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A gem of a trail
A gem of a trail

Exploring mountain bike trails in Rwanda

Mountain bike enthusiast and Cicerone author Jan Bakker is on a quest to find mountain bike tracks in the east-central African country of Rwanda

I was invited to explore new mountain bike trails in northern Rwanda by Thies Timmermans, the owner of mountain bike operator Red Dirt Uganda. Without asking any questions I happily agreed, sensing a decent adventure.

The 8hr journey from Uganda’s capital Kampala to the Rwandan border is ever lasting, not least because every village is blessed with a set of at least four bone-rattling rumble strips and two big humps.

excellent trails
Riding mountain bikes in Rwanda means a great mix of excellent trails and rural culture

Dramatic landscape

When we cross into Rwanda the change from bustling, somewhat chaotic Uganda to orderly, somewhat reserved Rwanda couldn’t be more abrupt. The Ugandan road that resembles a block of Swiss cheese is exchanged for smooth, perfect tarmac and everybody seems to obey the traffic rules. Did we travel through some sort of wormhole, ending up in Switzerland?

Driving at the maximum speed limit of 40km/h (!!) we go slow enough to take in the dramatic landscape. It’s a graphic sight with horizontal and vertical lines in all shades of green. Nearly every square centimetre in Rwanda is cultivated for agricultural purposes.

Red dirt road
Red dirt road in a sea of green

Our van drops us at a tea factory, perched on top of a hill overlooking acres of tea plantations. Young boys show off their bicycles, and for good reason. The bikes are fitted with multiple horns and colourful ornaments. Much cooler than those we are riding.

Access to the (steep) fields is largely via a network of skinny trails that zigzag through the hilly landscape. Everywhere we go our mountain bike-minded eyes are scanning our surroundings for rideable lines that cut across the terraced hills. We are about to find out that connecting those trails and creating an epic, continuous single track is a true art and requires patience and persistence.

terraced slopes
Skinny trails winding through green terraced slopes

The planned route follows a dirt road that gradually descends to the fields of tea a few hundred metres below. Immediately after setting off we see a small path veering off to the left. Thies and I give each other a nod and we drop into steep terrain, perhaps a bit steeper than we bargained for.

The heavily eroded trail pushes us straight to the max of our riding abilities. Thank God for long forks and full suspension! As the trail levels out, we continue cruising through an ocean of bright green tea trees.

The people working in the fields stare at us in disbelief rather than admiration. Why? rather than wow!

eucalyptus forest
Thies dropping down into a eucalyptus forest

The dirt track leads to an immaculate tarmac road that we are forced to take to get us to the next section of dirt. After a few kilometres, we spy another beautiful, flowing trail disappearing in a eucalyptus forest.

An adolescent boy, seemingly drunk, tells us we should take the road. Why on earth would you go the hard way while there is a perfect road running parallel only a couple of hundred metres away? Fair question and we try to explain, to no avail. When we carry our bikes across a muddy field his words echo in our minds. All part of the fun, right?

Monster climb

The GPS track shows the altitude profile of the monster climb ahead. We put our heads down and try to get into a steady cadence. The local children have different plans for us. They are running after us, trying to practise their English language skills (mainly asking for money). Cycling up a hill with a 7% incline we stand no chance outriding them. When we reach the top of a pass we take a break in the small village.

Our presence doesn’t go unnoticed. The entire village comes out to have a look at the muzungus drinking a Coke. I guess this place is not quite on the tourist track.

A thrilling ride along the mountain spine that separates the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo takes us to an unassuming boat landing. Miraculously, a small boat is waiting for us on the shore to take us across to the tip of the peninsula, where we spend the night.

It’s a picture-perfect spot with no less than six out of eight Virunga volcanoes in view. We will reach the highest point of this trip in a couple of days on the flanks of the tallest of them all, Mount Karisimbi (4507m). The Virunga volcanoes are in a cross-border protected area shared between DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and harbours nearly half of the world’s mountain gorilla population.

Exciting paths

The following morning, we reluctantly climb on our bikes, stiff from the strenuous previous day. Today’s distance is 60km, bar the extra detours on single track. On the peninsula itself, all trails that veer off the main road are steep and one-way, leading to the shoreline.

Once we hit the ‘mainland’ we start scouting for exciting paths that may lead nowhere, or may be too steep to ride or turn out to be true gems. It’s a mixed bag of all the above.

I drop down on a super skinny trail, with an earth wall on one side and a 2-metre drop on the other. I fail to spot a drainage channel, stall and tumble down the drop-off, luckily in a soft recently ploughed field.

The spectators are in hysterics, and I flee the scene with a slightly bruised ego.

Two local cyclists on rickety bikes decide to follow us. They are brave. One of the guys bounces down a steep rock section, screaming out loud with a big smile on his face.

ridable trail
This particular trail was a gem and the climb back up was even ridable

We find more beautiful single track and as we approach the base of the chain of volcanoes, the terrain becomes extremely rocky. We essentially entered a huge lava field with tracks carved out of it. Going down a rocky descent can be hard. We find out that riding rough lava bedrock horizontally is much harder, and to be honest, it’s not much fun. You can’t go fast and you have to keep the momentum to avoid stalling.

Still shaky, we cycle into the compound of Team Rwanda, the home base of the Rwandan national cycling team. We briefly meet with Rwanda’s only mountain bike Olympian in history, Adrien Niyonshuti. He represented Rwanda in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. During the 1994 genocide he lost his entire family, including six brothers. He’s now coaching young Rwandan cycling talents and is an advocate for the cycling sport in Rwanda.

Before we bike down to the shores of Lake Kivu, we are facing a final, brutal climb up to 2600 metres on lava rock. The ride is close to the national park boundary of Volcanoes National Park on the slopes of Rwanda’s highest peak Karasimbi.

It’s very clear where the national park line is drawn. There is no transition zone, it’s straight from agricultural fields to virgin rainforest. We reach the highest point of our bike trip and wonder if the trails within the rainforest would be rideable. In the distance Lake Kivu beckons nearly 1200 metres lower. We drop down what’s possibly the most exhilarating downhill in the country to the peaceful town of Gisenyi, ending on a terrace with a cold beer, looking across the Congolese side of the lake. It looks tempting.