A Big Five experience at Rwanda's Akagera National Park

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Impalas in Akagera National Park, Rwanda.
Impalas in Akagera National Park, Rwanda. Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Michel Kluyskens

While gorillas undoubtedly continue to be the biggest draw for tourism to Rwanda, the country has a lot more to offer travelers in terms of natural beauty and ecotourism activities than only its apes. This has not gone unnoticed by tour operators that are increasingly adding Rwanda's Akagera National Park to their itineraries.

Akagera National Park includes some of the most scenic savannah in East Africa -- open plains, woodlands, lakes, swamp and grassy low mountains -- and is home to one of Africa's highest hippo densities and crocodiles as well as the rare sitatunga (a member of the antelope family) and more than 520 bird species.

The park takes its name from the Akagera River that flows along the park's eastern boundary and feeds into a labyrinth of lakes, including Lake Ihema and Lake Rwanyakazinga.

Teeming with plains game, Akagera now also boasts a healthy population of lions, which were reintroduced into the park in 2015 after a 20-year absence, as well as black rhino, which were reintroduced in 2017.

"Rwanda used to be known only for its gorillas, but with the reintroduction of rhino and lion to the Akagera National Park, travelers can now experience a Big 5 safari and a gorilla-trekking adventure in one itinerary," said Ryan Brown, head of marketing at Go2Africa.

Brown said that thanks to continuous efforts to restore wildlife populations and implementing strict anti-poaching laws, Akagera National Park has become the largest protected wetland in central Africa and a sanctuary for savannah-adapted animals in Rwanda.

Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond, said travelers are especially attracted to the fact that Akagera is still relatively "unknown." He pointed out that the park offers good game viewing as well as some of the most scenic and untouched savannahs, lakes and low mountains.

For Craig Glatthaar, Wilderness Safaris' business manager, Akagera is definitely a destination to watch for 2019. He said the country has embarked on an epic ecotourism drive, noting, "This is an exciting time to visit a country in a state of rebirth that understands the benefit of ecotourism and how tourism economies can truly benefit its wildlife and people."

Wilderness Safaris recently opened the Magashi Tented Camp, the only exclusive-use area in Akagera. The camp will consist of six spacious tents, which all offer uninterrupted views over Lake Rwanyakazinga. Magashi's main area comprises a luxurious lounge, dining and bar area, pool, and expansive viewing deck with a convivial fire pit. The architecture and interiors pay homage to traditional Rwandan culture.

Another accommodations option in the park is the Ruzizi Tented Lodge, which is situated on the banks of Lake Ihema. This ecoconscious and down-to-earth tented lodge is small and intimate, and travelers can expect to receive warm and friendly service from the team.

Besides regular game drives, Akagara offers some unusual experiences for travelers. Boating in swamp cruisers offers travelers a unique vantage point to not only spot hippos and crocodiles but also the numerous water birds around the lakes.

The park also created a behind-the-scenes excursion that offers travelers more insights into conservation developments within the park, while the "walk the line" experience enables travelers to spend a morning walking a mile in the shoes of the fence attendants. This walk, starting at the park entrance, takes travelers almost four and a half miles into the hills, following the fence on the outside of the park.

For those travelers looking for a cultural experience, the park has developed a number of them in conjunction with the local communities. Travelers can visit a farm for milking and learn about the culture and traditions around cattle and milk in the eastern province. Or they can visit a banana-beer maker or a honey cooperative and see how these products are made locally. Revenue is shared with the community members visited.

Just a two-hours drive from Kigali, Akagera National Park is a beautiful and convenient natural and wildlife reserve to visit and an easy site to add on to before or after visiting the gorillas.

Rwanda at a glance:
Health: Travelers need Yellow Fever inoculation certificates. Rwanda is also a malaria area and although incidences are rare in Akagera, it is recommended to take the necessary precautions. Tsetse flies can be a problem in certain parts of the park. However, no known cases of sleeping sickness have occurred in Akagera.

Drinking water: It is not advisable for travelers to drink tap water unless it is boiled or filtered. Bottled water is widely available in Rwanda.

General safety: Rwanda is considered to be one of the safest countries in Africa with very low crime levels.

Language: Kinyarwanda is the local language. English is Rwanda's official language since joining the Commonwealth of Nations in 2009. However, most people still prefer to talk French.

Currency: The local currency is the Rwandan franc. Foreign currency can be exchanged in Kigali or at local banks, but different rates of exchange will apply depending on the bureau. Notes printed before 2005 are not accepted.


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