Running in Remarkable Rwanda

Our rhythm is good, we are all enjoying the pace, leaping over volcanic rocks in the path, clambering up and down steep, mica-speckled slopes and teetering over wooden bridges that crisscross the canals in the lush tapestry of tea plantations.

`Mwaramutse!`, I yell enthusiastically as our little group scampers through a small copse of banana palms and past yet another humble dwelling. The woman I am greeting is wearing a bright yellow patterned Kitenge dress, her sleeping baby’s little cheek flattened against her back. She is sweeping the area around her home, rendering it even more immaculate, working her way around a large sheet covered in russet-coloured millet seed, drying in the sun. “Yeego!” she replies, her face breaking into a glorious flash of white, her eyes wide and astonished. A few other women join her, laughing delightedly. We run on and I ask Jado, our young Rwandan guide why they are laughing. “They are really happy to see you”, he says, “they love to have visitors like you, they are welcoming you!”

We all came to learn these little Kinyarwanda phrases and greetings and it felt good to connect with the locals in their language – even if only on a fairly superficial level. I suspect we were something of an enigma to many of the rural folk we ran past. Seven Mzungus, four of them women, moving at speed through remote villages, waving, smiling and whooping with joy as they went. “Where is your car?” was a frequently asked question….”Where are you going?” another…..”To Kigali”, we would say, tongue in cheek.

This was generally met with some hilarity. Crazy bloody Mzungus…

Travelling in a new country on foot is a unique and privileged experience.  Travelling at speed, on foot, even more so. Running in wild places has been something I have been lucky enough to do more frequently in the last few years. I have covered 400 km in 8 days through the soggy bogs and rugged peaks of the remote Scottish Highlands, got swallowed up by boulders the size of houses of the Tattasberg and brushed past the endangered, prickly Halfmens of the Richtersveld, run into elephant on the banks of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe and wrapped my arms around the gnarly, rutted ancient bark of a giant baobab tree.

When travelling to new countries, I prefer to veer way off the beaten tourist track, stay well clear of the tour bus and selfie-stick brigade, and come eye-to-eye with as many of the local people, wildlife and habitats as possible in the time I am there. Lacing up a pair of trail shoes, throwing a few essentials in a pack and sniffing out the single track opens up a whole new window on a world beyond the road network and normal tourist routes. It’s often not easy to seek out this kind of travel in a foreign country, so it helps to be guided by those in the know and benefit from years of research and time on the ground.  

Wildrunner’s Owen Middleton is one of South Africa’s most successful trail running event organisers. Wildrunner is well known for extremely slick events, ambitious destinations and more recently, with Wildrun Africa, for African wilderness running experiences. I have run three of Owen’s Wilderness multi-day adventures, all of them unique and memorable (the Richtersveld and Mapungubwe mentioned above are his). When he advertised his latest plan to run for a week in Rwanda, I looked on with envy and interest, but shelved it, thinking that it would be something well out my reach. So it was with a huge sense of disbelief when my partner announced he had paid the first instalment (for the two of us) of the Rwandan Wildrun 2019! Digging into a fairly significant chunk of his life savings, this was a bucket list item that Filippo FOMO Faralla did not want to miss…

Enter Active Africa’s Chris Goodwin – a close friend of Owen, and African travel expert of note. A trained chef, elite runner (in his earlier years) and all-round great human – Chris is one of those people who is just tailor-made for tourism. He exudes patience, a world class sense of humor and diplomacy. He’s also not afraid of some bloody hard graft. These qualities make up an essential skillset for one who makes a living taking tourists to remote locations on the African continent, ensuring that their every need is taken care of.

Chris has over 8 years’ experience in Rwanda, knows the country like the back of his hand, and has made some valuable connections and friends on the ground. His deep respect and understanding of how things roll in the country was visible in the week we were there – rendering our trip utterly seamless and hassle-free. He was also remarkably adept at arranging ice-cold, scented hand towels at the end of every run. There is nothing quite like being offered a rolled-up towel on a silver tray after a long, hot run in deepest Africa.

Wildrun Africa’s Rwanda 2019 inaugural trip was an absolute treat – from start to finish. Owen, Chris and their team of four local Rwandan youngsters Jado, Olivier, Emanuel and Danny laid on a completely unique trail-running experience.

Our two Rwandan guides Jado and Olivier – wonderfully athletic young men, brimming with passion for their country.

The 7 of us (all from South Africa) were treated to as many days of running through far-flung districts of the Northern & Western provinces of Muzanse, Rubavu, Rutsiro, Krongi & Nyamasheke. Our total mileage was 146 km, with a cumulative elevation gain of 5 700 m and 7 500 m of accumulative descent.

The adventure started and ended in Kigali – an impressive city of 12 million people. This city is spotless. Quite literally eat-your-breakfast-off-the sidewalks spotless. I have never seen anything like this, ever. And I have travelled widely – on the African continent, in Europe and North America, where waste and disposables are ubiquitous and highly visible. Litter and roadside trash are simply not a feature in Rwanda. Toss something on the ground and you will be reprimanded – not by a member of the armed forces or anything sinister like that – but by fellow Kigalians. It is just not done. Self-regulation and self-policing completely work here and this sentiment plays out on the roads too – with drivers of motorbikes, bicycles and vehicles all respecting one another with grace and humility. I am not sure I heard a single hooter honked in frustration or rage while I was in the city.

Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda since 2006, the collection and recycling of plastic drinking bottles is rigorous, and many of the markets are completely packaging free. And it shows.

We ran twice in the city – exploring its (very clean and safe) side alleys, main roads and neighborhoods, passing easily between houses perched on the slopes around the flood plain, running through the highly cultivated landscape, and transitioning into cityscape, with some swanky hotels and ex-pat homes in the leafier, Jacaranda-speckled streets. Our hotel was within spitting distance of the presidential residence – an intimidating rolling-lawn affair, all high walls and armed guards at every pore.

On the first day, we ran to the Camp Kigali Memorial. This was the site where the shit hit the proverbial on the 6th April 1994, shortly after the plane carrying Rwanda’s president and Burundi’s new president was shot down, killing both. Ten Belgian UNAMIR peacekeepers who had been deployed to guard the house of the Prime Minister were brutally tortured and all ultimately murdered by the Presidential Guard. The building where this played out has been left as is. The bullet holes peppering the exterior walls and doors, the rash of bullet holes in the corner of the room, all testament to the horror that would have played out 20 years ago. From that moment on, all hell broke loose. The army and the interahamwe began their systematic slaughter of around a million Tutsis, and over 100 days, the country quite literally bled to death – while the world stood on the sidelines, watched and did nothing.

The Gisoze Genocide Memorial is a harrowing experience, but one that must be done if you are to move through and get to grips with this country. It helps contextualise things and throws the spotlight on the extraordinary, forward-thinking resilience and optimism displayed by every single survivor. It is impossible to understand the depths of despair faced by so many, the sheer horror of neighbours turning on neighbours, the indescribable cruelty displayed by humans on other humans. We all left the museum feeling quite numb and pretty gutted.

Every individual I subsequently saw walking the streets (over thirty years old), would have witnessed and lived through the hundred-day horror. Looking into the eyes of these older men and women (many who would have been children at the time), it is impossible to fathom what goes on inside their heads. How is it possible to emerge from something so unspeakably traumatic, where entire families were erased - yet to stand up, shake off, look forward and build a nation from scratch?

On the afternoon of our first full day in Rwanda, we all boarded a mini-bus and headed to Kinigi, about 110 km to the north-west of Kigali. We settled into The Five Volcanoes Hotel and got our heads around the next day’s adventure in Volcanoes National Park – made famous by its many family groups of mountain Gorilla. We were off to play in Dian Fossey’s misty, mythical hunting ground. And so began our Rwandan Run…

 

Running in Rwanda

Day 2 Bisoke Volcano hike (7 km) and run in the foothills (14 km)

The group about to embark on the Bisoke Volcano hike.

 

Dressed in waterproof pants, sturdy shoes and cold weather gear we set off early to the Gorilla Centre – Rwanda’s gorilla tourism hub. Here visitors from all corners of the globe come together to receive a guide, get divided into groups and depart for their gorilla encounter experience. I found it a little overwhelming – and was grateful that our small group would stay as was for our planned Bisoke Volcano hike. We were told that should we come across any gorilla groups, it would be totally incidental. We had not paid the very hefty US$1.500 per person for a permit, so would quite possibly not encounter these primates. We drove to the trail head, met our larger than life camo-clad guide Fidel, were joined by a veritable flotilla of armed guards, issued with walking sticks and off we set.

The initial stretch had us walking through fields bursting with white daisies (Pyrethrum), which we noticed were being harvested by teams of women. This is a valuable commercial crop used to make insecticide. Rwanda is the world’s third largest producer of this incredibly valued flower.

Rwanda’s mountainous landscape is due to the fact it straddles the eastern rim of the Albertine Rift Valley. The nation’s highest peaks (the volcanic Virungas) are a 20 million-year-old by-product of the same tectonic rumblings and labor pains that gave birth to the Rift Valley.

The hike was strenuous and extremely muddy, with a 900 m vertical gain over 3.5 km, but we all soldiered up to the top where we had fleeting glimpses of the crater lake below us when the thick mist cleared. The armed guards disappeared into the mist and watched from the sidelines - a sensitive area, given that this is the border with the volatile DRC. We slip-slid our muddy way back down and were met with a picnic feast. Here we shed our waterproofs and put on our running kit, to get ready for a 14 km run back to our hotel.

That evening before dinner we were addressed by the very impressive and knowledgeable Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli, better known by his colleagues as Dr. Noel, from the Gorilla Doctors. He left us all feeling quite positive about the future of these incredible mammals. Wildlife tourism – as uncomfortable as it may make the likes of me – is this species only chance of survival. These daily, hour-long encounters between human and beast are what will ensure these beautiful mammals continue to thrive in a very compromised world.

 

Day 3 Gishwati forest and Lake Kivu (16 km)

The day started with an early drive through to Gishwati, the start of one of the longer runs – a 28 km stretch to Lake Kivu. We disembarked at the end of a bustling, dusty road, fringed with busy stalls, shops and many bemused onlookers. The run took us through a tapestry of tea plantations, fields groaning with yams, cassava and sweet potatoes, mango and banana trees and eucalyptus forests. We ran through endless villages and were rarely alone or away from large groups of small, ecstatic children or men and women working in the fields.

Since Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa, it came as no surprise that we were almost constantly surrounded by people. When we arrived at one school, the kids couldn’t contain their excitement, and all dashed out the classrooms to surround us and stare wide-eyed and fascinated.

The terrain is hilly, and the running involves many ups and downs, but the views are always spectacular. We eventually reached the verdant banks of Lake Kivu, and after more of Chris’s famous towels, a blissful swim and an ice-cold Virunga beer, we settled into our rooms for a brief nap.

 The view down to Lake Kivu on Day 3.

Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest freshwater body, and it also forms the border with the DRC. Reaching depths of almost 500 metres, with a water content of 333 km2 renders it one of the world’s deepest freshwater lakes.

That evening we went out on a small motor boat to watch traditional fishermen with their three-boat system (amato), long bamboo poles and nets. These incredibly fit young men head out at sunset (often singing as they paddle). They spend the night out on the water, catching as much of the only species of small fish, called iSambaza, able to survive the methane-rich waters of the lake and return at sunrise.Our evening was rounded off with an incredible dinner on the sandy banks of the lake, with some local drummers and dancers to entertain us.

 

 

Fishermen setting off for the night’s fishing in the methane-rich waters of Lake Kivu

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4  Lake Kivu trail to Kinunu (28 km)

Another 28 km day saw us skirting the lake shore, again passing through numerous villages, through fields, over hills, into valleys and along ridges overlooking the lake. With 10 km to go, we had a very welcome break at Nkora Market village. Here we were treated to some spectacular Rwandan hospitality (quite the most delicious warm chapattis dripping with local, dark honey and an array of locally grown fruit), courtesy of Mamma Nellie, a local Nkora Market village entrepreneur.

We ended the day at a small, basic but very cozy guesthouse at Kinunu where we were treated to a fascinating bean-to-cup coffee growing/washing plant and processing warehouse experience.

 

Day 5 Kinunu to Kibuye (25 km)

The trail continued southwards along the many bays and inlets of the Kivu coastline through fishing villages and fields of crops – the terrain becoming increasingly curvaceous and lung busting! Our run ended with a short boat trip to an island where a magnificent picnic had been laid out by Chris (with his towels) and his team. After a refreshing dip and welcome feed, we all boarded the little boat and chugged our way back to the mainland to our final Lake Kivu accommodation. Cormoran Lodge on the steep, lush banks of Lake Kivu is a unique place to stay – with vast treehouse-like rooms on tall stilts set above the sunbird-saturated canopy.

 

Day 6 Transfer to Nyungwe Forest (rest day)

On the morning of the 6th day we drove to Nyungwe Forest. On the way we stopped in at Gisakuru Tea Factory, which gave us a fascinating insight into how tea is processed – literally from picking, fermentation, drying to packing.

The view across the tea plantation of Gisakuru towards the fringes of Nyungwe Forest.

 

Day 7 Nyungwe Forest and Congo-Nile Divide Trail (42 km)

 The group at the start of the 42 km run

 

Day 7 started with a 3-30am alarm wake up call. We bundled into the vehicle and hit the road for a long, winding journey to the trail head of the Congo Nile Divide Trail. We were destined for a section of the Rift Valley Escarpment, which slices through western Rwanda, and which sits as the watershed between the continent’s two biggest drainage systems – the Nile and the Congo.

We were to run in the only large stand of protected indigenous tropical montane forest remaining in the country and in sub-saharan Africa. The trail boasts bracken fields, ericaceous shrubs, bamboo forests and primary forest. Our guide Jado referred to Nyungwe as “Kamiranzovu” – the forest that can swallow an elephant!

In Nyungwe forest on the Congo-Nile Divide trail

 

The 970 km2 park contains 13 primate species (a staggering 25% of Africa's total), 275 bird species, 1 068 plant species and 85 mammal species. We were delighted to see and hear the Ruwenzori and Great Blue Turacos – two extraordinary endemics. We also came across a Bamboo squirrel, Colobus monkeys and a host of other endemic bird species. The trail was 100% runnable, soft and leafy underfoot and incredibly well maintained. We flew along some of the flatter sections, slogged at a fast hike up most of the hills and whooped our way down the longer hilly sections. We  all felt incredibly blessed to know that we were the first group of runners to complete what is a standard 3-day hike in 8 ½ hours.

The trip was very elegantly rounded off with a sumptuous dinner at the newly revamped One & Only hotel on the fringes of the Nyungwe Forest. We indulged in this other-worldly bubble of luxury for a few hours and ate and drank ourselves silly, sharing war stories and making appreciative speeches of thanks to our guides and the team.

The Rwanda Wildrun was a bucket-lister of note that exceeded all my expectations. Rwanda has a very tangible soul – she is powerful, positive, hopeful. As a country, she has drawn me in hook, line and sinker and I have fallen quite hopelessly in love.

What you need to know? Find out all the details on www.wildrun.com

This account of the Rwanda Wildrun 2019 was written by Karoline Hanks with photos courtesy of Filippo Faralla