Akagera National Park is located in Eastern Rwanda along the border with Tanzania. The park was founded in 1934 and now covers an area of 1,200 sq kilometers. It was named after River Kagera which feeds several Lakes (Lake Gishanju, Lake Ihema, Lake Mihindi, Lake Rwanyakizinga, and Lake Shakani) within and around the park. These water bodies as well as the Savannah grasslands, forests, plains and rolling hills makes the park very beautiful and scenic.
Akagera National Park has had a difficult past. The 1994 genocide and civil war led to a great refugee crisis that resulted in a large number of refugees fleeing the country through the park. After the war, the refugees again entered the country through the park. Some of the refugees had no land, food or where to go and resorted to poaching and cutting the park trees for timber. This was a challenging period for the park management at the time because the wild animals became threatened while some became extinct in the park. The park animals were slowly being replaced with domestic animals and particularly the local long-horned cattle. The people could not just be sent away without where to go. The government allocated half of the park to those who didn’t have where to start life after the war. The other half was reserved for protecting the wild animals which had survived the human threat.
In 2010, the Rwanda government entered into a joint management agreement with the Africa Parks Network with support from the Howard Buffett Foundation and other organizations. This marked a major turning point in the parks fortunes. The park management in partnership with various donors and international wildlife conservation undertook an ambitious program of reintroducing species like lions and rhinoceros that had become extinct in the park while improving security by fencing the park and increasing air surveillance to curb poaching.
The programme has been a great success because the park now has all of the big five (buffaloes, leopard, elephants, lions and rhinoceros) making Akagera a one-stop-center for those interested in an African Safari. Apart from the big 5, the park has several Savannah animals like the topi, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, hyena, waterbuck, mongoose, eland, zebra, serval cats, duiker, impala, black masked civet, reedbuck, bush pigs, giraffe, side-stripped jackal, Klipspringer, Sitatunga Antelopes and roan antelope. Among the primate species include olive baboons, vervet monkeys, blue monkeys and bush-babies.
The bird population has increased to about 500 species since the changes in the park where started.. The birds thrive on an amazing range of habitat including savannah plains, forests and papyrus swamps. The rare Shoebill stork and Papyrus Gonolek can be spotted during a boat trip along the lakes in the park. Other species include the African fish eagles, cormorants, crowned cranes, egrets, Herons, marabou stork and open-billed stork.
The revival of the major species and continued increase in the animal and bird population has led to an increase in the number of people visiting the park. The park receives millions of dollars from tourists aiding great infrastructural development (hotels, roads) and job creation for locals. It is projected that the revenue from the park in the coming years will increase from about $445 million to $485 million. This Akagera revival programme is another remarkable success story and great effort by the government of Rwanda in propelling the tourism sector to greater heights.
How to reach Akagera National Park
Akagera national Park can be accessed by air and road. The flight from Kigali can give visitors a beautiful aerial view of the park. The Akagera Aviation organizes flights from the park to Kigali and back. It takes at most 3 hours of driving on well paved tarmac road to reach the park from Kigali. Those starting their journey from Rwamagana or Kibungo travel for one hour before reaching the park. The 27km road leading to the park entrance from the main road is dusty though passable by vehicles even in the rainy period. The roads inside the park are not as good as those leading to the gate and will require a good 4 Wheel drive car especially during the rainy season.
Private vehicles and drivers can be hired from Kigali or the park for about $175 for half of the day or $275 for the full day. Most international travelers prefer convenience and book their safari through an experienced tour operator. Tour operators will arrange everything ranging from accommodation, transport and booking activities. If you have not visited or lived in Rwanda before, we recommend that you use the services of a tour operator. Mission Africa Safaris has experience organizing trips to Akagera. We will arrange the car and driver/Guide for you while also ensuring that your accommodation and activities are booked in advance.
Safaris in Akagera National Park – Major Activities and Attractions
Rwanda is known for mountain gorillas and mountain climbing in the Volcanoes National Park among others. However it is only in Akagera that one can spot the big 5 while in Rwanda. Safaris in Akagera National Park are also special because of the unique scenery in the park which makes for a very great feeling for those who love nature. The landscape and especially rolling hills and valleys in the park provides spots for great wildlife viewing and photography. Being close to Kigali has made Akagera become increasing popular with both local and international tourists. It is a perfect destination for those who have come to the capital for a conference, business trip or workshop and desire to go and see Africa’s famous animals in the wild.The park has fewer crowds compared to some for the more visited game parks in East Africa allowing visitors to get that feeling of being alone while on safari. The animals are calmer perhaps because the large predators are not so many allowing visitors to easily spot them. Visiting the park now is highly recommended before the crowds become bigger like in the other regional game parks. The current government of Rwanda believes in gender equality and this implies that there are more female guides and staff than elsewhere. The park management allows visitors to tour their headquarters to learn about conservation and other park management activities.
In order to take part in any of the park activities or drive inside the park, one needs clearance. Some of the activities like game drives and boat cruises need to be booked in advance. Let’s look at the activities in more detail:
Game drives: Game drives can be done in the morning, afternoon and at night in the hills, plains and lakes. The roads in the park are well developed since the partnership between the Rwanda Development Board and African parks became effective. Visitors need to acquire a tour van that can pass through the rough terrain in the park. Park guides are important during the game drive because they are knowledgeable about the area and will take you to the right spots while sharing with you important information about the different species. There are guides that can be hired for about $25 from the communications office in the park.
Akagera is one of the few places where night game drives can be arranged. Night game drives are done using spotlights and an open-roof vehicle to allow visitors spot nocturnal animals like genet, mongoose, bushbabies, owls, nightjar, leopards and hyenas. These animals and birds are very difficult to see during the day. Night game drives cost $40 for an international visitor and lasts between two to three hours.
Boat Trips: Lake Ihema is famous for boat trips. While on the boat trip, you might encounter crocodiles, hippos and elephants drinking along the shores. The Lakes and nearby swamps are breeding grounds for several bird species like African darter, African jacana, blue-headed coucal, cormorant, fish eagles, kingfishers, marsh flycatcher and the open-bill stork. International visitors need to pay $40 for the boat trip. Only 11 people may be allowed into the boat. Those who want a more private experience can arrange their own trip at $180. Boats depart in the morning and afternoon.
Birdwatching: Birdwatching in Akagera provides opportunities to spot over 450 species. There are few forest birds and Albertine Rift species like in Nyungwe Forest but visitors should still come out satisfied with the collection of Savannah and woodland species found in the park. Some of the species include the arnot chat, black-headed gonolek, double-toothed barbet, suaza shrike, lilac-breasted roller, Meyer’s parrot, Ross’s turaco, red-faced barbet and the long tailed cistola. The great Shoebill stock can be spotted in the park though their numbers are small.
Fishing: The shores of Lake Shakani are great for fishing species like the Tilapia and catfish. While fishing, you will get to see many birds and animals drinking by the shores. Fishing tournaments are arranged frequently and winners are rewarded with a chance to prepare and eat their catch. Permits for fishing cost $20.
Nature walks: Nature walks in the park can be arranged with the help of a park guide. A walk through selected sections of the park gives you opportunities to appreciate the great biodiversity in the park. The nature walks involves following established park trails that lead to forests, lakes and swamps.
Walking by the Park Fence: Related to the nature walks, visitors can choose to join one of the fence attendants and park guides for a walk along the security fence. The security fence has helped eliminate poaching and other conflicts with humans living near the park. The 7 kilometer walk lasts for two hours, costs nothing and yet provides great views of the game park.
Cultural Visits: The management of Akagera National Park collaborates with nearby communities to allow visitors go for cultural visits. These visits are led by community guides. During these cultural visits, tourists learn how the locals take care of their long-horned cows, make beer, prepare food and celebrate important seasons of the year. Visitors can help with milking the cows, taste some of the local food and dance to local/folk music. The visits last for 3 hours at most.
Other activities outside the park: There are a couple of activities that visitors can take part in near the park and in Kigali the capital. One such activity is visiting the Rusumo Falls, the presidential palace, the museum, the Kigali city markets, the genocide war memorial centers and Museums. Those interested in buying souvenirs can stop by one of local art and craft shops along the way to the park.
The best time to go on a safari in Akagera National Park
Safaris in Akagera national park are arranged throughout the year. There is no public holiday and tourism activities continue each and every day even on weekends. Most visitors prefer to visit the park during the dry season. The rainy season occurs in certain months of March and April making the roads difficult to pass through. The best time to visit the park is between December and February. The rains have stopped then but the park is still green from the previous rainy season. At this time of the year, many of the waterholes get dry and the animals go to the few remaining pools. This makes it easy to spot them in one point unlike in the rainy season. Some visitors will find the hot temperatures and dusty roads difficult to bear.
Things to consider while planning to visit Akagera National Park
The park opens between 6am and 6pm and about $40 is charged as entrance fee for international visitors. Rwanda is a country located in the tropics and hence with insects and diseases that international visitors may not be immune too. It is very important to ensure that you see your doctor and get vaccinated against Yellow Fever before travelling to Rwanda. Endeavor to come with malaria tablets because the park has mosquitoes and even Tse Tse flies. Moreover, game drives are done with open car windows which can invite painful bites from certain insects. An insect repellent is therefore very important in keeping off insects. You might also want to come with long trousers, long-sleeved shirts and clothes of dull color.
Where to Stay in Akagera National Park
Are you wondering where to spend the night during your safari in Akagera National Park? Accommodation options in Akagera are limited compared to other national parks. Some of the lodges are seasonal and require finding out in advance if they are open. These hotel problems had been a major challenge for stakeholders of the park. The good news is that new lodges are being built while others are in plan within and outside the park. It is important to book your hotel in advance to avoid any inconveniences finding the right room.
Budget and adventurous travelers can set up their own camp within the park unlike in many other national parks where camping is not restricted. But be aware of intruders especially insects and baboons that like to steal from campers. If you are afraid of insects, a hotel with more permanent structures would be more suitable. Camping and partying in the African wild is very adventurous especially when with a group of friends. There are three known campsites where international visitors are charged $20 per person per night. Tents that can house up to 6 people are available for rent for another $20. Each campsite has accessories like firewood, latrines and equipment for roasting meat.
The mainstream hotels and lodge area is divided into three categories – Luxury, mid-range and budget. The lodges range from permanent brick structures to luxury tents. Let’s look at some of the hotels in detail.
Ruzizi Tented Lodge: This Luxury lodge was built by the park management in 2013 and profits go directly to conservation programmes. It is near the park office and consists of nine beautiful safari tents that are built in local design and powered with solar. The tents are uplifted to protect visitors from hippos and crocodiles that are near the lake. Two people can live in each tent. The tents are very comfortable and glamorous and only 20 people can reside in the lodge per day. Because of its location near the lake Ihema, it is possible to see the animals feeding and drinking nearby. The meals served are fresh and tasty consisting of international and local dishes.The facilities in the lodge include self-contained rooms, hot/cold water, an area for dressing, a fireplace, a bar and restaurant.
Although the Lodge has luxurious facilities, the prices are not so high hence offering true value for money compared to the others. Because it is very popular with visitors to the park, it is important to book weeks in advance especially if you plan on visiting over the weekend.
Akagera Game Lodge: This is more of a hotel that provides permanent brick structures and not tents like Ruzizi Tented Lodge. The Lodge is built within the park and close to the shore of Lake Ihema. The lodge looks beautiful from the outside with facilities like swimming pool, conference center and a tennis court. There are sixty rooms in the lodge that are designed for individuals, children and family. One can get budget, mid-range and deluxe rooms. If you are interested in fishing, birdwatching or game drives, then this might just be the place to choose. Baboons like to visit the compound and surrounding vicinity making for wonderful sight.
Dereva Hotel: Dereva is a budget hotel built outside the game park in Rwamagana District. It takes only 40 minutes of driving from the hotel to the park.There are both single and twin self-contained rooms with WiFi, phones and Flat TV Screens. There is a lounge area and meetings rooms of different sizes.
Karenge Bush Camp: This Luxurious Camp is opened only during the peek seasons of June – August and December – February. The staffs are very professional and take great care of visitors. Services are full board and visitors should expect good rooms and meals/water three times a day.
Magashi Lodge: This is a new Luxury hotel that has just been opened recently in an exclusive area within the park but far away from the main park offices. The intention is to offer more privacy for those who desire more intimate moments.