In early 2015, while researching Rwanda online in advance of my planned volunteering trip, I stumbled across the Congo-Nile trail. It’s a long trail of about 200+ km which meanders down the East side of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s great lakes and which forms the boundary between Rwanda and DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo for the uninitiated, and a no-go area for most sane people). Of course being an eternal optimist I immediately decided that cycling a chunk of this trail would be an ideal challenge, given my recent familiarity with road cycling and my lycra-clad adventures on the roads of Ireland. This, in retrospect, was my first mistake.
Innocently I contacted a reputable tour firm online. They would rent me a bike and even provide me (for a fee) with a guide who would be my minder, my puncture repair specialist, and in retrospect be the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote. Optimism reigned, the deal was done, and the deposit was paid via Paypal. The deal was that I’d make my way to Gisenyi at the Northwest corner of Rwanda where the land border with DRC exists. After picking up the bike, the guide and some supplies we’d head south along the lake, and get to a coffee drying station on the lakeshore called Kinunu by nightfall. Thereafter Plan A was to continue on to Kibuye where I’d hop on a bus back to Kigali and the guide would get a boat back to our starting point (with my bike). Plan B was to get to Kinunu and ‘if it was too hard’ to then double back to Gisenyi. The distance from Gisenyi to Kibuye was about 50km. There was no Plan C but if there had been it probably would have involved a chopper or an air ambulance. More of that later.
Not being entirely clueless I had noticed during my initial three weeks in Rwanda that the slogan ‘Land of a thousand hills’ is entirely justified. There is hardly any flat ground. I don’t like cycling up hills, but hoped that along the lakeside the terrain would be gentle slopes rather than what I observed elsewhere. Mistake #2 was set in motion. A few other gentle hindrances emerged. Rwanda is a high altitude country. Your lungs suck in less oxygen. Also it can be hot and humid. The odds began to be stacked against me.
Despite all these premonitions and misgivings (I’m not a quitter) I turned up at the bike depot on the morning of August 15th, the day after my birthday. My guide turned out to be Bosco, an endlessly patient 23 year old whose main profession – apart from nursing basket cases like me along the trail – was a cycle taxi. That is, he cycled around with a passenger on the back of his bike. So his fitness was not in doubt. He carried my small pack, plus our water supply. I just carried my inadequacy for the task with as much dignity as I could muster. The next section of this post is constructed from fragmented notes that I logged later that night as dusk fell in Kinunu on the lake, 50km south of our starting point. By then I had decided that death was preferable to Plan B (Plan A lay by the wayside) but I didn’t see anywhere in Kinunu that I could lie down and expire. Rewind about nine hours…
Set off from Gisenyi, nice bright day but lungs not working too well. It’s quite hot as we circle around the headland and head south. Lots of hills, drop to a lower gear. Start to sweat profusely. Manage to get up the first hill, and then a very nervy descent the other side. It’s a dirt road but large parts of bare rock. The trail goes up and down like a yo-yo. Kids everywhere call ‘Good morning, how are YOU’. I have no breath to reply. Next hill. I can’t do it, despite my good quality Giant mountain bike, shock absorbers and all. Cassava drying by the roadside on sheets. Goats wandering along. Turkeys in villages. Mud blocks drying in mounds along the way. I’m shattered. Stop in a village for a warm Fanta. There is no electricity but its sugar. Small kids sidle up to me. I’m glad I have a local guide. I dimly notice that everyone in the village is carrying a machete or a sickle. Well its farming country I guess.
Back onto the bike, more hills. I’m drinking at least a litre of water an hour with added salts and it’s not enough. Bosco keeps answering calls on his mobile (everyone here has a basic mobile now, the price point has dropped to make them affordable). I wonder if he’s telling his mates he drew a real turkey here. I walk up the hills now, energy has been zapped by the heat, the altitude and frankly, the gradients. Finally my prayers are answered and we get to Kinunu. It’s up a huge hill and we have to do a two km cycle down from there to the lakeshore where we’re staying. The road is appalling. It’s basically bare rock and I don’t even know if a 4×4 could do it. We have to walk DOWN some of it, it’s so bad. All I keep thinking is a) I want to die and b) if I don’t die how the hell am I going to get UP this hill in the morning? We (well, I) stagger into the lodge at the lakeside. I literally fall off the bike onto a grassy patch. Bosco looks like he hasn’t broken sweat. I buy him a large beer. I’m too far gone to buy myself one and settle for two bottles of coke (sugar rush). I reflect on the over-ambition that brought me here and decide that if I survive this experience I will strive to become a better person.
I manage to have a primitive shower and wash the road off my extremities. I have not eaten since 7am, it’s now 2.30pm and I have absolutely no hunger, I’m too bushed. I try to sleep for the afternoon under a palm tree by the lake. I doze a bit but have recurring nightmares about the return leg. I eventually re-join a fit-looking Bosco for dinner at 6pm and decide to go to bed at 7pm (just after dark) in the hope that twelve hours sleep will recharge my batteries. In short, it doesn’t but the next day is not quite as bad as the first.
On reflection there may just have been a few more downslopes on the way back to Gisenyi or maybe I knew what to expect this time. Or indeed maybe Bosco decided he had to nurse me back to base. We did eventually make it back by early afternoon. About an hour before the end I took a tumble off the bike on a downslope and was very lucky to escape with badly skinned knees, a cracked rib and a headache. I was (obviously) wearing a helmet, which definitely came in handy. I think I just hit a rock on the road which ripped the handlebars from my hands. The rest was history. I actually don’t know what would have happened if I had broken something but we’ll never find out. Thankfully.
Back in Gisenyi the bike was returned. Sympathetic noises were made about ‘the state of me’ (despite the language barrier) and I managed to get a few photos with my companion of the road. I then inflicted my somewhat dishevelled body (no showers) on the fellow passengers of the bus back to Kigali, where a course of anti-inflammatories were procured to ease the ache in my side. My knees became a talking point at every social gathering in Kigali. And what did I learn from this?
I learned that there are some things that sadly you probably just should not take on. Especially physical ones where you don’t have the energy, fitness or expertise to achieve them. I do plan to still ‘keep on trying’ (life’s too short not to) but have now reluctantly decided that I will never swim the English channel, climb any mountain that has a snowfield on the top or run a marathon. The trans-Alaska husky race has reluctantly been scratched from my list too. But at least I now have the Congo-Nile trail on my CV, even if at the end of the day it’s pretty clear who came off second-best in that particular battle of wills.
Bosco and me – note damaged knees…