When news arrived that the Karenge eco-Bush camp in Akagera National Park would open (almost) all year, I jumped at this opportunity to experience the northern section of the park in the wet season. So, we prepped for a rainy bush weekend adventure: checked the car, let a bit of air from the tires, and packed rain clothes and warm socks. Little did I know this weekend would be sweltering hot and dry, but even though the initial angle for this story fell apart, there is much to enjoy at Karenge, rain or shine.
The northern part of Akagera park holds a special place in my heart, mostly because of the two largest plains – Mohana plains and Kilala plains – that are brimming with wildlife. In the past, some areas could be difficult to reach in the rainy season, with roads flooded or too slippery to pass. Even though roads have now improved considerably, when the rains come down, make sure you and your car are prepared for it.
From the Akagera Park reception, Karenge Bushcamp can be reached in 4-6 hours, depending on the route you choose. Because it was hot, and most animals would probably hide somewhere in the shade, we took the mountain road north, passing Nyamabuye Lookout and Mutumba Hills campsite.
This route doesn’t offer a lot of wildlife, but the scenery more than makes up for it. The road meanders over a mountain ridge that allows vistas to both sides, mixing rolling green hills on the west with views of lakes and papyrus swamp stretching into Tanzania on the east. Take your time, because some parts of the road require a very slow pace, maneuvering the car over boulders and rocks.
For many hours, we didn’t meet another soul, human or animal – except for tsetse flies, if they have a soul. These swarms of nasty stinging flies appear out of nowhere and like to follow the vibration of the engine and enter through the windows.
After a few murderous battles in the car, leaving the interior covered in red blood stains, it was democratically decided the windows should stay closed. When there are many flies and you want to stop for a photo, it is better to turn off the engine first, wait for the flies to leave, and then open the door or window. We made a stop at the Mutumba Hills campsite for a cup of coffee from the thermos and delicious carrot cake muffins, graciously provided by Ruzizi Lodge. This campsite has clean toilets, a water pump -with hand soap – and an area to have a picnic and enjoy the view.
From here on, the road gets bumpy. While the quality of this road has greatly improved, it also featured high-speed bumps every 70 meters or so.
Ok, so they are probably not really speed bumps, but small “dams” to guide the water away from the road, but even if you don’t get a ticket, they are frustrating. The driver has to keep the eyes on the road at all times, because the car needs to come to almost a complete stop in order to pass the bumps. I counted 63 bumps on this road, stretched over 5.1 kilometers. You can do the rest of the math. But again, the scenery does makes up for it.
Exhausted from the heat, we were happy to arrive at the bush camp where manager Nathan welcomed us with a refreshing drink and wet towel. The Karenge “small-footprint” bush camp is situated close to the northern exit of the park. If you have a map, coming from the south you take a right to an unmarked path between numbers 34 and 33 and drive all the way up to the escarpment that overlooks the magnificent Kilala Plains.
The eco-friendly camp consists of a main tent and six comfortable, but not luxurious, tents with camp beds and a solar lamp inside and a private porch with wash-basin, outside.
The camp used to be dry-season only, but tents have received a small make-over with an overlay construction for protection against the elements. Next to each tent, guests can access their private, al fresco bathroom, with a toilet and bucket shower. Being dusty from driving all afternoon, I asked for a hot shower, which means they will put the kettle on the fire and after 30 minutes or so, the hot water is added to our shower bucket. Nothing beats an outdoor, hot-water bucket-shower with wide savannah views. I would even love it in the rain.
This is glamping at its best, in its simplicity lies its luxury.
Amenities seem basic, but it is a truly authentic bush experience with 5-star service, excellent food and a well-equipped bar. I could not feel more relaxed about being in the bush, enjoying full privacy on our porch and just grab my binoculars to watch herd of buffalo, giraffe, topi or zebra grazing the plains below. And order a gin & tonic with that.
After a delicious bush dinner, everyone retired early and it was dark and quiet from 9pm. Well, not really quiet. ‘The night is dark and full of terror‘, with the sounds of laughing hyena and roaring lion echoing from the plains below, shuffling noises (baboons, maybe?) around the tent, the deep “hoooooo” from owls and screeching sounds from god knows what – let’s hope they were birds or monkeys.
There is no sleeping late at the bush camp. The greatest perk of being here is that if you leave on time, you will be the first on the Kilala plains in the morning.
I woke up in darkness, splashed some cold water on my face and found my way to the main tent with the solar lamp. Grabbed a coffee and we were in the car before 6am, ready to see the sunrise on the plains when the mist slowly turns the sky into a pinkish hue. This is the time when all the animals come out, from elephants and hyena to eland, giraffe and topi; nocturnal animals on their last shift and others waking up to a new dawn. The privileged feeling of being witness to such beauty is hard to describe and I will never get used to it.
After a few hours, we drove back to the camp for a hearty, cooked breakfast and a hot shower. As we stayed only one night, instead of exiting the park through the northern gate, we decided to ask for a packed lunch and drive south via the lakeside road to explore the eastern side of the Park. The lakeside road passes through the Mohana Plains, where lions like to dwell, and a number of larger and smaller lakes with look-out points from which to view hippos, crocs and beautiful birds. If you are lucky, like we were, you can encounter herds of elephants. Mind you, in the wet season some of the smaller roads can be overgrown with bush which is not friendly to car lacquer.
Akagera National Park is gaining in popularity each year, and rightly so. It is a well-managed park, with an active international conservation approach.
This year, in what will be the largest transport of rhinos from Europe, five black rhinos will be added. Also, a new luxury lodge will open this month in the Magashi peninsula. These developments are not only good for Rwandan tourism but also help raise awareness for the importance of wildlife conservation. Akagera is great for a visit all year round, and there are attractive offers for Rwandans and foreign residents during the wet season.
Karenge Bushcamp will always be my top choice, rain or shine, because nothing beats being the first on the Kilala plains to watch the sun rise.
Ilse Lasschuijt works as a writer, editor and copywriter based in Kigali, Rwanda, with an interest in travel, tech and (life)-style.