obviously aware that if we are already on site, then we will buy tickets and carry on shortly.
I quietly paid for three entry tickets and was indifferently told, I should pay much more for myself, because I am the only non-Rwandan visitor. Being non-Rwandan is an annoying case. You are pictured as an ATM, generating non stop money. As a foreigner, you should be tricked, which is just a must and the final goal is as much as possible money to be withdrawn, no matter what’s the quality of the service. Expectedly, I was asked if I would like to book a park guide. On my question what’s the benefit of having one, the response was, if I want to see any particular animals or to get closer to them, I should hire a guide. 21 000 Rwandan Franks ( about 30 USD) more and here I am, having a guide.
The friendly guide politely asked what kind of preferences I have and what kind of wildlife I do prefer to observe. I passionately explained to him I love giraffes and would be great to see them closer. Also, I was curious about rhino and elephants. He said no problem, I am going to see everything except rhino, because in Akagera there is no even a single rhino. That’s fine, at least I’ll get closer to my favourite giraffes. After my experience with wild elephants in Sri Lanka, I’ll finally see African wild elephants in Rwanda. “What about lions?”, insisted I. The guide said, they have never had lions in Akagera before but just imported a few from South Africa, so if I am lucky, I’ll watch some of them. “Lucky” is a very optional and odd description, if all the park lions have identification chip implemented, that helps each animal to be easily located wherever it goes. But I took a decision to keep my mood high and my faith on.
In a very merry chat my guide assured me, I’ll see zebras. hippopotamus, bulls, gazelles (different type of), warthogs, elephants, giraffes, baboons. No leopards, no rhinos, potentially no lions. I already imagined how most of the “Lion King” movie characters will be right on my way, at an arm distance. That’s why I kept looking around with eyes widely open.
During the first three hours of my park trip, I saw some gazelles, hippos and baboons. Then chasing a possible elephants’ path, we got two tyres flat, but no elephants found at all. The excuse of the guide was, during the dry season it’s hard to see any elephant. Hard? Dry Season? Didn’t they know in advance, before having my money, when the dry season is? Why I paid for a guide then? When I was about to lose any hope, got some zebras. Stressed warthogs crossed the road just in front of our car. Lots of hippos in and out the water.
Five hours after the tour start. My good mood faded long ago. I am already covered by dust, some chemicals for insect treatment used in the park, “soaking” in my own sweat, not seen any preferred animals yet and completely tired of the guide’s non-stop prattle. What I got was a detailed information about the nearby lake, full of fish (unfortunately I am not a fisherman). Beyond the lake is supposed to be the border with Tanzania, but it’s not really visible.
Finally I get invited to sleep over, for listening to the midnight sounds of the wildlife. Bad moment for such an invitation. I pushed myself to remain tolerant. The excuse in my head was, it’s probably a pretty new national park, still developing as everything else in Rwanda. But then, my guide suddenly informed me Akagera National Park was established in 1934. My tolerance vanished away. It seems, they have had about 100 years to develop and improve the service. No even a trace of smile left on my face. I was thirsty, dirty, bitten by insects, seen nothing, spent more than 5 hours in the car, shaking over a bumpy road.
OMG! Then, right before the end of my trip, the tour guide happily exclaimed, pointing ahead. I swear, I did my best to find what made him so excited. What I managed to notice was the savannah, full of animals, probably 5 km away. I asked with a secret hope in my voice if we are going closer, to diminish those 5 km. That hope died, because …we should stick to the track and not move out of it. My guide was excited by pointing something really really far away, proudly saying: ” Ma’am, could you see the giraffe there, your wish come true”. I really tried to see that giraffe, but it was so far away, that I am not sure what kind of animal it was. The outcome of all – the tour guide believed he did his job perfectly, because finally he found me a giraffe, doesn’t matter it was kilometres away.
The final conclusion – I paid nearly 150 USD for having a dusty 6 hour trip through Akagera National Park, for seeing a lake, baboons, zebras, hippos and warthogs. I did not see any elephants, giraffes (do not count the one on the horizon), lions or rhino ( because it doesn’t exist there). What’s next? I am tired and disappointed, three hours extra drive to Kigali, another flat tyre, unexpected rain showers and a complete exhaustion.
But what can I say is: ” Hey, do you know I was in Akagera National Park in Rwanda”. Then everyone gets impressed and jealous. Let me sundries it – I have probably seen more wild animals at the zoo, for a shorter time, cheaper price and better conditions. The truth is Akagera National Park, Rwanda was disappointing, messed up by my own over expectations.