A close encounter with a troop of Mountain Gorillas will be the highlight of the tour. Photo: Steve Rooke
Since the much-publicised troubles of the 1990’s Rwanda has steadily rebuilt itself and is now a superb destination for wildlife tourism. In particular, it is an excellent place to see that most impressive of beasts, the mighty Mountain Gorilla. Our time spent with a troop of these superb creatures will be the undoubted highlight of the tour, but there will be so much more to enthrall us. Before reaching the lofty home of the Mountain Gorilla we will have explored the varied habitats of Akagera National Park, a rich mix of wetlands and forest that is alive with birds, and the incredibly bird-rich Nwungye Forest National Park, home to 25 Albertine Rift endemics.
Rwanda is rapidly acquiring a reputation for being one of the safest and friendliest countries in Africa, and its government is adopting an enlightened attitude towards wildlife and conservation – plastic bags are totally banned anywhere in the country for instance. In addition there are a series of well-appointed lodges to accommodate us, all connected by an excellent road system.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 2: This morning we’ll begin our journey to Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, on the border with Tanzania, a drive of some two to three hours. Although much of Rwanda away from its National Parks is cultivated, we’ll stop along that way at some areas of marsh where we can expect to see some typical species of Central Africa such as Cattle Egret, Hamerkop, Sacred and Hadada Ibis, Augur Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle, and Pied Crow. There should also be brightly coloured Village, Black-headed (or Yellow-backed), and striking Vieillot’s Black Weavers busy nest building, or a White-headed Black Chat perched up. Small groups of Grey-backed Fiscals will be lining the fence poles while out in any marshy areas we’ll see bright Fan-tailed Widowbirds displaying, and Carruther’s Cisticolas flitting around the reeds.
The Akagera National Park covers 1,120 square kilometres. It was founded in 1934 to protect animals and vegetation in three eco-regions: savannah, mountain and swamp. The park is named after the Kagera River which flows along its eastern boundary feeding several lakes, the largest of which is Lake Ihema. The complex system of lakes and linking papyrus swamps makes up over one third of the park and is the largest protected wetland in Central Africa.
Much of the vegetation is dense, but where small plains open up, herds of African Buffalo, Impala, Zebra and Topi are commonly seen whilst smaller antelope such as Bushbuck and Reedbuck exist widely throughout the park. African Elephants tend to stay around the lakes or buried in the dense bush while the large populations of Hippopotamus are much more obvious. There is also an important population of Sitatunga living in the papyrus swamps but they are very difficult to see. Night at Akagera Game Lodge.
Days 3 – 4: Close to 500 bird species can be found in the Park and we have two full days to explore the varied habitats to look for many of these, as well as taking time to admire the many other forms of wildlife we’ll encounter. With so many lakes and so much marshland, it is not surprising that waterbirds feature highly. A boat trip on Lake Ihema will take us close to a variety of herons and egrets, including the striking Rufous-bellied Heron which breeds here. There will be mighty African Fish Eagles perched right above us, sharing the lakeside trees with flocks of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, here for the winter. Amongst the dense papyrus we’ll see Lesser and possibly Greater Swamp Warblers, Slender-billed Weavers, and the dainty Swamp Flycatcher, another regional specialty.
The mosaic of lakes and papyrus swamps was once the stronghold of the remarkable Shoebill . Although we’ll certainly devote some time to looking for this elusive creature, it appears that the population in Akagera has dropped dramatically in recent years to the point where they are now extremely difficult to find. The wetlands here hold many other species that are far easier to locate and we may find ourselves distracted by Goliath, Black-headed, Striated, and Squacco Herons, Little Bittern, Grey Crowned Crane, African Openbill, African Darter, Black Crake, African Wattled Plover, Long-toed and Senegal Lapwings, Water Thick-knee, Blue-headed Coucal, and Giant Kingfisher.
Away from the wetlands there will be a different suite of birds amongst the savannah and forests. Here we’ll be looking for Black-chested, Brown, and Western Banded Snake Eagles, White-headed Vulture, Black-bellied Bustard, Red-necked Spurfowl, Ross’s Turaco, Black-collared and Red-faced Barbets, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, and Klaas’s, Red-chested and Black Cuckoos. Flocks of Red-billed Quelea inhabit the grassland are are often joined by a Cardinal Queleas, while Sooty Chats can be very common. Around our lodge we’ll be able to watch Angola and Lesser Striped Swallows swooping over the pool or perhaps find a lesser Honeyguide or vivid green-backed Eremomela in the grounds. Nights at Akagera Game Lodge.
Day 5: After a last morning in the Park we’ll drive back to Kigali for the night. Night in Kigali.
Day 6: Leaving Kigali, we’ll drive south-west and after a short while we reach the Nyabarongo river. We’ll spend a few hours searching the papyrus for some special birds such as White-winged Warbler, Papyrus Canary, and the star of the show, the smart Papyrus Gonolek. Driving on to Nyungwe Forest National Park we’ll stop at some roadside marshes to look for Grauer’s Swamp Warbler before reaching our lodge perched on a hilltop overlooking Lake Kivu to the west and Nyungwe Forest to the east, while on a clear day, the Virunga Volcanoes can be seen away to the north. Night at Nyungwe Top View Hill Lodge.
Days 7 – 9: We’ll spend the next few days exploring the extensive forests of Nyungwe, part of largest expanse of montane forests left on the African continent and an area rich in birds, including most of the Albertine Rift endemics. Amongst the mosaic of forested gullies, scrubby slopes, Hagenia montane forest and montane swamps, we’ll search for Handsome Francolin, Great Blue and Ruwenzori Turacos, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Chestnut Owlet, Olive and Elliot’s Woodpeckers, Stripe-breasted Tit, the remarkable Red-collared Babbler, Archer’s Robin Chat, White-bellied Robin Chat, Doherty’s Bush-Shrike, Mountain Masked, Black-faced, Chestnut-throated, and Collared Apalises, Rwenzori Batis, Neumann’s Short-tailed Warbler, White-tailed Blue-flycatcher, Chapin’s Flycatcher, and Purple-breasted and Regal Sunbirds, to mention a few.
Birding in this lush, dense forest will present its challenges but the rewards are great with a dazzling array of species possible. Noisy Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills will glide overhead, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters will zip through the trees after insects, and the likes of Pink-footed Puffback, African Hill Babbler, Dusky Crimsonwing and Grauer’s Warbler will skulk through the undergrowth.
There will be lots of other wildlife to see as well. Chimpanzees live here, although an encounter with a troop is a rare event. We are more likely to see L’Hoest’s or Blue Monkeys, or Boehm’s Squirrel. In addition over 120 species of butterfly have been recorded, including many stunningly beautiful species. Nights at Nyungwe Top View Hill Lodge.
Day 10: We’ll spend the morning walking another forest trail and then after lunch we’ll set out on our journey north, driving part of the way along the shores of Lake Kivu and breaking our journey with a night on the lake shore at Kibuye.
Day 11: Today we continue north as we head to Volcanoes National Park. Here we enter the Virunga volcanoes region (also known as the Virunga Massif) which straddles the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, and represents one of the richest biological areas of the world. It was here that Diane Fossey began her research into Mountain Gorillas in the late 1960’s and if the weather is clear, we’ll see some of the regions towering conical peaks. As we near our destination we make a short stop at a small patch of forest where we may see Narina’s Trogon or White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher. Night at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.
Days 12: Today should be the highlight of the tour as we set out for an encounter with a group of Mountain Gorillas. The trek to find Gorillas can be quite short, but on most days an hour or two of hiking each way is necessary. There will be a professional gorilla tracker in charge who will coach you in the safety rules and body language required to come close to the Gorilla troops. The climb begins through the lush terraced farmland of the lower volcanic slopes. Leaving the farmland we enter the National Park where the vegetation becomes thick and tangled. The guides will use their machetes to help clear a path. They are in touch by radio with trackers who have gone ahead to locate the troop, which usually of a dominant male and up to five or more females and their young. Once located, we will be allowed to spend one hour with these magnificent animals.
How we spend the rest of the day depends on what time we get back from our Gorilla trek, but we expect to have a late lunch and then spend the rest of the afternoon ‘taking it easy’ in the lodge grounds. Here the dense vegetation surrounding our accommodation holds a variety of birds such as Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Black-crowned Waxbill, Pin-tailed Whydah, Streaky Seedeater, and Variable Sunbird, while a Black Sparrowhawk or African harrier hawk may drift overhead.
Day 13: We’ll spend the morning visiting a local ‘eco park’ where a series of moss-covered steps take us to the top of small hill. Here we may see Tambourine Dove, noisy Tropical Boubous, Nubian Woodpecker, while smart White-headed Sawwings zip past hawking for insects. After lunch we’ll set out on the return trip to Kigali, arriving in time to connect with our flight back to London, where the tour ends on Day 14.
Updated: 23 April 2014