Going wild in the grasslands of Akagera park

Thursday March 12 2020


The grey-crowned East African crane at Akagera National Park. PHOTO | JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA | NMG 

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I first heard about Akagera National Park about a decade ago soon after my first visit to Rwanda. It had come highly recommended. I often dreamed of visiting the park, always vaguely planning but never really taking off.

Then at the dawn of a new decade and with a little prompting from a cousin who shared the same interest, we finally set off on our wild adventure.

Akagera park lies in Rwanda's Eastern Province at the border with Tanzania. It is named after the Kagera River which flows along the eastern boundary, feeding into Lake Ihema and several smaller lakes in the park, eventually draining into Lake Victoria.

It is most famous for its lion conservation story which was the subject of the National Geographic Wild documentary, "Return of the Lion."

Our journey from Kigali began at 5.30am. Crammed in the back seat of a coaster bus, we drove past maize plantations, dense vegetation and Rwanda's characteristic rolling hills.
Our first stop was about an hour later at Rwamagana, where we picked some friends. The next was some 15km away at Kayonza where we bought snacks that would serve as our lunch.

We had been driving for about two hours in total when we got off the tarmac. The park is about half an hour away on the murram road past a Wolfram mining site and the first stadium in Rwanda. We paid the entrance fee at the reception then our guide, a Mr Anastase briefed us on the adventure ahead.


We drove past yellow-barked acacia trees across the dry rolling savannah woodlands. We were warmly welcomed by a congress of noisy baboons crossing the road oblivious of the cars. The tourists on our bus could not resist snapping away at the sight of the red-bottomed animals.

Branched paperback thorns, date palms, baobab and acacia trees would become our constant companion as we coursed deeper into the park. This was occasionally interrupted by the numerous lakes and papyrus swamps that make up over a third of the park the largest protected wetland in Eastern and Central Africa.

We spotted members of the antelope family: Gazelles, impalas, waterbucks, gerenuk and Oryx, as well as Burchells zebras, warthogs and buffaloes.

Herds of buffaloes grazing in a deep vale across the savannah grasslands had attracted insect-eating ox-pecker birds and egrets that made for a perfect exhibit of symbiosis.

I saw a crane straddling the papyrus swamps that connected to one of the lakes. A birder's delight, Akagera offers an exceptional birding experience with more than 500 documented species including the rare and prehistoric shoebill and some Lake Victoria endemics.

There are also lions in the park which have grown to a population of 15 after seven were translocated from South Africa in July 2015. However, we did not get a chance to see them. Midway through our game drive we stopped at the hippo picnic site for lunch.

After nearly six hours of driving in the mud inside the park, we were rewarded with the sight of a Maasai giraffe with its characteristic blotches of dark brown across fine white lines. Even more spectacular was the sight of a memory of elephants we spotted a few minutes before we exited the park.

At under three hours’ drive from Kigali, Akagera National Park is an ideal destination for a day's trip. And just in case you want to stay overnight, there are campsites and lodges including the Akagera Game Lodge, Ruzizi Tented Lodge and the Magashi Camp.

The lodges organise boat trips, fishing, night drives and walk-the-line tours for the adventurous tourists. There are also helicopter rides from Kigali if you want to watch the game from above.