Rwanda remains a secret paradise for motorcyclists, whether it’s on or off-road. The country boasts incredible trails for riders of all levels.
When it comes to tourism, the Covid crisis has certainly heightened people’s need for “authentic experiences” – granted a very clichéd expression but at least you all understand what I mean. In Rwanda, for those who wants to sample the pleasure of both simple and true getaways, its 1000 hills are a suited destination. After all, they might be Rwanda’s most obvious heritage.
And what better way to explore them than riding an authentic enduro machine, adorned with harmonious red, green and yellow graphics? Today I’m meeting with Flavio Bonaiuti, an Italo-Ethiopian who has been running tours all across East Africa for fifteen years. In 2019, with new associate Christophe Humbert, Africa Riding Adventures Tours opened its Kigali office and it now owns a dozen of motorcycles that lie dormant in a garage of the capital city.
In normal times, Flavio organizes tours between one to two weeks, if not even longer should his clients decide to venture around Lake Victoria or down to Malawi. Due to Covid, he’s had to settle for one day rides with locals.
A partnership with SWM
Africa Riding Adventures has developed a partnership with SWM, an Italian brand bought back in 2014 by Chinese investors whose motorcycles are still produced in their former Lombardy manufacturing plant. Its fleet consists of 500 and 650ccs single-cylinders. I greedily decide to pick a 500. It’s lighter and nimbler but does requires the rider to tame its sharp throttle response. However, Flavio made his machine more docile by lowering the gear ratio and remapping the engine.
With his blue bandana tightly knotted around his head, Falvio is a discreet man with a permanent grin on his face. Today he suggests we set off to ride over the six hills that surround Kigali. Let’s be clear: I’m very much a beginner. I’ve had my biking license for just over one year and my off-road experience boils down to a few rides on my Honda XR 125 L. My guide reassures me: “here, whether it’s a track, a single, rocks, mud or ford crossing, there is something suited for every level .”
First rocky steps
We set forth in the early morning at the bottom of a foggy valley, along a swamp covered with papyrus. The inhabitants swing into action to fill the numerous potholes and muddy sections while we cautiously make our way around the bits of pick and shovel along the track.
The SWM 500 immediately proves to be of a generous disposition. The engine power is constant, and the single-cylinder is just waiting to be unleashed. Brembo breaks, KYM forks, hydraulic clutch, the moto displays top notch equipment. Even the saddle proves to be more comfortable than the one of a basic KTM.
We suddenly turn off onto a steep climb that goes straight up the right slope of the valley, towards the aptly named mount Kigali. We have to first get up a rocky set of levels which the bike rides over in first gear without even blinking. I stall a couple of times before I familiarize myself with the clutch. We’re halfway up the hill. What follows is a maze of bushy single tracks. We pass goats and dogs who scurry away at the sound of our double exhaust pipes. Kids ask us to do wheelies. On a single track… We keep climbing until we reach a small pine forest that brings us some welcome shade. Another rocky section where I take my first (small) tumble of the day before reaching the top.
A river runs through it
Next we’re onto the second hill through the valley of the Nyabarongo, the largest river in Rwanda and one of the Nile’s main affluents. We follow a zigzagging track downhill, before reaching tarmac through a muddy trail. A few slips further, we tackle a new zigzagging track, this time covered in gravel. Perfect to practice our slides! The 500 roars, the back swings around, children raise their arms: I feel like I’m embarked in a wild race. Therefore I’m not surprised when I find out that this track is a classic for rally competitions in Rwanda.
From the top of the ridge you get a wide panoramic view over the valley. I could stay hours contemplating the Nyabarongo winding at the foot of the hills. We spot a charming hotel nested in the forest where vervet monkeys jump from branches to roofs. One of them lands on the table where a couple jumps up screaming.
Rwanda’s diversity in a nutshell
The afternoon continues over the rolling hills of Rwanda: the horizon blends in gradation of green and blue. We pass brickworks, quarries, crisscrossing trails, suspension bridges, larges gaps left by landslides which leave me baffled. Flavio kindly takes the handlebars from me and simply makes the bike jump over the obstacle with disturbing ease. Unfortunately, I was too exhausted to have the presence of mind to take a snapshot.
Our ride ends when a storm suddenly starts brewing its dark clouds over mount Jali, our last hill of the day. As we head back down towards the safety of the tarmac road, I catch sight of a few dozen people praying on their knees around the cross of Our Lady of Mount Jali. It’s Good Friday. A vision that remains engraved in my mind. The wind begins to wrestle the trees, gusts of sand start swirling around the summit, the long white cross stands out against a backdrop of dark black clouds. In the background, the thousands of roofs of Kigali look closely set like the facets of a diamond between the outline of the hills. The faithful remain kneeling deep in prayer.
We finally reach the city where we stagger between honking trunks and the first drops of water. Having arrived at Flavio’s garage, his huge dog Rody greets us with leaps and barks of joy. We look back at our day while hosing down the motorbikes.
The hills of Rwanda offer endless possibilities. Whether it’s by foot, bicycle or moto, for the fun or for the challenge, there is always something in it for everyone. Authentic experience or not, who cares? I simply relish the view of these emerald hills. Their contemplation brings a feeling of serenity: the laterite trails, the cries of the children, the dignified greetings of the elderly, the houses of clay and sheet metal, the grazing cattle and the eucalyptus slopes. Of course poverty is ubiquitous. People live in these hills. You don’t go out there as if it was a natural reserve. But a true harmony lingers among those hills that no poverty can suppress. It’s not by staying in the cafés of Kigali or by limiting ourselves to the three national parks that we can feel its uplifting effects. So mount up and let’s go for a ride !
Thank you to R.F. for helping with the translation.
Pictures are my own.