A Rwandan Game Park Defying the Odds

For lodging, the park contains one flavorless hotel, Akagera Game Lodge, with a baboon problem — I spilled my coffee in fright when a surprise guest jumped onto my balcony — but a better choice is Ruzizi Tented Lodge, run by African Parks. Rustic cabins are linked by elevated wooden walkways over papyrus swamps, lending a treehouse vibe to the place. The showcase is a crescent-shaped patio built out over the edge of Lake Ihema, which happens to be a popular hang spot for a pack of hippopotamus. While guests nibble on pastries and fruit in the morning, the hippos heave into each other in the water, occasionally smashing their tusks together to create a startling clacking sound in early morning tussles.

Headed north from Ruzizi, an Akagera game drive is also a five- to seven-hour highlight reel of gorgeous east African landscapes: open plains, scraggly highlands and the swampy waters of Africa’s largest protected wetlands.

At the north end of the park, the Karenge Bush Camp brings lucky visitors into even closer — if more rustic — proximity with Akagera’s natural surroundings. The camp consists of a small grouping of six glamping-style tents (housing a maximum of 12 visitors), set out on a bluff overlooking a valley pixelated by packs of antelopes and zebras. At night, guests gather in camp chairs around a fire; leopards sometimes drop by to visit.

The biggest draw of Akagera, though, might be a major new milestone the park recently hit. Today, Akagera is one of a select number of parks with the “Big Five”: lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros. Though that term comes from hunting culture, it is now the crowning achievement of many safari-going tourists. Lions were reintroduced to Akagera in 2015, and in 2017 the introduction of 18 critically endangered Eastern black rhinos — rhinos shipped up from South Africa by African Parks — granted the once-ravaged Akagera that new Big Five designation.

Although I did not spot a black rhino, other members of the Big Five appeared without much fanfare: A lunchtime picnic was interrupted by a passing family of elephants, and a night drive was slowed by a leopard, who sniffed our car and then flopped down by the side of the road to bathe herself.

But the thing that might bring the most tourists is not the night drive, or the bush camp, or even the Big Five. Rather, it’s the fact that Akagera is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Visitors won’t need to hire a driver with a 4WD, they won’t need to buy a plane ticket for a puddle-hopper and there’s not even much of a need to book a hotel room if you don’t want to; Akagera could be a long day trip.

Day-trippers, though, would be missing out on the company of hippos at breakfast.

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