Photo safari!

Trip Start Mar 14, 2013
Trip End Apr 05, 2013

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Thursday, March 28, 2013

This morning Innocent, the driver who had brought us from the airport, was to be at the hotel at 7:00 with a 4WD to take me to the Akagera National Park. It is a 900 square km game park about 60 miles to the east of Kigali on the border with Tanzania. I was packed and ready: cameras, tri-pod, food, water, first aid kit, mosquito repellent, and jacket in case of rain. Innocent was on time with the vehicle owner but told me he was sick in his stomach and that Emmanuel, also present, would be driving me instead. That was fine; he turned out to be a good driver if often distracted.

60 miles doesn't sound like a long distance, but depending on the state of the road it can take quite a while to cover that distance. Mr. Mundeli and I drove out together around 1999 and the trip took 4 hours due to the poor roads. There was now a good blacktopped road for most of the way, so the trip now takes less than half that time. I was curious to see what had become of this park established in the 1930s. It used to be much larger, but after the war, in the late 1990s many Rwandan exiles returned from Tanzania and Uganda with their herds of cows and took over most of the savannah area of the park. They killed the big cats which preyed on their cattle and killed a lot of other big game for food. When I had last visited there was very little game to be seen. We saw elephant sign but no elephants, a few topi and waterbuck, some impressive crocs and a few hippos, that was all. One of the hippos however remains in my memory, it was my first hippo encounter.

We had driven up to a small lake and the guide got out of our vehicle to look for signs of Nile crocodiles. He motioned for me to walk with him, which I did with some trepidation. I wasn’t sure looking for crocodiles on the water’s edge on foot was a very good idea. A herd of hippos in the lake did not like us walking on their turf.  One large male submerged and by the v-shaped ripple on the surface it was obvious he was heading our direction. I jumped when he suddenly surfaced is an explosion of water and sound, his mouth open and threatening. Then after looking at us for a few seconds just as suddenly the water closed over him and ripples showed him moving closer. I tried to keep my eye on the guide, the water edge and the ripples all at the same time as we walked. I jumped again when the big bull surged out of the water again with a steamy roar. I asked the guide if the giant bull hippo closing in on us might represent a danger. He replied nonchalantly "he’s just trying to scare you." I noted that he was succeeding. Great was my relief when the guide concluded that that there were no crocs here. I led the way back to the vehicle

Back in the present, I was happy to see that the vehicle was a relatively recent Land Rover, usually a good solid vehicle. I paid the owner and we gassed up and then started out to the east. It took us just under two hours to arrive at the main south gate, the last 45 minutes on a dirt road. We drove through occasional drizzle but no real rain. At the main station I was asked to pay $30 for me to enter, a few dollars for Emmanuel, a few more dollars for the vehicle and $30 more dollars for services of a guide. Only after I paid all that and received my receipt did they tell me that the center of the park was flooded, and the only way we could visit was to drive 2 hours around the park perimeter to the north entrance for a visit there. That meant game viewing time would be quite limited. I wished they had informed me of that before I paid. There were no refunds….  It was too late now.  I thought of the French saying “faire contre mauvaise fortune bon cœur” a very elegant and poetic way of saying “grin and bear it….”

Our guide was Charles who spoke excellent French, and tried to soften the blow of the long drive. We drove back the last 45 minutes of dirt road to the paved road then turned north and drove more than an hour toward Uganda, then turned east on 17 km of bad dirt road to the gate. It took 2 hours and 45 minutes to get there, so we were finally able to start viewing animals around noon, and we’d only have about 3 hours or less before we’d have to start back to reach Kigali by dark.

We started seeing game almost immediately. There were many waterbuck; majestic looking animals. There must be thousands of impala, who always look impeccably clean. We soon encountered herds of topi, and saw in the distance a very large heard of Cape buffalo. As the park was very wet, we were slaloming around through muddy tracks and we would not have made it through some spots without the 4WD working. The buffalo were in an especially marshy area and Charles said we wouldn’t be able to make it. I’ve seen buffalo before so I wasn’t disappointed.

We drove on and spotted several reedbucks and also several bushbucks both beautiful antelopes. Bushbucks are shy creatures but very aggressive when wounded. They’ll wait for a hunter in the bush and charge with their sharp horns forward.

I spotted a tribe of baboons, and we saw several vervet monkeys as well. We came across three reticulated giraffes, my favorite variety for coloration. A large hippo was out of the water grazing. We also saw some American missionaries stopped in a small bus having a picnic lunch, mostly young people probably on their first trip to Africa. I wondered how they made it around in the soupy ground in a bus; the driver must have been choosing his routes carefully. One of the day’s high points for me was seeing roan antelope up close. They’re one of the largest of the antelope and beautifully colored and robed.

We made our way down to one of the lakes where Charles wanted us to look for crocodiles and hippos. That reminded me of my first trip here. As drove next to the lake a very large croc slid into the water about 6 or 7 yards (or meters) from us. He slithered into the weeds and just waited. We never would have spotted him there is we hadn’t seen him move. We drove on slowly. As we rounded each curve another croc would slide quickly into the water. There were quite a few hippos lazing around the water’s edge as well. It is exciting to be so close to such powerful animals in the wild. I got out briefly to take some photos, always keeping the vehicle between me and the water and also watching my back.

Leaving this spot we had to start back retracing our route and often throwing waves of muddy water higher that the Land Rover as we sloshed through shallow lakes of water.  As we drove we swapped African wildlife stories. It’s been my privilege to go on photo safaris in a number of African countries over the years and to hunt in South Africa, so I could contribute my fair share of yarns: hearing a lion roar right outside my tent in the middle of the night in Kenya (I’ll never forget that one), hearing a leopard rasping outside the window of my room in South Africa, being charged by a lion in South Africa and so on. They were curious about hunting in America. I explained how deer hunting worked and they thought it amazing how our seasons were organized, that everyone could hunt and have a chance to take a deer for food, and that there were still lots of deer. They also thought it was amazing that we could freeze meat for a year or more and not worry much about it thawing during a power outage.

About 5:00 we dropped Charles at a town where he would make his way back to his camp; I gave him a tip as he left. On the way back Emmanuel wanted to know about America. How politics worked and how much things cost. “You have good democracy in America” he said “there are many white people in American but you elected Obama, who is black. In Rwanda if you are white you cannot get elected president. People would not vote for you.” He talked in simple vocabulary about smooth transitions of power and how good that was, and how good it was not to have corruption. I told him there was corruption in America, but at least if you get caught, it doesn’t matter who you are – you almost always go to court and probably to jail. Even presidents get caught and tried. He shook his head in amazement. In Africa if one is highly enough placed, he is effectively above the law.

Then he wanted to know how much Ford pickup trucks cost. I told him it depended on the size but gave him an idea of what new trucks cost. He said he wanted to know about used trucks because that’s all anyone in Rwanda can buy. I gave him an estimated range. He was amazed.
“If you have a truck here, you can make that much money in three months!” We got on the topic of car loans and then home loans. He was again amazed. In most of sub-Saharan Africa you can’t get a car loan and average people don’t get mortgages either. He thought the whole concept mysterious and fantastical.

He questioned me all the way back to Kigali where we arrived as night was falling. We had driven about 300 miles during the day, only about 15 or 20 of which were in the Park, but it has still been a good day.
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Tess Washington on

Long distances and wild animals! That was quite a trip for the day! Thank you for the photos of the wild and animals! I'm glad that you spotted where the crocs are...good to see them from afar! "Grin and bear it" fits that moment of encounter with those park personnel. Thank you for the ride!

Mary Hendren on

Hi Joel,

Thanks for the great photos. You were able to get close and take some wonderful pictures, so clear. It must have been a good day, even with all the water and mud, to see all the wildlife in a peaceful, natural setting.


Ted Franek on

Greetings Mr Meeker,
Thanks for the great photos and the details of your long trip. I would like to hear more of the experiences you have had in Africa as it really sounds interesting.
Hope and pray for success on the remainder of your trip.

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