In October 2017 I travelled to Rwanda in Central Africa for 3 weeks. This trip had two main aims: firstly to cycle the Congo Nile Trail in western Rwanda, and secondly to study the impact of the trail which opened in 2011 on the local communities. As an aspiring geographer, Rwanda is a fascinating place, with volcanoes, limnic lakes and the remarkable economic recovery from the horrendous events of the genocide in 1994, and I was lucky to be able to combine my trip with a medical team working in a remote hospital in Western Province. Arriving in Kigali, it was a real surprise to see a thriving modern and clean city, and hard to imagine the events of the genocide, especially after visiting the genocide museum and learning more about what happened.
Leaving Kigali to travel to Gisenyi, the start of the Congo Nile Trail, we drove through Volcanoes National Park. Although we weren’t able to go gorilla trekking, it was amazing to see the volcanoes and spend some time trekking in the montane forest, seeing how people have adapted their lives to live amongst the very active volcanoes. I also had the chance to visit a lava cave, walking 3 km through it in pitch dark was quite scary, but was amazing to see first hand structures I had studied at school. Travelling on to Gisenyi, I was able to visit lake Kivu, the largest limnic lake in the world. Paddling a kayak around the northern end of the lake I saw how Rwanda is extracting the methane dissolved in the depths of the lakes to protect the people in the area, and also provide up to 50% of Rwanda’s power supply. This was fascinating to see, in a country with few natural resources, how they have ingeniously solved two problems at once.
The highlight of my trip was cycling the Congo Nile Trail. This trail runs along the edge of Lake Kivu, 220km south from Gisenyi. The first 120 km are all on trails rather than roads, and visit some really beautiful parts of the country and remote villages. The trail was opened in 2011 to develop ecotourism as a way to bring tourists and money to rural areas.
Around 250 people a year cycle or walk the trail and I was keen to see how it had helped the people living along the route. Renting mountain bikes and hiring a guide, we set off from Gisenyi on a nice flat piece of road. Before long though we discovered why Rwanda is called the ‘land of a thousand hills’, and I think we did most of them on day 1. Stopping at each village to survey the locals on tourism gave us plenty of opportunities to rest, and the down hills almost made up for the hills. Over the first 3 days we climbed over 9000 feet, from a starting altitude of nearly 5000 feet above sea level, which was really challenging but satisfying to complete.
The second half of the trail was mostly on roads, as development catches up with this part of Rwanda, but was nevertheless rewarding to meet subsistence farmers and fishermen rowing dugout canoes as they fished in the lake, see tea and coffee plantations, and visit Nyungwe Forest, the largest montane forest reserve left in Africa. I also was lucky enough to see wild chimpanzees in the forest, which was a real highlight. The research into sustainable tourism produced some interesting results, and I could see that it is helping already and has real potential to provide income and improve quality of life for locals.
The research project was really successful, and showed that the trail had improved quality of life for most people but mostly for people near the beginning of the trail and those employed in tourism. Everyone surveyed was keen on tourism, and the majority of people felt that facilities such as clean water had improved with tourism. Once the cycling was over I was lucky to be able to join a medical mission to Kibuye Hospital in Rwanda, helping to train local doctors in use of telemedicine systems. Although I was only observing, it was fascinating to see how the health system works in Rwanda and how different conditions are to the UK.
Overall I had a fantastic time, made some great friends, saw some amazing sights cycling through volcanic landscapes and had real insights into human geography of this unique area. I also managed to raise £1000 for charity through sponsorship of the cycle ride, none of which I would have been able to do without the support of the Young Explorers Trust. Thank you so much for your help.