escape to Akagera
Given the frenetic pace of work in the run-up to Secretary Kerry’s visit, it is a minor miracle that we were able to take advantage of the long Columbus Day weekend and leave Kigali for our first trip around Rwanda.
With our car still in transit and the Corolla we’ve been renting most assuredly not suitable for bush driving, S found an old Rav4 for rent by the day. The car handled fine when she test-drove it even though the “check engine” light was on – “don’t worry, it’s always on,” the owner sought to reassure us, again underscoring the total dearth of reliable rental options in Kigali. We were all set to go when S went to put Munchkin’s car seat in and realized that the backseat seat belts did not work. To his credit, the owner quickly came with a mechanic to fix the issue. Even so, we left considerably later than we had planned.
From New York and Chicago to Istanbul, Nairobi, Quito, and everywhere in between, every city that we’ve called home or visited has had its share of bad drivers and road hazards. In some respects, driving is less stressful in Kigali than it was in Nairobi – fewer cars, no matatus, drivers who are far less aggressive, functioning traffic lights that the population actually obeys. And traffic police in Kigali tend to aid circulation – unlike their counterparts in Kenya, who only seemed to make traffic worse.
Even so, we find driving here to be more frustrating than we did in Kenya. There may be no matatus, but moto-taxis – Rwandans’ preferred method of transportation – are just as bad, if not worse, constantly weaving in and out of traffic with little regard for the presence of vehicles or the safety of their passengers. More worryingly, cars in Kigali also seem to have a difficult time staying in their lane, which is a real problem in a hilly city where the roadways are few and seldom wide. Though some drivers disregard the 40kph (25mph) city speed limit, most Kigali residents drive well under it. The result can charitably be described as lackadaisical driving – slow-moving vehicles that are difficult to pass as they lazily meander across the median to dodge motos, pedestrians, or – frequently – for no discernible reason whatsoever.
In one important respect, driving in Rwanda is actually far more terrifying than it was in Kenya. D frequently compares Kenyan drivers to New Yorkers – the danger lies in the fact that everybody is aggressive, but aggression also provides a measure of certainty because it is possible to discern other drivers’ intentions. The danger in Rwanda is of a different sort. In a country with limited flat ground, the serpentine roadways that connect towns and villages are not restricted just to motor vehicles: kids running home from school, moto-taxis and heavily-laden bicycles, cows and goats, and all manner of foot traffic all use the same stretch of asphalt. There has been no shortage of recent accidents involving bicyclists carrying multiple passengers who lost control and wound up crashing their bikes into oncoming traffic, with deadly consequences.
We had hoped to arrive in Akagera National Park before nightfall to avoid driving in the dark but our late departure made that goal unlikely and our pit stops made it impossible. With Munchkin really taking to potty training, we brought his potty along and had to make multiple stops at his behest. Fortunately, he was completely unfazed, sitting on his potty as long as he needed to, impervious to the dozens of people, young and old, who approached to stare at us while he took care of business.
It was 7pm by the time we pulled up to the national park gate – only to discover that the park officially closes at 6pm. Having driven two-and-a-half hours, we were disinclined to turn back and return to Kigali. At the guard’s suggestion, we phoned the manager of the lodge where we had made a booking, who in turn called the head of park security. After five minutes, which felt like a small eternity, the guard’s phone rang with instructions to let us enter.