The East African country of Rwanda is many things, but flat isn’t one of them. So it’s a good place for a new cycling holiday, then? It turns out, in the Land of a Thousand Hills, the answer is “yes”.
My guide is Oli Broom, the kind of Englishman made famous in song – along with mad dogs, he likes to go out in the midday sun. Several years ago, he cycled from London to Australia to watch a cricket match, for charity.
Cricket also brought him to Rwanda, where he spent two years heading up a foundation to build a national stadium for the game. Following the genocide in 1994 – an estimated one million people were murdered in 100 days – Rwandan refugees poured into neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, then brought cricket back with them when they returned.
Broom eventually returned to Europe, and now runs cycling tours in Transylvania. These tours highlight travel at a slower pace, experiencing life at saddle-level, rather than whizzing by in a car, while stopping for fresh food in simple local restaurants and meeting local people along the way.
Next month, he’s launching similar week-long bicycle tours in Rwanda, a country that captured his heart, but is still known internationally for the bloody events of two decades ago.
He’s hoping to appeal to keen cyclists looking for a new challenge and those, like me, who are here more for the sense of adventure, and who might puff and pant en route, but will get there in the end. And it’s all off-tarmac, passing through local villages and away from busy roads.
“Is Rwanda safe now?” I was asked repeatedly before I went. Yes, absolutely, I can report back, unless you count the assault on your dignity as you sweatily cycle up another hill while laughing village children yell “mzungu, mzungu” (“white man”) as they run past you.
I join Broom for a “recce” trip, cycling from the capital, Kigali, to the forested chain of volcanoes that stretch from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda, sweeping serenely across the north-west of Rwanda, providing a home to the mountain gorillas that attract most tourists here.
We’re joined by a Scot, a New Zealander, an American, and the Rwandan cyclist and guide Segond Fidens Iragena, who’s a local celebrity having pedalled from Beijing to Bangkok while he was studying in China.
Kigali itself is a pleasant enough city in which to spend a first day in the country, although there’s not a long tick-list. Brioche is a quiet cafe if you want to sit and read your guidebook over a pain au chocolat and cappuccino, and there’s Mr Chips if you’d rather have a burger.
The Genocide Museum, however, is a must. Get the audio guide, which gives a much more comprehensive assessment of the situation leading up to the massacre than the information panels. It’s incredibly moving, and some of the displays, as you might expect, are disturbing.
We hugely enjoyed a visit to Club Rafiki, a project that aims to take marginalised children off the streets, and teaches them, among other things, hip-hop and dance, which they then use as a medium to relay social messages to other teenagers.
But it’s the rolling countryside we’re here to see, and all of us are keen to crack on. There’s a back-up bus that accompanies the group, and we hitch a lift out of town to bypass the worst of Kigali’s switchback hills.
Later, we’re pedalling 42 kilometres along dirt-red roads, past coffee bushes and eucalyptuses, practising Kinyarwanda, the local language, with a chant that became a constant refrain over the next few days: “Amakuru?” (“How are you?”); “Ni mese” (“I’m fine”).
The hills aren’t very steep, but they’re long and unforgiving. Surely the top is round the next bend? No, apparently not. Luckily, the views in the valley below are sufficiently breathtaking to necessitate frequent photo stops. Eventually, we arrive at the Sorwathe tea plantation in Kinihira, where we eat curry and spend the night.
The next morning, a thick blanket of fog carpets the valley, with volcano cones poking through, and the sound of villagers on their way to church and the market carries uphill. We pedal down along bumpy tracks and past field after field of virulently green tea plants, stopping in villages to say hello and have a drink, always attracting interested crowds.
The countryside is pristine: plastic bags are banned in Rwanda, and can be confiscated from tourists if they’re found at the airport. But another factor seems to be grinding poverty: many rural dwellers simply can’t afford a bag of crisps or a bottle of pop, so we see no litter.
This was another 40km day, also with some long, leg-buckling hills and plenty of children to giggle and point at exactly the moment I come to a grinding halt and – cough, cough – stop for photos.
The rewards, though, are many, in terms of scenery and encounters with Rwandans, who are always gently curious about the sweaty, mud-splattered strangers in their midst.
Our goal is Lake Ruhondo and the Ruhondo Beach Resort, although when we reach it, the latter is more a triumph of marketing than actual sand.
Still, there can be fewer finer places to watch the sun go down than here, gazing out at the tranquil waters, a few log-hewn canoes bobbing in the middle distance, and beyond them, volcanoes in three different countries providing the backdrop. Before bed, we dine al fresco on lake-caught tilapia fish.
The next day, we put our bikes on a small boat and putt-putt our way to the other side of the lake, before taking a short cut along a path so rutted we’re forced to get off and push. We duck under banana leaves and bamboo, walking past fields of beans, until we can remount and carry on the 30km or so towards the Rwanda National Cycling Centre, where we stay the night.
On future tours, guests will be able to ride with members of Team Africa Rising, who will be competing at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and are coached by the former Tour de France competitor Jock Boyer.
Instead, we just tuck into pizza in the nearby town of Musanze, before rising early the next morning for the trek uphill through thick forest to see mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park.
As bucket-list experiences go, this is right up there. When you eventually come within metres of a silverback and his band in a misty clearing, after several hours of muddy slog, you can understand why the 80-daily trekking permits, which each cost about Dh3,000, get snapped up so quickly. It’s quite sobering, though, to think that amount is approximately half of Rwanda’s annual GDP per capita, based on World Bank estimates.
For an hour, we photograph, watch and are studiously ignored by the gorilla troupe, who yawn, scratch, doze, play, nitpick and urinate in front of us.
Then we set off, downhill, back to our bikes, hoping for some flat ground before the inescapable climbs again, and the equally inevitable giggles of “mzungu” that carry towards us on the equatorial breeze.
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Source: art & life