Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

APE EXPECTATIONS; A New Direct Flight Means Gorillas Are Even Easier to Reach - but Rwanda, Has More to Offer, Says SARAH MARSHALL

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

APE EXPECTATIONS; A New Direct Flight Means Gorillas Are Even Easier to Reach - but Rwanda, Has More to Offer, Says SARAH MARSHALL

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH MARSHALL

IT'S Saturday morning in downtown Kigali and the streets are curiously empty. There are no cars roaring along the smooth Tarmac roads, and only a few people milling in manicured parks.

There's not a spot of litter, either.

No chewing gum underfoot.

It's not what you expect in a capital city. But Rwanda is full of surprises.

Just 23 years after genocide devastated the country, reducing the population of seven million by almost a third, the small East African nation has lofty sights set on progress.

There's a flashy new Radisson Blu convention centre, and national airline RwandAir has invested in a fleet of sleek new A330s to operate the first direct route between London and Kigali, which launched at the end of May.

Then there's the commendable commitment to conservation.

Umuganda, the obligatory monthly street clean-up I'm witnessing, is all part of that. But one of the biggest surprises came last month, when the Rwandan Development Board announced the price of gorilla permits would double to $1,500.

Gorilla treks make up the bulk of the country's tourism revenue, and the move has provoked mixed responses. The decision to keep visitors at a sustainable level and increase community investment is admirable, but there's a risk tourists will simply switch to cheaper neighbour Uganda.

Leaving Kigali behind me, we drive 100km east to Akagera National Park on the border with Tanzania.

One of the It's Rwanda's oldest park but years of poaching and conflict between community and wildlife as a result of cattle grazing, left it in decline.

Seven years ago, the park was restored, with a recent relocation of 18 black rhino from South Africa giving it Big Five status - lions, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

As part of the new gorilla permit scheme, tourists will receive a 30% discount if they stay three or more nights here, an incentive to get people exploring more of the country.

Lemon-yellow wildflowers waltz with wispy blades of long grass as we drive along one of two main roads in the scenic park, where hilltop views cascade down to lakes, savannah plains and swampland.

juvenile gorillas Lumbering buffalo search for scraps of shade beneath a wiry acacia tree, restless zebra dust bathe in the sunset-red African soil, and swarms of darting queria birds form the only clouds in an unadulterated cerulean sky.

Given the relatively small populations (there are just 19 reintroduced lions, a fraction of the 300 poached to disappearance), seeing big game isn't easy but we do catch sight of a regal elephant as we sensibly avoid the stony glares of irritable hippos on a motorboat ride across Hema lake.

Although currently lacking the near-guaranteed drama of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, Akagera does benefit from far fewer crowds and lower prices. …

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