Cycling a thousand hills from Uganda to Rwanda
We left Fort Portal on the promise that “It’s all downhill” to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d looked at the map before we left and saw that the elevation did drop by around 1,000 metres, but in Uganda that means that you’ll have to climb over 1,000 metres as well because the roads are continually undulating. The mind is a funny thing though, because it was nothing that we were not usually used to and, secretly, we knew that there would still be some climbing, it seemed so much harder because all we could think about was that is was meant to be all downhill!!
As we travelled, the landscape began to change from tropical lush green jungle to dry savannah as we approached the Queen Elizabeth National Park – famous for its tree-climbing lions. We spent the night at Simba Camp just outside the park gates, but sadly we did not have the time nor budget to stop and enjoy this park – we can’t do it all.
The next morning, we cycled along the road that runs through the park hopeful that some of the elephants might have taken a wrong turn and decided to hang out near the road. [Would that make it a trunk road? – James]. The reality is that this road is the main trucking road to the DRC border and, although we did see some water buffalo and impala, it’s no surprise we didn’t see much else with the huge trucks carrying shipping containers blasting pass. We then endured a long winding climb out of the park. Actually, despite the road surface deteriorating into patchy tarmac, sand and gravel, the climb meant we were able to enjoy some stunning views over the savannah as we climbed back into the tropical zone and passed hundreds of small hold banana plantations. Our day ended at the Cielo Country Inn in Ishaka; a lovely little hotel where the manager Ben hosted us for the night – thank you!
From here we travelled through the hills for two days to Muko, a small village on the banks of Lake Bunyoni, the second deepest lake in Africa. The road to Muko was breathtaking as we passed through tea, banana, coffee and cotton plantations on a brand new tarmac road (thank you Ugandan Government!). Despite the terrain providing challenging cycling, the views more than made up for it and when we turned the final corner of the day we had arrived at the shores of the lake where we would camp for the night.
We woke the next morning to stunning views of the mist rising off the lake; it seemed a great way to spend our final morning in Uganda, a country that we have so enjoyed cycling through. Everyone seems so cheerful, happy and helpful here and we had such a blast. It’s been great feeling fit again too – definitely helped by some great new roads, but I’d go as far as to say I’ve enjoyed almost all the cycling – no major heart palpitations and I even beat James cycling up a hill which has not happened since Bulgaria!
After a seamless border crossing into Rwanda we had arrived in “The Land of a Thousand Hills” and our first stop was a much-anticipated stay with Team Rwanda, Rwanda’s cycling team, in Musanze (Ruhengeri).
We’d been invited to stay at the Africa Rising Training Centre where the team was in the middle of a tough training camp. Some of the team is in preparation for the African Continental Championships in 2 weeks’ time. As the team was in really focused training we did not spend much time with them other than at meals, respecting their privacy and the focus they required. We did, however, have a great time meeting Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing director, finding out more about the team and its ambitions. Of particular excitement was meeting Team Rwanda’s first female rider, Jeanne D’Arc. Jeanne is working hard as we speak to qualify for the Olympics in Rio and a win at the Continental Champs, which she is expected to do, will guarantee her that place. She’s recently competed at the UCI TT championships where she was the only female rider from Africa in the field – this young lady has incredible promise and we cannot wait to follow her career with interest. As it stands, Team Rwanda will now have two cyclists attending the Olympics in Rio.
Team Rwanda shot to fame at the London 2012 Olympics as they fielded Rwanda’s first ever cyclist at the games, Adrien Niyonshuti who competed in the cross country mountain bike event. The team was established in 2007 by ex-pro cyclist Jock Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, and is going for strength to strength with Jock and his wife Kimberly at the helm. The centre now has a strong men’s team and their first female rider and hope to have three athletes competing in Rio this summer. The team is based at a complex called the Africa Rising Cycling Centre just outside the Volcanoes National Park in North West Rwanda where they run intensive training camps for Team Rwanda as well as camps for riders from other African countries. We could not help but be impressed with everything we saw there with a hugely dedicated team of cyclists who, through cycling, have united their country in pride and passion for cycling.
That does not mean, however, that it does not come without its problems and the team struggle daily with the pressure of professional cycling in a country like Rwanda. It is particularly hard for Jeanne D’Arc, the team’s first female cyclist. She’s the only girl on the team and would absolutely love to have some female compatriots but finding women who cycle in this country is tough. We learned that throughout East Africa that many girls are made to stop cycling when they reach puberty, because it is commonly believed that riding a bike would lead to a young girl loosing their virginity. It’s such a sad belief and we can only hope that as education levels rise, this will one day become a legend and we hope successful young women like Jeanne will be able to become confident female role models in Rwanda.
The UK arm of World Bicycle Relief, who we are raising money for, provide their Buffalo bikes mainly to young girls to help them get to school and remain in school longer will help to improve education levels in rural communities where it is most needed – never have I felt so passionate about helping girls get an education.
From Team Rwanda we spent a truly magical day trekking to see the mountain gorillas; a day we will never forget. Before we left home we outlined a few things that we really wanted to do, regardless of cost on this trip and although this was by no means a cheap day, it was incredible to have the opportunity to spend some time with these unbelievable creatures. Sharing 97.2% of our DNA, they really are just like big hairy versions of us. The day involved a 14km trek through the bamboo forests and into the jungle where we hacked our way through dense jungle to find the Susa family of gorillas.
Gorilla Trekking Slide Show
What made it better was that we had such a great group of people with us – Matt, a Canadian living in Kigali with his young family and his parents and uncle and aunt who were over visiting from Canada. An highly successful and lovely group of people. It really is a small world as we discovered that Matt actually met his wife whilst cycling across Canada and they spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America! We are now spending a couple of days with Matt and his wife Jenna in Kigali before we make our move to Tanzania.
We decided to split the journey to Kigali because, although it was only 100km, there is a lot of climbing and we wanted to go to the Genocide Memorial Museum on our way into town so needed enough time to do this. Our ride out of Musanze (Ruhengeri) was awesome as we passed Team Rwanda on their way home from a training ride – a great way to say wave them all goodbye!
After a 7km climb we passed a small guest house around 50km from Kigali and decided, as we did not think we would pass anything else on the way, we’d take a look to see if we could stay the night there and have some time to do some much needed admin before arriving in Kigali. All was looking good – they had a simple room for $5 and a quiet beer garden where we could set up camp and get our work done – we just needed to pick up some food to cook as they didn’t have a functioning restaurant.
Once we’d settled in, the manager arrived and decided that, as we were Muzungus, we should pay extra for the room, no room for negotiation. Now don’t get me wrong, it was not much money more but the room was pretty gross and we were not going to pay more just because we had white skin so we decided to leave, thinking that they would change their minds. They didn’t. We took back the money we’d paid and set off.
One small problem, however, James’s helmet seemed to have disappeared…it was definitely there when we arrived but, having searched everywhere, we whizzed back to the nearest town to see if we had left it there instead but no joy. It was only when we cycled back past the guest house we saw that it had miraculously turned up – and, funnily enough, they were happy to give us the room at the old price. Too late. We decided to wild camp instead so cycled along for a few more kilometres until we found a (very rare) patch of flat land with no houses or crops on it – just outside a church. We found some water from a spring and set about pitching our tent. Rwanda is incredibly populated so it was no surprise that within minutes we had an audience of around 100 people watching us! Even when I popped into the tent to put some trousers on I noticed the local women trying to peer into the tent to watch me. They stayed with us until sunset when we met the local pastor who kindly asked them all to leave us in peace! It was the same the next morning and when I emerged from the tent at sunrise, there was a new audience ready and waiting for us! We didn’t mind too much though, they quietly watched us, clearly fascinated by what on earth we were doing – it just made the morning loo visit a little awkward…!
Although brief, it is great to be in Rwanda, the second time for me. Aptly named the Land of a Thousand Hills, it is incredibly hilly on bikes but incredibly beautiful. In a country with such a dark recent history, it is humbling to meet so many optimistic, friendly people who all take the time to tell us that we are welcome in their country. Their recent past will never be forgotten, it’s hard to when so many people were affected by the genocide here is 1994 however the country is moving forward in the right direction.
For us, we have a few more days here before we hit remote Western Tanzania where we hope it will stop raining soon so that the clay road we intend to take remains a viable route for us!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.