J and I made it to Lake Kivu in the northwestern town of Gisenyi near the Democratic Republic of Congo border. Lake Kivu stretches north to south along the western side of Rwanda. We’d heard about something called the Congo Nile Trail (CNT) that followed the lake and that it could be hiked or biked. Hmmm sounds interesting. There was a guide named “Mzungu Tom” we could hire, (white man Tom) but when we ran into a couple that had just hiked it without a guide, they gave us all the info we needed to hike it ourselves. We don’t need no stinkin’ guide.
We reorganized our bags carrying only the bare essentials leaving the majority of our belongings at the nunnery guesthouse we’d been staying at. Off we go to hike the Congo Nile Trail to the town of Kibuye, just a short 91 km (56 miles) away, a 4-day hike.
I personally have never done any multi day hikes before, have you? Why would anyone want to? Come to think of it, I can only recall hiking once before, the Triund Trail in India last April. I guess I’ve just never been much of a long distance walker, not like those British folk; they can do some serious walking. But I said to myself, “Self; when will you get the opportunity to hike the CNT again?” How could I resist?
Rwanda is known as ‘The land of a thousand hills’. They didn’t look much like hills to me though; I’m from Florida, flat with low elevations. They may be hills to the Rwandans and to other uber walkers like J, but they were mountains to me. No matter, we are hiking this ‘hilly’ trail!
I secretly had reservations before we set off as to whether I could actually complete this hike or not, but I kept that to myself. It occurred to me though, this could be one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time until you actually have to follow through with it and then you’re wondering why the hell you ever thought it was a good idea to begin with. I had an escape though, if it got too rough and I wanted to quit, which I knew was a real possibility, I could always hire a moto taxi (a guy on a motorcycle to drive me) to the next town. But I set out with true optimism. How bad can it be? After all, hiking is nothing more than a lot of walking, and it’s said to be ‘easy to moderate’. “Yep, I’m in, let’s do this!”
We woke early and had our final breakfast at La Maison St. Benoit, the guesthouse run by Rwandan Catholic nuns. We waived goodbye and said, “au revoir” hoisting the bags onto our backs, J with his large bag and me with the smaller one. Off we went heading south on the trail towards the town of Cyimbiri, our first base camp.
We had a map of the CNT showing the different base camps but with few other details; no distances were shown, so we didn’t really have a feel for how long the days would be. We just walked in a general southerly direction on the trail and hoped we’d find our way.
The Rwandan landscape is truly breathtaking. Rolling ‘hills’ of lush patchwork vegetation dotted with mud brick homes and rusted corrugated metal rooftops; small dusty villages every so often with enthusiastic children shouting, “mzungu, mzungu, mzungu”.
We made it to a little village with a fork in the road not knowing which direction to go, and with no signage to direct us. J talked a bit with a local, asking which direction to Cyimbiri. J knows a little French having learned it at school, so he was able to communicate with the locals. Rwandans speak kinyarwanda and French mostly, so J was the main communicator.
Anyway, we headed down this road and children began following us. First it was just a couple of them, then 10 and then 20 or so. A few of the adults asked us where we were going – a sure sign we were going the wrong way. We said Cyimbiri and they pointed back in the direction we came from. Grrrr. We turned around and all 20+ children turned around with us. Finally the children stopped in the middle of the street and pointed between two buildings. J and I stopped to check it out. It looked like a drainage ditch to me; dark brown hard clay with a sharp downward slope, erosion having left its mark with huge crevasses cut deep into the earth. We knew this was not the main trail, but the kids surely knew more than we did about how to get from town to town.
We stepped from the dirt road and walked between the buildings, the children following us. Once we made it past the buildings, it opened up to vast open green fields with huge banana plants and a narrow walking path following a steep downward path into a valley. We were on our way.
We carried on through the fields, hopping over the occasional stream and up up up the hills and down the other side. After an hour or so, the children were still following us. What was first adorable and charming, now with fatigue setting in, became annoying. Don’t hate me for saying that, it’s just, I was already tired after only about 3 hours of hiking up the hills and it was so hot and sweaty and they were holding my hands and kept saying, “good morning, good morning” since that’s all they know. Well, that and “give me money”, most of them know that phrase. They really were adorable, but, but… At one point we tried to stop and motion for them to go back in the direction they came from, smiling and saying, “au revoir”, but they just carried on following us.
I wasn’t showing frustration, I was still keeping my cool, but J was starting to show signs of irritation. I commented that we could try sitting down to take a rest, thinking the kids might get bored and leave. We found a dry grassy spot to sit and I plopped down on the ground, while J continued standing. The 20+ children all sat down with me and just stared at us in amazement with wide-open eyes. After only a few minutes some marching ants bombarded me so we gave up sitting and carried on walking, the children following us of course.
J was really looking noticeably annoyed now, be cool honey bunny, be cool and he walked ahead trying to lose them, but I couldn’t really keep up with his pace and the children stayed with me, so that didn’t accomplish much. Ummm, hello, I have children hanging from me, I can’t keep up! Finally we came upon a coffee plantation and the workers motioned for us to come towards them up a footpath. We were well off the CNT now and likely on a path used only by locals. Where the hell are we?
The children must have been forbidden from the coffee plantation because they all stayed behind at the ‘L Bean’ sign. We waved goodbye and made our way up the hill through the coffee plants and out of site of the children. I was instantly relieved that they weren’t following us anymore, but also felt sad that I’d never see them again. They all stood at the sign staring into the caffeinated abyss watching us walk away.
I always wonder what will become of the children we encounter. I think about their lives and what opportunities they have in comparison to American children. What will they grow up to be? Do they have choices? Will they be happy? Do the girls have the same education the boys do? These are some of the things I ponder as we’re walking.
The footpath weaves us through tall grass reeds more than twice J’s height. At hour 5, I’m starting to feel like this is the never-ending path to nowhere. Where is the damn base camp? We’re still pretty confident we’re moving in the right direction since we’re going southerly along the lake, but we just have no idea how far away we are. I think that’s one of the most challenging aspects of a hike like this; not really knowing where you’re going or how long it will take. Will the base camp have a bed for us? Will there be enough food? Should we have called ahead? What if we can’t find it?
Clouds start building in the east and a storm is looming over the hill. No, no, no!! We hear thunder in the distance and are feeling pretty certain we’ll get rained on unless we make it to shelter soon. We pop out the end of the grass reeds onto the lakeshore and some men on the beach motion that Cyimbiri is right around the bend. Yippy we’re almost there!
After 6 hours of hiking we finally arrive at the base camp. Hallelujah!! We kick off our boots and sit on the patio overlooking the lake watching the rainfall. J was still looking pretty energetic, but I was exhausted! Whose idea was this? Oh… Yeah, it was mine. We played some cards, scarfed down the huge meal Ms. Anastasia made for us and went to bed about 8:30. My body in pain and my legs feeling like jello, I lay in bed that night wondering if I’d be able to walk in the morning.
Stay tuned to see if I can hack it on the CNT or if I bail and get a moto.