Since the much-publicized troubles of the 1990s 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 Mountain Gorilla. Our time spent with a troop of these superb creatures may be the highlight of the tour, but it will by no means be the only one. Before reaching the lofty home of the gorilla, we will have explored the varied habitats of Akagera National Park, a mix of wetlands and forest alive with birds, and the remarkably bird-rich Nyungwe Forest National Park, home to 25 Albertine Rift endemics.
Rwanda is acquiring a reputation as one of the safest and friendliest countries in Africa, and its government is adopting an enlightened attitude toward wildlife and conservation—plastic bags are banned everywhere in the country, for instance. Our accommodations will be a series of well-appointed lodges, all connected by an excellent road system.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Night in Kigali.
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 is cultivated, we’ll stop along the way at some areas of marsh where we can expect to see 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 colored Village, Black-headed (or Yellow-backed), and striking Vieillot’s Black Weavers busy nest building, or perhaps a perching White-headed Black Chat. 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.
Akagera National Park, covering more than 400 square miles, was founded in 1934 to protect animals and vegetation in three ecoregions: savanna, mountain, and swamp. The Kagera River flows along its eastern boundary and feeds several lakes, the largest of which is Lake Ihema. More than a third of the park is made up of a complex system of lakes and linking papyrus swamps, the largest protected wetland in central Africa.
Much of the vegetation is dense, but where small plains open up, we’ll see herds of African Buffalo, Impala, Zebra, and Topi, while smaller antelope such as Bushbuck and Reedbuck can be found throughout the park. African Elephants tend to stay around the lakes or buried in the dense bush; in contrast, 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 search the varied habitats for many of them, as well as taking time to admire the numerous 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 that are here for the winter. Among the dense papyrus we’ll see Lesser and possibly Greater Swamp Warblers, Slender-billed Weaver, and the dainty Swamp Flycatcher, another regional specialty.
The lakes and connecting papyrus swamps were 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 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 the savanna and forests are home to a different suite of birds. 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 Queleas inhabit the grassland and are often joined by 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. 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 southwest to the Nyabarongo River. We’ll spend a few hours searching the papyrus for 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 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. 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 the largest expanse of montane forests left on the African continent and an area rich in birds, including most of the Albertine Rift endemics. Among the mosaic of forested gullies, scrubby slopes, Hagenia montane forest, and montane swamps we’ll search for such birds as 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 and White-bellied Robin Chats, 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.
Birding in this lush, dense forest will present its challenges, but a dazzling array of species are 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 Monkey or Boehm’s Squirrel. In addition, more than 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. We’ll break our journey at Kibuye with a night on the lakeshore. Night at Kibuye.
Day 11: Today we’ll 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 1960s, and if the weather is clear, we’ll see some of the region’s towering conical peaks. As we near our destination we’ll 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.
Day 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 the gorillas can be quite short, but on most days an hour or two of hiking each way is necessary. A professional gorilla tracker will coach us in the safety rules and body language required to come close to the troop. The climb begins in the lush terraced farmland of the lower volcanic slopes, but once we enter the national park the vegetation becomes thick and tangled, and our guides will use their machetes to help clear a path. They will be in touch by radio with trackers who have gone ahead to locate the troop, which usually consists of a dominant male and several females and their young. Once they have been 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 relaxing on the lodge grounds. Here the dense vegetation 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. Night at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge.
Day 13: We’ll spend the morning visiting a local “ecopark” where a series of moss-covered steps will take us to the top of small hill. Here we may see Tambourine Dove, the noisy Tropical Boubou, and Nubian Woodpecker, while smart White-headed Sawwings glide past hawking for insects. After lunch we’ll set out on the return trip to Kigali, where the tour concludes in time to connect with international flights home.