Day 71 – Kigali, Rwanda

A Childhood Dream Comes True

For as long as I have been old enough to sit up and watch TV, I have watched nature specials. In a time before the Discovery channel, Cailen and I used to sit for hours and watch “The Nature of Things” with David Suzuki and “Lorne Green’s New Wilderness”. I was always particularly mesmerized by the wildlife of the African savanna. Some of the earliest television memories I have are of wildebeests plunging down a steep bank of a surging muddy river by their thousands, with giant crocodiles waiting for easy prey. I have images of masses of bloated wildebeest corpses floating downstream. I have since learned that this dramatic footage was shot when the annual wildebeest migration reaches the River Mara, in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park (which borders Tanzania’s famed Serengeti National Park). Since I was a small child, I have dreamed of seeing the wildebeest migration and the lions and cheetahs that follow. That is why I could barely contain my excitement when we finally left Nairobi to go on safari in Masai Mara National Park, where as luck would have it, the wildebeests had reached the River Mara.

The ride south to Masai Mara was spectacular in itself. Shortly after fighting our way out of Nairobi traffic, the highway emerged high onto the Rift Valley Escarpment. Looking out over the vast valley that sliced dramatically through the East African highlands, I couldn’t help but think that I had somehow returned home. For it was here that my ancestors crawled down from the trees, started walking upright, and evolved into present day humans.

By the time we reached the turnoff for the national park, dusk was upon us. We would have to go the last 100 km or so in the dark. A good portion of it turned out to be a dirt road. The night ride into the savanna was one of the most exhilarating of the trip. The road was narrow and rocky, with bumps and holes exaggerated by the glow of our headlights. I saw jackals and antelope running across the road. More often, I would just see glowing eyes of unknown animals along the side of the road. In the distance, lightning from a distant thunderstorm occasionally lit up the horizon. In between, there was nothing but dark empty space. This was the Africa of my childhood imagination.

Navigating by GPS, we left the dirt road near the border of the park in search of some coordinates that we had been given by Andrew and Debbie for a Safari camp where they had stayed. Unfortunately, after following a dirt track through the bush (did lions know where the park boundary was?), there was nothing but darkness when we arrived at where the camp should have been. Eventually we found another camp where we could pitch our tents behind a chain linked fence with a barbed-wire collar. Unlike a zoo, in this place we were the ones in the enclosure. Apparently riding our motorcycles through the bush at night was a more than a little dangerous, as bull elephants take particular offence at motorcycles. We had seen large piles of elephant dung on the track, but luckily we didn’t come across any elephants that we could provoke into charging us.

We arranged to tour the park by Land Cruiser. Our guide, Simon, and our driver picked us up at 6:30 AM the following morning. Motorcycles, apparently, were not allowed in the park. Pity. Nonetheless, my heart was pounding with anticipation as we entered the park. I was living my dream. Almost immediately our guide was pointing out species of antelope, gazelles, zebras, giraffes, birds, and jackals. We saw a warthog in the bushes. Apparently, if you anger them and they charge you, they run for miles and then forget why they were running in the first place.

Soon we saw our first glimpse of the wildebeests, stretched out in a line that reached the horizon, sweeping across the plains in a great tide. Despite having seen the migration on TV, I was still astonished. I had not been expecting the sheer numbers. They filled the plains as far as I could see until they became tiny brown dots in the distance. Slowly, inexorably, they moved in a bulging mass stretching its finger-like projections across the grasslands, consuming everything it its path. Once the wildebeest pass, there is barely a blade of grass left standing

Suddenly, our guide pointed to the side of the road. A Cheetah emerged from the tall golden grass and slowly crossed the road right in front of us. It was without a doubt the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. It made its way to a rock on top of a hill, where it perched to watch the wildebeests passing en masse on the plains below.


The animal sightings became more and more frequent the further into the park we drove. We saw lots and lots of elephants. And of course the king of the jungle – lions. We watched them for probably an hour. I could have watched them all day.  But there was still lots to see and we moved on towards the River Mara.

In the end we did not get to see the wildebeests cross the Mara when we finally reached it sometime in the early afternoon. They massed on the bank, but they weren’t in the right “mood” according or our guide. However, we did see hippos and crocodiles in the river. After taking a nap for a couple of hours in the shade of an acacia tree on a hill overlooking the crossing (while our guides watched in the hope that their mood would change), we eventually gave up and made our way back.

It was a bit disappointing, but it did not dampen the excitement of the day. On the way back to camp we were treated to a spectacular savanna sunset. As luck would have it we also came across two more groups of lions. The first was a mother with two cubs and the second was a male and female lion who had been on a “honeymoon” for two weeks. They weren’t afraid of showing their affection for each other in front of tourists either.

Seeing the wildlife spectacle first hand on the African savanna was a trip highlight, not to mention a childhood dream come true. Could it get any better than that? Stay tuned for my next entry about Uganda, and our visit to Mgahinga National Park, where we spent a day tracking mountain Gorillas, to find out.

The sun goes down over the African savanna – surely one of the most beautiful places on earth

26 thoughts on “Day 71 – Kigali, Rwanda

  1. I can hardley wait for your pictures of all of the wildlife that you saw in the park. The cheetah is magnificent. What an experience to see the wildebeest migration first hand. In Botswana Carol S. tells me that you can be guided in canoes through the game park. Will you make it back on time for med school with so much left to still explore?

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