Akagera National Park is one of Rwanda’s most popular tourist attractions and it keeps getting better and better each year. It’s been under the combined management of RDB and African Parks (a conservation non-profit based in South Africa) since 2010. In that time, over $12 million has been spent on conservation, park enforcement, tourism initiatives, and community engagement. It’s this exciting partnership that has brought lions to the park and park attendance has jumped from 15,000 people in 2010 to 32,000 people in 2015.
Though Akagera isn’t as well known as other major parks in the region, it’s stunningly beautiful and really does make a great day, overnight, or weekend trip. The park is large and the landscape changes quite drastically from north to south. The rolling hills offer amazing views from the top and a very nice backdrop if you’re in the valleys. Akagera National Park is on the border of Tanzania at a relatively low altitude and is creatively carved with a labyrinth of swamps that flow into the Akagera River.
Akagera Park is located to the Eastern province of Rwanda about two hours away form Kigali. The road is mostly paved until about a half hour before you get to the entrance when things get a bit bumpy and dusty… to get you ready for the park experience! Akagera is home to lots of animals including elephants, buffalo, giraffe and zebras, 11 antelope species, and elusive lions and leopards. If you’ve been on game drives in places like Kenya or South Africa then you might find Rwanda’s little park less exciting as the animals aren’t quite as plentiful as they are in the Serengeti’s of the world. But a trip to Akagera is still highly recommended and it makes for a great day or overnight trip away from Kigali.
I didn’t realise how many activities were possible in Akagera until very recently but there are quite a few things to keep you busy. At the time of writing this article, park entry costs $35 for international visitors, $25 for East African residents (bring your passport or ID card as proof), and $6 for East African citizens (children over 6 get in for cheaper and kids under five are free). I’ve listed prices below and they’re correct at the time of publishing but things change so make sure to email firstname.lastname@example.org for a current list of prices for each activity. Activities are organised by the park and need to be booked and paid for at the reception area close to the southern
- Game Drives – The obvious attraction to a game park is a game drive! You can come in as part of a fully organised tour with a driver and guide or you can get a bit more adventurous and drive yourself in your own vehicle ($7 for EAC/Rwandan registered cars and $25 for foreign registered cars and double for safari vehicles or buses). Driving yourself is fun but you won’t really know where to look for the animals which might be frustrating. Fortunately you can hire a guide to come with you for $25 for a half day or $40 for a full day… just make sure to leave an extra seat in the car! Night game drives for $40 per person (minimum 2, maximum 7 people) are also a possibility and this can be arranged separately from within the park.
- Bird Watching – Akagera is a great spot for bird watching nerds with about 525 Species of birds (four of which are endemic) as well as a large number of migrant birds. The elusive Shoebill Stork can be spotted here along with the endangered and exquisite Papyrus Gonolek.
- Boat Trips – There are three pre-scheduled boat trips (morning, day, or sunset) to enjoy the park from water level surrounded by crocodile, bird, and hippo friends. The one hour trip costs $40 per person (to a maximum of 11 people) or if you’d rather schedule your own trip with a private group at your chosen time it costs $180 to rent the entire boat.
- Fishing – If you have your own gear (rods only, no nets) you can pay a fee of $20 for a permit to fish for the day from the shores of Lake Shakani. Hippos stay in the water during the day and the banks of the shore are gently sloped so you’d see any approaching crocs well before they were consuming you, so there’s nothing to worry about. But it certainly adds an element of excitement to fishing!
- Cultural Tours – In collaboration between the park and local communities, freelance community guides have arranged for some interesting tours and cultural experiences for park guests to participate in. There are four choices – Heritage (The Culture of Cattle), Local Production (Beer and Bees), Arts and Crafts, and Celebration (Food and Festivities). Each of these tours offers a glimpse into life in communities around the park. Try your hand at everything from milking a cow to making an imigongo painting, to sampling honey on the comb, to helping to create a local meal, to having a go at traditional Rwandan dancing. Each cultural experience tour takes around three hours and costs $20 per person with a minimum of three people.
- Walk the Line – This tour is an interesting opportunity to see a portion of the park on foot. Join community freelance guides as they guide you in the shoes of a fence attendant to check the fence that allowed the reintroduction of lions into the park. The moderate walk is 7kms long, takes about 2 hours, and ends on a ridge with a beautiful view over the park. It costs $0 per person with a minimum of three.
Be aware that there are evil flies (maybe horseflies) that will visit you at certain points in the park and bite the living crap out of you. They take out actual chunks of skin and make you bleed. They suck. A lot. Most people don’t know about these hell-flies before they go to the park so I’m here to tell you about them! They’re not everywhere but you’ll know when you’re driving through a zone. One person will get bitten and everyone will frantically roll up their windows but it will be too late and you’ll have a few hell-flies trapped in there with you, biting and being annoying. Your driver will swerve dangerously as he swats at them and everyone else will have a brief screaming session as the car turns into temporary chaos. To minimise the effect of these horrible creatures, wear light coloured clothing, long pants, and have a long-sleeved shirt handy. Apparently they’re drawn to dark blue and purple so avoid those colours. Bug spray doesn’t work on these demons. They suck but they’re temporary visitors so they’ll soon be gone as you drive on.
Camping – Sleeping in the park with nothing between you and the animals but a thin sheet of nylon is an exhilarating experience and something fairly unique to Akagera Park. But beware of roving gangs of baboons! They’re cheeky and will do their best to steal your food and terrorize you just because they’re jerks and have weird bums. But spending the night around the campfire with a group of friends, some beers and the wide open sky makes for a great break from city life and is one of the best overnight or weekend trips you can do in Rwanda. There are three campsites with the one in the north at Mutumba known as being the most beautiful (but also the farthest away). Camping costs $20 per person per night and the park can rent you a 6 person tent for an extra $20 per night (for the two southern campsites only). They don’t have any other gear though so make sure to bring your own. Both campsites are equipped with a BBQ and firewood is provided plus there are pit latrines and a small shelter. The views at both campsites are great, it’s peaceful and, lets face it, camping in a game park with wild animals roaming in the bush is pretty damned cool.
- Akagera Game Lodge – If roughing it while evading baboons isn’t really your thing then you might prefer to stay at the Akagera Game Lodge. As we only stopped there for lunch I didn’t get a look at the rooms, but the pool area was nice and the lodge seemed to be a pretty good option, if a little outdated. Nothing too flashy and fairly simple… but good enough, I thought. A single room in the in the lodge costs $100 and doubles go for $120. They’ve got the pool, tennis courts, business facilities and offer a variety of wildlife activities including fishing, game drives and bird watching trips. The lodge isn’t far from the main entrance to the park.
- Ruzizi Tented Lodge – For a more upscale experience, try the Ruzizi Tented Lodge, the park’s nicest accommodation. As the name suggests, you sleep in safari tents but they’re very glamorous and located in a beautiful setting right on one of the park’s lakes. The tents sleep 2 people and cost $165 per person for international visitors and $130 for residents. This includes breakfast and dinner and means that the Ruzizi Lodge is much better value for money and the Akagera Game Lodge. Prices are due to increase in 2017 when they start to offer full board so make sure to double check prices with them at email@example.com before booking. There are only nine tents so it books up quickly on weekends. The food gets great reviews and people rave about their showers! I’ll give it a try soon and report back.
- Karenge Bush Camp – I’ve heard wonderful things about this popup style tented camp that’s only open from June 1st to August 31st and mid-December to the end of February each year. The camp costs $150 per person (again, confirm prices before booking) for full board. The camp is more rustic than Ruzizi Tented Lodge but the experience is luxurious and they take very good care of their guests with proper beds, cold drinks, three-course meals, and a spectacular setting. The camp is low impact with no cement being used and the whole thing is packed away each time leaving zero trace behind. This is another example of a great new initiative in the park and I’m looking forward to giving it a try!
Transportation to Akagera Park
You could probably hitch your way to the entrance of the park. Or take a bus to Kayonza District before hopping on a moto for a crazy, dusty ride… but it wouldn’t make much sense since you’ll need a vehicle once you actually get to the park. A game drive on a moto, while it would be an interesting experience and a hell of a story, probably isn’t the best of ideas and isn’t allowed anyway. But if making your own way to the park is how you choose to roll, Akagera has safari cars ready for you to hire on arrival for $175 for a half day and $275 for a full day which probably only makes sense if you have close to the maximum 7 passengers allowed.
Or you could be a bit more ‘normal’ and hire a vehicle in Kigali for the trip. You can drive yourself through the park (if you want to pick up a guide at the information centre to lead you around and spot for animals make sure to leave space for him) or you can hire a driver in Kigali to arrange the entire trip and to act as a guide. Cars for self-drive can often be hired for as little as $50 per day and, while any type of car should be able to make its way through a dry park, a 4×4 is recommended.
If you’d prefer to leave the driving to a professional, hiring a car and a driver is also a possibility. I would recommend contacting Janvier at A Step Into Nature Tours as he has a lot of experience running trips to the park and is an all around nice guy and speaks English, French, Kinyarwanda, and even a bit of German. Prices vary depending on the type of car you want (he has five and seven person safari cars with popup roofs available as well as regular 4x4s without an open roof) so contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0788 838 109 to get the rundown. There are lots of tour operators in Kigali and everyone has their ‘guy’ but I’d recommend Janvier.
A Step Into Nature Tours also runs fairly regular shared trips to the park for around $100 per person. This is the sort of trip that exists in most countries with a developed tourist industry where you pay your fee and share the trip with some strangers/new friends and Janvier is the only company doing this sort of thing regularly. The costs is the same regardless of how full the car is and it’s a really great way to see the park on a day trip with zero hassles. Check the A Step Into Nature Tours Facebook page occasionally as he posts about upcoming trips there.
Akagera Park is close to Kigali and it makes a wonderful weekend escape or even just a quick day trip. The park is beautiful and there’s lots to see and do there at affordable prices. It’s great to see how far the park has come in the six years I’ve lived here and the dedication that Rwanda has to investing in its national parks and I love that my trips to Akagera support their great initiatives.
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