It was once said that “it’s not the malaria that’ll kill ya, it’s the drivers”…

…and so it is, by some divine power we made it back from our safari, Rwandan-style. A relative miracle considering the double-overtaking that is commonplace, or the omnipresent and seemingly inebriated cyclists who, either laden with their whole families (I’m not kidding, I couldn’t make this shit up) or 6 bushels of bananas loaded on the back ready for market day, repeatedly swerved into the path of our 4×4.

We HAD planned to go to Nyungwe National Park this w’end to go chimpanzee tracking, but these plans were scuppered at the last minute. We received word from our initial driver that he’d been involved in an accident (no doubt involving a cyclist and an innocent bystander being peppered with a banana bushel) and therefore was unable to chauffeur us. This led to last minute searches for drivers and haggling. Through a process with which I shall not bore you gentle reader, we decided to fuck our original plans and to go on safari…and why not?

So it was, we set out bright and breezy Friday morn, fully caffeinated with adventure in our hearts and loins, ready for whatever Akagera Park could throw at us. Akagera is about a 2hr drive east of Kigali – over 1100km² of forest-fringed lakes, tall mountains marshland and rolling, game-rich savannas. Sadly the park was deprived of a great deal of its wildlife during the recent civil war, but it is now apparently returning to its former glory. However, that said the park will be having rhino and elephant imports next year from Kenya to return to it former numbers.

The drive east through the lush, banana-tree laden, terrace-farmed valleys was more entertaining than anything HBO could come up…except maybe dwarf porn. As we whisked through village upon village, the hustle-bustle was uniform as man, woman and child either performed chores or pushed their bicycles up many of Rwanda’s infamous 1000 hills. Seriously though, I wonder what Rwandans would make of our use of this contraption for FUN! I swear they pack more on their bicycles than we do in our cars for a camping trip. As they walk their bikes up the hills, they are stacked impossibly high with either firewood, bananas, packs of potatoes and even windows! And you would be foolish to think you could escape the graft if you had no bike – we boggled at how much the women could carry on their heads, or how they worked hunched over in the fields all day with their babies strapped to their backs with sashes. It also really struck us how much we take having water for granted – we watched as small children, presumably designated the task, filled their gallon tanks from the local wells before trudging them numerous kilometers home on their bikes or heads. Was also interesting to watch people handwash their clothes and then using bushes to sun-dry them

As we thundered towards the eastern-most border of Rwanda, surreally listening to Jean-Bosco’s (our driver) mix tape of James Brown and The Beatles, it was bizarre to see signs for Uganda and Tanzania. It sometimes still hasn’t sunk in that we’re here, despite the constant shouting of ‘Mzungu’ ringing in our ears. It really is something that you have to experience to believe – even though you’re driving by at 80kph, these eagle-eyed children still manage to spot a foreigner from miles away, and invariably will stop and stare to wave, exclaim ‘Mzungu!’ or demand bon-bons. It seems strange to me after a while that they always use this word, when it is blindingly obvious that yes, we are foreign and sunburnt, thank you very much. It almost makes me wonder if it’s some old, colonial type of early warning system – that this mzungu cry is supposed to be echoed from street to street, village to village warning people the white man is coming….this, or it is simply amusing to make us squirm.

…anyway, on to the exciting stuff.

Once registered with the park rangers, we set out excitedly, camera brandished. We headed initially to the south of the park, and as we descended we marveled at the sun-dappled savannas that slowly revealed themselves before us. For the first 10 minutes or so we saw little wildlife, but even the sight of the varied shrubbery contrasting against the fertile, orange earth held us in its sway. However, once we reached the savannas we were met by so many wonderful images: giraffes, topi, waterbuck and impala feeding; cape buffalo in vast herds, lazing in mud pools; packs of zebra who startled by us, ran away but amazingly with their heads turned the whole time still keeping an eye on us. Anyway, it really was so wonderfully, strangely fantastic to these animals in their natural habitat.

We then moved on to the ‘lake circuit’ of the park, which included Lake Ihema, the second largest lake in Rwanda after Lake Kivu in the west. Here, we were beset by pack upon pack of baboon…we could seriously have watched these all day long. Their human-like behaviour was uncanny…well minus the constant public shagging, picking and eating of insects from each other’s armpits and bums. We also had several encounters with vervet monkeys – smaller, curious, mischievous little fellas. We were also quite fortunate to see some hippos grazing by the lakeside – a mother and her baby. We spent quite some time watching them in the water and marveling how they communicated with what sounded like a villain’s mwa-ha-ha laugh.

Dusk began to fall and we had to head to the camp site before it got too dark…plus we had to get a fire started to keep away any animals! The site was beautiful and remote – on the top of a ridge overlooking several of the park’s lakes. We set up camp as the sun set taking in the mountains of Tanzania in the distance.

Being ‘executive-class’ campers we decided to head back to the fancy park lodge for dinner. Upon returning to camp, we were disappointed to see our camp had been invaded by ze Germans (sorry Petra, if you’re reading this). Nice folk, but I felt unabashedly put out that we had to share ‘our’ secluded bit of paradise with others. We sat by the fire and talked for a short while, illuminated by the supernaturally bright full moon.

Next morning, at around 4.30am, we were awoken by a distant chirruping that came gradually closer, until it was literally deafening and all around us. It was actually quite eerie, especially when you heard the scamperings of the unknown beasties all over the tent. As the sun began to rise, their forms were backlit adding to the mystery. We ventured out and found our tent and the whole site covered with hundreds of oversized grasshoppers. We walked up the dirt road a little to take in the sunrise, enjoying the solitude and natural canvas evolving before our eyes…a suitable start to Erin’s b’day.

Jean-Bosco picked us up at 7am and we headed to the lodge for a quite impressive (and free – I honestly did protest, well at least once, that we weren’t actually residents) breakfast. Replete with croissants, fruit and omlettes, we set back out along the lake circuit, sadly pursued by inclement weather. This put a wee damper on things as the rain meant our trip to Hippo Beach was rather hippo-less…as they retreat to the water if it’s not sunny. However, as we headed towards the western ‘mountain circuit’, this weather actually added to the drama of the scenery. As we made our way up the ridiculously rough dirt roads of the Mutumba mountains towards the park’s highest point, we looked back at the savannas and lakes below us – partially obscured by low-lying cloud. We stopped briefly at the summit for lunch, and we were soon hit by a storm that came out of nowhere. Driving back down the mountains was surreal, completely enveloped by thick cloud and every now and then, topi or armed soldiers loomed out of the mist. At one point, our 4×4 got stuck on the track…this seemed to be a recurring b’day theme after our car broke down twice on my 30th in Morocco. Thankfully though we finally got the truck dislodged and headed through the rest of the park to the northern exit.

That night we decided to stay at the lodge, partially for Erin’s b’day night but also dreading what the next morning’s plague would be. Was so nice to watch the moon rise over the Ihema lake from our balcony…and away from the din of the other westerners!

Our last day, we revisited the baboons, giraffes and zebras before going on a brief boat ride to one of the lake’s islands. Here we observed unnervingly large Nile crocodiles and many varieties of stork and crane. We were tempted to go on land until our guide informed us there were black mambas…we then thought better of it.

We sadly had to make our way back to Kigali. Maybe we’ll make it too Nyungwe next time…

…anyway, I have simply run out of ‘wow adjectives’…just check out the uploaded pics from the w’end…well, go on…