If Rwanda is the “Land of One Thousand Hills”, then I think I cycled at least half of them. Terraced for maximum farming efficiency, the steep hillsides are planted with tea, coffee and subsistence crops tended by hardworking Rwandans of all ages. Women, some carrying babies, harvest tea leaves into woven baskets. Men and women carry hoes and other implements into the fields to tend the crops. Rhythmic, dull thuds of axes on hard wood indicate trees being felled. Men cut lumber with crosscut saws. Toddlers carry scythes and machetes. Everyone carries water in yellow jerrycans. Goats sometimes lose their footing and slip down the slopes. It is a generous, but unforgiving landscape. In the lowlands, where the water pools, farmers wade through the channels tending rice. Milk, produce, people, pigs, goats, building supplies and every other conceivable commodity gets transported primarily via single speed, steel cargo bicycles. I am struck by the intense physicality of life in Rwanda.
I bought a puzzle map of Africa to familiarize myself with the continent. Rwanda sits next to the Democratic Republic of Congo, between Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. Dwarfed(along with tiny Burundi) by its neighbors, Rwanda is relegated to the cracks between puzzle pieces. It may be a small country, but it has big heart. Rwanda has the third highest population density in Africa and a median age of 19. I am guessing that I greeted at least 10,000 Rwandans, many under the age of 6.
The 2023 Race Around Rwanda started and ended in the central capital city, Kigali. The 1,000 km/621 mile (with 17,4600 meters/57,840 ft climbing) unsupported bikepackingroute took us around the perimeter of the country. We passed Akagera Park, home to Africa’s Big Five and many other species. We cycled along lake Muhazi and made our way north to the volcanoes and gorilla territory. We dropped down to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and cycled along the majestic Lake Kivu. We made our way through the indigenous Nungwye Rainforest. I say “we”. Eighty bikepacking aficionados from around the world, including Rwanda, participated in the race. Collectively we cycled through Rwanda, but each at our own pace. We had six days to complete the epic journey. I signed up as a solo participant and cycled much of the course on my own, including a lot of pre-dawn hours. Sometimes, my pace would bring me into contact with other racers for a few hours. I appreciated the camaraderie, but also the solitude and the freedom to ride my own race.
The questions arise. Why? Why Rwanda? Why bikepacking? I have a passion for bicycles and the freedom afforded by a life lived on two, human powered wheels. I ride bikes for transportation, a sense of community, adventure and fitness. For the past five years, I have been based in South Africa. I have cycled over 25,000 km/8,200 miles in rural, wilderness and urban landscapes. In March, I completed a 500km/311 mile, non-GPS, endurance mountain bike race (Race to Rhodes) in the South African mountains bordering Lesotho. That gave me confidence to say, “yes” to Rwanda. I have a passion for Africa and a curiosity to interact more intimately with an entire country. At 55, I am also interested in my physical capacity in relationship to age. Connecting with locals and visiting cyclists offers me a sense of global belonging. Bikepacking allows me to be self-sufficient. I carry my own food, water, first aid, spares and clothing to get me from one place to the next. I find local shops, restaurants and lodging along the route.
We started as a group at 04h00 on a Sunday morning with a police escort to the edge of the city. We were filled with jitters and excitement as our wheels spun. The first hundred kilometers passed in a blur. We left the tarmac road and wove through rural areas, down to scenic Lake Muhazi and our first official checkpoint. Coated in a fine layer of red dust, riders scarfed a buffet meal of rice, beans, potatoes, spinach, cooked bananas and chapati. At each checkpoint we were given a tiny memento gift. CP1 gifts were sewn African animal keychains. I chose a giraffe.
After CP1 we climbed and then dropped down to the lake for some super fun dirt tracks along the shore. By afternoon most of us were looking for a place to spend the night. The Kingfisher Lodge looked promising as a resort hotel. However, from my reconnaissance trip, I learned that getting to the hotel meant taking a boat. Although a charming way to travel, the thought of organizing an 03h00 crossing for the following morning stressed me out. I saw two nuns walking near a seminary and had the thought to ask if there was a bed at the compound. They sweetly smiled and indicated, “yes”. I found a priest who spoke English and Spanish and ended up in a simple, clean, private room with a bathroom.
I cycled down to the little shops hoping to get water and food for the following day. I was greeted by crowds of locals. I pulled out my phone to show the map of the race, explaining the presence of all the mzungu (white/foreign) and local cyclists in full racing gear barreling through their town. I also pointed out that a Rwandan woman cyclist, Violette was in a lead position. Someone led me to a little shop where I bought water, Fanta and biscuits. A proud cargo cyclist named, “Madiba” eating bread and a brothy, goat soup explained that this food gives strength for his hard work. He offered me a taste. I tore off a piece of his bread, sopped it in broth and ate it with gusto. So delicious. I wish I had stayed to get a bowl of my own, along with the tilapia grilling on charcoal. I was not entirely sure how to navigate the local eating and felt torn to join other cyclists at a lakeside restaurant.
Up early the next morning, I set off in the dark. Heading north meant a lot of uphill on the way to the volcanic region of the country, which is also home to the mountain gorillas. Day 2 was a harder day. The excitement wore off and the grind began. The route through terraced tea plantations made for new scenery. And then, coming around a corner and seeingmassive volcanic peaks rising out of lakes, gave another lift to my spirits. I arrived at the Africa Rise Cycling Center late afternoon and checked into a gorgeous bungalow with many beds and hot water. Riders sat in the restaurant drinking ice cold cokes, eating large plates of delicious food. By nighttime, the beds in the cottage filled with riders. Strangers a few days before, we now found ourselves sleeping in the same room just a few feet apart. Camaraderie develops quickly. Most of us washed our kit while showering and hung our wet gear to dry overnight on bushes. I came up with a system for organizing my gear and charging my electronics (phone, Garmin, Garmin watch, headlamp, bike light, taillight) efficiently for a quick morning getaway. At CP2, we each got a little carved wooden gorilla keychain.
Day 3 came early. I had some trepidation with the distance and climbing. 196km/122 miles and 4,087 m/13,400 ft of climbing. We would cycle a pass at 3,000m, our highest point reached in Rwanda. The route would skirt the volcanoes and then drop down through Gisenyi to Lake Kivu , ending on a lake in Kibuye. To make a very long day in the saddle short, it was brutal. After tons of climbing, the drop down to Gisenyi was welcome. It was also very scary. The road was full of cargo bikes, buses, trucks, the occasional private car and me. All careening downhill at 60km an hour, precariously flowing together, hoping for consistency. If any one vehicle braked, I worried that the whole, mismatched pack would suffer a crash. Riding through the villages in the afternoon, rain spat and made the surface slick. The day seemed endless. From there, we hit tar and the road continued to stretch out. The sun set. I lost steam and struggled the final kilometers to CP3. I arrived at the checkpoint in the dark and left in the dark. I hear Kibuye is beautiful. I am still wearing the woven green/yellow/blue Rwanda bracelet gift from CP3.
Daunted by the distance and climbs between CP3 and CP4 (259 km/ 161 miles with 6,433 m/ 21,100 ft); I aimed to stop midway between checkpoints to arrive at the edge of Nungywe Forest on day 4 The days started to run together. The route took us along parts of the Congo Nile hiking/cycling trail. José, from Spain, and I leapfrogged eachother. At one point when I stopped to eat, José carried on. The villagers, assuming that we were traveling together, chased him down and reunited us. José had a mechanical problem with his bike that meant traveling back to Kigali on a motorcycle with his bicycle, getting a repair and then returning to his breakdown point.
A little later in the day, I saw Elza, a solo German racer stopped by the side of the road with a puncture. I stopped and asked if she needed help. True to the spirit of being an unsupported race, Elza chose to do the repairs herself, but indicated that if I wanted to stop for a rest, she would be amenable. The audience had gathered overwhelmingly enmasse. I did crowd control while Elza focused on the tyre. I pointed out that the crowd does provide a resource that could make her life easier. The strong young men, in my experience, are very happy to take turns inflating racing tyres to pressure with a tiny hand pump.
I felt good that afternoon. I enjoyed the ride. I just had a short distance to go to get to the edge of the forest. I relaxed. And then I got a message from a friend asking where I planned to sleep for the night and was I aware that it was a quite a climb up to Gisakura? I honestly was not paying attention and was grateful for the nudge. I managed to call a hostel and book a room. I put my head down and rode. Up and up and up. I arrived just as the sun was setting. Richard from the Isle of Man had arrived just before me and occupied another room. He called out from his bed to say he was shattered and hoped not to get up. My Belgian friends messaged me to say they had found accommodation a little further up the mountain that still had room, if I needed a place to stay.
I told Theo at the hotel that I would like my breakfast takeaway and that I planned to leave at 03h30 the next morning. At 03h45, I woke to a faint tapping at my door. I had been having a problem falling asleep at night. I would lay down, exhausted and then find my body humming with energy. I thought maybe I was overtired from the exertion. Ultimately, I realized that my hydration tablets that I was taking before bed contain large amounts of caffeine. Thus, when I finally managed to fall asleep, I overslept. Theo took his job to heart. I suspect he was relieved when I finally woke up.
Rwandan soldiers patrol the road through Nungwye forest due to ongoing tensions with neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Like ghosts in the mist, the soldiers walk silently through day and night. The damp stillness of the forest made for a peaceful morning of climbing. I enjoyed the reprieve from the socialness of village life. Popping out of the forest, I stopped at a local café with a fantastic buffet. A little shop selling honey and bee products had tiny bottles of “bee harvested tree resin.” It appeared medicinal. I took a chance, bought some and discovered it has amazing soothing and healing properties, especially for places rubbed raw by the saddle. The track after the forest proved to be rocky and rutted, making for slower progress. My hands turned to claws. My fingers refused to bend autonomously at the joints. I had to use my other hand to bend my fingers into position on the brake levers. I joined up with Cleo and Hari for the last section of the day. The smooth tarmac and lively conversation helped make the ride into CP4 a happier experience. When we got to town we found a shop selling all kinds of groceries. Cleo stocked up on Pringles and I gorged on cashew nuts. At CP4 we were given tiny, traditional woven agaseke baskets symbolizing peace, unity, generosity and compassion.
Eager to get back to Kigali, I started early on day 6. The day wore on. I wore down, but kept a steady, even pace. It got hot. Closer to the city, congestion picked up. In Burgesera, I had quite a shock when my friend Alvin from Kigali called out to me from the side of the road! Alvin had gone to help a friend out of town and recognized me as I cycled past. After greeting so many strangers, I was overwhelmed to be greeted by a friend. I carried on, but stopped for a coffee at a shop outside of Kigali. Although Rwanda produces fabulous tea and coffee, staying caffeinated proved a challenge. I could find spicy, hot chai at the resto/cantines frequented by workers, but regular tea and coffee eluded me in the rural areas. I was happy to postpone my finish to enjoy a double cappuccino.
Kigali traffic made me nervous. I rode conservatively in the city and kept my wits about me. I knew fatigue rendered my reflexes sub-par. I just wanted to pull into the finish line intact. And underneath the focus; raw emotion began to well up. Joy, relief, exhaustion, overwhelm all burbled in me when I arrived at Maguru Coffee for the finish. I was greeted warmly by organizers, friends and finishers. I wanted to laugh and cry all at once. Laughter won out and I joined the celebration.
The following day, I prioritized friendship and rest. I connected with my Airbnb host and her daughter. I treated myself to a generous meal of grilled fish and vegetables served on a bed of greens and sorghum. I met up with my friend Noble who thoughtfully organized a restorative massage for me. We went together to the race afterparty. Alvin joined. I experienced a tremendous sense of wellbeing as my experiences in Rwanda merged. At home in my being. At home in the world.