The Land of a thousand hills! (Kigali, Rwanda – KM18,635)

Of course our 90-day East Africa visas were about to expire and we had not entered Rwanda yet, the third of three countries (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda) included in the immigration safe-conduct. We thought for a minute about riding our bicycles from Uganda to Tanzania, skipping Rwanda altogether. Our minds thought it a practical move but our hearts paid another USD 30 each for Rwandan visas. The small country was too attractive to pass up. On top of the promise of great cycling in “the Land of a thousand hills” we felt an emotional connection to Rwanda, for Roméo Dallaire, a military commander from our home province, was in charge of the ineffective UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) during the genocide. He wrote the book “Shake hands with the Devil: the failure of humanity in Rwanda” about the vertiginous descent into hell and killing of a million people (Tutsis and moderate Hutus) that unfolded almost without interference for three months in 1994. Also, soon after the tragedy ended, French-speaking Rwandan refugees arrived in Québec and are now part of the social fabric, some of them successful comedians and pop stars.

“Rwanda is more than gorillas and genocide”, Harriet exclaimed. The spunky coordinator at Red Rocks Rwanda knew what she was talking about. With her mandate to help women’s cooperatives, farming associations and school projects, on top of leading the community-based cultural exchanges and guesthouse at Red Rocks, Harriet represents a new Rwanda, a busy Rwanda, clean and organized, with new city names (we have added the old place-names in brackets, some of which are still commonly used) and ethnic divisions erased. A country that went to the abyss of anarchy and violence then rolled up its sleeves, pushed by President Kagame, and is bubbling over with a sense of unlimited possibilities.

Pierre and I will go to great lenghts to hit a scenic road. In Rwanda there was no need as amazing cycling roads and tracks blended into each other uninterrupted—although not without effort: our Suunto Ambits tell us we have climbed over 9,000 metres in the last 560 kilometres!

From Kisoro to Lake Kivu

From Kisoro, the small country town located on the northern edge of the Virunga volcanoes, in Uganda, it is a one hour ride to the Rwandan border. After a painless crossing we ditched the left hand-side of the road—where we had been since the beginning of October, upon entering Kenya—and made our way across the roadway. It was surprisingly awkward, and the first roundabouts near-disasters, luckily there were few vehicles. The bulk of road users were pedestrians and cyclists and it stayed that way for the next 500 kilometres!

In Musanze (Ruhengeri) we stopped for a few days to level off the cultural shock often felt after a border crossing. Musanze was spotless, people were busy sweeping, repairing, washing, as if neat freaks made up most of the population. President Kagame has said, “We have to work on the minds of the people. We have to take them to a level where people respect work and work hard, which has not been the case in the past. You have to push and push.” For many reasons there was a sense of encountering a place like Rwanda for the first time, not the least of them the national ban on plastic bags and the female majority parliament.

Upon leaving Musanze our path crossed a peloton of Lycra-clad speed machines in training, certainly the local Team Rwanda. The buttery smooth pavement climbed to 2,600 metres, skirting the base of volcano Karismbi (4,507m)–home of gorilla researcher Dian Fossey‘s grave—and descended towards Lake Kivu. Silently hoping the swahili mzungu cry would have not reached the small nation I was dissapointed to be called mzungu more than ever. I know it is all in good fun but being distinguished because of my “tribe”, the color of my skin, burned even more in a place where being specific about ethnic backgrounds—formerly Hutu, Tutsi and Batwa—is against the law. Rwanda’s new enthusiasm for unity and oneness made it more than inappropriate for us to ask about the Batwa, the former hunter-gatherers Pygmy people, so we did not.

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You can hear Sheba before you can see him. The loud, gregarious owner of the Golden Monkey Guesthouse is known and well-regarded all over southern Uganda, provinding support to the Mutanda Eco Community Centre (MECC), the Batwa Music Club–private performance below–, and others. Kisoro, Kisoro District, Republic of Uganda.

Batwa Music Club from Pierre Bouchard on Vimeo.

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Former National Resistance Army (NRA) leader Yowari Museveni has been president of Uganda since 1986 and is seeking another term. Ugandans will decide on February 18th. We escaped Kisoro just as the presidential motorcade was coming in. Kisoro, Kisoro District, Republic of Uganda.

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Before we found out about Rwanda’s taboo on eating and drinking in public we would carry a table outside by our bikes and eat and drink in public. Oops! Sorry! “We have rabbit and chips, that’s all”, the waiter said. That was a whole bar-b-qued rabbit and 2 plates of frites. New year, new country, new menu. Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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When you transport jerricans of urwagwa—banana beer—on a bumpy dirt road with your bicycle, pressure builds and beer overflows, you need to dump some liquid out. Most suck it straight into their mouths. Thirty kilometres later urwagwa riders are falling off their mounts, wasted. Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Crush ripe bananas and filter the juice. Grind up a small amount of sorghum. Mix juice and sorghum and leave to ferment for three days. The banana beer is ready to drink. Red Rocks Rwanda, Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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“After making urwagwa we dance a little, then we weave baskets!”, they said. While tourists who can afford it are visiting mountain gorillas in nearby Volcanoes National Park, we immerse ourselves in Rwanda culture. Red Rocks Rwanda, Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Intercultural center, lodge, campground and Warmshowers host Red Rocks Rwanda. Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Road encounters are mostly with the self-reliant, giggly free-range child of Africa. Good Morning! How are you? Give me money! How old are you? What is your name? Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Western and central Rwanda lie at elevations of between 1,500 and 2,500 metres of altitude and the fertile soil helps grow everything from papaya to “Irish” potatoes. Lucky, because Rwanda has around 480 people per square kilometres! Musanze, Musanze District, Republic of Rwanda.

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The smoking outline of volcanic Nyiragongo (3,470m) in the Congo. Rubavu District, Republic of Rwanda.

The Congo Nile Trail

Running along the Congo border, Lake Kivu is an “inland sea”, with rugged shoreline, verdant slopes and sandy beaches, in an otherwise landlocked country. The Congo Nile Trail runs along the oriental side of the lake for 227 kilometres. Constructed of dirt roads and single tracks for the northern half it turns into a quiet freshly paved (Chinese roadwork firms have been at work here too) in the southern sector. The cozy Inzu Lodge in Rubona is at the northern trailhead and the perfect spot to start. Let’s go!

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Lake Kivu‘s surface is at 1,500 metres, a very deep lake sitting on the Albertine Rift Valley, the fault line that runs southward from the Sudan to Zambia. From our pleasant perch above the lake at Canadian-owned Inzu Lodge we embarked on the Congo Nile Trail adventure. Rubavu (Gisenyi), Rubavu District, Republic of Rwanda.

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With expectations of thrilling scenery and challenging riding, off we go! Kifugi, Rubavu District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Countless climbs and descents towards the lake. Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Replenishing our strength with fried isambaza sold in bundles. The lake Tanganyika sardine was introduced to Lake Kivu in 1959 and has become an important source of nutrition and income for the lakeside population. Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Rwanda’s coffee boom is happening along the trail, with many basecamps set at station de lavage, where coffee beans get washed and dried. Musasa, Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Busy morning at the washing station. Musasa, Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Beautiful lake views and panoramic mountain scenery are earned. Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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At sites of the worst massacres committed during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, memorials now commemorate the dead and remind the world that such an atrocity must never occur again. Rutsiro District, Republic of Rwanda.

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South of Karongi (Kibuye) the trail is freshly paved and we go from exhilirating mountain biking to world-class road cycling. Karongi District, Republic of Rwanda.

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High five! Nyamasheke District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Tiny feet. Nyamasheke District, Republic of Rwanda.

Nyungwe Forest and Huye

From our 2,000-metre high camp at the Catholic church inside the Gisakura Tea Estates we entered the Nyungwe National Park, the largest remaining tract of montane rainforest in Eastern Africa. In line with Rwanda’s aim of promoting high-end tourism, the park boasts only Uwinka campsite and a daily eye-watering USD 50 per person price tag.

It is only 50 kilometres to cross the park on the public road bisecting it from west to east, but we worked at it all day, climbing steeply over forested slopes, getting rained on (rain-forest) and eventually leaving the Congo River watershed and tipping over into the Nile drainage system.

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Riding in one of the regions largest and oldest patch of montane rainforest makes you appreciate how stripped bare the landscape is away from protected areas. Nyungwe National Park, Republic of Rwanda.

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The Rwenzori colobus monkeys live in giant troops. 12 other species of primates are found in Nyungwe, including L’Hoest’s and vervet monkeys, and chimpanzees. Nyungwe National Park, Republic of Rwanda.

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From the Kitabi Tea Estates outside the park we descend slowly to coffee country, passing by Maraba Bourbon and Huye Mountain Coffee. Ask for them at home and your hipster, single-origin- snob barrista will think better of you! Nyamagabe District, Republic of Rwanda.

Huye to Kigali

Huye (Butare), the “intellectual centre” of Rwanda, with its National Museum, would have been a natural place to stop and rest but an email from Kigali scrapped that eventuality. “We will be leaving to spend 5 days in Uganda on the 17th. If you make it here by the 16th it’s no problem at all—we can get you set up. We will be back on the 21st”, the email read. Mike and Jenna, Warmshowers hosts from British Columbia living in Kigali were offering their empty house for five days—man, I love Canadians! With a couple of due assignments to write—and this post—we mounted the Brooks saddles expecting an utilitarian ride to the capital, with nightmarish traffic and outstretched hands. In the event, the road was lined with fragrant eucalyptus trees and cheery sunflowers, motorized traffic was light and orderly, mostly we shared the shoulder with bicycles at work. “The Land of a thousand hills” took all its meaning with the road clinging to small ridges, offering a bird’s view on the rippled landscape, all of it planted with crops.

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Too early to stop at the New Visitors bar. Nyanza District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Afternoon candy. Kid is resisting Rwanda’s taboo on eating and drinking in public! And more tiny feet! Muhanga District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Urwagwa leaving the countryside and heading to the capital. Kamonyi District, Republic of Rwanda.

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Our quiet—and steeply inclined—arrival in Kigali during the Rwanda-Ivory Coast football match held at Amahoro Stadium, part of the African Nations Championship. City of Kigali, Republic of Rwanda.

Ten days have passed and we are still in Mike and Jenna’s house! The Tanzanian border is a few days away and there was still time on our 30-day visas, so we accepted an invite to finish all our work, wash all our clothes, eat good food—including my own personal buttered whole-wheat toasts festival—and make new friends.


INZU Lodge


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