A Thousand Sneaky Elephants


I guess I’ve always considered myself safari agnostic. I am not a big fan of zoos – never did get the appeal of watching lethargic caged animals on display in a fake landscape in the middle of a big city. But a safari is supposed to be more like the real thing, right? Seeing the animals in their natural environment, on their own terms, maybe enduring a little hardship for the sake of it, the authentic grit of bug bites, dust, and bumpy roads. I still was not convinced that I would get the rush from an encounter with wild animals in the wild. It wasn’t really something I was craving or had dreamed of doing — and isn’t that sort of stuff best left to Sir David Attenborough and IMAX film crews?

I had precious little on which to base any skepticism. During my time in Tanzania I never went anywhere near the gold standard Serengeti safaris, although I did do a modified safari once.“Modified” as in: I was the designated driver on a hunting trip of a somewhat dubious legal nature in a massive national park in Western Tanzania. It resulted in one memorable giraffe sighting, as well as the lamentable death-by-rifle of a topi and a couple of wild pigs. Slightly revolting in the eyes of this vegetarian, the whole thing was a huge thrill to my fellow travelers — a jaded Brit from Kenya, who did the shooting, and a couple of bored Tanzanian game wardens who had agreed to guide us in return for half of the spoils from the hunt.

But here we are, back in Africa, and there’s no way we’re not doing a safari, right? So, to celebrate Lisa’s birthday, we made a weekend getaway to Akagera National Park in the far eastern end of Rwanda.

There’s the myth of The Big Five that you’re supposed to see (or, actually, kill) in order to claim you’ve really “done” Africa: leopard, lion, elephant, rhino and cape buffalo. (I’d like to think that “doing Africa” simply involves a certified encounter with The Lesser Five: bed bugs, mosquitos, tse tse flies, geckos and giardia.) Not all of the big five live in Rwanda (definitely no rhinos; offically no lions, either, but occasionally one sneaks across from Tanzania), and we weren’t committing to five days of trekking into the bush, so we were quite prepared to settle for something less than a photogenic cuddle with a rhino.

Running a game park is tricky business – on the one hand, you don’t want the animals to be so predictable that your guests simply drive to the designated spot and find the expected critter there waiting. On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly rewarding in driving around for hours on bumpy dirt tracks seeing little but tse tse flies and half eaten acacia trees, in the hopes that the desired animal will put in an appearance. They’ve still got a ways to go, but Akagera is well on the way to recovering from years of neglect, poaching and encroachment, and rebuilding a decent and balanced population of wildlife. There’s a complicated and not always helpful mix of government oversight, private ownership, mixed partnerships, and unclear policies across the national park administration, park management, the game lodge, and the other facilities within the park (more in a separate post on some of this later), so some things work great, other things just… don’t. And you have to love the ancient and awkward website for the Akagera Game Lodge, claiming “the ferocious tigers” as one of the “Wird [sic] Activities.” (Cue Monthy Python’s classic: A tiger?!? In Africa?)

Keep in mind that Akagera is located 20 very rough miles off the nearest paved road, on the border between Rwanda and Tanzania — about as far from anything as you can get. This is definitely not the petting zoo in Times Square, so it is ever so odd to realize that your guide on the game drive has pretty damn great cell phone reception. (I’ll just keep harping on this fact until we get home and I can insult someone at AT&T in person). Indeed, shortly after we set out, our guide casually called one of the other game wardens to check if anyone had spotted the giraffes that morning. How convenient is that? Just one step short of 1-800-WILDLIFE: “I’ll have two hippos, a side of monkeys, and a crocodile to go, please.” But out of the six small groups touring the thousand or so square kilometers of park that morning, we turned out to be the lucky ones when, half an hour later, we came across a group of three giraffes eating breakfast a few hundred meters from the track we were following. Giraffes are completely awesome creatures – maybe not intelligent design, but definitely design with a great sense of humor.

In a little over three hours on our first day roaming around in Akagera, we also caught sight of zebras, topi, impala, water bucks, vervet monkeys, baboons, hippos, warthogs, a herd of cape buffalo, a fish eagle and countless other exotic birds. (Normally birds wouldn’t have done much for any of us, but we happened to have just watched “The Big Year,” so we all sort of got the thrill of birding. Hardcore birders will apparently gladly spend an entire week at the park, where they can see several hundred different bird species). A few hours later, we took a boat trip to an island in the middle of the park, and added a massive crocodile to our list.

Still, our hopes were set on elephants and lions – maybe even a leopard. Our guide explained that although there are lots of them, the elephants in Akagera are quite a challenge to find. At this time of year (the height of the dry season), they’re mostly found in the northern end of the park, a three hour drive from the lodge, and even then there are no guarantees: one day, they’ll just be there, then it’ll take ten more tries before they make another appearance somewhere else. In order to spot the really good stuff, then, you have to be patient and tenacious. With kids and their legitimately limited attention span, that’s tough – heck, even remotely sane adults are going to get fed up bouncing around after a while.

But as we regrouped over an excellent dinner at the otherwise sad and run-down Akagera Lodge Saturday night, it turned out that the kids were quite game to continue the hunt, and we agreed that we would take a shot at it Sunday: we’d head north and chase down those damn elusive elephants like Ishmael on his ill-fated whaler.

I’ll spare you the details, but along with our great guide, Sabena (look him up if you’re in Akagera; he works at the lodge), we headed north at the crack of dawn Sunday and covered pretty much every inch of track in the park. And even though we had some wonderful encounters along the way with more hippos, the hipster giraffe in the picture above, and another huge crocodile, we never caught so much as a glimpse of those pesky elephants. Even the park rangers we met along the way were baffled: how do one thousand elephants manage to hide so well?

With the gas tank almost empty and the clear sense that our call of the wild had gone to voice mail this time, we opted to throw in the towel and reluctantly headed out the north gate of the park and drove the two plus hours back to Kigali. But it was a great trip, and fun to learn that our kids actually have the patience for this sort of thing and can appreciate the mere thrill of the “hunt” as a reward for lots of time spent in a hot, uncomfortable car. We’ll definitely try again – maybe in Uganda (where we may have a better chance at seeing elephants, lions, and other big cats) or in the southernmost part of Rwanda, where Nyungwe National Park has lots of monkeys and more birds on tap.