A Rwandan Joy Ride

I can see the leak in the boat. It’s right there, fer cryin’ out loud, not three feet from where I’m sitting, the lake water slowly bubbling in, filling the bottom of the ancient, decrepit tub until the captain’s assistant decides it’s time to bail us out yet again. I’m fairly confident I could swim to shore from here, but I’m not particularly keen to test my theory in these waters.

We’re returning from the fishing village of Nkora, about 15 miles south of Gisenyi on the coast of Lake Kivu, along with our guide from the bike outfitters Rwanda Adventures and our five mountain bikes. We rode the first short leg of the recently opened 200+ kilometer Congo-Nile bike trail. It was billed as “easy to moderate” on the marker at the trailhead, but Lea and Lucas would both insist later that the sign makers are full of shit. It’s a hard ride. There’s nothing too technical about it, but 2500 feet of relentless climbing on a dry, dusty rough and rocky dirt road that hugs the coast line is not exactly a walk in the park. There’s a reason Rwanda’s nickname is “Land of a Thousand Hills” – and it feels like we’ve climbed over at least half of them in the course of the three-and-a-half hour adventure.

I loved every minute of it (perhaps with exception of the part where Lea was complaining up a storm while I pushed her up a hill, telling me how she hated every inch of this place and wanted to go back to Vermont “where it’s flatter.”), but it’s not until we regroup later that afternoon that Lucas and Lea are ready to acknowledge that it was a pretty cool adventure. (I’m kicking myself for forgetting my Garmin so I could get first dibs on Strava for the ride, but I’m committed to returning later this fall with my single speed to ride the trail again.)

The views from the trail are spectacular, looking out over the endless fields of coffee, corn, and banana palms that run right down to the edge of the lake. But while the ride is a great opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Rwanda, it’s also a chance to encounter what is perhaps Rwanda’s biggest challenge: the insane population density. There are people absolutely everywhere. The two little kids who start running alongside you as you pass them at a bend in the road rapidly multiply, cries of “muzungu!” attracting others, and out of nowhere you suddenly have a school’s worth of kids in tow. And that’s outside the villages, mind you – in the hamlets along the way, we encounter even more people, although still mostly kids (half the country’s population is under 15). It’s hard to imagine that the country can sustain this pressure as it tries to progress. There’s not enough room to farm, not enough room to grow – something will have to give. The scary thing is that some experts claim that the population size and growth rate played a significant role in the ’94 genocide.

Everyone is exceptionally friendly, particularly the kids who are all eager to exercise their three English phrases and show off their courage by touching you or your bike. There are just so many of them. At one point, Lisa considers buying one particularly energetic kid a Fanta as a reward for keeping her company up a particularly steep section all the while lugging the 10 gallons of water, but it would have required her to buy a round for his entire village – probably more Fanta than Rwanda has on hand. As it is, the shop in this particular village turns out to have nothing for sale whatsoever, except MTN cell phone credits. That’s a strange testament to the warped priorities of the 21st century and the marvels of modern marketing: these subsistence farmers are living on something like a dollar a day, with no running water and little if any electricity – and the one and only commodity that is available in their local store is air time for their cell phones?

Biking is huge in Rwanda; their national team has racked up impressive results, they hold an annual Tour of Rwanda stage race on the ridiculously well-maintained roads, bikes are used to move coffee and other produce to market, and people across the country use bikes to get around. And it’s a great way for visitors to see the country. Rwanda Adventures is one of the first groups to actively market to the bike tourists, and judging by our experience this past weekend, they’re on to a great thing.