Our flight was delayed by Mr Fisher. Or Fischer. Fysher, maybe. I thought about it a lot. Who was this man who had checked his luggage but never made it to the flight? ‘Maybe he had to go home for an emergency?’, I said. ‘Dead in the toilet’, said Sara.
We rushed at Brussels airport to get our connecting flight to Kigali, via a stop in Entebbe. (Hashtag travel blogger. Done Uganda. OMG hashtag two countries in one hour. Avocado emoji. Hashtag vom. Or something similar.)
Sara worked at hacking the inflight entertainment system whilst the man in front of her jiggled back and forth, shuffling his bum bag from side to side and plucking long white hairs from his nose.
‘It’s Monday?’ I asked, too many times. I ate an inflight meal of bread roll and antihistamines and snuggled into my blanket-like shawl stroking it gently and calling it my new best friend.
Some months earlier I’d met Sara through Instagram. She lived not so far from me and always shared pictures of her lovely old house, antiques and things. One day we met for a cup of tea, and the next, well…
Sara told me she’d spent years working on a book about lions for Bloomsbury. I was enthralled. I couldn’t believe that I’d not known how close lions had come to extinction in the wild. In Rwanda, they’d been completely wiped out in the 1990s because of the horrific Genocide.
Sara told me there was a chance for me to do something, to travel with her and document a project in Akagera, where lions had been successfully reintroduced. I was in, totally in, but there was a slight hitch – no funding. I’d have to take time out of work, work for free, and pay for the privilege. Sara said she couldn’t afford this either, she’d put everything into the book, so she set up a Crowdfunder for When The Last Lions Roars, and asked people to support us, writer and photographer, to go to Rwanda and get the story direct from the lions mouth (Spoiler, we didn’t meet any lions).
I was overwhelmed by the support from people I knew, people who I didn’t expect to be interested in what I was up to, let alone be so generous. Three quarters of the funding came from those dear kind people, and a bit more from my things that Sara sold.
So, there I was, flying to Africa with a woman who I only really knew through tiny squares on the internet, Instagram snapshots of her life through her eyes.
After a long queue (a short queue, a long time) for our Visas we stepped out into the night. The air was warm and smelt of wood fires. Armed police stood on street corners, dressed as men, looking like boys. Our driver took us to the hotel, up and down hills, the city scattered with lights. ‘Left hand drive!’ I exclaimed, at last noticing. Sara shrugged, ‘You’ll be fine’.
We checked in to the Marriott Hotel, admired the carpet, and headed up to our room. The lift doors opened, two men stood there, half dressed in robes. Three floors up and we’d already learnt that they were from Istanbul, they knew the city, and they would be in the bar for drinks later should we wish to join them.
I had other plans. Chugging a pot noodle in my hotel room was top of my list.
Hold the line. I noted that our toilet was branded Toto. And that we were in Africa. (If you get that you’re a music fan of the 80s).
It took me a while to get to sleep, overtired and slightly startled by hearing Sara demand ‘Sleep!’ as she dozed off (apparently it was a ‘silent’ meditation).
We woke to a view over the city and a large buffet breakfast.
Heading to the airport to pick up our pre-booked hire car we discovered that it wasn’t at the airport at all. There was a man there, holding a sign that read ‘Mr Harvey Karen’ and looking very bewildered. When we finally arrived at Europcar the car that was ready for Mr Harvey Karen wasn’t available to Miss Karen Harvey and we were asked to fork out another $100 for a new Toyota Fortuna, which turned into a beat-up Land Cruiser after the payment had gone through.
I’ve never driven a manual left-hand drive 4×4 through an African capital city before. (Make that – I’ve never driven a left hand drive anything, or a 4×4, or been to Africa.) First stop petrol station, then road works.
Attempting to master the knackered clutch and spongey brakes, we set off on our 100km journey across the land of a thousand hills, east to Akagera National Park.
I focused myself on the busy roads – first swerving pot holes, cars, trucks and cyclists, then later, school children, bicycles laden with bananas, and a mongoose. Gentle rain fell on the dusty red roads as we headed further and further from civilisation.
After several hours we arrived at Akagera National Park. Relief. Tiny brightly coloured birds bathed by a dripping water tap and baboons hung out on a football pitch. We were met by Park Manager Jes Gruner, he gave us a brief introduction to the wonderful work they’re doing there, and then took us to meet the dogs.
Raging and snarling at their kennel doors, these beasts were quite terrifying, trained to take down a poacher in a matter of moments. Rizo was let out, immediately calmed, looking up with adoration at Jes, most obviously his favourite human, and then moving over to me with his big brown eyes for a good rubbing.
As he walked away to get back to work Jes pointed at my blue t-shirt and said, ‘Don’t wear that tomorrow’. It seems the tsetse fly likes blue, and black, so much so that the park had hung striped flags around to attract the flies away from us.
We checked in to the Game Lodge. I checked my suitcase – all blue and black.
The lodge had an air of 1960s holiday chalets, not at all what I had imagined. The curtains were a heavy patchwork of animal print. We slept under a big mosquito net. Sara tucked me in, passing me my laptop, phone, books, water and more. It felt like indoor camping.
Waking to a breakfast of banana cake, watermelon and anti-malarials, we gathered our packed lunches and headed out from the lodge to pick up my new co-driver, 22-year-old community freelance guide, and custard-cream eating kind heart, Maddy Uwase.
It was time to go on a lion hunt, and we were more than ready.
With great thanks to Kigali Marriott Hotel for hosting me and my guest for a night in their wonderful new hotel.