(The starting point of the Congo Nile Trail just outside Bralirwa Bay / Gisenyi)
Before I set out to conquer the new Congo Nile Trail, at least in part from Kibuye to Gisenyi, during a trial trip with a group of other media representatives, questions were asked of my sanity, how anyone could walk across rural Africa, considering the presence of wild animals, opportunistic bandits and reckless drivers ready to catapult one into the nearest ditch. Of course, I have dealt with questions of this nature for long, including how I could in the first place have chosen to live in Africa, but alas, those ignorantia never seem to stop bringing that up. They also never deter me to do something new, something others have not done yet but something I always feel others should do too, to widen their horizon and to broaden their knowledge about the destination and in the process gain the experience lifes memories are made of.
Commonly tourist visitors are driven across our lands by saloon cars, converted mini busses or dedicated 4×4 safari vehicles, and they see the landscapes, villages and people race by them, one seemingly looking like the other, so why stop. But there is a growing number of tourists, who come to East Africa, and in particular to Rwanda, for the opportunity to walk and hike, more here than in any of the other East African Community countries.
The famous Parc de Volcanoes is made for walking, as it is the only way to find the rare mountain gorillas, often hidden deep in the forest. Nyungwe National Park too is a hikers paradise, as is Gishwati Forest where a major trail network awaits intrepid explorers ready to do a days work with their feet while their eyes and ears can feast on the magnificent sights and sounds of unspoiled nature.
The Rwanda Development Boards Tourism and Conservation division, has over the past years been active to develop new products for visitors, to show them that the country has a lot more to offer than just the prized gorillas, and it has worked. A motor launch was brought to Lake Kivu to allow for a new experience of seeing the often spectacular hilly scenery from off shore, or watch birds while meandering along the shoreline at low speed. Birding trails were opened up outside the protected areas, involving communities through guiding and accommodation services and giving tourists from abroad a unique bird watching experience while being able to interact with the locals.
But the latest addition to the range of Rwandas attractions, the Congo Nile Trail, is something quite different and quite special, as it stretches from Gisenyi to Cyangugu / Kamembe, 227 kilometres long and alternating between the hills high above and the Lake Kivus shores. Along the new Congo Nile Trail there are no wild animals laying in wait to pounce on unsuspecting walkers, although the occasional dog gave chase only to turn away when sharply spoken to, and there are no bandits in Rwanda, a country where security is now second to none on the African continent. As to drivers, this often being a rough road and for some sections truly very rough, speeds by the few cars passing were slow enough and nothing to worry about.
My trip started in Kigali, where those planning to hike the trail have plenty of hotels and guest houses to choose from, but yours truly opted to begin the trip in style at the Kigali Serena Hotel. And it is this part which puts another myth to rest, that such hikes are for back packers or low budget tourists only. Of course it can be, as the trail does not discriminate against the hikers over the content of their wallet or the colour of their credit cards but it is often the wealthier individuals who seek this type of adventure, aimed to exercise their bodies while on vacation and then return home, fit to stand another year of office stress.
The trail, which has 8 base camps spread along the entire length at convenient intervals more are being planned already and some of them in stunning locations can be done with a tight budget but can also be conquered by those able to afford 3, 4 or 5 star accommodation along the way, which is available in or near all major townships between starting and ending points of the trail. Here it is simply a question of what one can spend on the available options of a 10 day hike, a 6 day bike and / or a 3 day 4×4 trip. Add to that the opportunity to do sections on the lake in the motor launch, plus the various loops or sub-trails which offer even longer options and greater choices by navigating away from the main trail, like into the fabled Nyungwe or Gishwati forests, and suddenly the trail really comes together as a major vacation experience.
I left Kigali in the morning and the drive took me to Gitarama where the road then branched off towards Kibuye on Lake Kivu. I gave up counting the hills, but am now absolutely certain that the Land of a Thousand Hills must surely have a few thousand more than that. The first major landmarks were passing the edges of the Mukura Forest Reserve before reaching the Ndaba waterfall.
(The Ndaba waterfall and surrounding forests and farmlands)
After a brief stop for the obligatory pictures the journey continued, now mostly downhill towards Lake Kivu, but when reaching the turn off to Kibuye my guide Karim Gisagara (Karim is on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/GKK01), one of the fathers of the trail idea and a driving force behind the effort to turn this into reality, told me work comes first turning to the Gisovu sub-trail in order to show me the tea route to the Gisovu tea factory. Passing through the extensive factory estates was evidence enough how important an export commodity tea is for the Rwandan economy and Gisovu in particular, as all the production from there, arguably the very finest tea produced in East Africa, is exported to the UK. In fact, almost the entire buffer zone around Nyungwe Forest National Park is extensively farmed with one tea plantation after the next, and the Nyungwe Forest Lodge one very luxurious place hikers can opt for when on the Cyangugu / Kamembe side of the trail is embedded into a tea estate.
(The Gisovu tea estates with Nyungwe Forest National Park clearly visible beyond the ridge)
Other highlights of the day were a visit to LEsperance Orphanage (www.lesperancerwanda.org / or www.victormonroytrust.com / www.icatis.org/birambye) which is unique in as far as it is self sufficient in all aspects of life, though the Rwanda government absorbs the school fees for the 128 children presently at home there.
(The children at LEsperance Orphanage)
And wherever one goes in Rwanda, memories of 1994 are never far, as I paid my respect at the Hill of Resistance where those chased down by killer militias sought refuge and held out for weeks, only armed with sticks and stones, before regular troops then stormed the hill, killing all. These locations are part of the main trail, or the side loops and provide crucial insight for those hiking into the history of Rwanda, while witnessing the economic activities which dominate the wider area, tea plantations and subsistence farming.
(The Hill of Resistance Genocide Memorial, where all those passing pay their respects)
Enroute to our nightstop in Kibuye we also passed near the highest mountain in the area, Mt. Karongi, where a good view point allows one to see the town below and far across the lake to the mountains in Congo.
Notably, near our overnight stop, a guest house owned by the Diocese of Nyundo, is another genocide memorial, the very one which inspired the film 100 Days, where the church of St. Pierre was the gruesome scene of a massacre on 25.000 innocent women and children, arranged for and aided by Catholic priests who had switches sides and entered into the service of Satan.
Accommodation in the base camps like the Home St. Jean is clean and functional, sometimes rather utalitarian, and the home cooked meals provide the sustenance needed for another days hike but will not attract a gourmet rating of course. While some base camps are on the electricity grid, others use generators for a limited number of hours in the evening only, hence it is worth asking in advance when it comes to charging camera and phone batteries and keeping netbooks or tablets powered up. Most of the way the phone network coverage is average to good, though are there spots where the Congolese networks take over while the Rwandan networks fade away. This is particularly important for anyone wishing to tweet impressions and send instant pictures, which may not always be possible as experienced during my own hike along the trail. MTN Rwanda and TIGO both offer USB modems to stay connected via a netbook or lap top and when purchasing one of those in Kigali, take advantage of special first purchase offers which often include a months unlimited surfing the net. Such a modem also makes a nice gift to a guide at the end of the journey so that they can stay connected too with their clients the world over.
In the evenings, after supper has been taken, some of the camps, like shown here at Bumba base camp below the Congo Nile Crest view point, light a camp fire to allow stories to be told or a cold beer to be enjoyed, or a steaming hot cup of tea or coffee, considering the elevation and drop in temperature at night. The actual ridge, where the water divide between the Congo and the Nile basins is located, will be pointed out by the guides and those keen enough can hike up and stand on the physical divide itself, as in been there, done that and have the t-shirt to prove it.
(Camp fire night at Bumba base camp, with all of us, especially the author, huddled around the fire and wrapped up warm)
Not far off the shores of Kibuye are a number of islands, most prominent the Napoleon Island, shaped like the emperors distinct hat, but we visited Amahoro Island, where another base camp is located which can be used on request and which, while basic, offers the option to actually sleep on one of the many islands which dot the shores between Gisenyi and Cyangugu. On the mainland though are some rather posh properties available, like the Cormoran Camp outside Kibuye, which, when it actually has space, sets one back by a couple of hundred dollars a night, full board and wireless internet included. It is spectacularly set into the side of a sloping hill with views across the water and the cottages are built on stilts, giving an unrestricted birds eye from high above the ground.
(Amahoro Islands landing and important for yours truly, HAMMOCKS right at the beach)
The trail, coming from the Southern sides tea end, then enters coffee territory, leaving the green valleys and hills and the three major tea factories behind. Over a dozen coffee washing stations are now dotted along the trail towards Gisenyi, with several of them also serving as base camps. These stations are operational twice a year when the harvests take place, and are for the rest of the year in a bit of a slumber, with visitors not getting in the way when exploring the facilities and being able to get first hand explanations. Former Senator Prof. Chrysologue Kubwimana, who took pride in taking me around his estate at Kinunu, was telling the story of how coffee grown on his estate begins its long journey to overseas consumers by dehulking and washing the beans, drying them and then packing the top quality stuff into 50 KG bags, ready for export and their long trip into the cups of coffee lovers in Europe and America.
(Seen here former Senator Prof. Kubwimana, our host for one night at his Kinunu base camp, while in the other picture are piles of hulks which are eventually used to fire the boilers or else are turned into natural fertilizer to enrich the soil under the coffee trees)
Both the tea and coffee routes are highly educative for visitors as they can learn about the source of their favourite drinks back home and see how the processes work, in the tea factories year round as production is ongoing and with coffee most intensely during the harvesting season.
But the trail, winding its way through village after village, through forests and shambas, i.e. little farms, gives also an insight into the way Rwandans live in the rural areas. Visitors will be intrigued to see that many of these villages have no access to electricity, but the people living there are busy talking on mobile phones, batteries charged up through solar power converters, often done at a cost by a young entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to provide such a service. As I walked, the occasional call muzungu rang out from the young kids, surprised to see a European visitor walking, as they do themselves, and not being chauffeured around in the back of a 4×4. Yet, some of the communities do have power, generated by a small hydroelectric station, tapping into the elevation difference which the water has to come down anyway. Nearly 20 MW are being produced like that and more such stations are being planned to allow for the roll out of rural electrification programmes, aimed to cut down on the use of firewood and charcoal which will help to meet Rwandas goals of re-forestation to a 30 percent forest coverage margin by 2020, compared with around 23 percent right now.
Our 91 kilometre trail experience, from Kibuye to Gisenyi, came to an end all too soon and three nights and four days on this route is quintessentially not enough for aficionados of hiking and biking across this scenic part of Rwanda. A full 10 days hike, or 6 days on a mountain bike, or any part thereof can be supplemented if not spiced up by added visits to Gishwati and Nyungwe, which is really a must see experience, making a visit to Rwanda rewarding in any sense. Flora and Fauna and often breathtaking scenery combine with meeting the friendly people living in rural areas, ever ready to impart with an enthusiastic Uraho the typical greeting in Kinyarwanda, to which one then responds with Rahonesa. Expect plenty of birdlife along the way and to make the most out of it, carry spare batteries for phones, iPads or other tablets and cameras, in case recharging at a particular stop is not possible. One awesome sight tends to chase the next, and each appears to be looking even better than the previous one, so additional camera flash disks also come in handy, to be sure not to miss that prized picture when the camera shuts down and announces capacity full.
We had our 4x4s in attendance at all times, being a media trip and trial run for the trail ahead of the official launch, but while on foot we could have crossed anywhere, some sections were a challenge for the cars. The route from Kinunu to Gisenyi, where the 72 wooden bridges and crossings are progressively being replaced with new concrete bridges, to the relief of the locals who no longer need to fear their bridge being swept away. In fact, many of them have been employed to actually work on the construction teams, generating some much needed income for the local communities while substantially improving their local infrastructure and making their roads truly all weather, all year round.
(Crossing a construction site for a new concrete bridge, slowly and very carefully)
Having the cars around also helps to assist more quickly in case of a sprained ankle, or when biking tend to the scratches and knocks sustained in a fall, and having a 4×4 escort which carries the luggage and periodically teams up with the hikers, can be arranged by the trail guides and trip organizers at a cost of course.
The Congo Nile Trail is breaking new territory, breaking new ground, and while climbs up Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, treks into the Rwenzori Mountains or hikes up Mt. Elgon have long been available, hiking across rural Africa has not. It is the first such trail of its kind in Eastern Africa and runs along some of the most scenic parts of Rwanda, and the Congo DR is always within sight across the waters of Lake Kivu.
RDB in conjunction with local communities has created a sure winner and I for one wish to come back and hike the sections of the trail not covered by this special trip.
And in closing some practical hints: good hiking boots are essential, as are rainskins because during my hike it rained every day, at times very heavily indeed. Waterproof back packs are equally important, to avoid equipment or spare clothes getting wet. Umbrellas are not really suitable as hikers always need both hands free. Trips can be arranged through licensed tour operators or the Congo Nile Trail organization, which also attaches trained guides to the hikers. Information can be found via www.rwandatourism.com or via the RDB website www.rdb.rw. And printed material including an excellent map is available while a dedicated website for the trail is about to be launched, soon after the trail itself was being formally declared open.
Discover Rwandas hidden treasures via the Congo Nile Trail, the very latest tourism attraction to explore the country by hiking, biking, 4x4ing or boating.