If you’re looking to go on vacation in Rwanda, chances are you’ve already dismissed any of the myths that it’s an unsafe country to be in — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. For years, the main draw for Rwandan tourism has been gorilla trekking, but now there’s also the Congo Nile Trail (CNT), a newly-opened nature trail that hugs the eastern shores of Lake Kivu on the west end of Rwanda. It’s now open for multi-day hikes, 4×4 excursions — and most preferably, mountain bike rides for adventure tourists who want to experience Rwandan lake village life first hand, in the one of the most scenic and laid back areas of Africa. (There’s no threat of attacking apes, pouncing lions, or charging elephants, so you don’t have to worry about that.)
Not convinced yet? Well, forget what you’ve seen or heard about in the movie Hotel Rwanda. Long gone is the violence between the tribes of Hutus and Tutsis that devastated the country in 1994. It’s been almost two decades since those horrific events, and the country has been on the mend — so much that many consider Rwanda to be one of the most progressive, model countries of Africa; women outnumber men in parliamentary seats, plastic bags are banned, and the cities and countryside are virtually litter-free, due to compulsory clean-up days at least once a month.
Gorilla trekking used to be the only draw for visiting Rwanda, but this new Congo Nile Trail is increasingly becoming “the other thing” to do in the country, other than visit genocide memorials. I rode the CNT on a rented mountain bike last month, when the trail was still in its infancy, with a guide and porter from community-focused Rwandan Adventures — and believe me, mountain biking is a lot more fun and relaxing than genocide.
The 140-mile trail, which is long enough that it takes ten days to hike, or five days to bike — although you can do any part of it in a shorter period of time based on your schedule and/or energy — takes visitors through coffee and tea plantations, fish markets, and local villages. I rode for two days from Gisenyi to Kabuye and inevitably interacted with the locals, which added an interesting cultural exchange not found in rides that are purely technical. Of course, there’s that too; for a mountain biker, the trail isn’t for the novice cyclist. Rwanda is nicknamed the “Land of a Thousand Hills” after all, and with good reason: there are plenty of taxing uphills — followed by rewarding down hills — on rocky terrain. However, there are also patches of asphalt and flat, single-track dirt trails, so there’s a good mix of relaxation and healthy challenges.
Comprehending the meaning of the trail’s name is a challenge though. The “Congo Nile” Trail is sort of a misnomer — it neither lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, nor does it hug the Nile River — however, it’s actually named for the Congo Nile Divide mountain range of the area. Perhaps the recognizable namedrops of two of Africa’s natural “brands” were all apart of the marketing strategy, conjured up by its creators to lure adventure tourists. It was created in part by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Netherlands Development Organization (SNV), and UNWTO’s ST-EP Foundation — the latter two committed to sustainable, community-based tourism for eliminating poverty in developing nations. This means that not only does riding the trail give you something fun and physically rewarding to do, but it also gives back.
And how many mountain bike trails say they can do that?
Read more about my Rwandan mountain bike excursion on The Global Trip.