Aspen Heights Awake in Rwanda – Day 5

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This post was written by Zac Dupwe, Operations Manager at Aspen Heights Norman

Welcome back, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and following our trip experience so far. Let’s not waste anytime and dive straight into another day of our experience. Ready, set, go!

Today was lead with prominent new emotions of excitement and fear broadcasting out to the tune of a lions roar, an elephants trumpet, and a warthogs squeal. Yes, that’s right my friends today was safari day!

We loaded up our bags early in the morning in preparations for our 2 hour drive to the eastern border of Rwanda. There lies the the Akagera National Park. This 463 square mile nature preserve was created to be a safe haven from poachers that ravaged the countries wild life in exchange for furs and tusks. It’s now home to thousands of animals ranging from birds, antelope, elephants, lions, monkeys, hippos and many more. Next year the park plans to reintroduce rhinos into the area.

We were split into two groups and climbed into what appeared to be the stretch version of our respective Land Rover’s and started down the path.

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Within 10 minutes later, we came across a small section of one of the numerous lakes in the park and before our eyes were close to a dozen hippos creeping their way back into the water. Well at least that was the case until we pulled up, at which point they all but stampeded into the muddy water disappearing below the surface. After a few minutes their heads slowly began to reappear above the surface to check if the coast was clear and opened their mouths wide to show that they were much more confident now that they were in their preferred element. We only bothered them for a few moments before moving onto see more of what the park had to offer.

We drove for hours seeing all kinds of gracious animals and our very charming and knowledgable guide, Goffrey, told us three times as many facts about each of the animals we saw. Once we reached the other side of the park we stopped for a quick lunch and then began our trek across across the mountainous region of the park which would showcase a few other animals we had not seen yet: zebra, antelope, crocodiles, buffalo and of course giraffes!

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We had been unsuccessful at locating the elephants and the lions at that point. This was most likely caused by the intensely heavy rain that happened shortly after lunch. The road was bumpy coming down the mountain and had begun to shake not only our bodies, but our spirits along with it. While we had accepted the possibility of not seeing the lions (since they were just reintroduced a few months ago and there are only 7 of them at the moment), we were now beginning to lose hope on seeing the enormous elephants that had been “talked up” throughout the week leading up to today’s adventure.

After a long and bumpy ride down the mountain, we were about 15 minutes from the park’s exit. As we approached an area that we had driven through earlier in the trip looking for animals, we got the shock of a lifetime. There stood an elephant almost twice the size of our vehicle in the middle of the road! We screamed with excitement like little kids getting a snow day as we scurried around the inside of the vehicle trying to open all the windows and scrambling for our phones and cameras.

This elephant was absolutely beautiful. The shear size left us in awe as we watched it feed itself using its powerful trunk to rip whole branches off of the trees. Our excitement quickly changed to fear as we realized our guides were beginning to worry. We failed to realize the danger of the situation we had just stumbled upon as our safari guide and driver began to restore our safety.

Each vehicle slowly made its 5 point turn on this dirt path so that our cars were now facing the direction we had just came from. Our safari guide, Geoffrey, was now explaining that elephants can be very confrontational and we could not simply drive past him or he would charge the vehicle. Goffrey also proceeds to tell us that elephants can run up to 20 miles per hour which would have been impossible to achieve in reverse. Once the vehicles were turned around we were reassured that everything was fine now because we would be able to get away.

As we took pictures of the elephant, it slowly moved towards us with curiosity as it effortlessly tore down trees lining the road like a child playing with dominos. That’s when the elephant flared his ears out and just stopped in its tracks with one foot still off the ground. It was like It was a mime acting out a skit where he was frozen in time. The guides laughed because they knew what was about to come. It turns out the elephant was trying to intimidate us. When we didn’t retreat, it then made its move.

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This 9,000 pound animal charges at our truck and our driver quickly stomps the gas and we get away! This happens about 3 or 4 more times before the elephant walks away from the path and goes into the woods. Our cars turn back around as we all replayed the moments both in our heads and on our cameras. Our prayers had been answered and even though we hadn’t seen a lion, not one of us were even the slightest bit unhappy with the outcome of the safari experience.

We stayed the night at a lodge located in a fenced in area of the park. We were served an amazing dinner and even through all of the excitement there was still a peace that had come over all of us that day. Maybe it was the breathtaking views of the lake and mountains where the animals often roamed or possibly because of the way in which the horizon seemed to go on forever from the top of mountain pass. Who knows, maybe it was knowing that our trip was coming to an end the next day. Whatever it was, I’d say that our team had “synced with nature” that day and our conversations at dinner seemed that much more enjoyable and touched us deeply.

I personally awoke from the best nights sleep i had gotten all week and watched the African sunrise in all of its glory (I may or may not have been listening to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King soundtrack in the process). Our trip concluded its last day with a morning ride around the lake where we saw elephants playing in the water, hippos, birds and even a floating island of papyrus plants that moves around the lake. We said our goodbyes to the park staff as we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags for our flight back that evening.

This trip has given me more than I could have ever asked for and for that I can never be thankful enough. Stay tuned for our final blog post as we share our departing moments leaving Rwanda and our overall feeling of this life changing experience!

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