As I gulped down – in quick succession – my second warm sugar-laden soft drink I dimly noticed that everybody in the village, right down to the three year old kids, was carrying a machete of some kind. To be frank, I was too shattered to care. But it did add a new dimension to my trip.
I was in Rwanda, and cycling part of the Congo-Nile trail. It’s a long trail of about 200+ km which meanders down the East side of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s great lakes and which forms the boundary between Rwanda and DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo for the uninitiated, and a no-go area for most sane people). Rewind nine months to the online research phase…
I had decided before setting off from Ireland on a volunteering trip to Rwanda that a weekend trip to cycle a chunk of this trail would be an ideal challenge, given my reasonable standard of road cycling. This, in retrospect, was my first mistake.
I had contacted a reputable tour firm online who would rent me a bike and even provide me (for a fee) with a guide who would be my minder, puncture repair specialist, and the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote. In fact his name turned out to be Bosco. The deal was that I’d make my way to Gisenyi at the Northwest corner of Rwanda where the land border with DRC exists. After picking up the bike, the guide and some supplies we’d head south along the lake, and get to a coffee drying station on the lakeshore called Kinunu by nightfall. Thereafter Plan A was to continue on to Kibuye on the lake, where I’d hop on a bus back to Kigali and the guide would get a boat back to our starting point (with my bike). Plan B was to get to Kinunu and ‘if it was too hard’ to then double back to Gisenyi. The distance from Gisenyi to Kibuye was about 50km. There was no Plan C but if there had been it probably should have involved a chopper or an air ambulance. More of that later.
Not being entirely clueless I had noticed during my initial three weeks in Rwanda that the slogan ‘Land of a thousand hills’ is entirely justified. There is hardly any flat ground. I don’t like cycling up hills, but hoped that along the lakeside the terrain would be gentle slopes rather than what I observed elsewhere. Mistake #2 was set in motion. A few other gentle hindrances emerged. Rwanda is a high altitude country. Your lungs suck in less oxygen. Also it can be hot and humid. The odds began to be stacked against me.
Despite all these premonitions and misgivings (I’m not a quitter) I turned up at the bike depot on the morning of August 15th, the day after my birthday – almost my last as it turned out. I met Bosco, an endlessly patient 23 year old whose main profession – apart from nursing basket cases like me along the trail – was a cycle taxi in Gisenyi. So his fitness was not in doubt, unlike mine. He carried my small pack, plus our water supply. I just carried my inadequacy for the task with as much dignity as I could muster. So what happened next? Steam of consciousness notes follow…
Set off from Gisenyi, nice bright day but lungs not working too well. Start to sweat profusely. Manage to get up the first hill, and then a very nervy descent the other side. It’s a dirt road but large parts of bare rock. The trail goes up and down like a yo-yo. Views are amazing Kids everywhere call ‘Good morning, how are YOU’. I have no breath to reply. Next hill. I can’t do it, get off and walk. Cassava drying by the roadside on sheets. Goats wandering along. Turkeys in villages. Mud blocks drying in mounds along the way. I’m shattered. Stop in a village for a warm Fanta. There is no electricity, but I don’t care. Small kids sidle up to me. I’m glad I have a local guide. I dimly notice that everyone in the village is carrying a machete or a sickle. Well its farming country I guess.
Back onto the bike, more hills. I’m drinking at least a litre of water an hour with added salts and it’s not enough. Bosco keeps answering calls on his basic mobile I wonder if he’s telling his mates he drew a real turkey here. I walk up the hills now, energy has been zapped by the heat, the altitude and frankly, the gradients. Finally my prayers are answered and we get to Kinunu. It’s up a huge hill and we have to do a two km cycle down from there to the lakeshore where we’re staying. The road is appalling. It’s basically bare rock and I don’t even know if a 4×4 could do it. We have to walk DOWN some of it, it’s so bad. We (well, I) stagger into the lodge at the lakeside. I literally fall off the bike onto a grassy patch. Bosco looks like he hasn’t broken sweat. I buy him a large beer. I’m too far gone to buy myself one and settle for two bottles of coke (sugar rush). I reflect on the over-ambition that brought me here and decide that if I survive this experience I will strive to become a better person.
I manage to have a primitive shower and wash the road off my extremities. I have not eaten since 7am, it’s now 2.30pm and I have absolutely no hunger, I’m too bushed. I try to sleep for the afternoon under a palm tree by Lake Kivu. I doze a bit but have recurring nightmares about the return leg. I eventually go to bed at 7pm (just after dark) in the hope that twelve hours sleep will recharge my batteries.
On reflection there may just have been a few more down-slopes on the way back to Gisenyi or maybe I knew what to expect this time. Or indeed maybe Bosco decided he had to nurse me back to base.
We did eventually make it back by early afternoon. About an hour before the end I took a tumble off the bike on a down-slope and was very lucky to escape with badly skinned knees, a cracked rib and a headache. I was (obviously) wearing a helmet, which definitely came in handy. I think I just hit a rock on the dirt road which ripped the handlebars from my hands. The rest was history and the crowd that gathered made oohing and aahing noises. I actually don’t know what would have happened if I had broken something but we’ll never find out. Thankfully.
Netting it down, I had an amazing trip to the fascinating country that is Rwanda. I have two souvenirs in the shape of scarred knees, a few sweat-stained photographs and a bunch of amazing memories. And a great dinner party story to boot.