My final stop on my East African trip was the small nation of Rwanda, ultimately to see a family of gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. Just two hours from the capital lies Akagera National Park. As I was travelling on the last Saturday of the month I was required to leave Kigali at 04h30 to avoid the vehicle curfew imposed by 7am to facilitate “Umuganda”; national cleaning day. What a brilliant idea, and it is clearly working. Rwanda seems spotless in comparison to other countries. There are no piles of litter and plastic bags (banned in the country) lining the roads – even the inner city looks so clean and well ordered. This early start did allow for an early morning game drive at the national park, recently taken over by the Africa Parks Network to revitalise its fortunes.
First stop is the visitor centre to check-in and then the drive commenced through the many hills that form the southern region. Given the tumultuous recent past of Rwanda, and the likely negative impact on wildlife populations I was not expecting to see much game, but herds of buffalo and zebra were found enjoying a mud bath, and there was plenty of birdlife. I also espied some giraffe, a recent reintroduction to the park. The drive ended at the shores of one of the park’s many lakes for a cruise. Water levels are high at this time of year, nevertheless some hippo were seen along with many nesting birds.
I spent the night at Akagera Game Lodge, an ugly, but comfortable building that overlooks Lake Ihema. I had been advised the following day to head north, a journey that provided views of the hills and the many lakes and swamp lands, but not much game. To be honest, even if you had seen an animal you would not have wanted to stop for photos as horseflies plague the southern section that are numerous, persistent and painful.
But as I approached the lakes in the north, the scenery opened out into magnificent open savannah, fringed by high hills that are reminiscent of more famous parks in east Africa. Large herds of topi, zebra, waterbuck and impala share the swamp areas with hippo and a wealth of birdlife. And there are no horseflies. This region is quite magical. African Parks can be congratulated on their work so far to restore this park and I look forward to visiting again soon to see further progress. Eventually the plan is to bring back lions to Rwanda, believed to have become recently extinct in the country. Part of this effort is the current ongoing work to fence the western boundary.
After a further night in Kigali and another 04h30 departure, I arrived at the fringes of Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains. The drive here alone is worth doing, but of course this area is best know for a very special resident. After a briefing by my annoyingly, physically trim looking guide who clearly benefits from trekking into the mountains daily (note to self: must do more exercise!) we drove (very slowly) along an appalling road to the foot of one of the mountains. At this point I was concerned just how arduous the trek was to be, but after only an hour of fairly easy walking we were invited to leave our bags under a bush and bring our cameras through the stinging nettles to meet the Urugamba family of mountain gorillas.
Here, amongst the foliage was an impressive silverback and several females, two with young, with one only a couple of months old. For an hour we watched as the family moved through the vegetation feeding, playing and socialising with each other. At several points a gorilla would pass only a few inches away from me and you cannot help but fall totally in love with them. Their scruffy fur, their pot bellies and their beautiful faces are simply magical. At one stage the silverback treated us to a full display. Rising high on his back legs, he beat his chest sending those wonderful sounds reverberating through the forest. Of course, all too soon the experience is over, but this was one of my life dreams fufilled, and a memory that will stay with me forever.
With my travels over (26 nights, 4 countries, 16 hotels and 10 flights), I ask myself, ‘What have I learned?’ Well, I learned that Africa is the most astoundingly surprising, diverse, beautiful and inspiring continent on earth.