In 1994, the year I was born, an event happened that would come to define Rwanda in the world’s collective memory and change the course of its history. On a smaller scale, but one particularly relevant to the subject matter of our documentary, Akagera Park went through its own defining moment in this same year. As the Genocide, then war, came to an end, thousands of refugees returned to the area of Akagera Park, in the Eastern region of Rwanda. The park was completely occupied by people, goats and grazing cattle, which resulted in huge levels of human wildlife conflict. The lion population was wiped out, along with most of the indigenous species of a park that had once been the pride of Rwanda.
23 years later, we find ourselves on foot, in the northern sector of Akagera national park with a specialist lion tracker also born in 1994. We have been stalking the lions for an hour, the beeps of the radio tracker providing a ‘Jaws’ like soundtrack to add another layer of tension to our patrol, with voices being kept to a hushed whisper and nothing to protect us from the lioness and four cubs for whom we are searching, other than the expertise of our fellow 23 year old, Jackson. He tells us that when his parents discovered that he wanted to become a Ranger, they had no idea what he meant. They still believe he is ‘grazing buffalo’, as farming is all they have ever known, however he embodies the optimism and forward thinking of the Rwanda that we were lucky enough to experience, and is part of a conservation project that we discovered to be something of a microcosm of the fast developing Rwanda as a whole. Anyway, back to the lion tracking…
Jackson and his two fellow Rangers can locate the lions from a few kilometres away with an aerial that they wave over their heads like an Olympic torch, guiding the way for us sweaty Mzungus to follow through the bush with our hearts beating in our ears, clinging to the illusion that looking through a camera sight will make you invincible. Every time that I look up from the viewfinder it suddenly strikes me just how exposed we are, and any crackle in the bushes inspires a quite rational panic that spills over into nervous laughter as the four of us catch each-others terror stricken facial expressions. We have placed all our trust in someone the same age as us, who we met about ten minutes before the tracking began and who seems to have a thrill seeking deathwish… but who are we to judge.
An hour into the proceedings Jackson stops dead.
Our hearts beat to the rhythm of his radio’s rapid electronic beat, which we take to mean this bloody lion is about to eat us one by one, and are still completely confused as to where it is. Suddenly Theo spots her, eyeing us up from under a tree, not even ten metres away. Theo has a knack for spotting lions, the last time being on the road as we were cycling, un-protected, through a park in Botswana. This time it was far closer, and even more terrifying due in part to the fact that she was protecting four young cubs, and if I know anything about animals, (humans included), it’s that they can be quite irrationally defensive of their offspring. We hold her gaze, until with one powerful movement she kicks up dust and disappears, perfectly camouflaged, into the undergrowth.
One day earlier, and we are racing along in a metal anti-poaching patrol boat, with Captain Theo (actually only a first mate) at the helm, and our full armoury of camera equipment, drone included, filming a team of six rangers on a high speed patrol boat flying along next to us, dodging hippos and crocodiles as they career as close as they can to the shore in order to keep an eye out for illegal fishing and poachers trying to cross into the park through the border lake. Deputé, the head of anti-poaching in the park, has treated us to one of the most exhilarating patrols of our trip, providing a stark contrast to our usual foot patrols with eyes glued to the ground in a search for snares. As we descend off the boat, our sea legs wobbling the first few steps, Benoit, the head of Rhino Tracking, runs down to us with an urgent message, we have to get to our camp as quickly as possible as there is a raging bull elephant heading straight for it who is known to push cars, and whatever he can find, into the lake for a bit of fun once a year. Hardly believing our ears we sprint to the car, driving as fast as possible to the camp spot.
It is worth mentioning how exposed this camp-site is; positioned in the middle of the park, with no fencing and no other campers. We had spent the previous night so terrified that at one point, while sitting around the fire, Waddi whispered, in his best impression of Withnail that there was ‘something out there’, and that it had just uttered a growl. We had proceeded to jump in the car, driving around like maniacs shining the torch out of the window, only to discover that it was in fact a bat… I digress.
Safe to say, we were not mauled by the rampaging bull elephant, and he didn’t even have a go at pushing our rental Rav 4 into the lake like some of our unfortunate predecessors. While we were keen to avoid this giant mammal’s company, one of the stories that took our interest in Akagera was the re-introduction of some of his horned cousins. It is a sign of their ambition, and confidence in the development of the park since it’s decimation post-1994, that Rhino are being re-located to the area. The whole western border of the park has been fenced, which stops any human wildlife conflict, and a team of Rangers lead by Benoit have become specialists in tracking and monitoring them. Johnno had the incredible opportunity to fly in a chopper at low altitude, where he saw ten Rhino, one of which was so aggressive that it charged the hovering helicopter, and was helping photograph the individual animals so that the Rhino monitors can keep a record of their condition… all because he won a round of rock, paper scissors. The whole flight happened before Waddi and I had even woken up, thus Johnno took it upon him self, as morning Sargent Major, to rudely rouse us from our slumber. Guiding the pilot to land right next to our tent, the blades kicking up clouds of dust, thudding with a roar and flapping our tent canvas like a loose sail, he jumped out of the door with Indiana Jones like zeal, ready to fill us in on his epic flight. Well, that is what we were later relayed, as by some utter miracle neither of us woke up… which is probably something Waddi should be concerned about with a career in the army ahead.
The reason we were so exhausted, to take the story back even further, was that we had finally reached Kigali, Rwanda, after our mammoth cycle through Tanzania, only to turn around and head straight to Akagera for four days of intense filming. The one night we did have in Kigali, however, led to one of the most spectacularly fortuitous encounters of the trip with a truly inspiring individual. Mio.
I threw in the towel for the last 50km of our ride into Kigali, having not slept the night before due to sickness and therefore having no power to get myself up the hills. This seemed like a depressing and embarrassing moment at the time, and it was miserable not to be riding into the city we had held up as our goal for so long, but, as fate sometimes dictates, it meant that I stumbled across someone that would leave a huge impression on us and provide the motivation that was more than necessary at this stage of the journey. I had an hour to kill in Kigali before the others arrived, and went for a walk near Theo’s cousin’s house in which we were generously allowed to stay. The first restaurant I came across was, of course, run by Japan’s most famous, and in our eyes legendary, bike-tourer.
When Mio was around our age she developed a passion for Africa, and more specifically cycling through it, and was so determined to prove her parents doubts wrong that she cycled around Japan in two months, gaining the attention of the national media who wrote an article about her ambition to ‘Cycle Africa’. This swayed her parents, and she soon found herself cycling, alone, with a shaved head and detachable beard, from Nairobi to Cape Town. Since then she has cycled almost every country we could mention, and has settled with her family in Kigali to run a Japanese restaurant. Meeting her would have been inspiring enough on it’s own, but while we were away filming in Akagera she took it upon herself to visit ten news agencies in Kigali, face to face, and invite them to a talk that she organised for us at her restaurant. We had no idea about any of this, so when we arrived back in Kigali to speak at what we thought would be a small under the radar gathering at a restaurant, we discovered, to our horror, that we would be speaking in-front of the cameras of the two largest tv-stations in Rwanda!
Mio’s humbling hospitality and generosity, combined with discovering Akagera’s unique and hugely positive story, regenerated us at the most necessary moment of the trip. Rwanda seemed to inject life and ambition back into our group, vindicating our choice to cycle this ridiculous route, and feeling inspired by Mio’s single mindedness and ambition. It is probably quite indulgent to bring up my family again at the end of my blog, as in my last blog I wrote about my excitement about entering into Malawi where my dad was born. Strangely, the end of this blog comes as we enter into Uganda, where he grew up, having moved there from Malawi. His dad, my granddad, passed away a few days ago, just as we were cycling into Entebbe, the town in which he brought up Dad, and somewhere he was extremely fond of. As someone who dedicated his life to Africa, and who used to look after an orphaned Cheetah and Chimp in his Entebbe house, it almost seems appropriate that the person who without doubt inspired my obsession with Africa and wildlife passed away just as we were gliding into his old Ugandan home. If that’s his way of passing on the baton, I hope this project does him proud.