Rwanda has no limits when it comes to stunning natural areas to explore, but there are a limited number of places that are designated campsites that allow the mobile camper to pitch a tent, build a fire and relax as the sun sinks into the West. Wild camping in Rwanda is an adventurous undertaking to be sure, but an idyllic campsite can easily turn into a zoo with fifty or sixty uninvited onlookers gawking at your every move. This version of a zoo nominates the camper as caged specimen and curious children and loafers as the interested public. Not an ideal situation, but a likely scenario if your campsite of choice is not genuinely off the beaten path. Some of the most outstanding campsites in all of East Africa are located in the Akagera National Park in Rwanda. Besides the incredible vistas and plentiful wildlife there is the real luxury of complete isolation. No people, no noise, no distractions. Bliss.
Akagera N.P. Covid-19 Test Required
Before arriving at the South Gate our group stopped in the town of Kayonza to comply with an Akagera National Park entry requirement. Hopefully the Park will do away with this testing requirement soon. The test was a rapid result type of affair. The whole process took about forty-five minutes for everyone in our crew to be tested including issuance of paper documents reflecting a negative test result. Kayonza is fairly close to the Park’s South Gate. The cost was 10,000 Rwf per test. With the testing completed we motored happily to the Park’s entrance where we were greeted by friendly Park Rangers who registered our details. Everyone was required to step into a disinfecting solution as an added precaution. The drive to the Welcome Center required another 10 minutes.
Akagera Arrival and Game Drive
Even after one or two visits to the Akagera National Park there is always new land areas to be discovered. Some land areas are hilly while other areas have more level grasslands. The diversity of wildlife is impressive. Although the Akagera National Park has been reduced to half of its original size over the years, it is still a fairly large and precious territory. The Park features three designated campsites. These are the Muyumba campsite, the Shakani campsite and the Mutumba campsite. All three campsites have unique features and will not disappoint the avid camper. A true 4X4 vehicle is required. Park fees are expensive, and you really do get what you are paying for. The Shakani campsite is lakeside at Lake Shakani and puts the camper very close to the hippos and other residents. Choosing a spot at this campsite requires some forethought. The remaining two Akagera campsites are located at high elevations that afford dramatic vistas and windy conditions that help to keep the biting flies at bay. The Mutumba campsite is located to the far North of the Park and will take about two hours to drive there from the South Gate. The animals will probably extend that two-hour drive by another hour. You will encounter large animals such as elephants and lions that appear to frequent the road areas. While the zebras and impalas will skitter-off into the bush, there will be other game that you will want to observe while they block your path. Self-driving in the Park is allowed, but if you are uncomfortable being close to wild animals do consider hiring a Park Guide or a Ranger.
On arrival to the Park and after checking into the Welcome Center a Ranger will give your group a fairly comprehensive briefing as to what to expect based on your plans. Maps, a gift shop and coffee are normally available at the Welcome Center. The Ranger giving us our briefing provided useful safety and touring information. He also asked a few questions intended (I think) to determine our level of experience and off-road driving ability. All good. We departed the Welcome Center with a troupe of baboons as a Guard of Honor, and further down the road we had zebra escorts. Our game drive was very enjoyable. The diversity of wildlife in this Park is truly incredible. We were content to take our time negotiating each road segment while fighting off swarms of very large biting flies. We paid 1,000 Rwf for an illustrated Park road map. The Akagera National Park road sign system is very basic and could be improved so extreme care is required driving from one road intersection to the next. After three hours we finally arrived at the summit and the Mutumba campsite.
The Mutumba Hills Campsite
The final forty-five minutes of the route to the Mutumba campsite is up hill. As the elevations increase so did the panoramic views. The campsite itself affords the most striking vistas overlooking the big lakes and Tanzania all in the distance. There were countless species of wildlife near the exterior perimeters of the campsite fencing. This fencing is normally electrified. The most curious of these hoofed denizens were the buffalo. They could be seen grazing as well as impalas and many other small herds. The campsite itself was rustic and could use some work, but we were not complaining. The campsite is situated in a delightful spot. We wasted no time pitching tents and setting up our kit. By nightfall dinner (pasta and bread) was well on the way. The breeze picked-up in intensity and by nightfall there was an awesome display of orange storm lightening strikes (in the clouds) that could be seen about fifty miles away. This was the backdrop of the expansive lakes below us. We could also see the grouped lights of a distant village. We knew that those lights were deep into Tanzania. We took a compass bearing using an iPhone and Google Maps confirmed that these lights were definitely associated with the Kalagwe District in nearby Tanzania. The storm we were looking at slowly made its way towards us during the night. Later that night the wind in our campsite area increased considerably. Along with the wind came the rain which lasted about thirty minutes. That was not the extent of our nocturnal excitement. Later in the early hours of the new day we had a large animal visit us in our camp. The animal activated a camp light with a motion sensor. We could not tell what kind of animal this was. When the light illuminated our tent area the animal bolted. This was just as well. Rolling over and going back to sleep was preferable to braving the dark unknown outside our tents. The next morning we carefully inspected the electrified wire array at the campsite gate. The campsite fence did not appear to be energized. The whole fencing system was apparently connected to and powered by a set of deep-cycled batteries, an inverter and piezoelectric solar panels. This equipment could be seen outside the fenced areas which we did not approach. The Mutumba campsite is the furthest campsite from the Welcome Center and operation base for the Park so maybe this particular campsite does not receive as much attention as the other two. This is just a guess. Wild camping is wild camping, but the electrified fence is a comforting thought when walking about the campsite at night preparing meals, washing or just relaxing. The animals that roam these hills are also very much aware and savvy. By habit they probably keep their distance from the campsite.
Mutumba Campsite in the Morning
We were organizing breakfast with thick fog banks rolling in. Although visibility was minimal and somewhat surreal, there was no sign of more rain. Hot coffee, hot chocolate and an equally hot breakfast was enjoyed by all. Our crew did well with sharing chores and cleaning up. After the fog burnt off, we were again treated to breathtaking views overlooking the lakes. This time the atmospherics served up very moody clouds and streaking panels of light beams piercing through the clouds. And then the most pronounced rainbow arced out of skies while the birdlife stepped-up their breakfast routines. What a truly wonderful campsite.
The air was cool and fresh. The grass was moist and soft underfoot. We were reluctant to begin braking camp. This type of isolation and abundant natural peacefulness is a luxury in a relatively small Country like Rwanda. Credit must be given to the Elders and Leaders that had the vision to preserve this unique piece of paradise. The drive out was routed to the North Gate as an exit. It took us nearly six hours to arrive at the main tarmac that would take back towards Kigali. We had a Nine O’clock Covid Curfew to honor. At one point we spent a considerable amount of time observing a herd of elephants which were blocking our path. The largest of these pachyderms would not let us pass and displayed an aggressive annoyance when we tried. So, we waited until the herd moved into the bush in search of new feeding grounds. No problem, after all, this was all part of the show. Another event that was not anticipated was getting stuck in watery sand on a road that had all the appearance of having a hard surface. Our vehicle was 4X4 but did not have a differential rear lock. We were equipped with a strong tow strap and luckily a safari truck came rambling down the road in our direction. What a blessing! On the way back we could not resist stopping at an art café for dinner and drinks. We were a small bit outside of the curfew limits but showing the Police at roadblocks our Akagera Receipts and our Covid-19 test results helped. Our fully loaded jeep with tents and camping kit also helped to soften the blow at multiple Police roadblocks. All in all, our Mutumba camping expedition was a great success. If camping and exploring Rwanda are in your plans, please put Mutumba Hills campsite on your short list. Images © rwandatrek.com