Rhinos and roads

We slept well with the cooler temperature and relative quietness. We got up a little later than normal as we were within an hour or so run to our first destination Akagera National Park. The drive was easy and we only missed our turning once but there was no shortage of money demands from people we passed.

At the entrance gate we were surprised to discover that we were expected to go to a local health centre on the way and get a covid test and arrive with an SMS. We talked the guard into accepting that we did our own RAT tests – negative we were allowed through the gate and headed to the park visitor centre to pay our entry fees.

We’d entered by the southern gate and wanted to leave by the northern gate. Friendly and helpful, one of the guides talked us through the map of the park and the best route to go. All the information said that to do our route would take a full day and it being 10am already we figured we’d need to stay at one of the park campsites overnight and exit the next day.

The entry fee for 1 day was also the same for 2 days and 1 night with an extra US$25 per person for camping. Just as well as the entry fee turned out to be double what it says online and was a hefty US$100 each, that’s more than the hefty US$70 entrance fee for the Serengeti. The campsites are electric fenced and have nothing more than a toilet and a fire pit. On your own (no staff or guards) it is mandatory to light the fire for protection at night. We were super keen on the idea of being left to fend for ourselves, elephants if they really want to are smart enough to destroy electric fences and this park has some black rhino (territorial and aggressive they will charge at anything), not to mention things like lions. But camping in the park seemed to be the only way to do be able to get up to the north where the big game is.

A really nice visitor centre with a shop and cafe we had coffee and a late breakfast before setting out. The shop also sold park maps and junctions are well numbered making it easy to navigate. For once we weren’t going to be wandering round lost in a park game driving and could actually do a route.

We knew the park has everything but doesn’t have huge concentrations of wildlife like in Tanzania and Kenya, but it has a reputation of being a pretty. We saw impalas and a wandering hippo before finding a big cluster of hippos. The dirt tracks in the southern part of the park were pretty decent and we enjoyed the drive mainly spotting various hoofed animals.

Before we hit the northern plains we called into a new park cafe for a late lunch. It was good fresh food and the servings turned out to be huge. We ate too much and as we left discovered the tracks on the northern park of the park were really rough 4WD tracks, and on very full stomachs being bounced around constantly wasn’t the most enjoyable. As we hit the first plain it was worth it though. Like a scene from a tourism brochure we found 9 giraffes with impala and other hoofed animals (not clue what they were) in front of them. We sat and watched them for a good while before carrying on.

The route we were on through the plains meant we will have done the route we wanted to and to camp we’d have to do a loop back south again to the campsite. The track was still really rough. It was still only mid-afternoon meaning we’d be at the gate plenty before the park closed. It’s a well managed park and all profits go back into managing it so we decided we’d call our camping fees a donation and leave and find somewhere more relaxing to sleep.

We didn’t see much else exciting, the usual zebras and more impala etc. With such high prices we were starting to feel like the cost of the park really wasn’t worth it. There were not many other safari vehicles around, though there were a few were self driving, in contrast to the Tanzania parks where we were the only self drivers apart from the odd group of local tourists.

Then ahead we spotted 2 vehicles stopped. We hoped this was a sign of something good. As we slowed as we approached them it was better than good, 3 white rhino grazing not far from the road. Not bothered by us but facing our direction we drove slowly and parked up in between the 2 vehicles. They were were quite happy munching grass and were slowly making their way closer to us on the road. Occasionally one would stop and look at the vehicles (they have terrible eyesight) like they were trying to work out what these 3 objects were, it’s a big disconcerting to be stared straight on by a rhino at what was increasingly close quarters but then they would put their head down and carry on eating.

They kept making their way towards us, in the vehicle in front of us was a lone white woman (driving a Rwandan plated vehicle) and behind 1 safari vehicle with 1 guest and driver. We all knew what to do and that was to stay super quiet and still. They kept moving closer, close enough that the click of Marie’s camera was enough to set ears twitching. Heart rates were somewhere through the roof as they came within 10 yards and dead level with us. If one decided to charge we wouldn’t even have had chance to start the engine.

None of us in the vehicles moved. We all stayed perfectly still. We didn’t even dare move slowly and pick up a phone to take a photo. It was both exhilarating and scary to be that close to 3 wild rhino. The only sound was the munching of grass and our heart beats. Staying perfectly still goes against your natural instincts of flight. But we remembered what the guy at the Serengeti campsite told us about how your best defence for animal encounters is stay still perfectly still and totally quiet.

It felt like holding our breath for an eternity. They just weren’t moving away. Eventually a safari vehicle appeared in the distance heading towards us. The woman put her arm out to tell them to slow but too late it had startled them. They only ran a brief distance back from the road but we had had our fill of this once in a lifetime close encounter and didn’t need to see what chapter 2 held so we took our chance to slowly move off.

The park had more than redeemed itself and we definitely didn’t feel the need to dawdle any longer so made our way over the rough track at the only slow pace possible towards the gate.

We were just recovering when we spotted a big grey object a little way off on a plain. At first we thought it was an elephant (we had seen none and the park has them) as we got closer we couldn’t believe it, it was another rhino. We were quite relieved this one was at a more enjoyable distance away.

Finally we reached the gate and checked out of the park. We promptly got totally lost. New roads are in the process of being built right outside the park and not a single one of our offline maps would work. The guard had to signal we’d turned the wrong way then 3 minutes later we turned the wrong way again down a road being built. We back tracked to the junction where we’d gone wrong and asked a local man, he pointed us the right way.

We knew it was 22km of dirt road to the sealed main road but it was as rough as the national park tracks, just wider. We made slow progress and with late afternoon wearing on this wasn’t ideal, we also got a lot of yelling money demands from people we passed.

Finally back on sealed road, it felt good, and the 60kph speed limit felt fast. We’d looked up on our apps a possibility place to stay but it was quite some way off, we decided to look out for some accomodation as we drove. We pulled over at the entrance to a hotel in the town of Rwagitama. We’d only gone 50km from the exit gate and it had taken us a good 2 hours. It was just starting to get dusk, we hoped it wasn’t expensive.

Emma went in to see what they could do leaving Marie and the vehicle at the side of the road. It took a group of local kids on the other side of the road literally seconds to clock her and soon there were 8 little faces crowded peering in the front windows. Their English only went as far as ‘good morning,’ Marie didn’t really engage as the chances of it becoming demands for money were high. They climbed up on the runner boards to peer in better and used the wing mirror to pull themselves up. It being a rugged vehicle this was fine though Marie kept an eye on ensuring they didn’t hang off the mirror as them breaking it would mean the hassle of fixing it.

Ugandan buses are small sized and all have snorkels for the wet season. Emma had been gone 10 minutes being shown different room options when there was a thud and Marie looked ahead quickly enough to see a bus had hit something that was flying in the air. The bus pulled straight over to the other side of the road. It was one of the makes you sick to the pit of your stomach sights, in the road was the bundle of a small boy, one of his jandals still left where he was knocked off his feet.

No one moved, everyone just stopped, and there was silence as everyone looked at the bundle, unsure if he was alive or dead. The kids around the vehicle shocked slowly melted away. After what seemed like a very long time the boy moved and slowly sat up. Relief. He was alive, but everyone was probably wondering the same as Marie in what about his legs? As the shock started to wear off he started to cry and adults started to slowly move towards him, when he started to get to his feet and managed to stand a man finally got off the bus and went to him and helped him to cross the road back to where everyone was on the other side. He was probably about 5 or 6, and that he had no obvious injury was pretty unbelievable.

As a crowd gathered round him and everyone was distracted Marie slid over into the drivers seat and drove into the hotel. The risk of someone pointing the finger at the foreigner to try and extract money was too high. While not responsible he was only on the road because he’d crossed to harass the foreigner (Marie). Luckily the hotel had a room and it turned it out was a complex of buildings. We parked in the rear car park to keep the vehicle out of sight. Our room was near the front and we could see the bus parked up for quite some time before it eventually left.

It had been quite the day. We thoroughly enjoyed having a hot shower after having cold bucket baths for 3 days, and particularly as the park tracks were very dusty (the vehicle inside and out was covered in a layer of red dust, no doubt we were too). We also enjoyed having a wifi connection. It was rubbish but we were still grateful to have something as Emma’s SIM card had pretty much stopped working not long after leaving the border so we had no connectivity.

We slept surprisingly well.

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