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African sandalwood crackles in the firepit as a potjie fish stew bubbles in the embers. This will be our dinner, eaten under the soft light of lanterns hanging from a fig tree. Its canopy, teeming with vervet monkeys, spreads over the wooden deck of Ruzizi Tented Lodge – a new camp made up of seven simple tents on raised platforms on the shore of Lake Ihema in eastern Rwanda.
Night is closing in. The darkening sky turns to indigo, the water to black, with floating islands of papyrus moving as silently as ghosts. A spurwing goose skims the surface; nests of weaver birds hang like golden baubles as they catch the last glow of sun.
It was here beside Lake Ihema, in what is now Akagera National Park, that explorer Henry Morton Stanley camped in 1876 (indeed his visit gave the lake its name – ihema means “tent” in Kinyarwanda). The landscape retains an enduring emptiness, the sounds little changed more than a century later: the call of frog and Hueglin’s robin interrupted by rumbling grunts from a raft of hippo.
But as I gaze over the lake, I’m also reminded of the Akagera described to me earlier that day by my Rwandan driver-guide Alex Kagaba. We had been visiting Kigali’s Genocide Memorial centre as it prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacre. In the 100 days that followed April 7 1994, an estimated 800,000 were murdered, tens of thousands were tortured, mutilated or raped, 300,000 children were orphaned, and dogs ate corpses in the streets.
Like many Tutsis, Kagaba had sought safety in the bush, camping on the Rwanda-Tanzania border, close to the Kagera River on the edge of the national park. Joining up with the Nyabarongo River flowing from Kigali, the Kagera carried bodies all the way to Lake Victoria in Uganda, where locals no longer ate the fish for fear of poisoning. “To find a human being who is meant to be living, and to see him floating in a river being eaten by crocodiles when he should have been buried – that image still comes and goes all the time,” says Kagaba.
Tourism has played a key part in the country’s post-genocide recovery, overtaking coffee and tea as the top source of foreign income. When I visit, the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali – the famous “safe house” depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda – is full to bursting with conference delegates, business people, expats and tourists. The Kempinski group (also behind celebrated hotels such as the Hotel Adlon in Berlin), has recently taken on the contract to manage the Mille Collines, and is initiating a refurbishment programme. In its polished lobby are wealthy Americans on their way to see the endangered gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away on perfect asphalt roads. They will be staying at Virunga Lodge, the first international tourism venture to open post-genocide, which is now so busy it is having to build new rooms.
The Marriott and Radisson Blu chains both have hotels opening in Kigali next year, and a vast igloo-shaped convention centre is under construction in the centre of the capital. Meanwhile, Singita, which runs luxury safari lodges in Tanzania, South Africa and Zimbabwe, recently unveiled plans for a new gorilla-watching camp in the Virungas.
Access is improving too. Last year Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines began flying to Kigali, while KLM increased its flights to a daily service. International visitor arrivals have risen from 666,000 in 2010 to more than 1.1m in 2013.
“It’s a remarkable story of renewal,” says Michael Lorentz, co-founder of Cape Town-based tour operator Passage to Africa, which has arranged my trip to Akagera National Park. Lorentz leads high-end trips all over the continent, often with a conservation focus, but considers Akagera an unsung beacon of hope, not just for Rwanda but for many post-conflict states in Africa: “What’s happening at Akagera is proof that there’s room for optimism – for people and animals.”
In the period immediately after the genocide, these would have been the predictions of a madman. Akagera – made a national park in 1934 – was overrun with the diaspora of Rwandan refugees returning to the most densely populated country on the continent. Poaching ran rampant, the infrastructure was dilapidated and the only hotel, the 1970s-built Akagera Game Lodge, had become home to a colony of baboons.
In 1997, pressure on resources forced the authorities to shrink the national park by more than half – from 2,700 sq km to 1,120 sq km. Despite this initiative, nothing much changed: a year later, cattle belonging to local residents and returning refugees still hadn’t moved out of the protected area but instead were causing problems from overgrazing. In 1998, a government aerial count put the number of cattle within the park at 23,500 to a count of just 680 Cape buffalo. Ladislas Ndahiliwe, a park employee, told me he had seen lions on every childhood visit to Akagera in the 1970s; after the genocide, they had disappeared.
Yet there was still potential. Akagera is the only savannah park in Rwanda. It is made up of rolling hills of acacia bush, scattered grasslands, riverine forests, swamp-fringed lakes, and the largest protected wetland in central Africa. This range – delivering as beautiful a day’s excursion as you could wish for – piqued the interest of African Parks, a South African-based non-profit organisation that takes on direct responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities. Currently it manages seven parks in six countries, from Chad to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a combined area of 4.1m hectares.
“We were confident that with the injection of good management and a reasonable amount of money, Akagera would recover quickly,” says African Parks chief executive and co-founder Peter Fearnhead, who signed a joint management agreement with the Rwanda Development Board in 2009.
But there were challenges. Among them were the area’s levels of human-wildlife conflict – cattle encroachment and poaching inside the park, as well as attacks from hippo and buffalo outside the park – which were higher than the organisation had experienced anywhere else in Africa.
To bring this under control, the Rwandan government commissioned a 120km 1.8-metre-high fence, electrified using solar energy, along the western boundary. It was completed last year, and African Parks herded more than 800 animals into the park by helicopter. They recruited, equipped and trained 42 park rangers. The number of animals killed by poaching in the park halved from 180 in 2012 to 91 in 2013, while poaching arrests increased from 118 in 2012 to 220 in the same period. Between 2010 and 2013, animal numbers quadrupled.
The new management also built Rwanda’s first tented lodge, Ruzizi, which opened in March 2013; next month they will add two more rooms to meet demand. The next stage comes in August, when lions are due to be reintroduced; then in November, a concession will be awarded to a high-end lodge operator with a commitment to open a new property in the park by December 2015, when they also intend to reintroduce black rhino. As for visitor numbers to the park, they jumped from 1,709 in 2000 to 29,687 last year.
Which isn’t to say that Akagera is perfect. I see two animals in as many days debilitated by poacher’s snares. One American visitor at the lodge complains about the food and the wildlife (issues I didn’t share). There are aggressive elephants – 26 juveniles that were relocated here in 1974 without the herd’s matriarchs and older bulls – which show peculiar signs of hooligan behaviour, including roughing up the odd tourist car.
As for places to stay, the Akagera Game Lodge has been reopened but remains a concrete monstrosity (though it is currently being refurbished, with the number of rooms rising from 40 to 80). Ruzizi, meanwhile, which I love for its immersion in the thick riverine forest, as well as the willing service, might prove too simple for those brought up on a safari diet of cut crystal and copper hip baths. But Ruzizi is also only $150 per person a night, including dinner and breakfast. Aside from one Madagascan, it’s staffed solely by Rwandans. All profits feed directly back into the park (where more than half of visitors are Rwandan).
For me three nights at Akagera therefore turn into more than a safari with a checklist of animals (including the rare shoebill stork and sitatunga antelope). It is a rite of passage that articulates the challenges and delicate successes in Africa’s human-wildlife conflict. I don’t doubt that the commentary Lorentz provides elevates my experience (in the way he unravels the lake’s bird life, elephant behaviour and the issues of 21st-century conservation). But even on the most intuitive level, everything about Akagera feels significant: a place that has emerged from horror to become a calling card for a nation. I leave convinced it will engage a new audience in Rwanda’s story, increasingly making the country synonymous with something beyond those 100 grim days of 1994.
Sophy Roberts travelled as a guest of Passage to Africa (passagetoafrica.com) and African Parks (african-parks.org). A week-long guided Rwanda itinerary incorporating three nights at Ruzizi Tented Lodge in Akagera National Park, one night at Hôtel des Milles Collines in Kigali and three nights at Virunga Lodge in Volcanoes National Park costs from around £3,500 per person