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“I can see some eyes," our guide announces while moving the bright white spotlight in the distance, trying to confirm her sighting to the driver. It's pitch black, and we've been on the night game drive for an hour, hoping to catch sight of nocturnal animals in Akagera National Park, Central Africa’s largest protected wetland and home to the Big Five.
Within a few minutes, we're confronted by a lion staring right at us, behind whom is a pride of lionesses and cubs. Even from a few meters, his gaze is piercing and authoritative like our presence doesn't bother him much. He stays put while others start to shuffle, some moving towards him, others descending off the narrow road onto a lower plain. “There is a lot of them!" the excited guide whispers as we begin to count from the sunroof of our safari vehicle. “One, two, three... sixteen, but there could be more," she says. It's hard to know in the dark.
The ten minutes that follow are something out of an Attenborough documentary: cubs pace between the legs of their mums, older siblings protect the little ones, females assess the threat and return to the lion as if to check on him. He finally gives in and gives way. We inch forward, past the pride, having witnessed intimate moments so human-like in their behaviour.
By day, the scenic savannah reserve spanning more than 1,122 km² along the border with Tanzania is a different beast, changing from Acacia thickets to open grassland to lakes and hills. An aerial census conducted in 2021 counted 12,000 animals, a 50 per cent increase from 2010 when there were less than 6,000. But despite the growing population, spotting anything at this scale is a matter of chance. With a checklist in hand and an experienced guide, we venture out on our day game drive.
Routes vary from an hour to 8 hours, depending on your ability or desire to sit through bumpy dirt tracks. With some beginner's luck, we got an early sighting of zebras grazing and lazing around on a patch of open land. With a population of close to 3000, they are among the more frequently seen, followed by impalas and entertaining baboons. The most scenic route from south to north, where the African elephants are, is via Mutumba Hills which boast breathtaking views of the park and rolling hills. The area is also game-rich and a sanctuary for Masai giraffes, topis, cape buffaloes and oribis.
Near Lake Birengero, another safari vehicle spots something and asks us to follow. They think it's a leopard, which seems unlikely considering it's three in the afternoon and the sun is beaming down. We queue behind them regardless. Akagera is dominated by several lakes, each rich in biodiversity. More than 480 bird species can be found here, including cranes, kingfishers and starlings. You'll often see hippos and crocodiles submerged underwater and occasionally mammals who come over to cool off.
The vehicles slow down. There is movement behind a grassy patch next to the water, but nothing has emerged yet. Then right on cue, a leopard comes out, making graceful strides in our direction. We can see its intricate spots as it crosses the trail (a few meters from the cars) and gradually disappears.
“Not all animals have a tracker, so when you see them in their ecosystem, it's always exciting," Jean Paul Karinganire tells me as we walk around the national park's headquarters. “These are all the motorbikes, cycles and snares we've accumulated showcasing the scale of poaching. Despite electric fences and vigilant rangers, it remains a real threat," he says before taking me to the canine centre where staff train patrol dogs to attack should they come face to face with poachers.
It takes every person in this 200-plus team to restore and conserve the park and those that live in it. Perhaps the most crucial is the control room which receives information on the whereabouts of animals and patrol crews on the ground. “We only chip some mammals and carnivores to track their movement and form a pattern. The only exception is white rhinos, all of whom have a GPS tracker," Jean Paul informs.
White rhinos are considered near-threatened species with their numbers on the decline because of hunting driven by demand for their horns. In late 2021, 30 rhinos were transported from South Africa to create a new breeding stronghold in Rwanda. Today they remain under constant supervision within a designated camp called Rhino Boma. We catch sight of these elusive creatures one thousand feet in the air from inside a hot air balloon. Akagera is the only place in Rwanda where you can take flight and appreciate the diverse landscape of savannahs, hills and wetlands in all its glory with the early morning sky changing colour. There is even a bottle of champagne to add to the view.
Accommodations within the park are limited to a few hotels, lodges and campsites. As far as showstopper views go, nothing beats Mantis Akagera Game Lodge and its panoramic display of the majestic Lake Ihema, Rwanda's second-largest lake after Kivu. The 60-room property, built with sustainable materials, is designed to blend in with its surroundings. There are plenty of lovely spaces to relax after a long day on the road. Enjoy a drink on the open terrace under the sky-studded sky.
Two days and several tsetse bites later, it's time to head northwest to Volcanoes National Park, home to the endangered mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. The Virunga Mountains spread across Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Together they are home to eight volcanoes, only two of which are active. Travellers can trek on Mount Karisimbi or visit the two crater lakes on Mount Bisoke.
The drive from Akagera takes around five and a half hours - just over two hours to get to the capital Kigali and a further three to the rainforest region of Rwanda. The roads are in perfect condition, making every second of driving around the land of a thousand hills an absolute joy. Lush greenery and cultivated fields growing bananas, rice and sorghum line roadsides everywhere, only interrupted by small towns with large churches.
The air gets colder as we approach the mountain range through Musanze, a bustling district with coffee shops, markets and hotels to suit all budgets. We pass an old building, which my guide Theogene points out was home to conservationist Dian Fossey's charity. The new state-of-the-art premises, known as the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, was only inaugurated a week before our visit by the TV host herself.
We enter through the gates into an open space with three futuristic-looking circular buildings dominated by wood, glass and concrete. “These are all designed and constructed using local labour and material," CEO Dr Tara Stoinski points out whilst trying to capture a picture of the volcanoes on her phone. "I would grab your camera and get that shot. It's not often you see the peaks; they mostly hide in the mist," she says.
The ground floor of the building we are standing in pays homage to the work and legacy of Dian Fossey, the legendary conservationist murdered in 1985. The exhibit contains a timeline of her research work depicted through heartwarming photos, videos and write-ups. Her passion for gorillas comes through at every turn.
“We want this campus to be a research and educational hub," Ms Stoinski points at two other buildings from the garden. “Teaching locals the importance of conservation is crucial because they are ultimately the protectors of these fascinating species," she adds.
Also enclosed within the space is information about the habitat, behaviour and potential threats to gorillas in the wild. Although mountain gorillas are not at risk from poachers in Rwanda, they occasionally get caught in traps for antelopes and other animals. Most gorillas die of natural causes or diseases.
It only takes one look at these furry creatures to understand why Fossey obsessed over them. After an hour and 45 minutes of squeezing through narrow, slippery spaces in the dense montane forest of Gahinga, we meet the 28-member strong Kwitonda gorilla family, the second-largest in Volcanoes National Park.
A few are napping on a small flat plain of the forest. In the mix is the dominant male, the silverback, surrounded by females. In the distance, a couple of medium-sized gorillas are trying to climb on top of something no wider than a bamboo tree. They get up and then crash land several times, taking the branch with them.
A ten-year-old male blackback has separated himself from the troop and is sitting less than two meters away, watching us intently. One pose, then the next, ‘the guy is a supermodel,’ we laugh among ourselves. He grabs a branch to press between his teeth, then throws it away, stands up, slaps his chest in delight and starts to walk towards us. We are only an arm's length from him now. His gaze is friendly, but the guide tells us to step back calmly. He continues to move towards us as if requesting for way, but there is no space for him to pass. Sensing no threat from us, he gradually retreats a little and sits.
We caught these gorillas during a post-meal rest; however, that is not what one guy has in mind. A naughty little gorilla is full of energy. He jumps on one of his siblings and gets tossed back several times - his persistence is not paying off. He knows it's time to move on. Next, he picks a more gentle female to play with and succeeds.
“That's an hour, guys," the guide says in a low tone. None of us wants to leave; we have enjoyed observing these gorillas way too much. The opportunity to see them so relaxed in their ecosystem is a delight, but for the most part, it has felt no different to observing humans: the connection, the respect and the sadness of parting felt by all.
Conservation of mountain gorillas is high on Rwanda's agenda, not only because it drives tourism but because Virunga is only one of two places in the world where you can see them in the wild. The other is Bwindi Forest in Uganda. To maintain a balance, the number of trekking permits granted each day is limited and costs a whopping $1500 (£1250), some of which goes back into the development of villages surrounding the park.
The growing hospitality industry has also generated much-needed employment in this developing country. Praveen Moman, the founder of Volcanoes Safaris, understands the importance of empowering communities more than anyone. He has been at the forefront of reviving gorilla and chimpanzee tourism in Uganda, where he was born, and neighbouring Rwanda. One of his four green initiatives, Virunga Lodge, sits atop a hill boasting the most extraordinary landscape of the twin lakes and volcanoes.
The property has ten luxurious bandas, including two deluxe suites complete with a living room, two bedrooms, an outdoor shower and a personal butler. All corners are dressed and decorated using Rwandan materials and handicrafts, a perfect amalgamation of style and culture. Meals are served in two dining areas at one long table encouraging guests to mingle.
Spoil yourself with a spa treatment after the gorilla trek or unwind by the fireplace at the bar. And because it's all about the community, take a walk down to the small villages around the hotel. Rwandans love to give a good tight hug.
Permit to enter Akagera National Park cost £125 for two nights.
Rooms at Mantis Akagera Game Lodge start from £171 per person, per night including breakfast. You can book all of the below activities at the hotel concierge.
Game drives: half day (4hrs), full day (8hrs) and night time (3hrs) start from £81 per person
Sunset trip on Lake Ihema lasts 45 minutes and cost £36
Behind the Scenes tour of Akagera National Park’s headquarters cost £20
Royal Balloon provide the only hot balloon experience in Rwanda. Flights cost £366 per person for 45min-1hour (weather permitting)
Gorilla permit in Volcanoes National Park cost £1250 and must be booked in advance. All travellers need to show a negative Covid result on the day of the trek.
Book a driver/guide for you entire trip at Guide Services Rwanda
Visit Rwanda for more ideas on what to see and do in the country