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Rwanda Journal 2022: A Mystical Journey, Part Four

Ziggy and Go-Go, aka Shaun A. Pennington, search for life in wetlands. (Photo Pierre Murara)

“Look deeply into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” -Albert Einstein

Within the city limits of Rwanda’s sprawling capital lies a magical place called Umusambi Village.

Umusambi is in wetlands that once housed people who were moved to higher lands and far superior housing and living conditions for humans. The park-turned swamp is now home to 50 endangered gray crowned cranes who, due to their wings being clipped in order to be kept in captivity as ‘pets’, are disabled.

Umusambi supports the The work of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association to increase awareness and change behaviors towards poaching, the pet trade and habitat.

Rwanda has led the way in preventing poaching and raising awareness of the importance of all life. In part, the success came from the leaders’ willingness to work with others outside the country, their steadfast stance, and their swift action against corruption. When the country receives money from private partnerships, it is universally accepted that the money goes where it is supposed to go.

I can not say what is the area occupied by the park. But measured out of sheer joy, it offered over three hours of walking, viewing and wondering on the well-maintained trails and boardwalks that provide an up-close and personal encounter not only with cranes, but 100 other species as well. of birds attracted by the natural habitat and the protected environment.

On this beautiful Saturday morning, I accompanied Peter and Ziggy, my adopted son and grandson. It was their first trip to Umusambi.

There’s nothing like traveling with a seven-year-old child to open up to the joys and surprises of nature.

But before we even entered the walkways between marsh grasses, trees, and wetlands, we encountered a group of people learning native dance steps on the manicured lawn just yards from a full-menu cafe.

There are few things Rwandans I know love more than dancing and coffee (and their country).

Not only does Umusambi provide a sanctuary for wildlife, but it also offers a welcoming space for families and children that is a natural buffer zone between the birds and the bustling city. And that was the plan of the architects of the project, which was repeated to me over and over again by my friends, was fully supported by President Paul Kagame.

A few hours east of Umusambi there is another sanctuary where many uninjured gray crowned cranes have been relocated and live in relative harmony with hundreds of other species – many of which are also new arrivals since my visit. first visit. Akagera National Park in 2008. (See: Rwanda Journal: On Safari)

Akagera suffered in its own way from the 1994 Tutsi genocide. As a battlefield and later two-thirds of its area to returning Rwandans, most of the animals had died or been displaced.

In 2008, the giraffes and a few baboons were an exciting sight for us Virgin Islanders. No one expected much more and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Needless to say, my subsequent travels to various wildlife areas in Uganda and Tanzania afforded me sights of wild creatures that did not inhabit Akagera in 2008.

A Bruchel's zebra.  (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)
A Bruchel’s zebra. (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

Today, Akagera is one of the few parks in Africa with the Big Five: leopards, lions, Cape buffaloes, elephants and rhinos. What makes it different from all these other parks, many of which I’ve visited, is that it’s a relatively short drive from the capital and if you’re lucky, which I was the day we spent in the resurrected wildlife sanctuary park, you can see most of the Big Five in one day.

It’s almost guaranteed that if you stay overnight and take a night walk and/or boat ride you’ll see the entirety of the famous five.

I say with true humility, I’m lucky on two counts: animal sightings (with a few notable exceptions) and weather (ditto).

Our venerable guide Emmanuel warned as we approached the park that we should keep our expectations in check. I was traveling with my Rwandan hosts who had not been to the park for several years.

“I’m lucky with animals,” I boasted shamelessly, crossing my fingers where no one could see them.

A saddle-billed stork.  (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)
A saddle-billed stork. (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

Moments later we turned left off the paved highway into the dusty red clay road that would take us to the park entrance. It would only be a moment before Emmy, as our experienced guide refers to himself, came to a complete stop pointing to where I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat, at the surprisingly saddle-billed stork marked casually wading beside the road.

After hanging around taking pictures of this creative creature and seeing it as a good sign of my occasional luck, we moved on. But not far. Again, miles before entering the park proper, we were to encounter the first of the Big Five, a handsome Cape Buffalo.

My luck held out for the rest of our long, magical day.

A Cape buffalo (photo Shaun A Pennington)
A Cape buffalo (photo Shaun A Pennington)

Akagera borders Tanzania with half a dozen lakes touching both banks. Emmy was quick to point out that unlike almost any other place, Akagera contains wetlands, savannah and mountainous terrain, making it the perfect home for a variety of animals that are at home. number 8,000 and growing.

One of the Akagera websites states, “Akagera National Park has recorded 8,000 large animals living in the park and some of these animals include: Cape buffalo, African bush elephant, Eastern black rhinos, lions, leopards, Rothschild giraffes, hippos, bruchill’s zebras, antelopes, waterbucks, impala and many more.

With Colette and Mike on the farm, (photo Emmanuel Tagl)
Shaun A. Pennington, center, with Colette and Mike on their farm in the Kayonza District. (photo Emmanuel Tagl)

We had left Colette and Mike’s farm in the Kayonza district – which borders Akagera – shortly after dawn. We entered at the south end of the park and exited through the northernmost gate 15 minutes after closing. (We blamed a herd of elephants who had honestly blocked our path for a while during the day.) Emmy sighed in relief when the guard lifted the gate and let us go after a brief conversation in Kinyarwandan. In Rwanda when the rules say the park closes at 6pm that is exactly what it means and there is a penalty for ignoring such things. Fortunately, there was a line, albeit small, of other travelers behind us who had encountered the same herd.

An African bush elephant.  (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)
An African bush elephant. (photo by Shaun A. Pennington)

In those glorious 12 hours, we had seen all of the large animals mentioned above, including “so many more”, with two exceptions. There were no sightings of leopards or lions. If we had stayed beyond dusk, there is no doubt that we would have encountered these members of the Big Five as well.

I started this series with the quote about Rwanda’s incredible recovery from the genocide. Stephen Kinzer’s use of the word mystic in “A Thousand Hills,” his chronicle of the Tutsi genocide and its aftermath, touched me on every level. I only arrived in Rwanda in 2008, the year Kinzer released the book. But I can testify to everything since.

Umusambi village and Akagera National Park are just two of the most delightfully visible examples of what Kinzer noted about Rwanda’s resurrection magic.

Adventurers fantasizing about gorillas and chimpanzees might also realize those dreams at Volcanoes National Park and Nyungwe National Park, respectively. I had the chance to visit both places, but not on this trip.

However, one of the magical things I realized on this trip is that you can see it all with the right guide in one week in this mystical land of a thousand hills.

A first part of the “Rwanda Journal 2022: A Mystical Journey” is available here; Second part here; and the third part, here.

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