Lonely Planet ranks Rwanda park as a best destination

An Akagera lioness photographed by Matthew Poole for the Rwanda Development Board and distributed under a Creative Commons license.
An Akagera lioness photographed by Matthew Poole for the Rwanda Development Board and distributed under a Creative Commons license.

Lonely Planet put Rwanda’s Akagera National Park in the top ten of New in Travel 2016, its miniguide to the world’s best new places to visit in 2016. The park came in third out of 31 incredible destinations.

In mid-2015, lions were introduced to the park after a 15-year absence from the country. Lonely Planet editor Matt Phillips writes that 2016 will be ideal for watching these magnificent creatures: “Once the pride establishes its stomping grounds sometime in early 2016, it will be easier for safari guides to locate lions for visitors.” And since Rwanda is more well-known for its mountain gorillas than its other safari creatures, crowds at Akagera are unlikely, leading to a wonderful experience out in the wilds.

Interested in visiting Rwanda? Ujuzi has been arranging safari tours to the nation for years. Contact us with your questions.

New Ujuzi Video Added to YouTube

Enjoy this music video of  highlights from my recent trip to Tanzania! It was tough narrowing hours of video down to just a couple of minutes, but somehow we managed to get dozens of animals and five national parks in there. I think my favorite capture is the cheetah stalking and chasing its prey in the Serengeti. What’s your favorite footage?

Tanzania Day 8 – Serengeti to Zanzibar

Today I bid farewell to Tanzania’s mainland. I was sad to leave such a beautiful place, but excited for my next destination: Zanzibar, a Tanzanian island in the crystal blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

I spent this morning in the Serengeti in Pioneer Camp’s lounge, talking with the camp manager about local wildlife and enjoying the antics of the yellow-spotted rock hyraxes on a neighboring outcrop. One of them even climbed up toward the edge of the lounge platform to wish me a pleasant trip. (At least that’s what it looked like the creature was trying to communicate, going by the smile on its face.)

Hyrax

This yellow-spotted rock hyrax seemed to have a smile on its face.

On our way to the Seronera Airstrip in the heart of Serengeti National Park, we came across a herd of hundreds of buffalo crossing the road in double- and triple-file. It was an astounding sight, with buffalo trailing toward both ends of the horizon as far as the eye could see. It’s the most buffalo I’ve ever seen at once. Our guide Modi said that they were all heading toward a watering hole down the hill. Cape buffalo don’t always travel in such large groups. But since the dry season has been long, watering places are fewer and farther between, so they were all headed to the same place.

Huge Herd of Cape Buffalo

A huge herd of approximately 250 Cape buffalo make their way down to the river in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

We also saw a young male lion guarding a recent kill. Although adult males generally don’t hunt for themselves — leaving it to the females of the pride to do the work — young ones that haven’t yet found females to support them do hunt for themselves. We also saw two very well-fed female lions by the side of the road; they had eaten so much that their bellies were distended. Other members of the pride were scattered here and there in the grasslands behind them.

Well-fed lionesses rest in the shade.

Last but not least, we saw a cheetah on the hunt. Unlike the cheetahs we say successfully hunt the other day, this one was by itself. When we first saw her, she seemed to have its eye on a group of mongooses that were running around under the trees. But as they came closer and she looked away, it became apparent that she was holding out hope for more substantial fare. There was a lone Thompson’s gazelle in a tree grove one- or two-hundred yards away, and she set her sights on it, moving so stealthily that we were certain she would bag this prey. But we were wrong: the Thompson’s gazelle managed to bolt away just in time.

Modi and Me

Our guide Modi was exceptional in his knowledge, attentiveness and effort.

And then it was time to say goodbye to our guide, Modi, and to the Serengeti. We got on our 13-passenger charter plane with Excel Air and flew to Zanzibar via Arusha, enjoying incredible views of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Indian Ocean on our way.

 

View of Ngorongoro Crater from our charter plane.

The midday weather in Zanzibar was a change from the Serengeti. Not surprisingly, it felt like a tropical island: a bit hotter and more humid than the mainland, but with a refreshing ocean breeze that made up for the difference. The culture is different here, too. While the majority of the population here is ethnic Swahili, Zanzibar was colonized by Portugal, Oman, and Great Britain before becoming an independent state in 1963. In 1964, it merged with Tanganyika on the mainland to form Tanzania. Zanzibar holds an important port on the spice route, so Indian and Persian traders have also influenced the culture. Ninety-nine percent of Zanzibar residents are Muslim.

Fishing Boats

Fishing boats on the coast of Zanzibar.

Upon our arrival in Zanzibar, we took a brief driving tour of Stone Town, the island’s historic and cultural center. With narrow streets and white building, the architecture is reminscent of a Middle Eastern market. There are plenty of shops where visitors can purchase art from the island and mainland, as well as restaurants that reflect the variety of cultures that are part of Zanzibar’s history: Indian, Persian, East African and Middle Eastern. Music fans take note: Stone Town is where Queen’s Freddie Mercury grew up, so make sure your guide points out his childhood home to you!

Old Fort

In Stone Town you can visit the Old Fort, which the Omani sultanate built in the seventeenth century to defend the island from the Portuguese. It’s also known as the Arab Fort.

We drove along the coast to familiarize ourselves with the island, then checked in at Shooting Star Lodge for the evening. Located on a hill above a private beach, Shooting Star has a relaxed, bohemian feel that encourages guests to slow down and enjoy the island beauty. As the locals here say in Swahili: “Pole, pole!” (“Take it easy!”) Rooms are simply appointed with Indian, Persian and local fabrics, and most include a veranda with an ocean view. Next to the open-air lounge, an infinity pool for swimming overlooks the beach. It’s a great place to watch the sun rise over the ocean.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star guest room.

After the sun set, we had a great view of the southern sky. Thanks to the ocean, there weren’t a lot of lights to interfere with the view, and I saw many constellations that we don’t get to see in the northern hemisphere this time of year.

Shooting Star

View of pool and Indian Ocean at Shooting Star, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Tanzania Day 7 – Serengeti

View from the front veranda of a guest tent at Eco-Lodge Grumeti.

We spent another day in the Serengeti area. In the morning, we visited Eco-Lodge Grumeti on hills outside of the national park’s central gate. It has 19 beautifully furnished permanent tents on high wooden platforms that overlook the savanna. Because it’s outside of the park, it’s able to offer night game drives, walking safaris and sundowners cocktail hours in the bush. (Inside the national parks, walking safaris and night game drives are generally prohibited.)

A bush hyrax enjoys a snack.

Back inside the park, we visited Mbuzi Mawe Serena, a 16-tent permanent camp whose name in Swahili means “klipspringer.” It’s an apt name because we saw at least three of the small antelopes during our visit. In addition to klipspringers, the hilly area attracts bush hyraxes (furry, guinea-pig-sized cousins of the elephant that dine on acacias and woody plants) and yellow-spotted rock hyraxes (which eat grasses, fruits and insects). We also saw several red-headed agama lizards basking on the rocks, the males occasionally doing rapid push-ups to flash their colors and claim territory.

Mbuzi Mawe Serena guest bedroom

Guests can view resident animals both day and night, thanks to night vision binoculars that Mbuzi Mawe keeps on hand. Other onsite activities include a spa that offers massages, manicures and pedicures. The lounge and rooms reflect the local landscape with  naturalistic wood furniture built from sturdy tree branches, while also embracing the modern conveniences of 24-hour electricity and hot water.

View from Pioneer Camp’s lounge

We then drove back across Serengeti National Park toward our night lodgings: Pioneer Camp, a luxury permanent-tented camp in the acacia woodlands. It has 12 ground-level tents with canvas floors, including one family tent. The 11 standard tents feature two double beds, a desk, lounge chairs, plenty of sisal and plush rugs, and an en suite bathroom with solar-heated hot water. Electrical lights operate 24 hours a day. The lounge offers beautiful views of the Serengeti; looking out toward the horizon one can see the woodlands transition into savannah and then into grasslands farther out to the east and hills to the south. Guests who want to avoid the sometimes bumpy drive from Arusha can take a charter plane to a nearby airfield and be picked up by lodge staff. The lodge provides safari guides and vehicles to guests who choose an all-inclusive package.

A lioness and cub dine on a recently killed cape buffalo.

On our way to Pioneer Camp, we had some notable sightings. We found three adult female lions and their cubs, some feasting on a recent buffalo kill, others napping in the shade. Lions can get territorial with their food, even within the family; when one of the cubs sidled up along a dining adult, he got to close and she growled at him until he backed away to another part of the buffalo. As we watched, a few of the dozing cubs woke up and started grooming each other, which soon turned into a lazy game of swat-and-pounce, then back to napping. (Napping is important for lions; they can sleep 18 to 23 hours a day.)

A giraffe bends down to pick up a rock.

We also encountered a giraffe who was sniffing around the base of a sausage tree (named after the long, sausage-shaped green pods it produces). Our guide explained that she was looking for fallen flowers and pods to snack on. It’s not easy for giraffes to pick things up from the ground: first, they have trouble seeing directly in front of them since their eyes are located on the sides of their heads; and second, they can’t spend a lot of time with their heads lowered because too much blood will flow to their brains, leading to faintness and possibly death. So her hunt was a hit-or-miss operation. She would crouch down, lower her mouth to the ground, quicly try to pick up something with her mouth, then raise her head back up above heart level so that the blood could flow back down her neck. We watched her do this a few times, but the only success she had was in picking up a rock. She quickly spit it out when she realized it wasn’t what she was looking for.

Room at Pioneer Camp

We arrived early at Pioneer Camp and were able to enjoy the view from the lounge before dinner. I retired early and from the safety of my tent enjoyed listening to the activity outside: lions, cape buffalo, hyenas, zebras and a leopard were all active in and around the camp. (Animals do not bother visitors in their tents; if you need to leave your tent at night, a guard who is familiar with the local animals and their activities will escort you to make sure that you don’t cross paths with any unwelcome visitors.) I fell asleep to the soothing sound of rain falling softly on the thirsty savanna.

Interesting Reads

Have you ever been amazed by stories of animal friendships? A new book Unlikely Friendships, by Jennifer Holland, brings you photographs and details on 47 charming and often tear-jerking relationships between animals, many of whom are born enemies. One of the included stories is that of Kamunyak, a lioness in Kenya‘s Samburu National Reserve, who is famous for adopting and nurturing abandoned oryx calves. Make sure you mention this story to us when you book your next Ujuzi safari to Kenya and maybe you’ll get to see Kamunyak!