Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Agakera National Park
In contrast to our site visit, Simone and I spent the weekend in the relative lap of luxury. We hired a driver and went for two days to Akagera Park, staying overnight at Akagera Lodge. Simone, who had visited once before, very much wanted to see elephants, and I was excited to see whatever we saw, having never seen exotic wild animals in their natural habitat. (Sidebar for anyone who decides to visit: take what the guide book and the website with a grain of salt: e.g., there is NO guided walking tour, there IS an entrance and reception to the park in the north, the hotel phone number is WRONG and the hotel does NOT take Visa. They do take US$ though, so we were saved!)
We left at 7:30 am on Saturday in a 4x4 SUV, driven by Robert. During our two hour plus trip to the park, I saw the countryside and had a glimpse into the lives of rural Rwandans. The hilly countryside is quite lush, filled with fields of crops and banana plantations. People walk and ride bicycles along the roads, and there are many minibuses that are always quite crowded. Many people were tending their crops in the fields, all by hand. Very labour intensive lives. What amazed me were the many bicycles, driven usually by young men and on which were laden huge piles of green bananas, or numerous jugs of water, or several bags of coal, for example. The roads are hilly, so to see them laboring uphill, let alone on the flat, was quite something.
On our way there, we visited Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, the result of Simone meeting someone who had worked there and said to drop in. The director, an Israeli named Nir Lahav, took time to talk to us about the work. It is an amazing place that encompasses a pretty large area. Until last year, it was all about construction, only opening last year to 150 orphans, who entered between the ages of fifteen to seventeen, four from each region of Rwanda. The selection process is based on vulnerability, rather than criteria such as intellect. Construction during the next year and a half will boost capacity to 500 orphans, which is the goal. The youth will live there for four years, attending school and having access to a great deal of resources, including sports and music, as well as responsibilities, like tending the fields. Sixteen youth live in a home with a housemother, who is local, and a counsellor, who is also local. It is their family.
The village is modeled after ones that were built in Israel after the holocaust, with cultural adaptations. By any standard, the village if gorgeous and is clearly well-funded. Volunteers are welcome, but with a project in mind. The hope is that these young adults will return to their homes and villages someday, and will be leaders in their communities. To learn more, visit their website at www.aghozo-shalom.org. If only someone would take such an interest in Tubahumurize's vulnerable women and build a safe village for them and their families!
From there, we travelled on to Akagera Park, which is long and narrow, located in the northeast corner of Rwanda bordering Tanzania. We entered at the southeast corner and exited the next day at the northeast corner, guided by Fulgence, who was very knowledgeable. The park boasts many large lakes on the western side and savannah on the east. During our trip, I was introduced to my first sightings of all sorts of wildlife. When I say sightings, I don’t mean through binoculars, but just a few metres away, like ten to thirty: giraffes, Cape buffalo, topi, oribi, hippos, baboons, vervet monkeys, a baby crocodile, a green mamba, a warthog, impala, bush bucks, water back antelope, reed back antelope and zebras! Our guide was also able to identify a wide variety of birds we sighted: great white pelican, open billed stork, sacred ibis, egrets, saddle billed stork, marabou stork, African fish eagles, spur winged plover, African grey hornbill, goliath heron, blackheaded heron, hadada ibis, oxpickers and red necked francolins. The closest we came to elephants was fresh dung but we lost their trail. There are not that many (200) and the territory they cover is pretty huge, moving every day from one lake to another.
The experience was amazing, truly amazing. There was always something to see, if only a sweeping landscape that could take your breath away. The “roads” we followed were sometimes just tracks with ruts and rocks, very bumpy and very rough. It took almost eight hours on Sunday to travel up the Park to the north. Peering into the bush or across a plain was sort of like looking for the piece of a jigsaw that doesn’t belong. Perhaps something moving, or a bit of different colour. Early on, I was confused quite often by piles of red earth, that looked rather like animal shapes from a distance. It turns out they are termite nests, sometimes several feet high. They are literally everywhere, though I have no idea where they fit into the ecosystem!
The park has existed since the time of the Belgians, but has only opened recently to tourists with a considerably smaller land mass. Still, the park was expanded this year to over 125,000 hectare, up from 90,000 last year. I gather that during the war, the park was not safe for animals as they were poached heavily. But bit by bit, it is being repopulated, sometimes deliberately by humans, and sometimes the animals just arrive and stay. Some never left. So I would think in ten years the park will be quite rife with many species of growing populations of animals. As well, one would hope the park will have the infrastructure needed, like package tours and such, as well as systems for tracking animals, to become a truly great tourist attraction, not to mention Visa-friendly and accurate on the web. That said, the expense was worth every cent. I could not have imagined that two days could bring such richness.