27 – 16th November 2005 – Kigali, Rwanda

Distance Cycled : 20,480km

  Greetings from Kigali.  We are deep in the land of volcanoes, among tea plantations and terraced slopes, rain-soaked forests and rock-build villages.  This tiny country has yielded one of the highlights of the trip for Luke – a chance to go gorilla tracking!  Meanwhile, our final week in Uganda was characterised by hard riding, fantastic scenery and an eclectic mix of accommodation – from a soggy campsite at a police post to a luxury tented camp, secluded and atmospherically sited among dripping foliage and chirruping insects.

Standing in the garage of the Link House, watching another heavy downpour batter the garden, we looked at each other and at the bikes, silently agreeing that none of us wanted to venture out onto Masindi’s muddy streets.  So we retreated to the cosy living room with cups of tea and raided the bookshelf…which of course made it even harder to leave once the rain finally eased sometime after 8am…  A few hours later, the sun won through and our waterproofs were no longer needed, as we travelled south on a gravelly piste, watching everything from goats to granaries begin to steam in the warmth.  After our tussles with the traffic further East, we were glad to be on a less-frequented road, with only the odd rattling Coca-cola lorry or decrepit minibus to contend with.  The road was hemmed in on both sides by tall fields of sugar cane, into which small children disappeared, shrieking, when they spotted us approaching.  Glancing back over our shoulders, we’d see them peering cautiously round the stalks, checking that the coast was now clear!  On one occasion, five children stopped dead in their tracks to watch open-mouthed as we passed by.  They were carrying jerrycans of water on their heads, from the eldest girl with a 25- litre can down to the toddler with a token 2-litre bottle.  Standing there, in identical outfits (or at least apparently identical thanks to the layers of grime masking their original form and colour!) they looked like one of those Russian doll-sets – each child a smaller version of the next, with jerrycans to match…

By late afternoon, the clouds had rolled in again and it looked like darkness would soon be creeping over the landscape, so we stopped in a village to look for a guesthouse.  Villages are sparsely spread in this part of the country – the sprawling sugar plantations, rugged volcanic outcrops and little lakes taking up much of the landscape.  We were directed to the police station, which appeared to be little more than a collection of ropey mud huts.  The Commanding Officer came racing up a grassy slope to meet us, having obviously broken off in mid-drink as he reeked of a potent local brew (it’s not just sugar that you get from sugar cane).  In return for permission to pitch our tent on “his” land, we were subjected to a self-pitying monologue about the misery of life in Uganda and the hardships of being a policeman.  We did our best to nod and murmur sympathetically and managed not to contradict the absolute rubbish he was spouting.  He told us he was there for our security – a fact which was not in the least reassuring!  Having failed to convince us that we would have to pay for water (oh please, in rain-soaked Uganda!!) he gave up on making any money out of us and returned to his drinking den.  Thankfully he stayed there for the rest of the night – so much for police protection!
The little village of Katoke where we spent the next night was altogether more pleasant, though our accommodation was slightly cell-like.  The friendly proprietor of the guest house gave us another room for free to “stable” the bikes and the goat generously stepped aside to let us into the “shower”…moving away even further when we yelped at the icy washing water.  The only food on offer was goat or beans with matoke or kalo.  Not wanting to speed the demise of the showerside beast, we ordered up beans and braved the kalo.  We had no idea what this was before or after we had eaten it, though further investigation in the guidebook suggests it might have been millet!  A black, gelatinous glob, it looked like bathroom sealant (after it’s gone mouldy and needs replacing, that is).  Luke easily won the culinary perseverance award that evening, while Anna smiled apologetically at the landlady as she whisked away a plate still three-quarters full.  They did at least have tea, so we ordered up huge mugs and double-dosed it with sugar to mask the slightly goaty flavour.  Why is it that everything tastes of goat in some villages – perhaps the air is super-saturated with their pungent aroma.  That night we dreamed of Sainsbury’s and how many trolleys we could fill with longed-for goodies, giving the aisle with the millet porridge a wide berth…

We rejoined smooth tarmac at a place called Kyenjojo, where a small boy pretended not to stare at us while we sat in a smelly heap drinking Fanta.  Evidently he believed holding a half-eaten chapati up to his face rendered him invisible!  The landscape of river valleys and tree-shrouded villages was now replaced by much more open scenery.  The tarmac road swooshed up and down through hectares and hectares of tea, spindly stands of eucalyptus and the odd towering hardwood, relics of the rainforest that formerly covered this whole area.  Armies of tea-pickers were at work in the fields, expertly plucking the leaves and tossing them into big wicker baskets harnessed on their backs.  Every leaf is picked by hand and both men and women do the work, creating a lattice of pathways through the bushes as they pluck.  Viewed from above, the fields look like great green saltpans, every bush the same height, with the paths appearing like heat-cracks in sun-baked mud.  Blue sky had once again given way to drizzle, so the workers were congregated in open-sided shelters drinking tea (what else!) from thermos flasks and wiping off their heavy yellow aprons.  Others worked on in the rain, plastic bags on their heads to keep off the worst of the weather.

By the time we reached Fort Portal, an old colonial town in a lovely setting, the rain was hammering down and we took shelter in a restaurant to have lunch while the storm raged.  Feeling rather smug at having escaped the rain, we then set off for the final leg of the day – back onto an unsurfaced road.  At this point, the sun gave up for the day and rain sluiced down with total disregard for toiling cyclists!  Pretty soon we had reached that unpleasantly squelchy state you usually associate with canoeing – a sport where you at least expect to get wet.  Perhaps a wetsuit would have been a useful thing to bring on this expedition…  Several friendly shouts were directed at us from families hunkering down on semi-waterproof porches.  As we couldn’t get much wetter, we thought we might as well just carry on – though wet cycling shorts chafe sensitive skin even after 15 months of bum-pummelling riding!

We were heading into Kibale National Park, and called in at the park HQ to check that there was accommodation at the rest camp before carrying on.  They seemed a little unprepared for such an outlandish thing as a tourist wanting information…but did persevere in trying to radio the camp long after it became apparent that the guy at the other end had fallen asleep/switched off his radio or been trampled by an elephant.  After half an hour we carried on, having got bored with counting the avocadoes hanging pendulously from the trees in the grounds, and watching the family of mongooses gambolling about beneath them.  Stomping along the road a mile further on were two red-faced Brits, trying to reach Fort Portal.  Their minibus was trapped behind a broken-down beer lorry and their scant reserves of patience (all the locals were no doubt totally unperturbed with the delay) had run out.  It would have been a hell of a walk, so we hope they cadged a lift not long after we saw them!  The beer lorry was indeed stuck.  The rain had reduced the road to a mudslide, and the vehicle had skidded at the bottom of a v-shaped dip, lunging nose-first into a ditch and splaying itself across the entire width of the road.  On either side, minibuses and lorries were parked, unable to get by.  Now, Africans are usually pretty ingenious when it comes to problem-solving on the road so it was surprising that none of the minibus drivers had thought of simply swapping passengers and thus allowing everyone to get to their destination.  Maybe it was just too much fun – the crowd gathered around the hapless truck was animatedly shouting and shoving, arguing about the best way to move the thing.  We slithered by through the gap between truck and forest – just!  Thankfully, there was no more drama in store and soon we pulled in to the rest camp, exhausted by the long day.

One thing we’ve noticed over the course of the trip is how much more disciplined we’ve become.  In Europe, we’d sometimes lie in until the tent became too hot to bear, have a leisurely breakfast and haphazardly pack up.  About 15km down the road, a particularly enticing patisserie would lure us in and we’d nibble pain-au-raisin on a park bench…and so the day would go on.  It never really mattered if we didn’t reach the place we were aiming for – campsites were everywhere – or carried on until late evening, sunset not being until 9pm…  In Africa, it’s been rather different and we’ve gradually got to the stage where we can pack up with our eyes closed (they often are when we get up at 5.30am) and resist the temptation for frequent rest-stops throughout the day.  That’s admittedly easier when the villages offer nothing as tantalising as a french pastry – any sign of kalo (the millet goo) would positively speed us up, in fact!  Even so, last Wednesday and Thursday were going to be a challenge – 300km in two days on a mixture of piste and tarmac, through the hilliest corner of Uganda…  We made it though, and were glad of our waterproofs as the rain continued to pour, our new lights as we crept to our destination at dusk on both days and (as ever) the small kindnesses of ordinary folk.  In Mbarara, the hotel manager saw the look of horror on our faces when he told us the only rooms with hot water were on the top floor and so he installed us in a first-floor room and lugged a jerrycan of boiling water up to our room so we didn’t have to endure freezing-cold ablutions.  A small gesture that made a big difference after 12 hours in the saddle.  And even on days when it’s mostly about putting your head down and riding, there are little highlights.  Stopping to take off our waterproofs by the roadside, we saw a pair of crowned cranes goose-stepping (crane-stepping?) through the soggy grass.  They are fabulous looking birds, huge, with soft pastel-coloured plumage and a yellowish crown.  At the end of the next day, we emerged above Lake Bunyonyi – a sinuous body of water dotted with islands and hemmed in by a patchwork of fields and steep, terraced slopes.  By day the sunlight gleams on the surface of the lake, the plots of peas and potatoes are a bright green and contrast starkly with the freshly tilled earth of adjacent fields.  But just after sunset, with the moon rising, the sky finally clear of rain, and the slopes in darkness, the lake looked ethereally beautiful.

It was (another) grey morning when we left Kisoro and headed off on a piste of black gravel towards the Rwandan border, where a pick-up truck loaded with bolts of brightly coloured cloth was being “investigated” by customs officials.  The ladies who were trying to cross the border with these goods were wringing their hands in despair as the cargo was roughly unloaded and dumped in a cavernous room, already bursting with other confiscated items…  In contrast, no-one seemed too bothered about the flow of human traffic across the border.  Predictably, the immigration official had gone off to have his lunch and locked his office.  So we were advised to reach through the window and grab a couple of entry forms – at least we could be filling in the paperwork while we awaited the man with the rubber stamps.  Several jam sandwiches later…we were on our way again, a tourist visa for 30 days in our passports – more than adequate for what would be a flying visit to Rwanda.

We had been wondering for a while quite what Rwanda would be like.  Try as we might, we couldn’t shake the image of a country torn apart by the ethnic violence that erupted so violently and tragically in April 1994, when close to a million Rwandans lost their lives in the genocide.  We wondered if the attempts to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis could have been entirely successful, even a decade on.  After all, it must be hard to return to your village and live side by side with people who played a part in the murder of your family.  To put things in perspective – Rwanda has a population of around 8 million so the impact of a million deaths is huge.  In 1995, UNICEF estimated that almost 80% of children had experienced death in the family, while 88% saw dead bodies and over 90% believed that they would die during the genocide.  Children who were under ten at the time are now in their late teens – we wondered what sort of people they would be, having witnessed such atrocities at a young age?  To be honest, Rwandans seem to us very much like the people of other African nations – welcoming, hard-working and exceedingly inquisitive when presented with a pair of toiling cyclists! 
The children are hardly adorable, chasing the bikes and shouting mzunguuuu, mzunguuuu but they are polite and shy when they are on their own.  People are, in other words, normal, and while the psychological scars of 1994 may take a long while to heal, it seems to us after our brief visit that there is a determination at all levels to put the brutal past aside and work towards building for the future.  Kigali itself is certainly impressively clean and organised by the standards of most African capital cities, and there is an air of businesslike efficiency and of calm which also strikes us as unusual!  Trying to find a restaurant last night (we fancied pizza after all the beans and stodge we have been eating recently) we were struck by how helpful everyone is – we had to ask directions three times and a security man at the US embassy, a hotel receptionist and an armed guard all went out of their way to help us, drawing maps, escorting us along the road and pointing us in the right direction.  When we eventually found the restaurant, the food was pretty good two – after a year of living on processed cheese, Anna was almost giddy at the prospect of having FOUR types of cheese on one pizza!!  It must be the French culinary influence once again…sadly Rwanda is our last Francophone country!

Aside from being an “interesting” destination for the reasons described above, Rwanda is scenically superb.  Perhaps you appreciate the view a bit more from the saddle because it takes a while to get to the top of the hills, but by any standards the landscape is breathtaking.  It is a land of a thousand hills, each precipitous
slope covered with a patchwork of little fields.  Lines of workers turn the sticky soil with long-handled hoes, sometimes singing as they dig, and everywhere you look are lines of peas, neat rows of beanpoles, mounds of pink-skinned potatoes, sacks of pineapples, piles of tomatoes…  The amount of land under cultivation is quite astonishing, especially given the terrain.  Where growing crops is just not feasible, waterfalls pour down the rockfaces and cows and goats graze on the slopes below.  Eucalyptus has been planted since colonial times to help minimise erosion.  It provides welcome shade when you’re cycling uphill in the midday heat, and higher up the eucalyptus stands peter out, giving way to fragrant pines.  Along these wooded roads there are occasional little stalls selling chickens and vegetables to passing motorists.  Sniffling pairs of bemused-looking white bunnies sit on rock-cut ledges, guarded over by little boys and no doubt destined for a cooking pot!  Rwanda is also good for birdwatchers – every tree seemingly teeming with feathered things, from ibis to weaver birds.  At the risk of starting to sound like a travel brochure…Rwanda is also home to the world’s largest population of mountain gorillas.  There are around 700 of them left, with populations over the border in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Sunday morning, Luke set off to see one of the groups which live in the Rwandan Parc National des Volcans or Volcanoes National Park (as well as the local language, Kinyarwanda, everything here seems to be in French and English!)  We’d managed to find a couple of other visitors to share a 4WD so avoided shelling out another US$50 – as if the permit itself isn’t expensive enough!  After a quick briefing at the park HQ, where we opted for the Susa group (with 37 gorillas it’s one of the biggest groups in the world but also involves a longer, muddier ascent), the eight of us, along with rangers and a guide set off up into the hills.  Before long we were entering the forest, where Patience, the guide, gave us another quick briefing about behaviour near the gorillas – including such things as no eating and drinking.  Being so closely related to humans, there is some fear that they may be susceptible to the same diseases.

The climb through the forest was every bit as steep, muddy, and slippery as we’d been told – and just when we thought we were getting close to the gorillas, Patience and a couple of the rangers got out their pangas (machetes) and started hacking us a path up a near-vertical, bamboo-covered slope. 
Apparently mountain gorillas don’t tend to stick to the paths!  Another 20 minutes or so of scrambling, ducking and crawling through thick vegetation, and we got our first glimpse – an adult female, about 5 metres away.  It really is hard to get across how big these creatures are – fortunately, once habituated to humans, they are also very placid.  Over the next hour, we watched several babies playing in the bamboo and wrapping themselves up in lianas, and got a good look at the No. 1 silverback – a 24 year old behemoth who would probably make a good match for most rugby teams…  All too soon, our alloted hour came to an end, and it was time to leave them in peace.  Although, to tell the truth, they don’t seem at all bothered by the presence of humans and appeared almost as curious about us as we were about them!

So after our brief sojourn in Rwanda, we head next into Tanzania.  After a long and sandy stage through the west of the country, we should arrive in Arusha in early December – we’ll have more news for you then!

 

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