Rwanda through the back door

One of our only bad moments of this trip so far came at the little Cyanika border crossing station, after the guy who drove us there from the Traveler’s Rest had dropped us off. Steve and I got ourselves stamped out of Uganda and into Rwanda without a hitch. We opened our suitcases for the dim-witted looking Rwandan customs guy, and he did little more than grunt. We lugged them out into the road, looked around, and saw… Nothing. No driver holding a sign with our names. No taxi queue of any sort. Had Tom Tofield flaked out and forgotten us?

I’d read about Tom in the Bradt Guide to Rwanda. His mountain-biking tours sounded cool, so I emailed him and he wound up arranging three days of our travel here (including the car ride from the border to Lake Kivu). But when we’d tried calling and texting him our last night in Kisoro, he hadn’t responded. Had he died? In the road, Steve pulled out his cell phone and tried one more time. Miraculously, it rang and Tom answered. He pointed out that it was 20 minutes before the pickup time we’d agreed on, NOT 40 minutes after it. I’d been confused by the time change between the two countries. Five minutes later, a clean Toyota Corona pulled up, and we piled into it and sped off to the west.

Over the next two days, Tom’s reliability became evident. Now 42, he was born and raised just outside London, where he became a data-center specialist. While working in Zimbabwe, he’d met his future wife, a Swiss woman who subsequently got her Ph.D. in limnology (the science of lakes). Her work with Lake Kivu brought them to Rwanda 4 years ago, and Tom decided to start the biking company soon afterward.

Originally, Tom had suggested for our first day a bike tour of Gisenyi, the Rwandan town that adjoins the Congolese border and city of Goma. But a few weeks ago, he’d emailed me urging a change of plan. UN troops were arriving in droves, and a fierce confrontation between them and the infamous Congolese rebels looked imminent. Although Gisenyi was peaceful and safe at the moment, whenever the war started, Congolese refugees would flood across the border, and the city would become chaotic.

Instead, Tom had arranged for two young Rwandan assistants, Didier and Viateur, to take Steve and me on a walking tour and picnic. They led us past the biggest employer in Rwanda (a huge Heineken brewery), and we stopped at some natural springs so hot I couldn’t stick my fingertip in the water for more than a second or two. In a nearby pool that wasn’t as scalding, a young woman was scrubbing herself (clothed) and her baby (naked). The pools were a reminder of the geothermal turbulence in this neighborhood. Less than a dozen years ago the massive nearby Congolese volcano, Nyiragongo, erupted, pouring lava on Goma — though only 19 people died because the warnings and evacuation worked so well, according to Tom.

Tom, after our roadside picnic

Our big adventure with him came yesterday (Friday). We walked the short distance from our hotel to his house and he outfitted us with mountain bikes much nicer than anything I’ve ridden before. At 9:30, Tom, Steve, and I pedaled off, also accompanied by Tuizaire (Tom’s chief assistant). Tom’s an excellent instructor, and he carefully explained how to use our 24 gears; how to safely go downhill; how to avoid ruts and rocks. This was great. At one point, it struck me that I had never actually done mountain biking before. Arguably, rural Rwanda is an odd place to start.

But what a grand day we had! Rwanda calls itself “the land of 1000 hills,” and there’s nothing like bicycling to convince one that’s probably an understatement. I doubt we spent more than 30 minutes on flat ground in the course of our 8 hours together. We weren’t pedaling every minute. We stopped for photos. We stopped to gab about one sight or another. On the side of the road, we gobbled down chapattis (think flour tortillas) smeared with ripe avocado and delicious local cheese, and twice we stopped to down soda out of bottles sold in tiny shops in dirt-poor villages. Tom shared what felt like an encyclopedic knowledge of Rwanda’s culture, politics, history, botany, and sociology. If I’d taped everything he told us and transcribed the most interesting bits, it would probably fill 20 pages. And, oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned the scenery — mile after mile of plunging mountains, verdant valleys, exquisite bays.

For years, this was the poorest region in Rwanda, but Tom says coffee recently has boosted the standard of living a bit (taking over many fields once devoted to fruit and vegetables). He also says it’s one of the most densely populated rural areas in Africa, with about 450 people per square kilometer. This became palpable almost every time we rolled through a village. Legions of toddlers and young children would stream out, calling to us and often chasing, until Tom and Tuizaire scolded them away.

I found that fascinating rather than annoying. It was the physical demands of the ride itself that drove me to my limits. We only covered about 20 miles, according to Tom, but the total elevation gain was almost 3000 feet. Steve did great throughout, but I’m ashamed to confess I had to climb off my bike and walk a couple of times during the brutal uphill stretches at the end of the afternoon. And more than once I froze with fear when confronted with vertiginous descents over sand, loose scree, and deep ruts. But no one held it against me, including myself. It was such a pleasure to experience, a small dose of mortification seemed a cheap price.

Mercifully, the shower had hot water on our return. We dined on grilled chicken and were about to stagger off to bed when a small troupe of dancers — 2 young women and 2 young men dressed in traditional garb and wearing wild leonine wigs — came into the dining area and performed. We stayed to watch. It was Friday night in a place not far from where troops were massing, a place where people routinely smuggle in coltan and other minerals that make them rich beyond American dreams. Usually Steve and I gather with friends to share a potluck and watch a DVD together every Friday night. I love that. But on this Friday night I was glad to be here instead.


6 thoughts on “Rwanda through the back door

  1. czatkin June 8, 2013 / 7:27 pm

    Bike ride sounds fantastic. You’ll understand what I mean when I say Africa’s it’s own world.

    We had dinner tonight with Walter Lam’s brother and wife and cousin and wife. Educated, articulate people who love to laugh. I’ll have to write about them in detail.

    Christy ****************************** Christy Zatkin 6346 Via Maria La Jolla, CA 92037 858-454-0985 h 619-204-9530 c

  2. Rose June 8, 2013 / 10:03 pm

    So enjoying your reports Jeannette. I’ve shared with Tom and he is convinced you need to expand your travel services to Africa. Did you know that Linda’s book takes place in the Congo?

    • Jeannette De Wyze June 9, 2013 / 4:42 am

      Hi Rose! You guys actually would love the place we’re in now. Maybe the most beautiful resort I’ve ever been in. Any time Tom wants me to plan and guide your next safari, I’m your gal!

      Sent from my iPad

  3. Doris June 10, 2013 / 12:53 am

    Any bike ride that includes the word “vertiginous” is not for me! However, I definitely envy all the calories you’re burning in such scenery. Ride on….

    • Jeannette De Wyze June 10, 2013 / 4:48 am

      Yeah, it was right on the knife-edge of being not for me either. But you’re right about the calories!

      Sent from my iPad

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