The votes were tallied and the verdict was delivered — from the taxi driver, bus boy, ex-pat mining executive from Australia, the bus driver and the prostitute at the bar of the Talapia. It was unanimous. To get to Rwanda if not going by ferry boat, then the road to Shinyanga then Kahama to Ngara and Resumo would be safest. But the ferry sounded like a good option. Why not float along the infamous lake? I’d get a chance to experience Lake Victoria from its water — the second largest lake in the world, and I could travel during the night thereby not losing a riding day. The ferry would land in Tanzania in Bukoba and then a short dirt road to the border of Rwanda from there a good paved road would roll me into Kigali. Sounded perfect. I decided to go with the ferry. So when the eager porter I sent to to fetch the tickets returned he wore a sad look on his face.
“The ferry doesn’t leave on Mondays,” he confessed he should have known this before embarking on the goose chase. “Only Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
I was stuck. I didn’t want to wait another day for the silly ferry ride. But it was already midday, and even if I left immediately, I’d never make it to the border prior to nightfall. Sure, I could stopover in Kahama or Shinyanga, but there’s not much there. My better option would be to take another night aboard the African Queen and shoot for a daybreak start in order to cover the 800 kilometers to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in a single day. There was one section of road I was warned about. “Be sure to check with the police check-points before traveling through the forest,” Collins warned. “There’ve been bad people there who put things in the road to stop you so they can rob you,” he continued. “They’ve robbed entire busses.” It’s more than 100 miles of no man’s land between Kahama and the Rwanda border. Accoring to my map there’s one town. Though there are always smaller settlements that don’t make the map, the question is how friendly are they.
The sun rose just before 7AM, I was on the road by 7:15. The first 20km I was sailing. Then the road deteriorated into a mine field of potholes. This lasted for more than 100km so by 9:20 when I refueled in Shinyanga, I’d traveled only 100 miles in just over two hours. Calculating the remaining distances and then the time for a border crossing, I wondered if I’d lose the bet. The staff at the hotel told me I’d be hard pressed to make Kigali before nightfall. They suggested getting accomodation at Kahama or closer to the border at Ngara. Self-doubt started weighting heavily on my mind. If the roads were like this to the border, they’re right. Plus there’s the question of the road through the forest — was it safe to ride alone? Would I need an armed escort. It was too early to tell.
The first 100km outside of Mwanza made for a early morning game of dodge the potholes and mud patches. Difficult to get any good speed. But I was aiming to make Kigali, Rwanda by sunset anyway.
Enquiring to the turn off for the road to Kahama, the armed motorcycle police at the petrol station offered to escort me through town. Flanked by two 125cc Chinese police motorcycles, one riding two-up, I was slowly paraded through town to the turn off to Kahama. For the first hour riding across the plains from Shinyanga, I cruised by a number of massive baobab trees. Of course, I was treated to the now common site of rolled over carnage of haul trucks. But along this road, it was a massive petrol tanker ruck. And sitting around dozens of 10 and 20 liter plastic containers, a group of men were siphoning the remaining petrol out of the tanker into the containers. I wondered how long they’d been at it. And how many containers in how much time would they be finished?
I had an armed police escort out of town.
The road got much better. Less traffic than I’ve seen in a while. Most people walk, ride bikes or push carts. Not so many donkeys. That’s a good thing!
As I approached Kahama the landscape changed to a field of massive boulder sized rock croppings. Thatched hut settlements clustered around the big rocks. At the next police checkpoint, I hit the kill switch on the engine and chatted with the officers.
“No problem,” they both said nodding their heads while peering curiously at my GPS. “What’s that?”
“No problem with mzungu alone on a piki-piki,” I asked again. The taller officer with the madly crooked teeth put his finger on the screen of the GPS unit rubbing some dust off.
“No it’s safe now for sometime. You no have problem. Yes, before months ago many problems. But now road good for going.”
Something about the broken enligsh coming from grown men in offical pure white police uniforms didn’t real set well with me. But I wasn’t about to turn back. But I almost got stuck here at this unlikely police post in northern Tanzania: once again I left the 50w PIAA lights burning while I asked the questions burning in my mind. When it came time to leave, my battery didn’t have enough juice to turn over the massive piston. So in Tanzania communal self-reliant fashion. the two police officers dropped their clipboards and push started me along my way.
Two hours later I was rolling through the wooded highlands where I spotted dozens of dirt tracks leading into the thick woodlands. I imagined people could appear and disappear with ease. But all I saw were a couple kids tending to goats and a woman carrying a jug of water atop her head. But for about twenty miles there was no sign of any town, services or huts with roofs of any kind. It was no man’s land. But soon the forest thinned and I found myself at another police check point. Then a mandatory weight station for haul trucks. This could possibly be the 500th or 1000th weight station I’ve passed on my journey. Not sure what I was thinking given that I had a serious deadline with wagers on the line, but I pulled in and rode the bike on the massive scale, while the giggly and plump uniforned TANROADS official punched buttons and gave me the official weight: 300 kilos on the nose. Wow.
It was time to actually stop and weigh Doc. Though she admitted she didn’t zero the scale before I rode on…?
Welcome To Rwanda.
At 2:20pm I arrived at the border at Rusomo where I cancelled my carnet, stamped my passport and bought 10 liters of black market petrol with the help of the border guard. Later he took the WorldRider sticker I’d given him and adhered it to the swinging border gate. You gotta love Africa. On the other side of the river the border crossing went just as smooth. So by 3:45 I was riding through Rwanda.
It seemed like I was in another world. Gone were the plains, the bush, the Acacia and the baobab. Beautiful and gentle rolling hills and pristine tarmac twisted up, over and through lush green tropics where banana, tobacco and rice fields — all neatly nestled into the hillsides. Small villages with neatly painted or naturally colored homes. School children walking along the streets all sporting similar plastic footwear, most in the same blue and yellow colors. I saw no signs of garbage nor incomplete construction projects with massive piles of sand, rock and rebar that I’ve seen in virtually every country in Africa. Something was different here in Rwanda. True, I now was driving on the “right” side of the road. Stopping to chat with the villagers I also found myself in another world. If they spoke a language other than their native tongue, it was French. Even the police officer riding the F650GS didn’t speak English. And he refused to let me take a photograph of his bike.
Rwanda’s glorious hills in the background. Goodbye Tanzania, I will be back!
Yes. Rwanda was clean and seemingly civilized and organized. A country where people actually planted greenery and flowers in a landscaped fashion along the homes. Towns had good signage and clean greenbelts. Stopping in a small village as I enjoy doing, no body spoke English. Even Swahili was foreign. They spoke French. And now I’ve got to ride on the right side of the road? Wait a minute! Where am I? This isn’t Africa. Is it?
Riding into Kigali I had the same feeling. Though the city, built on a series of hills, was dreadfully confusing. After riding in circles I found the tourist information office. But it was closed. Thankfully, an employee, Frank Murangwa, took a liking to this dusty and weathered motorcyclist and made a few recommendations for accomodation, loaded me with Rwanda tourist information and directed me along my way. But it was a local FedEx employee, Ben Bahizi, on a Honda motorcycle who made my entrance into Rwanda simple, efficient and safe. Taking interest in my bike, my mission and my journey, he guided me to the hotels until I came upon Gorillas Hotel and the friendly and accomodating Mr. Bashi who went well out of his way to ensure my bike was safe and secure for the evening. I was checked in by 8pm.
Wait? Where am I? BMW for the cops? Is that a spankin’ new Mercedes? Is this Africa? Yeah. You’re in Rwanda now, WorldRider!
Rwanda Police Officers want to take Doc for a spin. They’ve got the qualifications. Afterall they’re riding 650’s and 1150’s.
I made it: 790km and border crossing in about ten hours.