GISENYI, Rwanda - Around every corner of the winding dirt road we are greeted by exuberant children who cheer us as if we are competing in the Tour de France. We pass goats, cows, and farmers carrying impossibly large bundles of bananas to market. To our right, terraced peninsulas meet the sparkling expanse of Lake Kivu, while faint against the horizon, we see the distant shores of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We are cycling Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail, a dirt road and trail stretching 140 miles along the Lake Kivu shoreline, which winds by stunning bays and peninsulas, rising and then dropping sharply to the lake below. This small, densely populated, landlocked nation (about 12 million people in an area slightly larger than Vermont) in East Africa is among the world’s poorest countries.
Rwanda’s international reputation is dominated by the 1994 genocide that killed nearly 1 million people in under 100 days. But today the country is among the most politically stable and safest destinations in Africa. Living standards are steadily improving, a strong central government has cracked down on corruption, and anything more than petty crime is rare.
The overwhelming majority of Rwandans are subsistence farmers, and the tourist industry is nascent compared with that of many neighboring countries. Yet the government is making a significant effort to position Rwanda as a mainstream destination, which may be paying off. According to Tom Tofield of Rwandan Adventures, “since the [trail] launch in November, I’ve seen a marked uptick in the amount of interest among cyclists along this route, which will no doubt offer valuable tourist dollars to Rwanda.’’
The “land of a thousand hills,’’ as it is sometimes called, could easily become one of the world’s premier mountain biking destinations, with its rugged terrain, stunning scenery, ample trails crisscrossing the countryside, and the country’s cultural predisposition to cycling. While the lack of a tourism infrastructure here makes aspects of travel challenging, it also makes exploring rural Rwanda all the more fascinating and rewarding.
Rwandans have long used bikes for utilitarian purposes. The country is among the African nations that pioneered the wooden bicycle, an ingenious homemade contraption that allows for transport of heavy loads of potatoes, beans, lumber, coffee, and much more. National cycling team members, who are heroes domestically, are quickly becoming international sensations.
The trail is being promoted as a tourist destination for cyclists and hikers alike. We spent our Christmas holiday mountain biking along the gorgeous 55-mile stretch of trail between Gisenyi, a small city surrounded by towering volcanoes, and Kibuye, a quaint vacation town where middle-class Rwandans flock during holidays. On the trail we passed coffee plantations, waterfalls, and tiny fishing villages where we were treated to an up-close look at rural life. It was an unforgettable two days: a sensational biking experience with just enough lakeside luxury to pamper us at the end.
Since we live in Rwanda, the trip was relatively straightforward for us to plan, but for those outside the country, a vacation will require careful forethought. Serious cyclists should consider bringing their own bikes; local rentals are adequate for the everyday rider. Though the government has gone to some lengths to mark the route with signs, the labyrinth of roads and trails makes hiring a guide and tour operator a wise choice, not only to ease navigation, but also to help arrange your itinerary and ground support if you choose not to cycle carrying your own packs.
Lodging along the trail ranges from rustic to upscale. Coffee washing stations with adjoining simple bed-and-breakfasts offer tours of coffee harvesting and processing procedures. “This is a region rich in coffee plantations. By combining tourism with high-quality Rwandan coffee, we offer a unique lodging experience,’’ says Gervais Muremera, the manager of the Kinunu Coffee Washing Station. Many of the so-called “base camps’’ along the trail will accommodate camping, which you can arrange yourself or have organized by a local tour operator. Overnight stays at tea plantations and even an orphanage are other options along the route.
In Kibuye and Gisenyi one can choose from a series of picturesque and luxurious lakeside resorts. Lodgings usually offer dinner and breakfast upon request, which in rural areas is often the only practical choice. During the day, travelers can stop at village shops for snacks, carry their own food, or have their guide arrange ahead of time for a lunch of grilled whole tilapia on the beach.
Anyone considering the trip should be sufficiently fit and accustomed to mountain biking up to 20 miles in a day. Beware of primitive village outhouses, which are not for the faint of heart. As a foreigner in rural Rwanda, and especially on a bicycle, one attracts a great deal of attention, which can be wearying. On balance the trail is more suitable for biking than hiking since much of it is on dirt roads, but certain sections are worthy of foot travel.
A one-week cycling tour along the trail can be a stand-alone itinerary, especially if one stays for an extra few days in Kibuye to enjoy swimming, the taste of fresh fish, and the many species of lakeside birds. A cycling trip can also be combined with a gorilla safari, an ascent of Nyiragongo Volcano just across the border in Congo (if the political situation there allows) to view the world’s largest lava lake, or a visit to Nyungwe National Forest to enjoy a unique rain forest ecosystem and a canopy tour. And one should see the genocide memorial in the capital, Kigali, a powerful and masterfully done remembrance of the events of 1994.
It’s best to avoid the two rainy seasons in Rwanda. The first spans from March to May, during which rains are heavy and persistent, while the second, lighter rainy season stretches from September to December.
Though your friends may not be able to pick out Rwanda on a map, a trip here offers a unique and rewarding vacation. Expect to be among the only tourists on your trailblazing expedition.
If you go...
The Rwandan government offers an informative website with trail maps, contacts for relevant groups, price lists, and more.
Top-quality tour operator will arrange every detail of a cycling or hiking adventure. Guide $50 a day, bike rental $50 a day, porter $30 a day; both guided and self-guided tours available.
Where to stay and eat
Quaint bungalows in beautiful garden, lakeside setting, good restaurant. Doubles from $75 a night.
Lake Kivu Serena Hotel
International standard hotel with all the luxuries, great beach, and pool. Rooms from $165 a night (dependent on the season).
Unique rooms built on stilts overlooking the water in spectacular setting and upscale dining, from $135 a night.
Moriah Hill Hotel
Tranquil lakeside hotel with one of the best beaches in Kibuye. Free use of kayaks. Rooms from $95 a night; all have balconies.
Erik Wurster and Lydia Pace can be reached at wurstere@ hotmail.com.