Paul tells...


Rwanda - the land of a thousand hills


In front of our guesthouse we regularly see a teaching car. The road goes uphill and one of the special operations is apparently ‘street turning on a slope'. In the land of a thousand hills it's no superfluous luxury to master that. There really isn't a metre flat in Rwanda we soon find out. 

After taking a rest day to take care of the necessary things, like withdrawing money, buying a new SIM-card and some other things, the second day we cycle along five volcanoes towards Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda from Congo. Along the entire lake there is the Congo-Nile trail; a hiking and mountainbike trail of 227 kilometres long. It is praised as one of the most beautiful cycling routes in Africa. The route is named after the mountain massif 'Congo-Nile' that forms the watershed between the water that flows to the Nile and the water that feeds the Congo. The mountain massif covers the entire western part of Rwanda.

Although several cyclists who have preceded us say the route is too heavy for packed bicycles, we see on the map that along the first ten kilometres there are still villages and that the road here runs directly along the lake. After those ten kilometres there's a 3.5-kilometre long crossing to the tarmac road a little further from the lake in the hills. We decide to do the first ten kilometers, to have cycled at least a part of the original route.


Those ten kilometers go smoothly and we almost keep on cycling along the lake. When we arrive at the crossing however, we have to swallow twice. Although the crossing to the tarmac road is marked as a road for cars on our map, it's just a path. It can best be compared to a Belgian cobblestone road, where the road maker threw the cobblestones down from the truck and left them as they fell. The cobbles are scotchy and skewed and don't fit together at all. There's absolutely no question that this can be cycled, apart from the fact that the path has gradients up to 20%.


We get off and drag our bikes up over the stones. Just when I'm looking for a somewhat flat spot to put my bike to help Kathleen push, so she can help me afterwards, I see her passing by in the corner of my eye. A Rwandan man helps her to push her bike up. At that moment I also feel movement in my bicycle. When I look back, I see three boys between 7 and 10 standing behind my bike with their hands against my panniers, ready to push. I raise my thumb and get three raised thumbs back. I make some engine noises, as if I start the engine and at that moment my bike starts to roll up the mountain. I can hardly wish for a better engine; I don't have to do much more than steer and make sure my bike stays in balance, which already requires enough effort on this road. As soon as it is flat for a while, the youngest boy jumps next to my bike and gestures that I have to go cycling. Fascinated he watches me change gears and bounce over the rocks until it gets too steep again. Then he is immediately ready to help pushing again with his two friends. They talk continuously and the word 'Mzungu' falling regularly. They clearly talk about us, but my Rwandan language knowledge unfortunately doesn't go much further than ‘Mzungu’.


After having conquered three and a half kilometres and 293 meters in altitude we arrive tired at the tarmac road. We give the Rwandan man who helped Kathleen a solid tip which he gratefully accepts. He also thanks us very much for coming to visit his country. He is certainly not the first; we are regularly thanked for that. We treat each of the three boys to a huge cake. I gesture them to walk with me to the little bakery along the tarmac road. As soon as I turn around to give the cupcakes to the boys, twenty children are standing around me with forty hands outstretched to receive the cupcakes. We've been through such a situation before and this time I did take a good look at who pushed me. Gratefully they receive the cupcakes and put them under their shirts and run away. Obviously they are very happy with their catch and don't want to share it with the rest of the village.


It's typical of Rwanda. If you can help someone, you do. When I want to recharge my bike somewhere and it's wobbly a bit, someone comes walking up and offers to hold my bike for a while and when we're standing in front of a guesthouse, someone says we'd better go inside together; he'll keep an eye on our bikes for as long as it is needed. Helping each other is necessary in a country where the government doesn't have the capacity and possibilities to be there for each individual. Luckily we can do something in return now and then. Every now and then we also help pushing the heavily packed cyclists uphill, with whom we've built up an unspoken bond the past hour, because we've passed each other many times on the many slopes of Rwanda. Uphill we go a bit faster, because unlike them we have gears, which means they have to get off earlier than we do. If, on the other hand, it goes down, it is exactly the other way around. We go down much more carefully than they do; they know the way and know what to expect 'around the corner' and often thunder down the slopes with their enormous loads and then pass us again very quickly.


And after I have explained to one of the staff members of a guesthouse what exactly a psychotherapist does, he reluctantly asks after our dinner if it might be possible to talk to Kathleen for a moment. The next morning he wishes us a very good trip with bright eyes and thanks Kathleen again. It feels so much better than just giving money.


Halfway through the day we stop at a local restaurant. There, as usual, a whole buffet is ready: rice, matoke, spaghetti without sauce, sweet potato, soft fries, brown bean sauce and pieces of meat. All tables are taken, but we are invited inside when I put my head around a corner. It is very common here to sit down at other people's tables. We don't know how much we're allowed to put on, but we're quite hungry and decide to just brag about what we're hungry for, if necessary we each pay for two plates. When we arrive at the table it soon turns out that we behaved very neatly. Also during the checkout it turns out that we behaved very well. ‘You get a discount, because you haven't scooped much' says the restaurant owner. We pay less than three euros for two - in our eyes - full plates of food.


To get to our guesthouse in the evening, we have to leave the tarmac again. We still have ten kilometres on a sandy road with lots of boulders, but because the road to Lake Kivu leads down, it's mainly a matter of good steering and balancing on our bicycles. The road back will be very difficult we already realize at the moment we're going down. The owner of our guesthouse agrees. ‘You can still get upstairs by moped, but by bike... And it's going to rain tonight as well. Then that road is completely unfeasible. But tomorrow morning there will be a taxi to Kibuye at 6 o'clock'. We know from Uganda that a taxi is a passenger van that is used here as public transport. They drive without a timetable, but there are so many that you just stand along the road and raise your hand when you want to go somewhere. On the through routes this never takes more than a few minutes. But a taxi is not going to get here, we both realize. ‘The taxi moors at the fishing harbour around six o'clock, down here on the left side of the guesthouse' he soon says when he notices the question marks above our heads.


The next morning we set the alarm at five o'clock and the guesthouse gives us a paper breakfast bag with contents. Fortunately one of the guesthouse employees walks with us. After all, there's no jetty to be seen at all, let alone a harbour. It's just an overgrown bank that slopes quite steeply. We have to drag our bicycles over rocks and finally arrive at a place where the grass is a bit worn out. Look, in the distance it's already arriving. We see a wooden boat slowly approaching. Planks are nailed to the wooden frame of the boat with big nails, after which the seams are closed with some kind of stuff. The roof is largely made of old tarpaulins that served as advertising cloths, in this case for the beer brand Mützig. A small part of the roof is also made of wood and serves as a kind of roof rack. At the bottom of the boat there is a three centimetres layer of water and the eight benches are just hard unsteered planks. Here and there are life jackets; most people wear one. We find a spot near 'the window'. 

Our bikes are hoisted onto the roof, as are our bags. When some more bunches of bananas and bags are loaded on the roof and some more people have boarded, we leave. With a snail's pace we first cross to the island that lies off the coast. There the whole village community is busy cleaning the nets of the fishermen, who fish here at night for fish of about five centimetres big. When the boat moors, the bunches of bananas are unloaded and other bags are loaded. This can't be done without shouting. It seems that there is trade on the spot, which is probably also the case. 

Sometimes a bag that has just been put on the boat is picked up again, or people get out again who have just boarded the boat. After a few minutes we leave again, back to the mainland.

There we moor a few more times. Nowhere is there a jetty; it is just on the side of the lake. On the boat life goes on. Mothers breastfeed their youngest children; a thirsty toddler gets a sip of water from the lake from his mother with the bailing can that was used just before to scoop some water out of the boat. When we moor, one or two men often jump on board and sell bananas, samosa or cakes. Often they have to hurry to be able to jump ashore; the boat had already left.


Four hours later we arrive in Kibuye; it is the tourist resort of Rwanda and is very idyllically situated by islands at Lake Kivu.

When we arrive at the guesthouse around noon, the man at the reception desk asks with some pride in his voice: 'You must be hungry for a hot shower’. We have been showering cold for weeks, so we don't have to think twice about that. ‘Okay, wait an hour and then you can take a nice shower’.

Sitting on our porch we see several men with the famous light yellow jerrycans walking to Lake Kivu, where the guesthouse is located. They fill them with water, walk up the hill and throw the water in a big tank on top of the hill. Several times they walk up and down; each with two 20 litre jerrycans. Then we see that one of the men starts a fire halfway up the hill. Above it hangs a big drum, now blackened. The water runs from the tank to the drum, where it is heated not far below boiling point is our idea. At a certain moment we get a signal that we can take a shower. ‘First turn on the cold tap!’. The shower head consists of a gourd in which holes have been drilled in the bottom. The water mixes in the gourd. It really is a rain shower; there is certainly no question of a water-saving shower head. 

We enjoy it, even if it's just a functional shower. Knowing how much effort it takes to arrange a nice shower here, we don't feel completely free to just stay under it for an extra minute.


That evening we see the men at the edge of the lake taking off their clothes. They take a dip in the lake and soap themselves, after which they swim another round. Aren’t those white cyclists very spoiled...?


Off to the jungle...


As soon as we leave Lake Kivu, a big climb to Nyungwe National Park awaits us. It is at least a hundred thousand years old and with that one of the oldest tropical rainforests in Africa. It is situated in the far south-west corner of Rwanda, close to Congo and Burundi. Because it is not logically on a route to other parks and there are no large game and gorillas in the park, the park is not very popular among tourists.


Because of its age, its biodiversity is impressive. There are 13 species of primates, 75 species of mammals, 120 species of butterflies and 322 species of birds, 29 of which only occur here and nowhere else in the world. Over a thousand different species of plants and trees have been counted and it seems not uncommon to find species here that have never been registered before. Because of this peculiarity, the park has the highest protection status for forests in Africa.


We are very curious about it and the possibility to cycle through a tropical rainforest is already a dream from my childhood when I first heard about jungles. Just the name; a jungle! In the middle of the National Park is a small campsite which makes it possible for us to split the road through the forest into two days, making it achievable. It's not so much the distance through the park as the slopes. The road has no mercy with cyclists here either. It goes up and down; flat stretches are simply not there. Slope percentages in double digits all the more. On the way we see Baboons and Colobus monkeys on the road, as well as a small kind of antelope. Here in Africa we learn that there are 72 species of Antelope; that's 71 more than I always thought. But what we mainly see on the road are soldiers with large rifles in good camouflage clothing. Sometimes they only stand out when we are close by. They are in sight of each other, which means they are at most 200 meters apart. They have to protect this southernmost road of Rwanda from intruders from Burundi. Especially the white tourist shouldn't be harmed. In the beginning it takes some time getting used to cycle between the men, but we soon get used to it. To keep them in a good mood, we greet them one by one.


The campground is situated at 2,450 metres above sea level. On the way we occasionally have beautiful views over the forest. As far as our eye can see we see undulating hills with treetops.

We have a day of rest at the campground to go into the forest with a very expert ranger. There's a hiking path, but that's all about it. Due to the frequent rain, three times the amount that falls in the Netherlands, the path is very muddy and regularly we have to climb over fallen trees. And we thought we had steep hills by bike, the slope of the trail is over 50% on some parts.


Our ranger Bruno tells us that at the campsite we are in the mountain forest; a very rare type of forest and that we will descend to the tropical rainforest. Bruno points to one of the trees. That tree there is an 'umbrella tree'. Its crown forms an umbrella and its branches all start at the same point, just like an umbrella. That tree was used to make our traditional drums. And that tree over there; the fruits are used as medicine and the wood is easy to process into furniture. On the remnants of the wood it's good stoking or people turn it into charcoal and sell it by the side of the road'.  

Bruno also tells us that if someone in his village has a small illness, they do not go to the doctor, but to the forest. For the most common ailments, everyone knows which tree serves what purpose and how to prepare the 'medicine'. Sometimes you have to boil the leaves and drink the moisture, sometimes you have to smear the fruit juice on your skin and with the next tree you have to use the seeds. If it concerns an illness that is less common, you can also go to a woman in the village who knows everything. Bruno broke his wrist once and tells how he went into the forest early in the morning to find the 'medicine' with the woman in question.

One tree provided calcium to allow the bone to grow back together and another tree was good as a splint. He never went to a doctor, but assures us that he wants to box us to prove that his wrist is doing perfectly again. We also say to believe him without proof. ‘But since this area was declared a National Park in 2005, people are no longer allowed to use the trees in the jungle.'.


After descending into the tropical rainforest, we walk between impressive tree ferns and then stumble upon some 60 metre high Mahogany trees. 'This one here is at least 800 years old'. The trunks of the trees are covered on one side with mosses and small ferns, while on the other side they are completely bare. We learn that the overgrown side is turned to the east and the bare side to the west. ‘People use the tree trunks as a compass as they walk through the forest’. He also talks about the problems they are now facing. ‘For example, there's a tree that can certainly compete with the mahogany trees. The bark of that tree is used against prostate cancer, but we are afraid that this species will become extinct. After all, we only have adult specimens here. Young trees just aren't there and we don't know why. We can't plant them ourselves either; they only grow within a tropical rainforest. Outside they die; no matter how well we take care of them'. 


An even bigger problem is an herbaceous plant that covers the entire soil. ‘The plant is the mountain elephant's favourite food, but the last one was shot by poachers in 1999. As a result, the plant no longer has an enemy and continues to grow unrestrainedly. Everywhere it grows, it displaces other plants. Nothing else wants to grow. The special thing about the plant is that once every fifteen years it blooms white for a month and then dies. After three months, the new generation emerges from the ground again. This happens at exactly the same time throughout the forest'. Indeed, we see the plant in question everywhere on our walk. On some stretches it has even supplanted the trees and only this plant can still be found.


‘The government is in the process of reintroducing the mountain elephant here to fight this plant in a natural way. However, the problem is that within Rwanda this kind of elephant only occurs at the border with Uganda and Congo, so we can't just move it. We need the cooperation of these two governments and that takes a long time'. Although he tells it in a very businesslike way, we can see from his facial expression that it takes far too long for him. His heart is clearly with the jungle and not with politics.


A day later we cycle out of the National Park with even more awe for the jungle, on our way to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, about which we've heard some very impressive stories as well. We've already rented an airbnb there for a week.