The road through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda was blocked. Two giraffes had positioned themselves smack in the middle of the dirt road and were rubbing their necks together.
In the car, with a driver and a guide, my cell service was long gone; there was nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda’s borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over each other to get the perfect photo of a scene like this.
They’re driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that peoples’ binocular straps get tangled up.
It makes sense: the animal migrations that occur in this part of the world these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth.
But in Akagera, an eight-hour day in the park concluded without the sighting of another tourist. I did, though, see those necking giraffes, as well as plenty of snorting rhinos, brilliantly hued birds and lumbering elephants.
Despite the modest tourism numbers — 37,000 visitors in 2017, up from 15,000 visitors in 2010 — Akagera is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.
When most people think of Rwanda, they still think of the genocide against Tutsi, and even out here in the park, it casts a long shadow.
In 1994, when Rwandans turned on each other and more than a million people were killed, many fled the violence and ended up within the confines of Akagera National Park, at that time a 60-year-old park.
Once in the park, people started hunting animals for food and commerce, and amid the frightening chaos, there was no park management to stop them. Like the rest of the country, the park was decimated.
In 1997, as the country rebuilt, 50 percent of the park’s land was granted to the refugees, so that they could begin their lives again.
Then, in 2009, the Rwanda Development Board and African Parks signed a joint agreement establishing a management company for the remaining 433 square miles of the park, turning the page on the park’s history.
It’s one of many initiatives that African Parks, a nonprofit conservation NGO supported by Prince Harry, has expanded across the continent.
African Parks takes over management of floundering protected areas in partnership with countries including Malawi, Chad and the Central African Republic, offering seed money for infrastructure, and then sending the profit once the tourists start arriving back into the management of the park.
For some, the model problematically passes the buck away from the local government that should be investing in the park area; for others, it’s a realistic approach in countries where poverty is a bigger concern than bird counts.
“Akagera’s conservation story is similar to Rwanda’s story,” said Sarah Hall, Akagera’s tourism and marketing manager. “This is a story about rehabilitation and reconciliation.”
Ms. Hall’s mission is to bring Akagera back to life. An electric fence put up around the park to keep poachers away is monitored by a canine unit and 80 rangers. Rangers also work on building back trust with the local community.
“Years ago, members of the community poisoned 300 lions because they were killing cattle,” said Theogen Gashagava, one of the rangers who walks the park’s perimeters.
“Now if they find an animal in their backyard, they know to call the park.” Park headquarters features a high-tech lab full of computer screens and tracking equipment staffed by locals.
For lodging, the park contains one flavorless hotel, Akagera Game Lodge, with a baboon problem — I spilled my coffee in fright when a surprise guest jumped onto my balcony — but a better choice is Ruzizi Tented Lodge, run by African Parks.
Rustic cabins are linked by elevated wooden walkways over papyrus swamps, lending a treehouse vibe to the place.
The showcase is a crescent-shaped patio built out over the edge of Lake Ihema, which happens to be a popular hang spot for a pack of hippopotamus.
While guests nibble on pastries and fruit in the morning, the hippos heave into each other in the water, occasionally smashing their tusks together to create a startling clacking sound in early morning tussles.
Headed north from Ruzizi, an Akagera game drive is also a five- to seven-hour highlight reel of gorgeous east African landscapes: open plains, scraggly highlands and the swampy waters of Africa’s largest protected wetlands.
At the north end of the park, the Karenge Bush Camp brings lucky visitors into even closer — if more rustic — proximity with Akagera’s natural surroundings.
The camp consists of a small grouping of six glamping-style tents (housing a maximum of 12 visitors), set out on a bluff overlooking a valley pixelated by packs of antelopes and zebras. At night, guests gather in camp chairs around a fire; leopards sometimes drop by to visit.
The biggest draw of Akagera, though, might be a major new milestone the park recently hit. Today, Akagera is one of a select number of parks with the “Big Five”: lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros.
Though that term comes from hunting culture, it is now the crowning achievement of many safari-going tourists. Lions were reintroduced to Akagera in 2015, and in 2017 the introduction of 18 critically endangered Eastern black rhinos — rhinos shipped up from South Africa by African Parks — granted the once-ravaged Akagera that new Big Five designation.
Although I did not spot a black rhino, other members of the Big Five appeared without much fanfare: A lunchtime picnic was interrupted by a passing family of elephants, and a night drive was slowed by a leopard, who sniffed our car and then flopped down by the side of the road to bathe herself.
But the thing that might bring the most tourists is not the night drive, or the bush camp, or even the Big Five. Rather, it’s the fact that Akagera is only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.
Visitors won’t need to hire a driver with a 4WD, they won’t need to buy a plane ticket for a puddle-hopper and there’s not even much of a need to book a hotel room if you don’t want to; Akagera could be a long day trip.
Day-trippers, though, would be missing out on the company of hippos at breakfast.
Editor [originally a New York Times story but slightly re-edited]
Shannon Sims was a 2018 African Great Lakes Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation.