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the big empty

Of Rwanda’s four national parks, Akagera is the only one that offers safari game viewing. With the reintroduction of a pride of lions last year, it is now possible to see four of the big five mammals in Akagera, and an effort to reintroduce black rhinos is under way. The park also boasts some 525 recorded bird species, making it quite a draw…at least on paper.


Akagera spans 1,200 square kilometers, stretching along most of Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania. Despite the potential, we tried to keep our expectations low. The park-operated lodge and recently opened tented camp are both in the south of the park, and multiple people told us that the animals tend to congregate in the north. This is because Akagera features several distinct habitats and only the farther northern region has savannah.


It is possible to camp in the park, and we will do so at some point, but having never camped with Munchkin and lacking suitable gear, we decided not to rough it our first time to Akagera. Instead, we booked a long weekend at the Ruzizi tented camp, which is scenically set on one of the park’s lakes.


Ruzizi is beautiful and was the highlight of our stay, though in retrospect it might not have been the best destination to bring a toddler. Not only are the tents right by the water, which is teeming with crocs and hippos, but also the entire property is comprised of elevated boardwalks, which connect the tents with the main facilities.


It was difficult to contain Munchkin in this setting, and even though we kept a watchful eye on him, he still came close to pitching over the edge at least a dozen times. That he is just tall enough to have the top of his head graze the bottom of the wooden rail was the only thing that saved us. Every time he would make a misstep and come close to falling off the boardwalk, the bump on his noggin provided just enough warning for him to catch himself at the last possible moment.


In addition to several dozen different birds, we saw waterbuck, impala, bushbuck, warthogs, topi, hippos, crocs, baboons, vervet monkeys, and a monitor lizard. It’s not a bad tally, but without context it is highly misleading. Whereas in Kenya one regularly sees most of these animals in droves, in Akagera we only came upon them a handful of times in hours of driving through scrubby thickets and prickly trees.


Having arrived late at night — after the park had officially closed — we had to return early the next morning to pay our entry fees. “You can do the giraffe circuit if you want to see buffalo and one giraffe,” a park ranger earnestly told us when we inquired where we should drive to see game. One giraffe?!? Incidentally, we drove the circuit on our way out and saw neither buffalo nor the circuit’s namesake.


And that’s not the worst of it. Akagera’s biggest drawback is the tse-tse flies. A few of the regions we traversed were blissfully free of their buzzing, but not many. They infested our car, buzzing along the windows and windshiled, and swarming us whenever we stopped to take a picture. Fortunately, tse-tse flies in Rwanda do not spread sleeping sickness like they do in other parts of Africa, but their bite still hurts something fierce and S, who is mildly allergic, is still covered in welts a couple of weeks after our trip.


On the one hand, safari in Akagera proved a lot more painful with a lot less on offer than the Kenyan safaris that spoiled us so. On the other hand, this is quite literally the only game in town, so chances are we’ll be back soon.


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