“The eyes of the stranger are wide open, but he sees only what he knows” (African proverb)
Leaving the Congo was a whole lot easier than entering it. No delays, questions, form-filling or money requests. Surely there should have been one more bout with a bored immigration official? The procedure that had taken over an hour when entering the country was taking a few minutes as I left. Having prepared myself for such an interrogation it almost came as a disappointment to be on my way so quickly. As I wheeled the bike over a wooden bridge towards the Rwandan border I double-checked my passport had been stamped and looked over my shoulder. All clear.
Travel in Africa would be boring if all borders were so easy to cross as this one. On the Rwandan side I joined an orderly queue, filled out an arrival card and watched my passport details being logged onto a computer before being welcomed and stamped into the country. No questions. And the visa? What visa? Rwanda lets British Nationals in the country for free – the first country in Africa I’ve enjoyed this privilege since entering The Gambia.
The terrain on the other hand presented more of a challenge. Rwanda is dubbed the country of 1000 hills and it’s easy to see why. This small land-locked pocket of Africa is surely one of the most mountainous countries in the World. I could have tackled the contours on tarmac, for there are plenty of paved roads in the country, but instead followed a dirt track along the eastern shores of Lake Kivu.
And it was scenic – incredibly so. One of the most scenic countries I think I’ve cycled through. From a traffic-free track green terraced slopes fell beneath me towards the shimmering blue surface of the lake. In the distance more mountains rose up from the western shores. The Congo might still have been close, but my surroundings were different. No longer was every hut composed of mud-brick walls and palm-leaved roofs. Villages had power and buildings made of concrete. Here the shops actually sold food and had signboards advertising coca-cola. Children remained curious and called Mzungu as I rode past, but there wasn’t the same amazement when I stopped.
Between villages the land was neatly tilled and heavily cultivated. A lush patchwork quilt of crops and plantations of tea covered the slopes, and I wondered why the land, equally as rich and fertile, was never like this in the Congo?
Almost every village or town I went through had a memorial to the genocide. Given the level of development in terms of infrastructure and the comparative sense of peace and order that characterised the places I passed through, it was hard to fathom that 17 years ago some 1 million people, or approximately 20% of the country’s population, were brutally killed in the space of just 100 days.
I wanted to ask those old enough to remember the genocide where they were and what they had to say about this terrible chapter in history, but it always seemed too sensitive a subject to bring up with a stranger. To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not talked about now. Everyone is a Rwandan, but surely tribal differences must remain strong.
Well a week in the country was just skimming the surface. I didn’t visit the capital, Kigali, which is reportedly one of the cleanest and most orderly of African capitals there are. Instead I continued to the far northern shores of Lake Kivu, where if I was travelling on a far different kind of budget I might have considered doing what many visitors to this part of the country do. To be honest though, $500 is a lot of money to hang out with a family of gorillas for a few hours, for that is what it costs for a permit to track mountain gorillas, and apparently there is no shortage of people willing to pay this sum. I briefly considered heading back across the border to the DRC and visiting Goma. For $200 one can climb up the volcano that put Goma in the World headlines in 2002 for blowing its top. But overall a week cycling Rwanda was reward enough. I’d happily come back for more calf-crunching punishment here.