I wrote this post in September 2015 and never published it, but want to share it now, even though I am 2.5 years late
The Congo Nile Trail
As soon as I learned of its existence, I knew I needed to see the Congo Nile Trail for myself. Without much plan and without much gear, I intended to hike as much of the trail as I could on Saturday 29 August, with the goal of reaching Gisenyi sometime midday Sunday. I printed a poor copy of a trail map, bought a few bottles of water and some chocolate digestive biscuits, and there ended my rigorous planning.
The Congo Nile Trail is a 227 km hiking/biking trail along Lake Kivu. The trail is a road-slash-path linking hills, towns, and farmland, and is a very recent creation by the Government of Rwanda to boost tourism in the country. With a name like Congo Nile Trail, how could they fail?
After the great night fishing experience, I went to sleep early and woke at sunrise to begin my hike. The plan was to catch a bus from Kibuye to Rubengera and then a moto to Mushubati. But when I got to the quiet city center of Kibuye at 7am, a moto driver told me that no buses were running due to Umuganda. Of COURSE Saturday was Umuganda – how did I forget such a simple fact?
No worries, said the moto driver, and he offered to drive me to Rubengera for 2,000 francs. I thought that seemed steep, but he assured me that he wasn’t able to overcharge me since he was a tour guide. Ha! I smiled at that, but accepted his fee and we drove east towards the beginning of my trek.
When we got to Rubengera, he asked me specifically where I wanted to be dropped off, and I told him that anywhere was fine because I was actually walking to Mushubati. Not quite grasping that I actually wanted to walk, he looked alarmed and said that for friendship but not for more money, he would get me as close to Mushubati as possible (he needed to be back in Kibuye before 8am to avoid getting a fine for driving during Umuganda). That seemed very kind, so we left the paved road and started driving on a very hilly dirt road. He turned the moto off during the steep descents, which allowed us some time to chat.
Turns out my moto driver – Ignacious – is one of the coolest and most genuine people I’ve come across. His father was from Congo and his mother from Rwanda. During the conflict in Congo his family moved to Rwanda and he lived in a refugee camp for eight years. To support his family, he enrolled in driving classes and learned English on the street. He is extremely kind, and works a driver, moto driver, and tour guide. I really enjoyed chatting with him, and when he stopped to drop me off just before Mushubati, he showed me pictures of his wife and seven children on his phone. Of course I asked him if I could take his photo.
Later in the day, he ended up nearly saving my sanity-slash-life (more on that later), but for the time being we exchanged numbers and smiles and I promised to pass his number on to anyone who may need a friendly driver in Kibuye, which I’m doing right now: 0788 591 067 His English is great and he is a friendly and safe driver.
After bidding adieu to Ignacious, I started walking north with the hope of reaching Kinunu before nightfall. I should mention right now that hiking from Rubengera/Mushubati to Kinunu is billed as a two-day hike, but I felt confident that I could do it in one (maybe you already see where this story is going?).
Hiking in the morning in Rwanda is pleasant. My bulky backpack didn’t feel too heavy. I was well rested and well hydrated, and happily took pictures of my surroundings as I walked. If you’re planning to hike the trail, be forewarned that it isn’t well marked. My strategy was to verify my direction with a Rwandan at every fork in the road – and often in the middle of the trail – just to avoid going the wrong way. In the morning I would simply say “Mwaramutse! Musasa?” and villagers were happy to point the correct direction to Musasa. And in the afternoon after I reached Musasa I said “Miriwe! Kinunu?” and villagers directed me towards Kinunu. It worked! Just remember that you want to hike the trail, not the road. You can ensure that you start out on the trail by taking the road down (left) in Mushubati (but again, ask to verify).
This is not a hike for solitude. Rwanda is the size of Maryland and has 12.3 million people (nearly 500 people per square kilometer!), so I don’t know why I thought I’d have time to contemplate my life. Not a minute went by without a chorus of “muzungu muzungu” following me. I must admit it started to wear on me.
Everywhere I went, I was followed by a crowd of children. They smiled and touched my skin, they hid behind trees and watched from afar, they chased me – laughing – but ran away when I turned to face them. They were – in a word – everywhere. And nearly all of them wanted me to take their photo. They pleaded with me: “photo? photo? photo?” until I pointed at my camera and said: “yego (yes)? oya (no)?” Always they said “yego!” They really loved rushing me after I took the photo to look at their image on the screen, so I’m guessing that was the appeal. I don’t usually take photos of people, but since they asked I was happy to comply. And am happy to share their beautiful faces with you here…
What I found most interesting was observing the pose that each child chose for their photo. Some awkwardly showed off all of their teeth. Some became militantly serious. Some saluted me (!!). And some (like the girl on the hill with the bananas behind her) simply stood as they were and looked confidently at the camera. I was happy that she asked me to take her photo, because when I saw her quietly watching me from the hill I so badly wanted to capture the moment.
But all good things must come to an end, and the children started to grate on me as the sun came out and the hills got steep and my water supply ran low. I kept putting one foot in front of the other over and over, willing myself to continue on as I enjoyed the stunningly gorgeous scenery.
One highlight of the walk was greeting older men and women. Unlike the children, they were very respectful and helpful, and were thrilled when I started speaking Kinyarwanda to them. One elderly woman walked up to me with a giant smile on her face and took my hand in both of hers and said the kindest things to me in Kinyarwanda (I have no idea what she said, but I know it was kind).
This woman was walking down the hill as I was walking up, and she is the only person that I asked for a photo. Her happiness was infectious, and I forgave her for happily cooing “muzungu, muzungu” to her son as we greeted each other.
Oh this place is beautiful. The hills, the heat, the lake, the farms, the people, the smiles, the dust, the (oh please come soon) rains… The pictures speak for themselves.
I thought this was cute…
…until I saw this
A very smart-looking little boy was walking two pigs down the path
One really cool thing about this trail is that you walk by a lot of coffee washing stations. I really wanted to see one in action, but apparently it isn’t the right season. When I asked the hotel proprietor when coffee washing season is, he said “how should I know? I’m not a farmer!!” Ok then.
Around 4:30pm I started to really get tired. These hills are no joke, and neither are the children tagging after me at.every.turn. I wasn’t sure how far it was to Kinunu (my destination), and I didn’t want to be hiking in the dark (the sun sets at 6 here year round). Just at the right moment, I saw a moto at the top of the hill with a group of people, and I was prepared to pay any amount of money for him to take me to where I would spend the night. Until I realized that I didn’t actually know where I was going. Negotiations were not going well, and I feared I was going to have a Hotel California moment with the Congo Nile Trail.
LUCKILY, about eight hours before I had met the best possible moto driver (remember him?), and I called Ignacious. He absolutely saved me, because what I was calling the Kinunu Guest House is actually the Rushel Kivu Lodge. Somehow Ignacious was able to tell the driver where to take me AND he negotiated a really cheap (to me) fare.
When I saw this site about 5km later, I was very very happy:
Their two rooms weren’t available, but luckily their tent option is sleeping bag inclusive and this was my home for the night. 15,000 per night (including breakfast) included a super comfortable mattress, and I got the best night of sleep since I arrived in Rwanda.
I met a group of Germans who biked half of what I hiked because biking the entire distance would have been too hard (I didn’t realize that the section of trail I decided to hike was one of the most difficult). They clearly thought I was crazy/insane, and told me I did about 30km, which was news to me.