Sunday, April 15, 2012

Akagera National Park

I didn't really get to see this area at all. Nope.
My traveling around East Africa has been more difficult than I had expected. I have a few weeks left, but a lot of my travel ideas, like going to Bujumbura in Burundi, have been shelved by either safety precautions, lack of travel buddies, or financial limitations. 

For example, I've been urged to go see the gorillas while I'm here, but it costs a whopping $250 just to enter the park to see the gorillas! And that doesn't include the $120 vehicle you need to hire to get to the park, because regular taxis are not able to enter, either. And it doesn't include food or lodging, either. I am heavily debating it, and while I know it's a great experience, part of me really has to ask myself - am I willing to shell out so much for something I can do in the DRC or Uganda for MUCH cheaper? Rwanda definitely caters to a more lucrative crowd, and discourage backpacker-like tourists (ahem, that's me). And things here are rather inconvenient. I went to the Rwandan Development Board yesterday to try to get a gorilla permit, but they decided that they were not going to be open, despite advertising their hours to all. They didn't apologize or promise a discount - they just looked at me and the other gorilla-hopefuls there with the air of, "Well, that's too bad for you. That's life. Get over it." 
I'm not sure I can fully justify coughing up so much money right now for an institution that doesn't welcome non-rich folks like me to visit places, and especially when I'd like to visit the countries around me. Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi...

So, while my mind continues to debate heavily the merits of gorilla trekking versus country hopping, and in an attempt to at least see some wildlife while I'm here, I opted to pay a hand-clenching $150 to hire a tour company last minute to bring me to the Eastern Province so I could visit Akagera National Park. Akagera is Rwanda's response to Tanzania's amazing Serengeti National Park. It's the same plot of land, in reality - the only difference is where the country borders split the place.

I was so pumped the night before, I couldn't sleep. I called The Man in a delirious, giddy excitement. I kept thinking, I will see elephants! Giraffes! Hippos!! and entertained the ideas that maybe even the animals will recognize my magical self and flood the car, trying to lick me from within.

The driver (Eric) came ten minutes before 5am, in the raining darkness, and I eagerly jumped into the front seat of the Toyota SUV. I should have listened to my gut saying "Red Flag" when the engine wheezed and creaked upon key turning...

We picked up another woman in Kigali, who is a dear just-arrived 23-year-old intern named Lisa, and we were off on the eastern roads. I was so thrilled I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up here and there, groggily away that we were speeding through some pretty intense rainfall. But the motion sickness pills always win out on my attempts to watch vehicles on the road. Even after the rain had begun to clear and when we ended up on some back roads towards the park, the sharp undulations of the car didn't deter me from lolling my head in a hazy, dreamless nap.

I did wake up, fully alert, however, when I felt the car had stopped and Eric was jacking a wheel. I looked around wondering where on Earth we were (sadly, we were NOT in the park yet). It sounded like a problem, though, and he admitted he only had one spare tire. On these roads?! Really, he should have at least three... But he managed to replace the tire and continued swerving around holes and rocks.

We finally made it, though, three hours later, to the Akagera gate!! The car made its way to the modest ranger lodge, so we could pay our way into the park trails. I watched as beautiful yellow birds nested on the tree above the lodge before entering in to see the men talking seriously to each other in Kinyarwandan. The ranger informed Lisa and me that we wouldn't be able to go very far at all into the park, because of the bad tire situation. He said, while at the southern entrance gate they have a full automotive repair shop for these kind of situations, the northern gate (which was where we were) didn't have any amenities at all. He recommended us only go for a 2 (as opposed to 6-8) hour visit of the marshes nearby, and to go home before the other tires blew out, as well. He tried to encourage us, saying that the northern area was, fortunately, where the majority of animals were. The other areas were more scenic than anything.

But, being an ambitious person, I was not soothed by his reassuring words about the northern area. I wanted the full experience, damnit! I wanted animals! I wanted so many animals I could wish to never see a hippo again in my life! I was pissed. But, alas! I did not have any choice but to nod in sad agreement and get back into the car, steaming. This, I thought, was complete and utter bullshit. HOW can a tour company that frequents this path NOT bring more than one replacement tire?! HOW can a big national park decide that one of their entrances would be bare bones, when the roads were clearly awful all around?! I brewed a bit, but Eric was determined to please, and he expertly barreled through the rocky roads to get us towards wildlife.

The roads were...well...let's just say, we saw the road crew, but I truly believe they do absolutely nothing to improve the roads! They were all pot-holed and puckered with jagged rocks and muddy to a danger. But Eric forged on, chasing down some incredibly strange birds with polka doted feathers and blue heads or with orange legs and yellow giblets. There were some truly goofy looking birds running around. Some were gorgeous in color, but some were out of a second grade arts and crafts classroom.

The marsh was big, and we were the only car around. It was covered by moody clouds, which threatened to pour down but never did. I don't even think there was a marked road, to be honest, but Eric gallantly entered the marsh as if he had done it several times. The car spun and hydroplaned on watery mud, and sometimes we got a bit stuck, but he kept going. It all seemed to old hat for him....and then the animals appeared!

Well, there were no hippos. And there wasn't an elephant in sight, which was incredibly sad for me (I love elephants). And no lions or leopards came out to play. But we did see water buffalo! Those massive water cows with horns that come out to make it look like they have awkward tupees on their head. And we saw some brilliant water bucks, and blue-legged Cape elands (I think that's what they were?) jumping and running around us. Each animal had horns that spiraled and curved and grew stunningly. And impalas have striped butts. They were really awesome to look at, and the babies were so tiny and sweet! And antelope were around, too.

Eric decided to drive right up to some giraffes. At first I was nervous he would hit them, but he managed to slow down and move so that we were right next to the giraffes. Knobby-kneed, giant, silly-looking-yet-incredibly-graceful giraffes. They just kind of looked at us, and pondered our existence with wagging ears. They move slowly, and gracefully. In my head, they probably speak like how the whales spoke in Finding Nemo. Veeeeerrrryyyyyy sllooooowwwllyyyyyyy...

Have you ever seen a giraffe bend down to graze on grass?? It's incredible! They look at first like they're bracing themselves for dear life on the ground, then they slowly, slowly scoop down and bow to meet the earth. I loved being near them. They didn't seem to care much about me, though.

And the zebras are fun to watch, too. They don't really look that much like horses, to me. Their rumps are fuller and much more pronounced, to me, than horse rumps. The stripes are fascinating to look at, too. I stared at their skin, mesmerized, and almost found myself a bit jealous of their fancy designs. They watched us and carried on.

We saw a few monkeys scrambling to get off of the road, too. And a turtle who didn't like the looks of us and hid in its shell.

The roads continued to be bad, though, and Eric nervously turned around as we cut our visit short for the sake of the infuriatingly shoddy vehicle. The car broke down once more before we got home - it sounded like the wheels wanted to roll off! And while Eric apologized profusely about the tire situations, I have a feeling I'll be filing a stern complaint with the tour company for their delinquency in regards to their car care.

But at least I got to see some animals!

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