With lush landscapes, warm and friendly people, breathtaking wildlife and plenty of smooth tarmac roads, the Journey around Rwanda bikepacking adventure challenged my preconceptions of Africa. Far from being dry and dusty, Rwanda is green, vibrant and one of the most welcoming places I have visited.
When I received an email from Simon, the organizer, last December, it didn’t take long to convince me to take part in the event. It was very last minute, I had four weeks between my sign-up and the event itself, so there wasn't much time for preparation. But since it wasn't my first long distance event, I knew what to expect and knew that my body was capable of doing it.
The second Journey around Rwanda took place at the end of January 2021. Due to local Covid restrictions and curfews, the organizers skipped the race and transformed it into a bikepacking event. The course took the riders all around Rwanda; on smooth tarmac roads, dusty gravel tracks, technical single trails and—thanks to frequent thunderstorms—into some mudfests.
On the six-day ride, participants got to enjoy the amazing scenery Rwanda has to offer, spent time with locals and spotted many different monkeys. The main challenge: ride every day without breaking the local curfew that was in place between 6pm and 4am.
I knew that Rwanda is called "Land of a 1,000 hills" (or “Le Pays des Mille Collines” in French,) so I was very minimalist about the things I brought with me: I had a small saddle bag and a small toptube bag—that’s it. My key item was definitely the sunscreen! Other than that, I brought a repair kit, a spare bibshort, arm and leg warmers, a rain jacket, some underwear for the night, a toothbrush and some toothpaste.
Riding in the heat was one of the main challenges for me. On most days I left very early in the morning to have enough time for a very long lunch break where I was avoiding the heat.
Sometimes I felt like a superstar; cycling through small villages with children running after me, cheering me on and trying to race me as they ran. But I was quickly thrown back into reality whenever a local passed me uphill, on one of the typical single speed bikes, loaded with an extra 20 kilograms (44 lbs) of corn. During one of the climbs, I had a local riding beside me acting as my pacemaker. After about 5 kilometers (3 m) of climbing up the hill together, he said, "Hey Sista. Good bike, but you slow!"
Read more about Eleonora's journey on our blog: blog.komoot.com/race-around-rwanda-2021/18836.
For more information about the event visit racearoundrwanda.com.
All pictures by Nils Laengner | nilslaengner.de
Most riders opted for an early start in the morning. There was a long day ahead and both locals as well as veterans had warned about the heat that can hit the Akagera National Park in the afternoon. Every few minutes, there was another rider leaving the hotel and hitting the road.
There are a few hills to get over when getting out of Kigali and soon a couple of small groups had built up to ride together. As the first 80 kilometers (50 m) went by on smooth tarmac, it was time to get on to some dusty but fast gravel towards Akagera National Park. The gravel quickly turned into a single track and the faster bunch of the riders got caught in a thunderstorm. There’s little place to hide out there, but luckily the Rwandans were friendly enough to let the riders hide in their shops and huts.
Get recommendations on the best single tracks, peaks, & plenty of other exciting outdoor places.
Is there anything better than starting your day on a flat-ish gravel section with a sunrise just behind the lake? Day two of the journey offered quite a bit of gravel with absolutely stunning scenery. But don’t be fooled by the flat start. Soon after, the climbing started and did not stop for the rest of the day.
Many riders underestimated the last gravel section of the day up to the Twin Lakes and were more than happy to finally arrive at the African Rising Cycling center, just before the curfew. They greeted everyone with warm food, a hot shower, a comfy bed and even spoiled all of us with a bike washing service and a bike mechanic to fix smaller issues.
Some riders seemed to have gotten too used to the spoiled life at the Cycling Center and when it was time to leave in the morning, they opted to sleep in.
I had my mind focused on the 200-kilometer (124 m) day lying ahead all night and woke up around 3am without an alarm. I really enjoyed the morning hours on the bike, being up before everybody else and having the roads for myself. Then I witnessed how the rest of the world was waking up. Hearing the birds sing and seeing the sun rising gave me a lot of energy for the rest of the day, which was lined by some of the most amazing scenery Rwanda has to offer.
Making it up to the Gishwati Forest without pushing my bike was a good challenge and I was treated with a fast 30 kilometer (19 m) descent on tarmac to Gisenyi afterwards. Only to learn that there are even steeper roads hidden around the next corner. The Congo Nile Trail includes some of the steepest gravel sections of the whole course and rumors have it that only one rider made it up there without pushing the bike.
After three long days in the saddle, this was the first short day. A nice 100-kilometer (62 m) ride, without much elevation, considering the Rwandan hills I had previously experienced. Instead of leaving around 4am as was typical, almost everyone slept in. After a sleepless night with one mosquito attack after another, I also decided to sleep in and left the hotel at 6am.
Two extra hours of sleep helped me climb the gravel section like a young gazelle. The tea plantation tempted me to stop for a cup of tea, but I convinced myself to keep on pedaling.
On the 25-kilometer (16 m) gravel downhill that followed, which had been advertised as a fast gravel highway track, I realized that one more extra tube might have been a useful thing to bring. Rwanda’s gravel proved to be rather sharp and the late start in the morning took its toll when the afternoon sun hit—just in time for the last climb of the day, which was also the steepest one.
Apart from that, my legs still felt quite great. Thanks to the curfews and bikepacking style of the event, they had a great rest every night and I also ate a lot more than I would have during the race, so there was more time to recover and stay fresh until the last day.
The last steep climb of yesterday did bring one good thing: 7 kilometers (4 m) less to do today! Shortly after leaving the hotel, we reached the entrance of the Nyungwe Rainforest. Thanks to our early departure we saw an amazing sunrise inside the rainforest. Birds started chirping and monkeys were running around on the road to find food. It was quite easy to forget the climbing through the rainforest with such a surrounding!
There is no day in the Journey around Rwanda where there isn’t any kind of gravel involved. The King’s road proved to be a rather rocky path that became slippery when another short thunderstorm hit. But again, I survived and made it to the hotel, tired but happy.
Bike Touring Highlight (Segment)
Quite rocky in the beginning, with even a little cobble section. Later on the gravel becomes really smooth and there will be a few rolling hills to keep your legs moving. There are a few villages where you can buy water and food along the route.
It was hard to believe this was the last day already. Everyone was keen to reach Kigali around lunch time, with few finisher drinks waiting. We all became friends during the last week, and so everyone was super keen to hang out just a little longer after the riding.
After another early start and a morning-thunderstorm, it didn’t take long to hit the gravel section. Quite a few parts of the route turned into a little mudfest, resulting in one final test of everyone’s gear. With a few more technical issues, some riders opted to take the road to avoid being stranded in the wilderness with no more spare tubes. I got lucky and pushed on through the original route, which rewarded me with one last day surrounded by the greenest Rwanda landscape.
Bike Touring Highlight
They are currently building a tarmac road along this stretch, so it is a very fast road right now. Make sure to still look to your left and right though, because the scenery is quite different to the rest of Rwanda (hint: not that many hills).