Review by: Aaron & Judi Byrne

Overall Impressions

We had a wonderful experience from the moment we stepped off the plane until we cleared security at the airport on our return. The properties were wonderful, and I will discuss that below, but I want to particularly comment here on the arrangements made by Donna. We were met off the plane by a representative of Akagera Aviation. He helped us through the visa process and escorted us to a lounge where we took our COVID tests while he collected our luggage and arranged payment for the tests. Once we were set there, he brought us to Gervais, our driver from Thousand Hills Africa to be transported to our hotel. Gervais also handled our transportation to Akagera N.P. and then to Volcanoes N.P. Finally, Gervais collected us for our drive back to Kigali, assisted us with our rapid test, and handed us off to another Akagera Aviation representative to bring us through the airport and to our flight. Why have I written so much about this? These arrangements took care of everything that might have been even the least bit difficult about our vacation and allowed us to simply enjoy everything that we went to Rwanda to experience. Some may consider these little things, but they were enormous in my mind.

Countries Visited

Rwanda

Rwanda is an amazing country. Though we did not experience Kigali, our time in Akagera N.P. and Volcanoes N.P. compares favorably to the extraordinary experiences we had in Tanzania and Kenya in September 2019. The people we encountered were friendly. The staff at the properties were exceptional, as we have now come to expect. Akagera provides the "traditional" safari experience of the Big 5 and varied animals along with exceptional birding. The overwhelming distinction in comparison to Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Maasai Mara, etc. is how few people we encountered. After a few days, we had found more leopards on night drives (2) than other safari trucks (1). We realize that the pandemic was something of a factor here, but even with full camps, we would have found very few other visitors in the park. Volcanoes N.P., while comparatively more crowded (as we all had to gather for treks at the park HQ), offered experiences unlike almost anywhere else in the world. The up-close encounters with the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys are without rival or comparison. To be able to have all of these experiences within the confines of a single country is exceptional.

Accommodation Visited

Kigali Serena Hotel

We felt very safe at the hotel (temperature screening and metal detector upon arrival). Our room was comfortable for the duration of our quarantine day, including our balcony overlooking the pool area. The variety offered at brunch met our high expectations.

Magashi Camp

To pick a favorite aspect of Magashi would be impossible, so in no particular order: 1. The staff, to a person, were wonderful. They met our every need, but also shared stories and conversations that made our stay all the more pleasant. 2. The camp location, to put it plainly, is in the middle of beautiful nowhere. The lakefront tents offer a serene setting, and some of our favorite animal sightings came from our deck. The rolling green hills and valleys as well as the open plains offer such a variety of animals and scenery. We were blissfully disconnected from the outside world. 3. Our guide, Luke, was exceptional. His ability to sight animals and his knowledge were impressive. He cheerfully adapted to our desire to find all the birds the park had to offer. He gave us great experiences each day. 4. We were thrilled to find that night drives and boat drives were not one-and-done experiences as we expected. The boat allowed us a new perspective on the animals as the came to the lake to eat, drink, or relax. The night drives afforded us opportunities to see nocturnal animals active and moving, not just sleeping in the shade of a tree. All the better, we had several chances to experience Akagera these ways.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge

Sabyinyo's staff were extraordinarily attentive and helpful. We did not lift a finger, which we have come to expect on these safari holidays, but it was all the more important while at the lodge at elevation when we seemed to always be going uphill. The lodge had a comfortable, charming character. The creaky wood floors, fireplaces, and exceptional views from every room were pleasant and relaxing. Our cottage offered plenty of room to spread out as well as exceptional views when the clouds lifted. Our steward attended to so many needs and wants, but the nearly magical work to clean our mud-caked boots was as valuable as any service he provided. The lodge's proximity to the trekking locations was also invaluable - to have such a short return journey after a challenging trek is quite valuable. Lastly, the lodge's grounds, including a large flower garden, provided great birding and even golden-monkey viewing.

Staff Review

When we traveled to Tanzania and Kenya in 2019, Donna gave us great advice and put together a wonderful itinerary that accommodated our requests, but she also advised against certain ideas based on her knowledge and experience. It was for both of those reasons that we knew we would work with Donna again when we decided to go back to the continent. Once again, Donna put together a great itinerary and accommodated our adjustments and requests. We mentioned above the great experience of being met off the plane by someone to assist us through the airport - that was a valuable additional service. Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is the experience we had as we took what was a December 2020 trip and shifted it by a year due to the pandemic. Donna ably worked with us to answer questions, gather information, recommend timing of decisions, and change arrangements. But, it did not stop with that one decision point to delay by a year. It was also in March, with nine months to go for our new itinerary, when Donna adjusted our hotel arrangements to account for an extra day on the front end to allow for a newly required quarantine day upon arrival. And then with six weeks to go, when KLM canceled our return flight, Donna arranged for an additional day at Magashi, and a lift-and-shift of our Sabyinyo accommodations by one day along with the corresponding moves for our trekking permits. We only regret that the next several trips for us will take us to other parts of the world where Donna and Mahlatini can't help us. We have given Donna's name to friends and even strangers when talking about going on safari, and we will continue to do so. We hope it will be not too far in the future when we reach out to Mahlatini again to go back to Africa.