So there we were: 13 students, three teachers, two guides, a driver, me and a whole mountain of tension in a white 25-seater bus hiding in the bush from some elephants. How did we get here? Two schools from Gippsland in eastern Victoria, Australia, come to Rwanda every year as part of a diocesan partnership between Gippsland and Gahini and in 2015 decided a safari in Akagera National Park would be a perfect way to conclude their trip. They contacted us to organise the safari and it is probably the highlight of our year at OTA!
That first year (2015), I arrived in Kigali a couple of days before the safari both for professional and personal reasons. I like Kigali and had not visited since 2012. It is a very safe city with excellent roads – I didn’t see a single pothole in my whole time in Rwanda! I spent a morning with Joanna from Rwandan Adventures, a tour company with a focus on cycling trips. Given Rwanda is nicknamed the Land of 1000 Hills, cycling tours are no mean feat! Together we visited a women’s project where clothes, bags, toys and other crafts are produced. They have a walking tour of the local area where you can see typical Rwandan life and finish with lunch in one woman’s home. It sounded wonderful and I cannot wait to help some of you enjoy this experience.
With a driver and guide, I departed early on Saturday morning for Gahini where we were to meet our group for the safari. The students had spent two weeks here, on the shore of Lake Muhazi in a small Rwandan village. They had brought supplies for the hospital, visited several churches in the diocese, and played with pupils at the primary school. The schools work with the Anglican diocese in Gippsland to give Year 12 students an alternative “Schoolies Week”. (For non-Australians, Schoolies Week is a tradition for students finishing secondary school. They go to the Gold Coast or another beach location to wreak drunken havoc on the local community. Something similar to Spring Break in the US, I think.)
We packed the bus and headed to Akagera National Park. Another great thing about Rwanda is that, not only are the roads in excellent condition, but the country is so small it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. So it was only a couple of hours before we were at Akagera Lodge ooh-ing at the pool and aah-ing at the rooms. After two weeks in the village, this was the epitome of luxury!
Akagera National Park
We went out for an afternoon game drive and then a full day game drive on Sunday. During the genocide and in its aftermath, Akagera almost disappeared. Animals were poached for bush meat and the land was taken for refugees returning to Rwanda. Akagera is now only a third the size it was. Once there were 3-400 lions in the park, but they were completely eradicated. In 2015, seven lions were brought up from South Africa and released. One lioness was already pregnant when we got there so the population does have a chance to regenerate which is great news. There are plans to introduce 25 rhinos to the park and the first few arrived in 2017.
Interestingly, I sensed a bit of edginess to this park as we observed the animals. Of course antelope and zebras jump and run away if you drive quickly and noisily. But if you take it easy, in the Kenyan and Tanzanian parks the animals will generally not pay you much attention. In Akagera however, the animals were a lot more skittish and it was very difficult to get good sightings and even more challenging to get decent photos. We know elephants have memories that span generations, but it seemed that even the smaller animals were still traumatised from the violent history of the park.
On the first night, some of the group went on a night game drive and got a bit of a scare when an elephant made a charge at the vehicle. I’ll confess that I wasn’t too keen to be charged by an elephant so I spent the next day hoping we wouldn’t see one! The elephants in Akagera are quite aggressive because of the high levels of poaching that have occurred in the past (no poaching now, which is awesome!). And a Toyota Coaster is not quite as nimble as a Land Cruiser in the bush in the event that we did happen upon some trouble.
However, it was only a matter of time before we came upon a mother and her baby sauntering down the middle of the road. They were walking away from us, so we followed at a safe distance until they stopped to eat…..and eat….and eat. They wouldn’t move and there was no way we would get past. We had a boat safari scheduled (another peculiar thing in Rwanda is that such things are scheduled; in Kenya we tend to just turn up and expect things to be ready to go), and needed to get down this road to the boat ramp. Eventually we decided to turn around and find another way to the lake. Now, I forgot to mention how thickly vegetated Akagera is. And this means that, given elephants tend to travel in herds, if you see one or two ellies then no doubt there are more hidden in the trees (and yes it is possible to hide an elephant!). So as we headed back, we came face to face with a very large elephant coming down the road. There had been a lot of jokes among the students about Jurassic Park, and here we were, surrounded not by raptors but elephants, with nowhere to run. So the decision was made to hide. Yes, we would hide in our big white Coaster in the bush! There had been a thinner bit of bush a few metres back and so we reversed into the clearing (or “clearer bit” let’s say), turned off the engine and held our collective breaths.
Oh it was an anti-climax. The bull just wandered past and didn’t even look sideways at us…..but it was a good thing! We edged slowly out of the clearing back on the road hoping the way was clear now. It was and we continued around to the other road to the boat ramp…..until we got to the junction of our previous road. The elephants had taken over the junction – mama and baby were there, the bull was there, and they had a few other friends with them. They were feeding and we managed to slip past (again the image of a 25-seater bus “slipping past” anything might be a bit difficult to comprehend) and got to the lake.
It was my turn to go for a night game drive that evening and it was incredible! I saw my first bushbaby, as well as a pregnant hippo and a genet cat. Another first-timer for me was the Oribi, a type of antelope.
The safari was SO much fun! I had a great time with the students and teachers; great chats using all the Aussie slang that I haven’t heard in ages. I hadn’t laughed so much in a long time either, so even though technically I was working, it really felt like a joyful holiday.
Finally, to cap off my week in Rwanda, I stayed with Agnes and her parents on the outskirts of Kigali. Her mum didn’t speak much English and so my high school French got tested….and failed, embarrassingly! My final night, before my midnight flight, Agnes took me to karaoke!! Just when I thought the week had been super with the safari, it just got more super. And there, the only white person in the bar, I sang Bob Marley.
Does your school want to come to Africa? It’s a fantastic alternative to the typical Schoolie’s Week/Spring Break giving students the opportunity to volunteer in a community and enjoy a safari, experiencing different cultures and environments. Contact OTA on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about what is possible.