A week and a half ago we decided to dig out our tent and go to Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda for a long weekend (15th August was a holiday). We loved camping in South African parks and nature reserves, and have been missing it since leaving the country in December last year. Akagera is about 2.5 hours’ drive from Kigali so perfect for a weekend away to chill close to nature. It turned out more adventurous than expected though, and not necessarily in a good way…
Akagera is an up and coming park, with more and more animals being introduced after it was neglected for many years. There are lots of buffalo and antelope there, hundreds of birds, as well as elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and hippos. Lions were reintroduced last year and apparently are doing well; there are plans to bring back rhino soon as well to make it a Big Five park again.
Currently there are two functioning campsites in the park. We arrived at the reception in the late afternoon after a straightforward drive on a good road. We paid for 3 nights, which cost us a whopping $280. We’re residents, it’s more for an international visitor. To camp it costs $20 per person per night, plus park fees of $25 per person per day, plus a $7.50 fee for the car (one-off thankfully). That is pretty expensive camping, isn’t it! Just for comparison: it costs $20 per international visitor per day to enter Kruger National Park, and $5 for South African residents; camping is around $20 per site, for up to 6 people. So what do you get for the money you pay in Akagera? Well, nothing, apart from firewood, pit toilets (not very nice, and I’m not particularly delicate, I’ve visited quite a few long drops in Southern Africa) and non-potable water from a pump. There is no shower or a private place where you can pour that water from the pump over yourself. You don’t even get a free map, you have to buy it separately. Luckily we had one from a friend. You need to bring your own drinking water and food. There is a cafe at the reception but it closes at 3pm and we didn’t go there so I don’t know what they offer.
The Muyumbu campsite is 5km from the reception and on the way we noticed some bush fires very close to the road. That’s not unusual in the dry season in savannah-type areas, but we were still surprised that even though they were so close to the campsite, we were still allowed to camp. From the site itself we could just see the smoke but as it was getting later, the wind changed slightly and the fire got closer. There was an American family camping with us as well, and they went for an evening game drive. They didn’t have their own vehicle and went in a safari truck with a guide. While they were away, we were properly concerned about their tents as the fire was just about 50 metres behind them. When they got back, they also felt a bit apprehensive but the guide left them, clearly unperturbed. We all kept watching the fire move along the campsite but after a while it seemed that the wind shifted again and the fires moved away a bit. We went to bed but didn’t sleep for very long. I woke up as Tim was getting out of the tent. I thought he’d gone to the toilet but as he wasn’t coming back for quite a long time, I got worried and got up as well. Only then did I realise that it was quite bright inside the tent, even though it was midnight and there were no lights. When I got out, I saw that the fires had come back and were now nearing our side of the campsite. Tim and the American guy were watching it and talking quietly. It all looked quite eerie, the golden glow and smoke in the otherwise completely silent bush against the clear starry sky, with the moon still above the horizon. There was barely any wind but one look at the smoke and it was clear that the fire was moving around the perimeter of the campsite. There is an electric fence to keep animals away, and the fire seemed to be behind it, but we weren’t sure whether there was also a path that would keep it away. The American brought us a bucket of water. He said he had doused his tents when the fire was close to them, in case a spark brought over by the wind landed on the fabric. He told us to go back to sleep as he was going to stay up for a bit longer anyway to watch the fire; he’d wake us if things would begin to look worse. I realised we hadn’t received any emergency phone numbers from the reception. Normally parks provide a leaflet with rules and regulations, and what to do in case of any problems. The American laughed that at least Tim and I had a car, whereas he and his family had no vehicle at all. I started wondering how we could fit four extra adults in our car if the situation got really bad. If we left the tent behind, and the camping fridge and all the boxes, we would probably be ok.
We went back to bed but managed to doze for less than a couple of hours when the noise of crackling wood made us crawl out of our sleeping bags again. It was 2am. The fire had moved within about 20 metres of our tent, still outside the electric fence though. The wind was slight but strong enough to keep pushing the flames through the bush. The American was still there, watching over us, and now seemed a good time to pour some of that water over our tent. I looked up at the sky. It was even more brilliant than before as the moon had gone down. The Milky Way was clearly visible, and I saw a shooting star just as the fire hit a tree. The dry foliage went up in flames and sparks shot up in the air. We decided to move the tent and the car towards the main road. Then we stood watching as the fire kept going around the electric fence. The bush fires normally just burn the grass and leaves on trees and bushes, not damaging the trunks, but it still looked quite scary as the trees came up in flames one by one, if only just for a few seconds. There is something mesmerising about the fire, we just stared at it as if hypnotised, and listened to it devouring the grass and sticks. It circled around the campsite and was moving towards the road where we knew it would stop as there was no grass there and it provided a natural barrier.
It was about 4am when everything calmed down. We tried to get some sleep but didn’t really succeed. At 8am it started to get hot in the tent and we had to get out. The Americans had left shortly before that, and now we had the whole place for ourselves. I felt knocked out and exhausted but luckily we didn’t really have any particular plans for the day. The idea of this weekend was to get out of the city and relax close to nature, away from the crowds. The night had been far from relaxing though, so we just decided to take it slowly, sit in the shade, try to have a nap, and enjoy the pretty views of the lake. We kind of showered, pouring water from the saucepan over our heads, had some breakfast and tea, and vegetated in camping chairs for a few hours. We decided to go for a drive in the afternoon, via the reception where we wanted to report our “adventures”.
Things were beginning to look up when the peace and quiet were suddenly interrupted by the arrival of two big cars which drove in at speed into the campsite, where the Americans were before. When the passengers started to get out, we realised it was a big family of about 10 people. A couple of the men came over to say hello and inform us that they were Kenyans from Mombasa. We said hi back and wished them a nice stay, hoping they wouldn’t bother us too much (we were grumpy, having had very little sleep and lots of stress in the night). We would have certainly preferred to be alone but hey, it was a weekend and the campsite is open for everyone. But then they started unpacking and making quite a lot of noise. They were a big Kenyan-Indian family who clearly couldn’t live without their music, so they turned it on in their car and some of them started dancing., shouting and laughing. We had no energy to go over and be assertive and tell them off. There was a big sign on the toilets, outlining the general rules of camping, one of them being No Loud Music, but the new guests didn’t seem to pay any attention to it. We made a sudden decision: pack up and go to the other campsite in the north of the park.
We left within half an hour and headed for the reception first. I nearly had a nervous breakdown when one of the staff members told us there wasn’t any water in the pump in the other campsite and we’d need to BUY some. We’d already paid a fortune, argh! Luckily, she was wrong. The main receptionist assured us there was water, and expressed great surprise at the news of the bush fire. She had no idea about them. Not sure how that was possible, given that they were so close to the reception, but we didn’t want to waste time to discuss it and decided to email the manager afterwards with a complaint.
The drive to Mutumba campsite was rather uneventful. That part of the park had already had its bush fires and in places grass had already started to grow back. The campsite is on top of a hill and is much bigger than the other one. There were several campers already there but they all seemed just like regular people so we weren’t worried 😉 It was windy so putting up our big tent was fun but finally we got to sit down, wait for the coals to get hot enough to cook our steaks, and relax with some nice wine. We went to bed early and slept like logs.
In the morning it was pleasantly cool thanks to the clouds but there was not a single tree on the hill. When the sky began to clear, we realised that soon we will fry here as there was nowhere to hide, apart from a small, covered sitting area with hard concrete seats. Another snap decision: let’s go home a day early, taking a circuitous route to the exit gate and making a game drive out of it. It was a pleasant if a bit bumpy drive as some of the roads were very rocky and steep. We didn’t get to see the lions but saw one elephant bull, a couple of huge hippos grazing in the bushes, and quite a few other creatures, including zebra, giraffes, warthogs, lots of buffalo, and different kinds of antelope: topi (aka tsessebe), impala, oribi and Defassa waterbuck. Plus two funky grey crowned cranes walking down the road 🙂
We were glad we’d gone home earlier as we felt quite drained after that first night. However, the response from the park management to our complaint was very quick and professional. We had asked for a refund for that last night we didn’t stay, and that was granted. Moreover, the manager apologised for the fires and lack of information about them. Apparently they are induced and controlled by a dedicated team but somehow the person responsible went on leave and didn’t inform all staff about the plans for the next few days. That’s why the receptionist wasn’t aware of anything. The manager really made an effort to explain the situation, apologise, and assure us that it will all be looked into properly. We did appreciate it.
All’s well that ends well, but I must say I’m not sure if I want to return to Akagera anytime soon. A number of friends have recommended a stay in the Ruzizi Tented Lodge, and especially in the tree top tent, with a clawfoot bath and hippos grazing underneath. But that’s a luxury option which costs $400 a night for two people ($480 for international visitors), including breakfast and dinner but not drinks, game drives or even the park entry fee. In Rwanda accommodation is generally on the expensive side, which makes me really miss South Africa and all the fabulous options available there for a fraction of these prices! However, we do want to make the most of our stay here, so maybe we will close our eyes and splash out once 😉