I recently completed an amazing journey; three days of mountain biking on Rwanda’s Congo-Nile Trail. The bike trip offered incredible scenery, a tremendous physical challenge and a chance to better understand one of the more intriguing countries in Africa.
Since I was short on both time and experience navigating around Rwanda, I booked the trip through Rwandan Adventures. They (especially Joanna) took care of providing bikes, a guide and bookings for accommodations, all at a very reasonable price and with amazing service.
I booked the trip for two reasons. First, I read about it in a U.S. newspaper (see here for the article) and thought that it sounded like great fun. Second, I have been lecturing and writing for many years about how economic conditions contribute to genocides (a short excerpt of my lectures is found in chapter 4 here). Rwanda features prominently in the lectures because in roughly 100 days during 1994 the country experienced a genocide that killed somewhere between one half-million to a million people. I wanted to see Rwanda because book learning only takes you so far. Seeing and experiencing things in person often provides much greater clarity and understanding of a situation.
Since other people have detailed exactly where they stopped and the specific conditions of various guest houses (see here for an excellent blog and some of the Tripadvisor comments here) I will not repeat these details. Instead I will try to give you an overview of one of the most memorable bike trips I have taken.
The Trail runs along the shore of Lake Kivu and offers amazing views of the lake, steep mountainsides, waterfalls, coffee fields and many rural villages and towns. You can even occasionally see the Democratic Republic of Congo depending on the clouds and your location along the trail.
The Congo-Nile Trail provides some of the water for two of Africa’s most important rivers. Depending on what side of the trail you are standing on, water dropped on the ground either makes its way to the headwaters of the Congo River (flowing toward where the Atlantic Ocean meets West Africa) or the headwaters of the Nile River (flowing toward where the Mediterranean meets Egypt). The water helps make the Trail so beautiful and so lush.
The trail is physically challenging for a number of reasons. First, the Western part of Rwanda is roughly a mile above sea-level. For people who live in Mexico City or Denver, Colorado, starting a bike trip in Rwanda is not a problem. I live very close to sea level. This meant that my ears popped a number of times riding on the bus trip from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to the start of the trail. Plus, I felt tired from being in the thin air even before I got on the bike. If you have time, try to spend a day acclimatizing instead of following my lead and showing up the night before the trip begins.
Second, the trail is steep. The first day I pedaled every bit, but as I got more tired on the following days I found there were places where pushing the bike up-hill was easier than pedaling. Also there are a large number of bridges, each of which consists of about a dozen small logs laid side by side. These logs make it easy for foot-traffic and vehicles to pass over but I had to stop at most of them to avoid catching my wheels in the gaps between the logs. Stopping, especially when you are bombing down a hill, ruins all of your momentum and starting up again takes extra work.
An Intriguing Country: Rwanda
The U.S. State Department (click here) lists “Safety and Security” concerns that U.S. travelers might face for every country in the world. These safety pages, even for what I consider very safe countries like England, have huge numbers of warnings. England has 7 dense paragraphs about crime, followed by 4 dense paragraphs on scams and fraud. Rwanda is very different. It is currently one of the safest nations in Africa and the State Department’s concerns about crime fit in a single paragraph and primarily warn visitors about pick-pockets and petty theft. After a few days in Rwanda it seemed clear to me that the country was quite safe.
People in Rwanda were also quite friendly. On one very steep hill a small group of villagers passed me as I was pushing my bike up the slope (obviously it was because they were used to the altitude and I wasn’t or at least that is the small lie I tell myself). A man saw me struggling, took over and pushed the bike up to the top of the hill for me. Twice we were caught in a sudden downpour of rain and the closest people immediately invited us to shelter in their home or shop.
While the scenery is gorgeous and the people are friendly the genocide still lurks in the background. We passed one genocide memorial that was right by the trail. The owner of one of the bed-and-breakfasts related how her parents and brother were all killed not far from where we slept. Other people we talked to discussed how the genocide impacted their lives. I went thinking that visiting Rwanda would make understanding the genocide simpler. However, the more I learned the more complex the genocide became.
Overall, the Congo-Nile trail was very memorable. Rwandan Adventures provided great bikes, a great guide and took great care of us. The scenery was spectacular. The trail was tough enough to test most mountain bikers’ skills, but not so tough that you want to give up. Finally the Rwandan people we met and their experiences are unlike what you encounter in most other places in the world.
So what are you waiting for? Get on that exercise bike and start training so you don’t need an excuse when someone pushes your bike to the top of the next hill.