12th – 18th September
(Kayonza - Kigali - Kibuye - Nyungwe - Kigali - Uganda)
So yes, they call it the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’. We very quickly discovered the practical implications of this when we were caught on the back foot entering Rwanda a day early, but very late in the afternoon. As soon as the light faded a thick fog descended and the hairpin bends became increasingly hairy. On top of this we were acclimatising to a new set of road rules and conduct. Some were formalised, like driving on the right. Others, less formal, seemed to have no rhyme nor reason, nor indeed any consistency, like endlessly flashing of headlights, driving on any side of the road (in the face of oncoming traffic or obvious road hazard or not) and seemingly totally random movements by pedestrians and drivers alike. The two years of learning the language of Malawian and Tanzanian road use was pretty much out the window.
So too was our pooled collection of languages. We thought having passable Swahili, French and English between us we should be sorted for communication. Not so! In fact none of these languages is widely spoken in rural Rwanda. Furthermore, the French taught in schools in Rwanda differs from the French we learnt at school, or in France, or Senegal for that matter. It reminded me, in rural areas, of talking to English teachers in China, who took up to 10 minutes to communicate what they did for a living, in such heavily intonated English it was really only intelligible to each other.
And so after a comical first few hours negotiating the surprisingly large contrast across borders, navigation, communication and progress ground to a halt short of Kigali. We entered the small truck stop town of Kayonza at 9pm, cold, bedraggled and bewildered, hand-gesturing our way to some average food and a flea-pit of a hotel.
Luckily, this first day in Rwanda was the only real low-point! The next morning our spirits lifted, as had the fog, and we pushed on to Kigali with glorious views and weather, spurred by Nico’s assurances of crêpes, hot chocolates, omelettes, baguettes and a good selection of cheeses. True enough by 11am we were nailing various combinations of the above in downtown Kigali. ‘Splurge!’ set the tone of the weekend really, with beer, rum, football, bars, good food, seedy nightclubs and massage parlours being enjoyed in aggregate, but not by all individuals, of the group.
With Nico nearing the end of his 3 week stint he was keen to make the most of his time in Rwanda, so we set off on a near circumnavigation of the country, which takes a lot less time than it sounds. First we headed off to Kibuye, on Lake Kivu in the west and, in the spirit of not doing things by half, opted to take a dirt track following the shores of the lake south, rewarded by really quite stunning views. Once again we underestimated time and dark rudely fell long before we had planned for it, so we ended up seeking accommodation in a secondary school somewhere on the road. Busy time for the school, as we arrived during some event that seemed to be celebrating the gift of a cow (much speculation here) and it was the eve of Rwanda’s parliamentary elections, with many schools acting as polling stations. Nevertheless the school kindly put us up in their guesthouse, although it was still a rather bizarre evening all round.
Onward the next day to Nyungwe Forest National Park, via more spectacular coastline and then tea plantations, for the first time since we left Mulanje. The park itself is stunning montane on steep hills, making for tough walking. We opted not to do any of the high cost chimp or monkey related activities but instead did a nature walk with a tree-expert guide. He clearly loved his trees that man. I can’t say I can remember any of the local language or latin names of any of those trees that day, or many of their various medicinal uses, but they were certainly the stars of the show in Nyungwe Forest, the 150 ft mahogany trees crowing the top of the forest canopy.
We then completed the circuit back to Kigali in time for Nico’s flight on the 16th. He looked thoroughly exhausted as we dropped him off and inn dire need of a holiday. Indeed I myself fell into a 36-hour coma in a hotel room as, in fact, we had not had one full day’s rest for 3 weeks. Overlanding is really a full time job.
Alex and I spent two very pleasant remaining days recovering in Kigali. Our guesthouse was at the back of a local buffet restaurant that pulled a monumentally sized lunchtime crowd. From 6am 50 litre buckets full of tomatoes, onions, garlic and potatoes were chopped and prepared, opening for business around 11am. Increasingly large streams then rivers of customers poured through the place until around 3pm, loading up EU sized mountains of sauces, meats, bananas, chips and vegetables on their plates. We reckoned this tiny 10m x 10m space had a total of 2000 customers every day. Quite a feat. And the food was damn good for about £1.
Onwards and upwards. We finally left Kigali northwards bound for Uganda.
PS I later realised that I wrote this entire blog without reference to Rwanda’s painful recent past - the events surrounding the genocide of July 1994. There is certainly no lack of reminders as you pass through the country; genocide monuments and flowered cemeteries are dotted throughout. People do not necessarily shy away from the subject as conversations flow. There is apparently an excellent museum in memory of those who suffered at the hands of the Interhamwe in the town of Butare, south of the capital, which we didn’t manage to visit. But I guess those memories we’ll take away of Rwanda as it is today will be of a proud, if quite reserved people, in a forward-looking country clearly on the move. People were well-dressed, transport safe and efficient, infrastructure worked, rural areas were buzzing. Perhaps it’s more helpful to take away a snapshot of the present, or a glimpse of the future, than to fascinate on Rwanda’s past. And I think in this regard Rwanda took us all a little by surprise.