Google Maps — a Detailed Love Story

Okay, I’m going to gush like a teenage schoolgirl for a second: I am absolutely head over heels in love with Google maps and their recently updated satellite imagery. The reason for this total crush? Without the CIA-grade detail, there’s no way in hell I would be able to string together a random collection of dirt paths in the suburbs of Kigali to create a decent bike ride without some significant trial and error. No. Way. This is Rwanda after all, and even though they love biking, they do not have the kind of trails we have back home, carefully crafted by professionals like John Morton and Dave Lindahl {waves} and marked on full-color trail maps. No, what you find here are beaten paths from “the corner next to the baptist church, past the old well, across the rice paddies, and around the foot of the hill…” Nothing is marked, nothing makes sense; you come to an eight way crossroads with people and goats and cows going in every direction, all the trails looking the same, and it’s not at all clear which one is the one you want.

A few rounds of prodding and poking might be good enough for ace navigators like my good friend Michael Lyons {waves again}, who has memorized every rock and fern in the Upper Valley and is a complete pleasure to ride with, but for a notorious navigational loser like myself, I need something more substantial, visual and tangible. Enter The Google. I’ve spent hours pouring over the hi res images of our neighborhood, following each path along with the isobars to get a sense of what goes where and how. I walked a few miles of the trails the other day to get a sense of what the imagery looks like in real life – i.e. if a trail shows up this wide on the imagery, it’s the equivalent of a single track/walking trail; if it’s this wide, it’s a dirt road wide enough for a car. Slap a piece of paper on the screen, trace your routes, make some intelligent notes of landmarks, and you’re good to go. On a 15 mile ride today, I only missed one turn, and that was because part of the trail had turned into the quarry from hell and simply disappeared.


Never mind the endless prOn and facebook – to have access to an invaluable resource like detailed maps with satellite images, landmarks, and topography overlaid has to be one of the true marvels of the internet and one for which this mountain biker is really grateful.

(The picture above was taken on this morning’s ride; there was an endless procession of guys moving firewood, bananas, charcoal and other goods to market on the back of their ancient singlespeed bikes. Anything above a few percent grade, and they have no option but to get off and push their insane load uphill. You also se a few guys coming the other way, screaming down the dirt roads, lacking such basics as brakes, helmets and the common sense to get off before gravity throws them off and buries them under 90 pounds of carrots. The snapshot on the left is the map of our immediate neighborhood — Kinyinya, Gasabo in the Northeast corner of Kigali).