Among lions and elephants: a safari through the flooded plains of Rwanda

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The sun rises and we are face to face with a herd of more than 50 elephants crossing the road towards a lake. Lions calmly pass by the side of the open car that leads us along the observation drive. Zebras and giraffes are scattered across the grassy plains, where the lush landscape is complete with the great mountains on the horizon.

so is the Akagera National Park in Rwanda, a small country in east-central Africa which was chosen as the first destination of the third season of CNN Travel & Gastronomy, which airs this Saturday (29). A little smaller than the state of Alagoas, Rwanda offers us spectacular landscapes, mountainous terrain and many lessons: to visit the country is to contribute not only to the development of tourist infrastructure and conservation, but also to help benefit the surrounding communities.

Much is said about the preservation of exploited or endangered animals, but here, both in Rwanda and in Akagera Park, we can see an extra layer – a tourism model that also embraces the people around it. Just being there to witness these tools and understand in depth our role in the midst of conservation and the generation of beneficial resources for all.

With that, you are my guest to tour some of the most special – and spectacular – corners of this country of abundant culture and nature. During the trip, I did day and night safaris, in 4×4 cars or even by boat, exciting experiences that transformed my vision regarding respect for the animal kingdom and also with the people who help in the preservation.

This mixed observation safari – where we can even see the famous “Big Five” from Africa – and the experience of sleeping and waking up inside the Akagera National Park in its lodges and campsites, feeling its energy and witnessing the meticulous work up close, makes Rwanda one of the most special places to visit in the world. All ready? Fasten your seat belts and embark on this journey with me!

The Akagera National Park

Located in eastern Rwanda, the captivating park borders Tanzania and there we can see the coveted “Big Five” – a group of mammals that were considered the most difficult to hunt, composed of the lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and the elephant. It’s surreal to be able to be so close to them here while helping to preserve them.

With about 1,122 km² of protected area, the heart of the Akagera is about three hours from the capital Kigali and corresponds to the largest swamp zone in Central Africa, where its plains encompass savannas, woods, wetlands and lakes. The landscape is beautiful: huge plains in front of us with the junction of mountains in the background.

Existing since 1934, it was only from 2010 that its trajectory began to flourish. It was in that year that the African Parks, a non-profit conservation organization, took over the management of Akagera in partnership with the Rwanda Development Council, bringing prosperity and hope to the species and communities around it.

According to the organization, more than 30,000 head of cattle lived in the park, which helped to devastate the landscape. With law enforcement and community efforts, poaching was eliminated within five years and the number of wild animals grew from around 5,000 in 2010 to over 13,000 in more recent years.

It is interesting to note that, before, the “Big Five” were not seen there, but today it is once again home to all the mammals of this group: there was the reintroduction of seven lions in the park in 2015 – which reproduced and doubled in number in one year. year – and also the inclusion of 18 black rhinos in 2017 and another five in 2019.

Currently, according to information from African Parks itself, Akagera helps approximately 300,000 people who live around its boundaries, who benefit directly from the park’s existence.

animal observation

Although Rwanda is not the preferred destination for those who go to the African continent in search of a safari, the Akagera surprises us with its vegetation and diversity of species. In addition to the “Big Five”, we can see giraffes, zebras, antelopes, crocodiles, hundreds of different species of birds and many others very close to the car.

Once inside the park’s boundaries, one of the first things I saw was the large bone structure of a hippo’s jaw on the lawn. It is impressive to see their size and remember that we also share the Earth with these magnificent beings. And when we’re here, it’s important to know that we can be surprised at any time: we were told that in a nearby plain there was a herd of 50 to 60 elephants and, of course, we went to check it out.

It is not so easy to find elephants as they can walk up to 100 km a day in search of water, but there they were! It’s a mixture of emotion and happiness to see them up close, a feeling that can’t be compared to anything else in the world. Watching them very close to you is chilling – and makes you want to spend hours appreciating their movements.

However, a mixture of fear and fascination also took hold of me: when a mother elephant comes face to face with our car, it is a sign that we must respect her and give her family space. There are no signs of aggression in her body language, just a claim to her territory.

It’s very important that we don’t block the animals’ passage, so they don’t feel like we’re trapping them. Whenever there is a baby around, for example, the elephants stop and also stare at us to demand their space. Speaking of babies, we were lucky enough to spot a small elephant that was around two to three months old. In good conditions of food and access to water and space, as here, these mammals can live up to 60 years.

I witnessed another curious moment: two males fighting each other to see who was dominant. Close to a lake, it is impressive to see them drinking water and bathing side by side with the heads of submerged hippos.

But it wasn’t just the elephants that approached us: with their mane, tail and long body, lions passed in front of us slowly, with easy steps, and two brothers were playing in the background. Here these felines are found in the great mohana plain, the largest and most popular plain in the entire park.

Given our proximity to these large animals, the guideline is not to make sudden movements: in addition to high doses of adrenaline, the feeling of being right next to them without any kind of barrier is, to say the least, remarkable.

Boat trips and night observation

With its grandeur and diversity, we can also go on safari aboard a boat on one of the lakes in the region. one of them is the Lake Tent, the largest in Rwanda and where there is a concentration of submerged hippos that come out to breathe every five minutes.

Crocodiles, birds and other large animals that come to the lake’s edge to drink water are also present. It’s a totally different perspective from watching them from the water – and one that I highly recommend – than from a 4×4 car.

And anyone who thinks that the observation is made only during the day is wrong. When the sun goes down, another type of tour takes over: watching animals that have a more nocturnal behavior, such as lions, leopards, hyenas, owls and even some nocturnal birds. One day we were lucky to see a female leopard, beautiful among the vegetation with her spots, and the other day we enjoyed the austerity of a lioness who was about to hunt for her food.

Safari is just that: a mixture of a good guide, a good region and also a good dash of luck!

attractions and services

In addition to the different types of observation safari, other activities are carried out at Akagera due to its abundance of fauna and flora. One of these attractions is the famous birdwatching, in other words, bird watching, which brings here tourists, scientists and the curious looking for the beauties of the approximately 500 species of birds.

Sport fishing on Lake Shakani, a tour of the “behind the scenes” of the park’s headquarters, checking a part of the territory’s fences up to the hills – with lovely views from above – and experiences with the products of the local communities are other possible activities to be had. here.

But be careful: the only way to go around the park is by car, either your own vehicle or a tour operator – the park also has vehicles for rent. Once here, I recommend the services of a guide, as with him it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the animals, the local geography and to remain calm when a lion or an elephant comes too close to us.

To enter the park it is necessary to pay a fee, which varies according to nationality: Rwandans pay US$ 15, while international tourists pay US$ 100, in addition to the entrance fees for cars arriving from outside.

It is worth noting that the park is open all year round, but it is during the long dry season, between June and September, that the territory seems to be most alive. With dry and dusty landscapes, it is during this period that the grass is shorter and the animals are scattered throughout the territory due to the abundant water in the lakes.

If you are a fan of bird watching, the short wet season, which lasts between October and November, is the most suitable as it is a period when many migratory birds pass through the park.

Magashi Camp: luxury tents on the savannah

In the vastness of the territory, spending the night in the park is possible thanks to the accommodation built for visitors. There are different types of accommodation, such as tents, campsites and camping, but one of them stands out: the Magashi Camp, luxury hotel in the middle of the savannah.

Located in the northeast of the park, about four hours from the capital Kigali, Magashi is right in front of Lake Rwanyakazinga, where the exquisite campsite enjoys privileged views of its waters. At the entrance, we are greeted by the employees with traditional welcome songs and refreshing drinks, such as a very sweet tomato juice – a way to feel even more welcomed.

In all, there are only six large and sophisticated tents for guests, with comfortable beds, views of the lake and amenities that make us have an even greater connection with the park – after all, we are in the middle of a protected area of ​​Africa surrounded by the largest and most awesome animals in the world.

The rooms have no walls, which adds to the feeling of being in a tent in the middle of the savannah, as the hotel is all on stilts, so there is no harsher interference from nature. Common areas include an upscale lounge, bar, dining room, swimming pool and a large deck with a fire pit.

In addition to being able to contemplate the movement of animal life and nature from the room or deck itself – which in itself is already one of the biggest attractions here -, Magashi also offers well-known park tours, such as daytime and nighttime observation safaris. or on board a boat, as well as fishing and birdwatching.

After a morning enjoying the animals on safari, there’s nothing better than ending the day by the pool with a glass of South African wine in hand while watching the various hippos in the lake and getting ready for the next adventure.

At night, before going to the bedroom, the fire pit is the ideal place to calmly listen to the sounds of nature. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime trip that stirs our senses and convictions.

Reference: CNN Brasil

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