Congo Nile Trail: Day 1

How to spend annual leave? For many, not a difficult question. Perhaps on a European beach? Or camping somewhere in Britain? I have other ideas. I rather like a cultural experience that’s logistically difficult to organise and with a moderate serving of mild suffering (though only by first-world-problem standards, naturally).

It’s in this spirit that I arrive in Rubavu after a long bus journey from Kigali. Rubavu used to be called Gisenyi, but that name has been changed due to historical reasons. I suspect this is related top the Genocide, but I should probably do some research before drawing such conclusions. It’s a Rwandan border town that blends into Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not going there though – it’s not on my itinerary, visas are almost impossible to get hold of, and my favourite government body (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) have decided its unsafe. Very unsafe. This is a shame, because it’s meant to be one of the few countries left in the world containing vast expanses of beautiful flora and fauna unspoiled by development. Perhaps part of the reason for this is because it has been spoiled by war.

So, I’m here to do the next most beautiful thing: The Congo Nile Trail: a 227km hike from the Northern end of Lake Kivu to the Southern. It’s not in the Congo. Or on the Nile. Though I guess its named as such as Rwandans believe the source of the Nile is here (there’s a stream flowing into Lake Victoria), and it runs along the border with the Congo. Ugandans believe the source of the Nile is at Jinja. I meant to visit, but it would have been too long day trip from Kampala.

So you’d expect this post to be about Hiking. It isn’t. It’s about money, kindness, and technology. Because I’be noticed these themes, it’s not in chronological order either. So if you’re thinking of doing the hike please see Komoot links at the bottom of each day’s narrative post.

Let’s consider technology first, in terms of access to money and access to maps.

The cash point works this morning. But only with my Visa debit. None of them accepted my MasterCard debit last night. I can’t use it this morning because I’ve moved all the money from it to my Visa credit. But that won’t allow me to withdraw cash either. I’m hoping it’ll work when I get to Kenya, otherwise I’m a bit stuck.

The tourist office in Gisenyi has run out of maps of the trail. They give me a photocopy free of charge. It’s not bad, but not adequate for some of the more confusing intersections. I have found GPS tracks from previous cyclists on the internet, but they do not start in Gisenyi town and are not easily iPhone compatible.

I think travelling in Africa has become more precarious as a result of technology. Ten years ago, I took travellers cheques to Senegal. They could be cashed in any major bank in any major city. They were easy to store, unlikely to get stolen, and often guaranteed in some way if they did. Now, travellers cheques are almost impossible to get hold of or cash. I was surprised to see so many different banks’ cash machines in Gisenyi. Yet they are prone to connection problems and incompatibilities with foreign banks.

The same is true of travel guides. To be fair, I should have ordered the Bradt guides before I left home. They have always been some of the most detailed. Instead, I have a Lonely Planet guide to East Africa. I know scores of travellers, including me, who have never really rated them. But they seem to be getting worse.

This is happening concurrent with the internet getting better. Yet this, too, is precarious. Only ‘many’, not yet most, places are on TripAdvisor or And finding bloggers’ walking routes and GPS tracks isn’t easy. This lulls me into a false sense of security: I do not plan as well as I used to because I trust it will work out via the internet or the guidebook.

Later, I will pass my accommodation from the previous night. The village is full of buses, many small concrete shops, and a large brewery. Then the road turns to a wide dirt path. There are, however, JCBs and piles of gravel. I am told that the entire route is due to be paved by the end of 2017. I will also find a village of bars and shops. But there’s no electricity, so the only drink available (beer) is warm. The only food available is bread. I pass. Like I said, technology is coming, but its not here yet.

Perhaps this transition is a good thing: Later, lacking pen or paper, a local will write his contact details on a leaf using a stick. I hope the increase in mobile phone use doesn’t mean that this ingenuity is lost.

In short, the old technologies are slowly deteriorating or being phased out, but the new ones are not yet ready to replace them.

Anyhow, I’m saving my route as a GPX file and a Komoot trail. Komoot is a great hiking and cycling navigation map for iPhone. So my route will be publicly available. Where technological data is lacking, it’s easy for us to make it available for others.

To be fair, I needn’t have worried about maps or GPS too much. Once out of Gisenyi (where no-one seems to know anything about the trail), there’s just enough people with good knowledge. I found a group of soldiers especially friendly and helpful. It’s also easy to learn the names of the villages and, when I see a tempting off-road track, just ask the locals if it goes there.

The hike begins on paved road. There’s much noise and activity from the shops, cyclists, moto-taxis and buses. I see a man crawling on his hands and bottom along the road, carrying a bag. He’s lost a leg. Perhaps in the genocide. Perhaps not.

I go off road at Rubona hill. I encounter some children chanting ‘money, money, money’. They surround me. About twenty. I laugh and joke with them and introduce myself. I walk away. A couple begin to pick up large stones or rocks as if to throw them. I stand tall, turn around, and shout ‘reculez’ and ‘put the stone down’. And so, the second point arises: Money.

It’s not just these kids: Later I pass a village church branded with a large ‘‘ logo. Children outside shout ‘Give me money. I love money.’ ‘I bet you do,’ I mutter under my breath. I turn and smile at them, and say hello.

I have talked about money before, when in Togo last year. Travellers now seem to place a huge emphasis on negotiating the cheapest prices. Paying too much is seen as bad – it drives prices up and makes people greedy. Giving people money who ask for it after providing help is seen in a similarly poor light. Yet the anthropologist in me wonders whether this is all about making money from developing tourism, or whether it’s rooted in culture. Are the more affluent supposed to support the poor who help them? Or is this because international aid has created the perception that white people exist to give money and things? Also, is it undignified to negotiate genuine people down so much? I think so.

The trick is balance, and developing knowledge. I made a mistake last night: I did not check the distance between Gisenyi and Inzu lodge. I could have asked another passenger on the bus for the price. The moto driver got 3,000RWF out of me for a 1,000F journey. I know this because I made the same journey in reverse today. Nonetheless, I prefer trying to check prices in advance to negotiating fearsomely, so as not to offend.

So, how might these problems be solved?

Well, one way to avoid this technological problem is simply not to use it. This evening I found out about the existence of Rwinyoni Base Camp (at the end of my first day’s hiking) and then found it, by walking my planned route and asking locals. The oldest methods remain reliable.

This leads into my final point: Kindness. People are inherently good: they’re pleased I’ve visited their country, and they don’t want me to sleep outside. Perhaps the romance of Africa isn’t all dying or being improved by technology.

Most people direct me on the narrow tracks. The scene reminds me of The Mountain People. This ethnography has been much discredited for its treatment of the people it depicts. I agree with these critics. Yet, if we ignore Turnbull’s analysis in favour of accepting his descriptions, then the remote and rural village populations and their narrow paths are similar to what I find here.

Outside a house children play a cricket-like game: There’s a stick in the ground, either a rock or a potato being thrown, and lots of runs. I pass last night’s accommodation, Inzu lodge, for a drink and to collect my backpack. I double back there about a mile later as I forgot my trainers, so the GPS route shows the mileage as a little longer than it really is. Inzu lodge is a collection of beautiful safari tents, each with a double bed and electricity, overlooking the lake. The gardens are beautiful and the food in the restaurant is excellent.

After leaving Inzu, I’m back on tarred road. A boy offers me a lift on his bike. I tell him I’m walking to Cyangugu [chan-gugu] over ten days. He wishes me ‘courage’, in French.

A boy turns up at the side of the road. He wants me to take a photo of him so I won’t forget him. He wants to speak English to me. He didn’t study beyond Senior One, but his English is good. He walks a little until we pass his home. He asks me why I don’t cycle. Rwinyoni is 20km he tells me. Others laugh as they see me pass. I think they think I’m mad. Some just want to know my name. None of these people ask for money.

I pass a man holding a blunt knife and another holding a sharp curved blade. Many of the people I meet carry them. These are farming implements. I feel safe. These people direct me.

A while later I see people. I ask where Rwinyoni is. A young man with red trainers, trousers, and a smart check shirt points me in the right direction. He wants to walk with me, he says. But ‘in Rwanda, you walk, you suffer’. ‘I like to walk, but I don’t have capacity’. He says this more than once. I ask him what he means. ‘You walk, you get hungry’.

He went to university in Uganda, to study logistics at Kampala. He wants to leave his village. He’ll go anywhere there’s a job. I guess he’s not finding one.

It starts raining. We wait in a dark hut with about ten people. Six live there. There’s no electricity or light. Hailstones fall onto me through holes in the tin roof. At first I don’t know what they are. I thought they only fell in cold climates. There’s thunder and lightning. A lady sits on a bed in a corner. I’m very hungry. They say they’re happy I’m here. The rain slowly subsides. My friend tells me they need money to mend the roof. It will cost 20,000RWF. Can I help?

I think about this for a minute. The rain has almost gone. Shall we go, I say? I stand, walk over to the lady, and give her 1,000RWF (about £1). She looks very happy. In my mind, I’ve given her nothing. That the lady seemed delighted with a small amount of money (though not small to her, it was nonetheless the second smallest note of currency that the country produces) perhaps reflects us each recognising that we had showed some small kindnesses to each other: She had kept me out of the rain and I had thanked her for this.

We get to Rwinyoni base camp. There’s electricity and some huts. It’s locked. Some children sit around and watch me write this blog. My de facto guide has learnt from a girl he went to school with that we pass that there is no-one here. They have all gone to a burial in another village. We wait in companionable silence. This could take some hours. We try calling a number that the children give us but there is no answer. I am yet to find out whether my guide just wants a friend, as he says, or whether he expects payment. I have given him my email address. He has been helpful, even though I did not ask for it. I may offer him some dinner, so it’s an exchange of kindness. I also don’t want to promote the idea that doing things for the muzungu [white man] will lead to money. Of course people’s lives here need to improve, but every tourist giving every local they pass or whoever directs them money does not foster sustainable development or dignified relations in society.

It’s been an hour since we got here. My newfound friend is still waiting with me. I tell him he can go home if he needs to. He says he will stay. I tell him I’ll continue alone tomorrow, but that he can eat with me tonight should he wish. I agree to stay in contact, and give him my email address. He’s taken a photo of me he wants to send to me, and I’ve taken one of both of us that I agree to send to him. At this point I remember that I promised to send a photo to Yaw, my taxi man and guide in Wli last year in Ghana. Yet I forgot. I must do this when I get home. The hotelier in the village I stayed in will know him: He’s their driver. I will send it there. I must be as kind to others as they are to me. I must keep my promises.

Kindness is not limited to the Rwandan population. Earlier, I overtook three Americans. Liam teaches architecture at the University of Rwanda. Aaron, his brother, is visiting him. I recognise their friend, Victor, due to his distinctive orange cap which I had noticed at Inzu lodge. They arrive at the Base Camp. We quickly form a team: Aaron, Victor and our de factor guides wait for the opener to turn up. Liam and I go in search of food. We are complete strangers, yet we recognise that we might have a laugh and achieve more if we co-operate.

The market is desperate. We find only bread, water, and bananas. No hot food. So we’re pleased to get back to Rwinyoni and find a hot meal of spaghetti and plantain. There’s only a double and a single bed, so the two brothers share the double, Victor takes the single, and they lend me one of their sleeping bags for the sofa. The owner locks us in, using a nail, a key, and a ribbon. Shoes are required to use the toilet, as Liam discovers when going in only his socks. Perhaps this is why I hear the sound of urine falling into a bottle in the night. Nonetheless, our host has done his best for us, and the Americans and I have co-operated with the available resources. Like I said, Kindness. And so ends my first day’s hiking. I lie in bed watching the lightening move closer across the landscape. I’m asleep before the thunder starts.

In practical terms: Rwinyoni Base Camp can be contacted on 0782231447 from within Rwanda. Add the country code and drop the 0 from abroad. You’ll probably be fine just turning up. I’m told Cyimbiri is more luxurious, but it’ll make an already long first day’s walk even longer. Here are some photos of the day too.

Komoot GPS iPhone trail:

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