The Congo-Nile Trail is located on the Western side of Rwanda, along Lake Kivu which separates Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. In March, my dad joined me while I was on a work trip in Rwanda to ride part of the trail.
The idea to ride the Congo-Nile hatched last year as I was doing some research for work about bicycles in Rwanda. In one interview someone mentioned that Western Rwanda was a popular bikepacking destination, and I remembered that my friend Derek rode the trail some years ago (check out his far more beautiful photos and thoughts here). I began to do a bit of research and had the rough idea that I’d take some vacation while in Rwanda for work and ride part of the trail that the internet warned me was intoxicatingly beautiful and hillier than any terrain I’ve ever ridden.
When I told my dad about the idea he responded without hesitation, “Can I come?” My dad is approaching retirement, maintains an admirably YOLO attitude towards life. He is down for any adventure, especially if it involves mountain biking. He wasn’t thrilled with my vague plan to buy a bike in country and figure things out along the way, so we instead hooked up with Rwandan Adventures who connected us to a guide and booked places to stay along the way. As luck would have it, our guide, Rafiki, is a retired pro cyclist from the infamous Team Rwanda, and we couldn’t have asked for a better companion on the trail.
The internet was not joking about the hills. In truth, in our 3 days of riding I don’t think we ever rode on a flat trail for more than 10 feet. We were always going up or down. Most of the trail is wide, rocky dirt roads, connected by single track trails. Before hitting the final section of pavement that brought us to the finish in Kibuye, we passed 3 or 4 cars the entire time.
Unlike in most mountainous areas, where roads and towns are generally situated in the valleys between mountains, in Rwanda the towns and roads are built along the ridges. Almost all of the riding was along ridge lines, occasionally dropping down to cuts along the sides of mountains, and sometimes dropping all the way back down to the lake. It meant that at all times you had amazing views of the lake, the rest of the mountains, and, more than anything, it meant that you were climbing all the time.
But there was one day where the climbing was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. We started the second day with a really technical 20-30 minute climb up from the lake to rejoin the trail from where we had stayed the night before. At the time I thought that it was probably one of the harder climbs I’d done. Oh how I wish that was still true. Later that day the trail dropped from the ridges back down to the level of the lake. We rode across flooded rice paddies, and then we started climbing. And climbing. And climbing. We climbed for 2-3 hours, up some of the steepest terrain I’ve ever ridden (or more accurately ridden/hiked). At one point, as I was struggling in my lowest gear, I looked back once to see my Dad pushing his bike, and looked back again 30 seconds later only to realize that he was gaining on me. That’s when I got off and started pushing too.
I was happily surprised that throughout the 3 day journey, and up and down 15,000 ft of climbing, I felt strong – stronger than I’ve ever felt before. I’m the sort of person who needs something that I find a little bit terrifying ahead of me to scare myself into training. That was certainly how I felt in the months leading up to this trip. I would look at pictures of the mountains around Lake Kivu on google and that would be the inspiration I needed to get on my trainer, or go to the gym, or go for a run. And after those months of preparing, it definitely paid off.
Each day when we reached our destination for the day, Rafiki would comment to me how cool it was that I was doing this with my dad. A lot of people had similar reactions when I told them about this trip saying “Woah. Your dad must be so rad.” It’s true. My dad is pretty rad, and it was an amazing experience to share with him. I’m very lucky to have parents that love to bike as much as I do, and that it’s something that we can do together.
To anyone considering a bike trip in a new place – definitely consider The Congo Nile Trail. I wish that timing wise it could have worked out to ride the whole thing because I can only imagine that more amazing trail was to come. The trail is pretty well marked, and there are easy places to stay along the way. There is a growing tourist industry around the trail, and lots of people like Rafiki, working with other local guides and mechanics to develop it. It’s a locally led tourist industry right now, with people working to keep it that way. Parts of the trail have been paved recently as part of a highway connecting Kibuye to Kigali, but most of the trail remains a mix between rocky roads and single track.
More than anything, it was great to have a few days of doing nothing but riding. There was no way to check in on email, or get distracted by anything that wasn’t the immediate jaw dropping landscape in front of me. Plus, I got to bed before 9pm every night, and for those of you who know me, you know that means that it was a good trip.