• Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza Part 3 March 18th, 2015

    The tarmac stopped at the Tanzanian border. On the Burundian side the road was under construction. A man wearing a wide-rimmed straw hat was sat in the seat of a road grading machine. I waved at him as I slowly climbed up the steep slope that cut into the green hillside. Either he didn’t see me or pretended not to. I’m sure my bicycle must have been in his vision. I would have asked him many questions given the opportunity, but doubt he’d have understood them, unless I spoke Chinese.

    This was my second visit to Burundi and I was happy to be back. The African mainland’s second most densely populated country is a great place to cycle, so it’s a pity the country isn’t bigger.

    The photos in this final blog post cover the remainder of my journey through Burundi, Rwanda, a day in Uganda and then back to Mwanza in Tanzania. Lots more mountains, smiles, some great scenery and the usual great cycling.

    Chinese road construction

    Another new road in the making. Heading north from the Burundian/Tanzanian border to the town of Makamba, where the tarmac starts again.

    Burundian beer

    Now here’s a beer that’s worth drinking. It might not be African by name, but it’s brewed in Burundi and tastes great.

    Mission beside Lake Tanganyika

    One of the few flat roads in Burundi runs along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

    North to Bujumbura

    Heading north to Bujumbura. I cycled this road in the opposite direction 18 months ago.

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika. The sky wasn’t clear enough to see the DRC on the other side.

    Burundian curiosity

    It’s hard not to draw a crowd when stopping on the roadside in Burundi. Few people travel here and people are curious to get a closer look.

    Bujumbura Coffee factory

    The mountains in Burundi produce some great coffee. By the end of my trip my panniers contained about 4kg of coffee from Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. This photo was taken in Bujumbura. I stayed 2 nights and parted ways with Anselm here, who stayed on longer.

    Bicycle cargo

    Bicycles in Burundi are commonly loaded with all sorts of cargo. This is on the road north from Bujumbura to the Rwandan border post near Bugarama.

    House on wheels

    At least 100kg of bricks loaded up here. I discreetly took a picture from behind as I feared photographing from the side or front might cause this poor chap to loose his balance!

    An aged saddle

    An aged saddle with some serious character.

    Weld job on Surly front rack

    During the 7 week tour the brackets on both sides of the Surly front rack broke. It wasn’t hard to find a welder, but the welds broke on several occasions. I have new brackets back in the UK.

    Burundi Map

    Painted up on the wall of a bar. An outline of one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries

    Lake Kivu

    On my first day in Rwanda I briefly passed Lake Kivu.

    Tea Plantation

    Tea plantations on the road east from Cyangugu at about 1700m in altitude.

    Above the morning mist in Nyungwe Forest

    Climbing up through the cool mountain air to 2600m in altitude, Nyungwe Forest remains a rare reminder of what so much of Equatorial Africa must have looked like before man started to deforest it.

    Big day of climbing

    Anything over 1500m of accumulated climbing in a day on a fully loaded bicycle constitutes a challenging one. Day 1 in Rwanda and typically it’s all up and down – mostly up.

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest. This was the view from outside my tent, which was pitched on a rare flat space of land, fortunately invisible from the roadside. I had been told it was illegal to camp within the National Park. Had I been seen by Park Rangers I would have been fined and asked to move. The reality was there was no-where else to sleep.

    The Congo and Nile River watershed

    Some interesting African Geography I didn’t know. This was taken in Nyungwe Forest.

    Local bike

    Plenty of local wooden bikes like this on the road in Rwanda. Great for downhills, less so for up.

    Local bike

    Roadside spectators

    Children are everywhere in Rwanda – something that could be said about a lot of sub-Saharan African countries. Here however the population density is so high that stopping on the roadside is almost always associated with a collection of young faces.

    Project Rwanda: Coffee Bike

    I saw a lot of these ‘cargo bikes’ in Rwanda. I think they were designed with the idea of transporting coffee, but any load will do.

    French couple on tour

    They told me their names twice and I still forget. They were headed south towards Burundi – their English as poor as my French, of which I seem to have forgotten lots since west and Central African days on The Big Africa Cycle. When the crowd of kids got too much we bid each other bon voyage.

    Waterfall in Rwanda

    I don’t remember the name of the Waterfall – in fact I almost missed it on the road north from Kigali to Uganda. Fortunately it was only a few hundred metres from the road and easy to reach.

    Terraced slopes north from Byumba

    After climbing north from Kigali on the RN3 – one of Rwanda’s super clean paved roads, you reach a small junction town called Byumba with a lovely view north towards Uganda.

    Rwandan school student

    I was as much impressed by this Rwandan boy’s English as I was his motorcycle side-mirror.

    Kabale at dawn

    I am rarely awake and on the road at sunrise, but during the final days of this tour I was on a mission to reach Bukoba in Tanzania in time for work. And so it was that I pedalled out of Kabale shortly before dawn – a good reminder that this is the best time of the day in Africa.

    Katoro: Ugandan breakfast

    Ugandans consume more bananas per head than any other nationality in the World apparently. Katogo is a common breakfast – plantain, beans – and usually offal, the latter fortunately absent here. Great energy for the road.

    Roasted meat and phone charging

    Just one of those random signs that make you laugh and stop.

    Camping above the Kagera River

    Another special camp spot, of which there were many on this tour. The Kagera River is, for want of argument, the source of the Nile. Its headwaters drain from Rwanda and the river itself flows into Lake Victoria. This whole area on the Uganda/Tanzania border had a remoteness to it. My tent was pitched a hundred metres or so above the river, soothingly audible as I fell asleep early after 135km that day, mostly on a dirt track.

    Re-entry to Tanzania

    This was interesting. My GPS and map was telling me I was now on the border of Uganda and Tanzania, but there was no immigration post nor anyone in sight, just a rusted sign showing the distances to various towns ahead. Fortunately I have a Tanzanian residency permit, so wasn’t fussed that my passport wouldn’t be getting a re-enty stamp into Tanzania. Likewise I was never stamped out of Uganda, having paid $50 for a visa when I was only there 36 hours.

    Back in Tanzania I spent the first week dressed in shirt and trousers to attend a training workshop for Secondary School teachers. The plan after this had been to take a ferry from Bukoba back to Mwanza, but it was out of service and so I cycled the remaining 450km.

    Fish soup, chapati and chai

    Breakfast in a village cafe beside Lake Victoria. Fish soup, chapati and spiced tea.

    Young girl and her mother

    On the road from Bukoba to Mwanza.

    School transport

    It’s very common to see 3 or more people on a bicycle taxi in rural Africa.

    Petelol Station

    Rural Africa has lots of makeshift constructions like this selling fuel by the litre in plastic bottles. This however is the first Petelol Station I have seen.

    Timber being transported

    I wouldn’t want to be turning a sharp corner on this bicycle.

    Charcoal transport

    Charcoal is probably the most common source of fuel for cooking in Tanzania. Sacks such as these are transported from rural to urban areas, very frequently on the backs of bicycles.

  • A short tour of Central Africa: Part 1 July 18th, 2013

    It was a shorter cycle tour than I would have liked, but three weeks provided plenty of time to traverse two of Africa’s smallest countries – Rwanda and Burundi. Both provided some of the most diverse terrain and well-paved roads I’ve cycled on in Africa.

    In 2011 I spent a week cycling through Rwanda, but this was my first visit to Burundi. Here are a selection of photos from western Tanzania and Rwanda. In the following post I will include those from Burundi. Most of these pictures were taken with my Nikon D90 and a fixed 35mm lens. For a number of on-the-road situations I found this to be a far easier and simpler lens to travel with than the bulk of a telephoto lens.

    A climb from Bukoba soon brought with it wide open views of the Katoke region of western Tanzania. Travelling with rear panniers and just 12-15kg made for faster progress up the hills.

    Single-speed Chinese and Indian bicycles loaded with plantain are a common sight in north western Tanzania. Loads of 100kg+ are transported to local markets. 

    The River Kagera acts as a border between Tanzania and Rwanda. It drains into Lake Victoria in Uganda, but the headwaters of this river begin in Burundi and form the source of the River Nile.

    Not all bicycles in Africa are the same. This hand-cranked tricycle is made to be used by the disabled, although this able-bodied young boy was using it to transport a jerry-can of water in eastern Rwanda. 

    Pineapples were in season and a good reason to stop when I saw them being sold on the roadside. My front rack always has space for a pineapple to be strapped onto. 

    Plantain in Rwanda is more commonly known as matoke. It’s a food staple in this part of Africa and can be eaten at any point during the day.

    In Kigali I arranged to meet up with Dave Conroy. In 2009 he quit his job in Canada and started cycling. He’s been in Africa for the past few years, slowly making his way north with no end goal in sight. We teamed up and cycled together through Rwanda, Burundi and back to Tanzania. 

    Finding a bar with a pool table is never that hard in urban Africa. Dave and I spent several nights out in Kigali. 

    Beer advertisements are common in Rwanda. Primus is Central Africa’s most famous beer and is brewed in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo. Bottles are sensibly sized at 720ml and the beer is 5% in alcohol. It’s not Africa’s best beer, but at under a $1 a bottle I have no complaints. 

    Visiting Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre was a sober reminder of the country’s dark past. During a three month period in 1994 almost 1 million people were brutally killed. 

    African children are always happy to see their picture on the digital screen of a camera.We stopped at the roadside during a climb out of Kigali to find a group of the women selling bottles of Amarula containing  honey.

    Small cafes selling tea and food are easy to find in Rwanda. Tea is either black or more commonly milk tea.

    Rwanda has some excellent coffee, but it’s almost exclusively grown for an export market. This makes finding places to drink Rwandan coffee in Rwanda more challenging. The same is true in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. Fortunately in the town of Butare we were able to find an excellent cafe where local coffee is ground in front of you. I left with 1kg in my bags. 

    Using a 35mm fixed lens made taking pictures much faster and easier.

    The road  south from Butare towards the Burundian border becomes increasingly scenic. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on the continent. Almost all land is cultivated, but fertile enough to grow a wide range of crops. The result is a lush and scenic patchwork of tilled fields.

    Cycling in rural Africa always brings with it curiosity from school children. Despite the infrastructural development that has taken place in Rwanda within the last two decades, most villages still lack power. 

  • Rwanda for a week May 22nd, 2011

    “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.

    Welcome to Rwanda

    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.

    Looking down to Lake Kivu

    Lake Kivu

    Beside Lake Liku

    Bike taxi

    Young Rwandan face

    Young Rwandan boy

    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?

    Tea plantation at dawn

    Green Rwanda

    Tea plantation

    Tea pickers

    Tea picker

    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.

    Primus time again

  • Into Bukavu May 12th, 2011

    Ascending a lofty hill my eye roved over one of the strangest yet finest portions of Africa – hundreds of square miles of beautiful lake scenes – a great length of gray plateau wall, upright and steep, but indented with exquisite inlets, half surrounded by embowering plantains – hundreds of square miles of pastoral upland dotted thickly with villages and groves of bananas.” (H M Stanley)

    On the way to Bukavu

    My guidebook claims Bukavu to be ‘easily the most scenic town in the whole of the DR Congo’. From where I’m sitting right now that statement might be justified. I’m looking down on a still blue lake backed by green mountains. If I’d been brought here blindfolded I wouldn’t have guessed this view before me was African. Out on the balcony of this colonial villa, which sits on a peninsula jutting into the southern shores of Lake Kivu, it’s easy to forget I’m still in the Congo.

    There are many other similarly large and much larger residences on this peninsula. Many belong to wealthy Congolese and are rented out to foreigners working here. Bukavu is a hub for International organisations operating in the region. Situated at 1500m in altitude the city straddles a mountainous border with Rwanda.  It’s by far the largest urban area I’ve visited in the Congo.

    Arriving here came as a bit of a shock. I envisaged entering the city on a quiet sandy boulevard with the quaint tinkle of bicycle taxis ringing in my ear – a place where it would be easy to find a shady spot to park the bike and drink a cold beer beside the lake. But Bukavu is densely populated, noisy, and altogether something of a sprawling mess, at least if I leave this ex-pat enclave . I never found that peaceful shady spot I was looking for, so called Stefan, the Romanian I met in Baraka who had arranged a place for me to stay here.

    The 250km journey north from Baraka to Bukavu involved some climbing, at least after leaving the scenic shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was fine at first, for the track had been recently graded and the views into neighbouring Rwanda were stunning. But then the rain started to fall heavily and for the first time in many months I wished I still had my waterproof clothes. Up above 1000m in altitude rain is more cold and dispiriting than a refreshing cool off from the heat. I looked for shelter and found none, other than a military check-post manned by drunk Congolese soldiers. It was not a good place to pass the night so I continued climbing in the rain.

    Beside Lake Tangayika

    Rain ahead

    DRC/Rwandan border

    Climbing towards Bukavu

    Had there not been this UN camp half-way up the mountain I’m not sure where I would have stayed the night. I stood soaking wet on the muddy track and waved at a soldier in a sentry tower above me. He disappeared and a few minutes later I was sitting in a tent with a cup of tea and some digestive biscuits whilst having a lengthy discussion with the Pakistani officer-in-charge about whether Bin Laden was really dead or not. This is the second time I’ve stayed with a UN Pakistani battalion. Fresh chapatis and warm hospitality weren’t in short supply again. This small team of Pakistanis had temporarily set up camp on the hillside to work on the road.

    Staying with the Pak Bat

    Well it won’t be the road condition I’ll be concerned about when I cross from here into Rwanda. I’m told it’s in excellent condition, which will come as a welcome change after the last few thousand kilometres of bumpy tracks.

    That being said I think I’m going to miss the Congo. Before I came here I received a wealth of mostly negative advice about the dangers and difficulty of crossing the country, but despite the hardships, challenges and potential risks associated with travelling here, the last few months have been like no other on the road. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I’d happily come back, for as much as I look forward to Rwanda and east Africa, I somehow sense Africa will not quite be the same again.

    I spy