Five Go Wild In Akagera!
October 24, 2010

Once upon a time in Rwanda, five VSO volunteers, Abdel Illah, Cathy, Louise, Mark & Phil, had a spiffing idea. They thought it would be a great jape to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle and spend a day on safari in nearby Akagera National Park.

They were assisted with their plans by a local friend, Msafiri, who arranged for a large Toyoto Land Cruiser to pick them up at six o’clock on Saturday morning from Cathy and Louise’s house in Kibungo.

It meant an early start for the five intrepid volunteers but they were all so excited they could hardly sleep, especially Abdel and Mark who spent the night on sofa cushions in the living room. Everyone was ready and raring to go when Innocent, their driver for the day, arrived.

Cathy and Louise had prepared and packed a special Rwandan Safari picnic, fresh baguettes filled with cheese or honey, juicy red tomatoes, sweet ripe bananas, scrumptious green apples, chocolate and coconut biscuits, and bottles of water for everyone.

There were concerns about the weather because on Friday afternoon it had rained none stop for over four hours. Everyone wrapped up well and packed their waterproofs but by the time they reached the northern, Nyungwe, park gate the early morning mist had cleared and layers of warm clothing were being peeled off and replaced by safari hats and sunglasses.

Safaris aren’t cheap and the five travellers had been saving up their VSO pocket-money for the eagerly awaited wild day out at Akagera. Once the tickets had been paid for, their guide, James, showed them a large map of the national park and pointed out the route they would be taking as they drove south towards the Akagera Safari Lodge exit.

He also told them lots of interesting information about the park which covers 1,085 square kilometres and takes its name from the Akagera River that runs along its eastern boundary and forms the border with the country next door, Tanzania.

The four-wheeled drive had a special pop up roof which meant they were all able to stand up and look out for animals as they bumped their way along the narrow dirt tracks.

Mark, a keen ornithologist, had brought his binoculars and was soon displaying his expertise, excitedly identifying many brightly coloured birds from a checklist of 550 species! There were lilac breasted rollers, woodland kingfishers, hornbills, fluorescent blue starlings, tawny eagles and fish eagles perched up high, the grotesque marabou stork and the noisy bare-faced go-away bird, with its distinctive call, to name but a few.

James was a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, answering many questions from inquisitive Mark as well as helping Cathy with her homework by patiently spelling out the names of all the animals in Kinyarwanda so that she could write them in her exercise book.

Louise had come with her own I Spy Safari Animals  hit-list  in anticipation of ticking off those she  spotted. By the end of day there were big ticks for giraffes (her favourite), zebra, water buffalo, hippos, baboons, vervet monkeys and many different kinds of antelope including impala, topi, oribi and water buck.

She was rather disappointed that the elephants were hiding away (although there was the consolation of seeing some big piles of elephant pooh) and that the last remaining pair of lions in the park, who have not been seen for some time, had once again failed to put in an appearance.

Abdel Illah contributed his usual range of insightful observations displaying his Gallic charm as he happily munched his way through a box of biscuits. Phil contented himself by taking many photographs with his long lens camera. He was particularly happy when he got a shot of an adult and young hippo wallowing in the lake, mouths yawning wide open.

The zebra proved very popular with everyone and prompted a great debate as to whether they were white with black stripes or black with white stripes! Zebra were also the winner of the ongoing quest to find the fastest animal of the day.

There was an exciting moment when James shouted out, ‘Look!’ and Innocent braked hard as a black mamba snake slithered across the track, in front of us, and away into the grass. James told everyone that if they were bitten by this highly poisonous green snake (with a black mouth) they would be dead in fifteen minutes!

It had begun to rain by now and that seemed to be as good a point as any at which to end the safari. As the light began to fade Innocent headed back to Kibungo, dropping off the five weary and ravenous volunteers at St Joseph’s tea shoppe, where they were soon tucking into omelette, brochettes, salad and crinkle cut chips served with salt, vinegar and tomato sauce. And of course there were lashings of Mützig and Primus. A perfect end to a perfect day!

Fred, Frank and the quest for a green card!
October 2, 2010

I was issued with a Rwandan visa during the VSO in country training, in Kigali, but a green card is also required. Applications have to be made in person and the green card is issued by the immigration office in the district in which you are working; in my case Kirehe.  

You might think this would be a fairly straight forward exercise, particularly as the immigration officer is based just a couple of hundred yards up the road at the District Office. However this is Africa and the wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow.

Firstly we spent two weeks, on and off, trying to meet the immigration officer (Fred!) but every visit drew a blank with his door firmly locked and a note posted that he was out on business. Eventually contact was made by phone and he informed us that the application process was a three-part exercise.

Part one involved a two-hour round trip, on Thursday morning, to the town of Kibungo and a visit to the Fina Bank to make a 5000 RWF green card payment. In return I received a receipt which had to be taken up the hill to the RRA (Rwandan Revenue Authority). Here the first receipt was exchanged for another receipt, in duplicate and officially stamped, which I was told had to be passed to the immigration officer with my application; so far so good.

On returning to Nyakarambi, surprise, surprise, the immigration office was closed and I was informed nobody would be there until the next morning. I dutifully returned at 07.30 on Friday morning to find Fred was still not there so I called his mobile. Surprisingly he answered and informed me that he was on leave but someone would be taking his place later in the day. They were currently tied up on business in Kibungu and would not be there for about an hour.

I returned an hour and a half later to find that the relief immigration officer had still not arrived but someone ‘helpfully’ suggested I could short-circuit the operation by catching a bus down to the Rwanda/Tanzania border at Rusomo, 20 km away, where the immigration officer on duty there could issue the card.

I waited an hour for the next bus to Rusomo and after a 45 minute journey presented myself at the immigration office. I was asked to take a seat whilst they kindly explained that unfortunately I had been misinformed and green cards could not be issued at the border.

However, they did phone the office at Nyakarambi and assured me that the relief immigration officer had now arrived and was waiting for me! I hopped back on the bus and an hour later found, to my relief, that he was indeed in his office.

Relief immigration officer Frank (not Fred!) sat at his desk wading through a mighty pile of immigration applications. The waiting room was crammed with people waiting for their documents.

I was invited to take a seat but Frank could not interrupt what he was doing and ‘mix the work’, he would deal with me as soon as he was finished.

I waited for over an hour while Frank shuffled the same pile of papers backwards and forwards, each time adding a different rubber stamp or signature, about five in all!

At last he was finished but there was one final heart stopping moment when he could not find the green cards or the ledger in which they had to be recorded. Following a phone call, presumably to Fred, he found them and we were under way.

Half an hour, and four rubber stamps later I emerged triumphant with my green card.

For me the main benefit of a green card  is that it allows a reduction in the permit fees for visiting the gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park and the wild life in the Akagera National Park, both of which I’m  hoping to visit during the coming weeks.