Kigali to Kivu!

Saturday Feb. 16th 2013

Kirambo, Rwanda

Wow. I have to say, today was exactly what I hoped bicycle tour would be. But before I explain, I should back track since I haven’t updated since Kigali. So I spent two nights at the St. Paul Hotel, a cheap, safe place that was at the top of the hill in downtown Kigali. So when I woke up Monday morning and started riding, I had a nice boost as I cruised down the hill and out of town. My first day I rode to Muhanga (formerly Gitarama), and met up with a guy named Martin, who is a German that’s currently living and working in Muhanga. Martin came to Africa four months ago, starting out in Kenya, and rode his folding Dahon across Kenya, Uganda and through Rwanda to Lake Kivu. He then decided to turn around and volunteer his time at a primary school where he teaches music and helps run after-school activities out of the auditorium. He’s a nice guy who contacted me on couch surfing a while ago and said I could crash with him.

My plan was to simply spend the night and continue on in the morning, but as most things go on bike tour, my plans had to change. That night Martin cooked a big meal of vegetables, as I told him I didn’t eat meat or dairy. However, as I chowed down on veggies and textured vegetable protein, I could tell something was wrong. I wasn’t going to complain about a free meal, so I ate up… and payed for it the next morning. I woke up sick and decided I would wait until the afternoon to start riding and maybe only go halfway to Butare, which was another fifty miles down the road. I took it easy and went to school with Martin, and actually ended up giving a girl her first guitar lesson. But I still didn’t feel good. Around 3pm I decided I needed to lay down because not only was my stomach upset, but I had a headache, and seemed to be suffering from dehydration. It was really hot when I left Kigali, and and I think I conquered a third of the “thousand hills” of Rwanda on the way, but I was excited to be on bike tour so I just pushed through it.

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Waiting the rain out on the way to Gitarama

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Broke my chain on the first day!

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Martin’s house in Gitarama

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Hiding behind some bamboo

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Giving a guitar lesson in Gitarama (Muhanga)

I drank as much water as I could and passed out for the next fifteen hours and when I woke up in the morning I was totally fine. I said bye to Martin, and his room mates, and took off down the road toward Huye (Butare). It was kind of foggy and actually a little cold, but it didn’t rain. The scenery was pretty good, but not really what I hoped it would be. Rwanda is the most densely populated area in Africa, but it doesn’t have any real cities aside from Kigali, so it’s a lot of cultivated farm land on steep slopes and people everywhere. Even where there are no houses, there are always people walking , running after me, yelling “Mzungu” or “give me the money” etc. If I stop for water or food a crowd of anywhere from 10-60 people gather around and simply stare. If they see my tattoos people start grabbing my arm and immediately asking me about them. Most people are really nice and just genuinely excited and interested, but some can be pretty annoying. For the most part, I enjoy the “hello’s” but all of the attention gets old pretty quick.

Because of these things, and the fact that there is no place to hide, stopping is not that enjoyable, so I just kept riding until I hit Butare, and after leaving Muhanga at 9am I was in Butare by 1. The day before I had gotten a message on couch surfing saying that someone and their family were willing to host me, so I gave him a call and let him know I was in town to meet up. Fifteen minutes later I met Clement, who’s in his last year of studying Pharmaceuticals at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. He lives with his mother, grandmother, brother, sisters and a couple little cousins in a small house just outside of Butare on the main road. He had a bike so he met me, and we rolled off, grabbed some lunch, and then headed to his house.

It was really nice to just relax, have dinner and watch football with Clement and his family. We went to the university and met some of his friends, and then watched more football before going to bed. In the morning we had some Rwandan coffee, which was actually really good. They drink it black with sugar, and it’s not really that strong, I actually enjoyed it. We then rode our bikes to the National Museum of Rwanda. It was nice to see something here that didn’t have anything to do with the genocide, and learn about the geography, biology, history and ethnography of Rwanda. If you ever find yourself in Butare, the museum is well worth a visit.

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Clement in front of his family’s house

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They don’t allow pictures in this museum…

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This was a field full of prison workers.  Some were dressed in orange jumpsuits, which is for normal prisoners, and maybe half were dressed in pink jumpsuits, which means they were found guilty of crimes of genocide.  A few of the guys in pink that were next to the road waved to me and gave me a thumbs up as I rode by.

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Looking back at a refugee camp for displaced people from the DRC

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This refugee camp houses 17,000 people.

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UP into Nyungwe.

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We went back to his house and had a big lunch before I headed off, a little later than planned at around 1pm. My plan was to make it someplace close to Nyungwe and camp or find a hotel. I knew it might be a challenge because of the density of the population, and the steep slopes of the national park, but I knew I could figure something out. The park was only 30 miles away, but it was all climbing, 3,500 feet just to the park entrance. The ride was hard, but nice. I passed through a refugee camp housing 17,000 people from the DRC. I pulled over just before the park and began eating some avocados when, as usual, a crowd started to gather round. When I’m eating I’ve taken to just kind of ignoring them, but if someone actually says “hello” or “how are you” I turn around and try talking. Finally after about ten minutes of awkwardly licking avocado from between my fingers in front of a crowd, a guy finally says “how are you?” and I started talking to him. I told him my plan of camping someplace and asked him if he knew anywhere that I could camp, and he just looked really confused and worried and said he would give me a ride to the Nyungwe head office where I could get some information. It was getting close to dark so I said yes and hopped in his truck as he drove me about halfway through the forest. I got out and dragged my stuff over to the office, but of course everything was closed and it was dark. A guy appeared and I told him I wanted to camp, and he said “sure no problem, fifty dollars.” I replied “Do you mean fifteen dollars?” and he said “yes, fifteen dollars.”

He then excitedly told me that there were some people from switzerland also camping and he could put me near them. I thought “whatever, fine, I just want to be someplace I can set up my tent.” So he helped me drag my bicycle and bags up about three flights of stairs to a hillside campsite where I saw two young guys staring at me in disbelief. I said hello and they waved and just said “wow, I can’t believe, you are another biker, we also bicycled here.” I was very surprised that the only other inhabitants of the camp ground were also traveling by bicycle. I asked them where they started, and they told me Kigali, and when I asked them where they were headed, we realized we had EXACTLY the same route planned. They had a lot more time than me though and had left Kigali a week and a half prior, where I was only on my third day of riding. I was asked to go pay, so I dropped my stuff next to theirs and went off to find the camp manager and pay my fifteen dollar fee, which by the way, turned out to be FIFTY A;LSDJKFA;LSDJKF DOLLARS to camp. Yes. Fifty. I couldn’t do anything about it so I paid and just went back and tried to enjoy my night.

I cooked dinner with Yan and Dominick, and we talked about bicycling, Africa and Europe and had a pretty good evening before going to sleep. I woke up early and went for a little hike in the rainforest around the camp. I didn’t see any monkeys. I went and talked to a guide about maybe taking a guided tour through the forest, because you aren’t allowed to simply walk on the trails yourself, you need to pay for a permit and a guide. Yan and Dominick had done one and said it was okay, and I felt like since I was there I should see the forest, but when I inquired about the price, it was ridiculous. You are supposed to get a discount on hiking permits if you camp, but apparently you have to pay all at once in advance, and they wouldn’t let me simply pay the difference. There was absolutely no one else in the park, and instead of hiking, I watched 5 national park guides sit around playing mandala and doing nothing while I packed my stuff up to leave. I was a bit soured on the whole place and kind of just looking forward to riding my bike out of there.

Yan and Dominick packed up at the same time as me and we decided to roll off together since we were going in the same direction. As soon as we started riding I was glad I wasn’t hiking. Who wants to walk around when you can ride your bike? We did some climbing but then started to quickly descend an amazing road with perfect pavement, sharp, steep turns, and some pretty amazing views of the forest. And guess what… I saw a monkey. The turns were sharp, but they slalomed, so we were able to hold our speed, which made it one of the most fun rides I’ve ever been on. After an hour or so of riding through the forest, up and down, but mostly down, we pulled out into a giant tea plantation and began climbing again. At first there was no one around, but slowly there were more and more people walking through the tall leaves with baskets, stopping to stare or wave.

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Dominick, Yan and myself.

We rolled through a couple tows before we found a nice place to stop for lunch. Rwanda has a lot of buffets, and most of them are just vegetables, rice and pasta, maybe with some meat, but everything is separate so it makes it really easy to just pick what you want. We all piled our plates with rice, beans, cassava, fried bananas and carrots, kale, and potatoes and took our time relaxing in the shade. We talked about our routes and decided we would ride together for a little while. Both Yan and Dominick good, open people. Apparently Yan read something about bicycle touring in Rwanda a couple years ago and always wanted to do it, and in January just asked Dominick if he’d join him, and a month later they flew into Kigali. It’s pretty crazy that we both planned the exact same route up into Uganda, and I have to say, sharing the whole “freak show” thing is nice. People now have three of us to stare at instead of just me.

After lunch we rolled on to the shores of Lake Kivu where we asked around for a place to camp. People directed us to this mission/hospital and we met a nice lady named Julie who’s’ from the US and she gave us a pristine camping spot overlooking the lake. We walked around town, with a local guy who was nice, but a little annoying, showing us absolutely everything like we’d never seen it. He was very insistent that I board this boat so he could show me the steering wheel and the gas gauge, and the throttle, and the seats…. He convinced us to slam into a mutatu and drive maybe three miles away to see this nice hotel, which was cool i guess, but definitely not worth the two hour walk back in the dark.

We cooked a huge pasta dinner, and right now I just woke up after an “okay” night of sleep. I think the medication I am taking for malaria has messed up my sleep, because I don’t ever feel like I really slept through the night. I feel like I was half awake the whole time. Doesn’t seem to be affecting me during the day though.

Today we start the Congo-Nile Trail, and our plan is to get to Kibuye in two days, which means we get to take our time and relax. So at this point, everything has gone as planned and things are looking good! The sun is shining through my tent and I’ve got left over pasta and avocado’s awaiting me for breakfast, so, peace!

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Our campsite on Lake Kivu

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Our ridiculous guide.

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