Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Akagera Adventures

We just got back from Akagera, a game park in the east of Rwanda, on the border with Tanzania, right in my backyard. We had some time off from work for the holidays, and lets face it, it was the holidays. What better thing to do than go to a place where there are lions, hippopotamuses, and other scary beasts. Loneliness and lions go well together. Think about it- there is always a chance you will be eaten and the loneliness will be brought to an untimely death. So will you, for that matter, but I’ve always thought, if you are going to die in Africa, what better way than to be eaten by a lion? It’s a pretty epic and unique way to go. That was the joke anyways.
Akagera Park, and what an adventure it was. First, Rwanda is still in the beginning phases of developing its tourism industry, thus many of the tourist activities are still difficult to access or navigate, especially on a Peace Corps budget. The logistics of the journey took some research, discussion, and debate. Many tourists who come to engage in these activities hire a company to arrange their tour and pay the resulting higher fee. The company arranges the logistics and the tourists enjoy the tour, without worry or stress. Rwandans assume that this is the arrangement that all tourists will make and that all tourists have the ability to afford the higher fee for their service. I had to constantly reiterate that we are Peace Corps Volunteers and that the company would either have to find a cheap way for us to do it or miss out on the chance to make some big bucks from seven of us visiting their tourist attraction. After about the tenth, or maybe eightieth time, they finally got the point. Cheap or no-go.
As I said before, our Christmas Eve and Day celebrations took place at my house, which is, geographically speaking, only a hop and a skip away from the park. The transportation over that short distance was a bit more difficult to figure out, surprise surprise. We crammed ourselves, all our personal and camping equipment, into a matatu for the short ride to Rwamagana, the largest city in the region. From there, we hoped to hire a car and driver to take us to the park and drop us at the campsite on the hill. We managed to find one easily, despite the wait. We packed our stuff comfortably into the large jeep and left Rwamagana. The sun was shinning, music was playing, and we were all excited and in good spirits. We turned right from Kayonza and traveled on the bumpy dirt road that led to the park. I have always heralded Rwanda for having the best roads compared to its neighboring countries. We traveled through villages of mud huts and probably some of the worst poverty I have seen in Rwanda, which was surprising and shocking on the way to one of the few tourist attractions. Children and adults on the side of the road dressed in dirty rags waved to us as we drove by and I put my hand out the window to wave back as they disappeared into the distance. As we drove, rain started to fall, light at first and then pounding, and I remember thinking, “Better it rain now while we are in the car than when we are in the park.”
We had no idea what we were getting into. We had made reservations to camp in the park. It seemed like a cool experience and it was the cheapest option. A friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who had visited the park before told me, “Stay at the campsite on the hill; it is beautiful,” and I had requested it. I had also asked our guide what the campsite was like and received an inadequate response; “It has some facilities,” was all. We stopped at the park entrance, paid our fees to enter and camp, and headed up to the campsite. We moved over the rough terrain and narrow dirt roads at a snail’s pace, gently bouncing over the ruts and potholes. It was also our driver’s first time in the park and we enjoyed the prolonged introduction and opportunity to see some animals- different kinds of antelope jumping into the bush, warthogs rooting near the tree trunks, and zebras inconspicuously grazing on the side of the road. We drove up, up, up until we reached a high point and clearing. A few run-down buildings stood among the grass and trees. We got out of the car and looked at the breathtaking view. The campsite was perched on the ridge of a hill. On one side, the hill ran down into a valley of safari grasses and brush. More hills, uninhabited and covered in green wilderness, rose on the horizon, broken by a large valley and plain that weaved between the peaks as far as the eye could see. On the other side, the hill ran down into a bed of finger-like lakes. The thin, blue streams danced around each other, winding, curling, but never meeting, separated by a narrow strip of green. Further in the distance, bordered by the thin streams and narrow strips of land, a large blue mass stretched into the distance, a grand lake. The green land and mountains on the other side of the lake belonged to the country of Tanzania. There was a large island in the middle of the lake. We were above the level of the clouds, and a light mist shaded the land from perfect sight, blurring the edges and masking it in a dreamy vision. The sunlight that poured from above glittered and danced on the mist and water. I turned around in a full circle. In any direction I looked, I could not make out any civilization, huddle of huts, towns, no cities, which was a new experience after living in Rwanda for almost a year where houses and people occupy every open space. I thought, “This is what it is like to be in the wilderness- the real wilderness. This is what it must have looked like when the first explorers came here.” I recalled scenes from movies like, “Out of Africa” and “The English Patient” and “The Constant Gardener,” and decided what I saw fit. The reality was so much better, more breathtaking and incredible, than anything seen on a TV screen.
We poked around our surroundings. We were surprised by the facilities- gazebo, fire pits, toilet. The park rangers even brought us firewood and water, although they were initially surprised that we did not bring bottled water. We had to explain, again, that we are Peace Corps Volunteers and we had been taught to boil and filter our own water, which we did, although it turned out chalky, smoky, and downright awful. The driver who drove us to the campsite helped us unload our things, then shut the doors, climbed back into his seat, and drove away, leaving us completely alone and surrounded by an expanse of wilderness. I could feel the sense of freedom creeping over me, as well as the feeling that something was creeping behind those far bushes, eying me, keeping its distance, waiting for the proper moment to make its move, separated only by an open field. The sound of the wilderness, mostly birds chirping and fluttering from branch to branch, became louder and overpowering as the purr of the car’s engine faded into the bush.
First task- set up camp. We put up our tents, which were cheap versions we purchased for the occasion. Once we completed our task, we decided to go for a hike. The park rangers and our tour guide never gave us any directions for camping (and hiking, or not). We were deposited and left to our own survival tactics. I had heard some discussion that the park frowned upon people walking around the park on their own- there are lots of unfamiliar, dangerous beasts around- but when I asked for clarification, the response was indecisive. “We don’t like tourists to walk around on their own, but if you want to go on short hikes around the campsite, you should be okay. If you meet any buffalo, just clap loudly (Laughing).” I know I am probably playing devil’s advocate here, but what is a short hike? How short is considered short? 10 minutes? 15 minutes? An hour? Are you joking about the buffalos? Then why are you laughing? We decided to walk down the dirt road for a bit. We rounded the first corner and came upon an antelope grazing in the middle of a field. We stopped walking, stopped the crunching of our shoes in the dirt and gravel, and watched. He was disturbed by our presence and looked our way, but lost interest when we stopped advancing and went back to grazing. We creped closer, as silent as possible. He looked up again and eyed us. A step closer and he ran in a small circle, startled and alert. He stopped, body erect, eyes questioning, “Are you a predator?” A couple more steps. He decided we were and bound off into the bush and out of site. “Oh!” we groaned and continued our adventure. A little further on we saw more antelope. These ones were smaller, nimbler. They spooked the moment they saw us and disappeared into the woods in a series of bounding jumps, high over the grass, their tails and rear ends in the air. More antelopes, lots of birds. We turned back as the sun began to fade. We had been walking for over an hour.
We arrived back at our empty camp. The sun was sinking over the magnificent scene below us, fading patches of green to black and bringing out the natural highlights of gold and ruby in the landscape. We noticed a herd of zebras grazing in the field not far from our campsite. We walked towards them. As we got closer, we crouched low and snuck as quietly as we could. They heard us and stood alert, heads raised and turned in our direction. Then, at some undetermined moment, they turned on their haunches in unison and galloped away as a group, one large amoeba of stripes contrasting with the landscape. The sun turned the white of their coat to shades of red, gold, and green reflected from their surroundings. I love zebras. They are cool-looking- the stripes- and so cute. And, no one has been able to tame them. People have tried; they have never succeeded. The herd ran across grassland, into the distance, the sun setting in the background, disappearing into the wilderness, a wilderness that is just as untamed.
First night at camp. A little innerving. Like I said, we were given no directions on how to survive in the African outback. There was also some discussion about needing to build a campfire to ward off animals in the night, but again, when I tried to clarify, the response was indecisive. How big of a campfire is needed? Nothing. The campsite was no longer empty and we were joined by another group of campers who seemed more versed in camping in the African outback and surviving (Hey, they were here again, weren’t they?) They told us some stories, but I was unsure if they were exaggerating and pulling our leg for their own entertainment and a good joke. We cooked dinner over the fire- pasta and red wine sauce, potatoes- which was not difficult considering we brought pots (and food) from home and we were used to cooking over open fire (I do it every day. I live like I am camping everyday.) The rest of the night was spent around the campfire, chatting and laughing, the light illuminating and warming our faces and front, while our backs were turned towards the empty and cold darkness that masked the landscape and whatever beasts lay hidden. Bed came early, but sleep did not, as I lay listening to the unfamiliar sounds of night, wondering what it could be and if it was dangerous and if it was close or would come close. Finally, I fell into a deep sleep, rocked by the same sounds that kept me awake. My sleep was disturbed, but not by some wild beast as I had anticipated, but by the rain that started falling in the wee hours of the morning. The rain began lightly, then started pounding. The rain would have been a comfort and the sound on the roof of our tent a lullaby had it stayed on the outside of our tent, but the tents we bought were cheap. The seams started to leak and finally the girl who I was sharing a tent with and I looked at each other, “Is it wet in here?” I felt around the tent, the walls, the floor, the floor. There was a giant puddle on the floor of the tent and the water was spreading and beginning to soak into my sleeping bag and clothes. “There is a giant puddle in the tent,” I yelled over the noise. We decided to make a run for the gazebo. At three in the morning, in the pouring rain, we grabbed all of our things, unstaked the tent from the ground and started running barefoot through the grass towards cover, dragging our belongings between us, dropping a few items in the wet grass along the way. We made it, although we were drenched, all our stuff and our tent were soaked. We left the tents under the gazebo and curled up in our wet sleeping bags on the benches to the side that were also wet from the wind that pushed the drops of water to fall sideways and into the covered space. I tried to sleep, but could not, uncomfortable, cold, and wet. I tossed and turned until the darkness broke and a splinter of light emerged on the horizon, imperceptibly spreading until day emerged in full energy. The friend who gave me the tip about the campsite also said that I had to watch the sunrise from that height. When he said it, I doubted whether it would actually happen. I sat up, giving up on sleep even though my head and eyes begged for it, cuddled with my fellow campers under our wet blankets for warmth and watched the sun rise above the hills and illuminate the mist that hung over the lake. Despite the cold and lack of sleep, it was beautiful. I felt like I was watching the sunrise after the first night of the perfect storm. There was a moment of calm, immobility, before the day began.
We waited until the rain stopped and the sun dried some of our belongings, somewhat. We warmed under its rays. A baboon came out of the forest and wandered into our camp. We hid our stuff in a small room with a door. Apparently, baboons take anything and everything that is left out. I believe it. We were amused to watch the baboon pick through our things. It ambled around the camp, glanced in the opening on the roof of our tent, tried to open a cooler, tried to open a container, got frustrated and threw it off, sauntered along. When we got bored of watching the baboon, we scared him back into the woods from which he came. Then, we went for a longer hike in the opposite direction. We were told there was a watering hole where animals like to gather somewhere in this direction. We walked down the dirt road, stumbling upon more antelope that bound off into the cover of the forest when we disturbed them. We saw places under the brush and trees where animals had rested for the night, the grass flattened in a large oval. There were holes dug by warthogs and hyenas. We followed some tracks in the mud next to a shallow puddle of water that appeared to be the water hole. The mud around the puddle was littered with the tracks of different animals- some large, some small, some hooves, some clawed. We veered off the road for a bit, but were scared of getting lost in the large expanse, so we turned back. We saw bird’s nests- large, drooping ovals- hanging from trees. We saw more of the large antelopes like the one we came across the first day. Lots of birds. More zebras. When we came upon a herd of zebras, we stopped, got down low to the ground, and silently moved closer. When the zebras looked up in our direction, we stopped and waited until they were no longer interested and went back to grazing. Sometimes we startled them and they ran, stopping 20 feet away to look around anxiously and survey the landscape. It became a game for us- to see how close we could get to the animals before they ran off. It was interesting. The animals seemed more scared of us when we walked than when we drove past them. They were used to seeing cars, but not used to seeing walking people. It was special to see them this way, much more authentic; it felt different. We were seeing wild animals, completely in the wild. I felt like I was on true safari; like I was in one of those movies I mentioned before, when they were just discovering Africa and heading out into the safari, no tours, no cars, just observing. Unfortunately, this experience of safari is the type that is frowned upon. We heard a car in the distance- another safari group that was “playing by the rules.” We knew our adventure would come to an end when the car met us on the road. We debated running into the woods to hide, but figured that the guides are trained professionals leading a car full of people who are staring out the window for any sighting of a wild animal. We doubted whether the presence of seven muzungus hiding in the bush on the side of the road would go unnoticed. We played it by ear. The guide seemed a bit surprised that we had made it as far from camp as we did, a little bit angry, but offered to pick us up and bring us back to camp. Free ride.
Another night in camp. Our stuff had mostly dried and we were tired. Our fellow campers went on a night drive to see the different animals that come out at night. Predators mostly. They left as the sun disappeared and evening fell and returned late into the night, excited. I crawled out of my tent to see what the commotion was. They said that they saw a leopard! It is very rare to see a leopard. They added that it was not far from camp. We wondered what to do, but again, had received no guidance on what to do if a leopard walked into camp. All I want for Christmas is to be eaten by a leopard? The joke seemed a lot less funny when it was really happening. The boys thought that a large fire would keep him away and they stacked logs on the fire until a flame leapt ten feet in the air. We debated if we wanted to make a similar fire, but decided there would be sufficient to drive off the most fearless creature and were hesitant because of the risk of burning down the park. We returned to bed a bit disturbed by the news, but too tired to care. The next morning, while warming around the campfire, which had lasted through the night, over hot cups of coffee, we shared stories. I heard something in camp, knocking over bottles, in the middle of the night. My friends said that there was something walking around their tent. We found out that it was our friend, who couldn’t sleep and got out of bed to walk around. We decided it was better to let people think it was the leopard. How cool.
Today was the big day. We were going on a daylong game drive and an hour and a half boat trip with a guide to see animals. The “real” safari. The car came and picked us up. It was an old range rover, painted green. The roof rose in the middle so people could sit outside or stand inside with their head out. We arranged ourselves and started our trip. We followed the road we had walked the day before, past the place where we were picked up, and into the giraffe area. We saw giraffes, shy and awkward, backs sloping towards the ground as they slowly stumbled behind trees, heads reaching into the abyss. Further down the road, we saw a herd of water buffalo, their coats matted in dried mud, staring intently and blankly at the stopped car. We saw birds and monkeys, more baboons, that moved from tree to tree. Zebras, full of energy, that galloped away. Lots of antelope. At the water’s edge, we saw hippopotamuses, large, gurgling, their eyes barely above the water, until they suddenly sink, disappear, leaving only a circle of bubbles. One hippopotamus came out of the water, his big, lumbering body. We saw an elephant cooling and washing himself in the water, blowing water from his trunk onto his back. He was old, his skin grey and wrinkled, his eyes lonely. We saw crocodiles that were hidden in the lake grass and weeping trees on the water’s edge. They moved abruptly to the sound of startled birds squawking as they scrabbled into the sky. We learned about the animals we saw, the history of the park, and some of its legends. The park used to be twice the size it is today, but the population infringed on its borders during the war as they tried to escape the genocide. There were people banished to the park because they practiced witchcraft and some places are still haunted and sacred. A king’s daughter was sent here because she got pregnant out of wedlock and she became a powerful sorcerer. There is a hut where an old president used to come and have his fortune read. You can see the president’s house where he stays when he wants to visit the park.
When we left the park in the late afternoon, our adventure in Akagera had come to an end, but we had some memorable and unique experiences. We felt like real and successful Peace Corps Volunteers. We were hungry and dirty. First stop- a good meal. Second stop- showers. Back to life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 21st century.

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