Road tripping through Rwanda

Up until I got my driver’s license, I hated driving. My parents had to force me to take driver’s ed because I kept insisting I would never live anywhere I would need a car. The feeling disappeared like dew before the morning sun the first time I drove a car alone. The feeling of liberty and control feels as strong today as it did back when I was 18, and few things make me more at peace than the open highway.

So when Ingrid asked if I wanted to join her and Ibra to drive from Kampala to the Congo for our trip to Mount Nyiragongo, the only natural answer was yes.

The land of a thousand hills has been at the top of my travel list since I moved to East Africa. A country that is hailed as “The Singapore of Africa”, but with a dark and deeply problematic past. The more I read about Rwanda, past and present, the more questions I have and the more reasons I’ve had to want to visit.

We set off early one Thursday morning, driving out of town as the sun rose and the morning rush started congesting the roads of Kampala. Our soundtrack featured the very best of Fatboy Slim, The Black Keys, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Stromae, and Depeche Mode. Ten hours and many sing-a-longs later we arrived at the Kyanika-border between Uganda and Rwanda.

After a lovely conversation with the Ugandan and Rwandese border personnel, we rolled across the border and entered Rwanda. The differences between Uganda and Rwanda were small but noticeable. Whereas you can barely walk a few meters in Kampala without meeting a motorcycle boda, Ruhengeri is a city dominated by bicycle bodas. While I enjoy my motorized bodas, the bicycle version is far more picturesque and charming. Combine it with the current (?) Musanze trend of turtlenecked sweaters and blazers in maroon and mustard yellow, and the look of the town becomes decidedly 70s.

I naturally took no good photos of this, so I’ll leave the pictures to your imagination. Here instead is a photo of me checking out the weather forecast for the Virungas to calculate how much water to bring for the hike.

The road from Kisoro to Musanze takes you past the glorious volcanic mountains of the Virungas. I’ve been to Kisoro once before and had already fallen head over heels with these mountains. Muhavura, Mgahinga, and Sabyinyo are all spectacular, but this time around I also got to meet Bisoke, Karisimbi, and Mikeno.

We reached Ruhengeri, a town in the northern district Musanze, minutes before sunset and headed to a small guesthouse run by a friend of a friend. Exhausted from a day of driving, we collapsed in the garden with our host, sharing hiking stories and drinking beer the size of wine bottles.

Fun fact, “skål” is cheers in Norwegian, so we instantly felt a kinship with the Rwandese beer.

The next morning we got up before sunrise, packed our daypacks, had a hasty breakfast and set off for Mt. Bisoke (pictured above). Bisoke (3,711 m) is a dormant stratovolcano towering over Ruhengeri. Like most of the volcanic mountains in the area, including Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Karisimbi, the mountain marks the border between Rwanda and DRC.

The trail starts out by cutting through fields of beautiful white flowers. These are, as our guide gleefully told us after having had all of us touch and smell them, grown to be used as a strong insecticide.

Once out of the cultivated land, you cross the border into the Volcanoes National Park, home to mountain gorillas, buffaloes, and the occasional elephant. You climb through the forest and bamboo zone, as the hills get steeper. The trail has an altitude gain of 1200 meters, and the trees and plants change continuously as you’re gaining elevation.

At the summit awaited Bisoke’s claim to fame: A huge crater lake, the largest out of all the crater lakes in the park. By the time we reached the top, it had started getting quite windy, so we only had a short break to eat some snacks, take some photos and celebrate yet another mountain summited.

We jogged down the hill again, passed through the insecticide flowers, hopped in the car and returned to the guesthouse for a quick shower and a cold beer.

On our way out of Ruhengeri, we made a beeline for Migano Café for sustenance (curry and mashed potatoes) and iced coffee.

We then headed west, driving through Northern Rwanda along the border to DRC until we finally reached Gisenyi and the border crossing to Goma that was our goal. You can read more about that trip here: A Burning Ring of Fire: Climbing Mt. Nyiragongo in the Congo.

In Gisenyi, we were lucky enough to get to crash at Obed’s, a friend of Ingrid’s from the last time she visited Rwanda. Sidenote: If you are looking for an airbnb in Gisenyi, get in touch and I can share his information!

Our travel companions for the Congo-trip all flew to Kigali or Goma. I am so happy we chose to drive instead. Seeing a country by car, and on foot, allows the freedom to accidentally discover other sides to the place or region than just your destination. As the old, and cliché, saying goes: It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

We are already planning our next journey. Stay tuned!