Landslides are an occupational hazard
In rugged countries such as Rwanda that experience high rainfall, landslides are a fact of life, however well constructed the roads might be,.
I'm used to coming across the evidence of landslides, but I'm not used to missing one by a matter of minutes! This slide took place just east of Nyungwe National Park, and we were able to time it precisely because a truck that overtook us a few kilometres earlier managed to get through before the landslide took place, whereas by the time we got to this point, the road was blocked.
It's something of a sobering experience to think that you've missed the uncontrolled descent of thousands of tonnes of rock by only a couple of minutes - you start to think through all sorts of 'if only ...' scenarios and realise that however careful you are, it's possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Because landslides are such a common occurrence in Rwanda, people are unfazed when they happen, and drivers simply jump out of their vehicles to clear the fallen debris (not always the safest of activities). From a traveller's point of view, the most profound impact is because there isn't usually a practical alternative route, you have to stay put until the blockage has been cleared - yet one more good reason not to plan too tight a schedule.
Whose side are you on?
Or, more precisely, which side of the road are you driving on? There are cynics who would claim that this is a moot point, as Africans drive in the middle of the road anyway (either because the road isn't good enough to have a choice, or because it's easier to mosey down the middle of the road) ... but I digress ...
The issue is that whilst Rwanda - having been a Belgian colony and thus following Francophone traditions ... nominally drives on the right, Uganda was part of the hige pink expanse of the pre-independence British Empire, and thus, still follows the British convention and drives on the left.
The upshot is that if you're driving across this border, on one side or the other, you'll find yourself driving on 'the wrong side of the road'. This can be disconcerting - especially if you're not used to it - and the simplest piece of advice that I can give to continually orient yourself is that the driver must remain on the side that is closest to the middle of the road.
If I might offer some unsolicited advice, if budget allows, I would strongly recommend hiring a driver wih your vehicle, even though I'm someone who usually self drives in most other parts of the world. A driver will be familiar with local road conditions and driving habits, will be best equippped to talk you through roadblocks and will free you up to enjoy the journey. Often it's not all that much more expensive than self drive when insurance is taken into account, and it's certainly worth it for peace of mind, especially if your driver also doubles as a guide.
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Rwandair: a surprisingly good airline
Africa isn't a continent whose internal airlines might instinctively inspire you with confidence, but I am happy to report that - unlikely though it sounds - Rwandair is the exception that proves the rule.
Rwandair's fleet is surprisingly new and the airline's hub in Kigali is a modern and pleasantly comfortable 'no surprises' airport that is a very welcome counterpart to the shambolic and dilapidated airports that are par for the course in East and Central Africa.
I should add that we had a bad experience with Rwandair which they redeemed in a positive fashion. On 1 April 2013, we - and half a dozen of our soon-to-be colleagues in adversity - pitched up for a morning flight to Johannesburg that had ceased to feature on their flight schedule the previous November. Why this flight should suddenly have appeared as an option having been discontinued half a year before remains a mystery, but given that this happened on April Fool's Day suggests to me that it was either a hacker attack, or the work of a disgruntled (ex?) employee ...
Under the circumstances, the airline handled the dispute better than the vast majority of carriers would have. Day rooms were immediately arranged in Kigali, as well as welcome upgrades to Business Class on our return flights - most welcome for those of us who ended up falling off a flight and straight into the office as a result. As we'd already seen what we wanted to in Kigali, we decided that we didn't want to take a day room, and - after some robust negotiation - they also agreed to foot the bill for our day trip to Akagera. Full marks!
The inevitable conflict between bikes and vehicles
Bikes are popular forms of transport in the Great Lakes region, and it beggars belief how much people manage to transport on a single set of wheels (based on an unscientific survey, Burundians seem to be the leading regional exponents of this particular form of performance art).
However, there's an inevitable conflict between the bikebound brigade, and the increasing number of large vehicles on Rwanda's roads, and I admit that I winced as I watched this articulated fuel truck cut straight across this bike to turn the corner!
The road along Lake Kivu is a scenic shocker!
When you first start to plan at trip to Rwanda and pull out the map, your eye will inevitably be drawn to Lake Kivu, which forms almost the entire length of the country's western border. A little more research will indicate that it is spectacularly beautiful and has a violent tendency towards toxic methane flatulence - and, even better, there's a road that follows the shoreline which is the most direct route between the stupendous Nyungwe National Park and gorilla territory in the north ...
From a traveller's point of view, that pretty well ticks all my boxes, so unsurprisingly, this was one of the first sections of our trip that was cast in concrete. However, with all these overwhelming pluses, there had to be a snag ... this is quite simply one of the worst main roads that I have ever travelled in over a quarter of a century of travelling in Africa.
As of March 2013, all but the first few kilometres of the southernmost section of the road close to Kagarama was abysmal, and it continued that way until the outskirts of Kibuye. From there we cut eastwards, so I don't know what the northern section of the road is like, but I'm not hopeful.
Entire sections of the road are little more than a muddy quagmire, which must be even worse after heavy rain. Even under dry conditions, the wheel ruts would harden into sumpbusting ridges, and most sensible drivers wouldn't attempt the road in anything other than a four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle. However, the local buses and minibus taxis do ply their trade along this route, so be warned that if you're intended to travel this road by public transport, you'll be shaken, not stirred, and by the end, you'll be eagerly anticipating a date with your chiropractor!
However, there's always a bright side. The lake is even more beautiful than the photos would suggest, and because - unlike the relatively even coastline of say Lake Tanganyika - it has a highly indented shoreline, the scenery is variable but always exquisite. Because of topographic constraints, the road doesn't hug the water, but is located a couple of hundred metres up the slope for almost the entire section that we travelled, which means that it commands extraordinarily beautiful views.
If you're planning to drive this road, don't bargain on being able to average a speed of more than 20km/h. Even if you are on a tight schedule, I would strongly suggest that you allow yourself a day from this drive, which will allow you to stop and enjoy the beautiful scenery (as well as taking a break from the unrelenting jolts). We drove from Nyungwe to the lake - which is a relatively quick drive on a fairly good road - and wished that we'd overnighted in Kibuye so that we could have spent more time on this glorious - if trying - route.
Excellent road infrastructure under construction
(work in progress)
In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda has been the recipient of a huge amount of development aid, particularly from the US, which has been keen to develop a stable listening post close to the unpredictable and volatile DRC, the potential powerhouse economy of the region. Much of this aid has sensibly been pumped into upgrading the road infrastructure to improve internal communications and makes Rwanda a much more accessible destination for travellers than it previously would have been.
The good news is that most of the arterial routes that radiate out from Kigali like the spokes of a wheel are all but well complete, and are now well designed and constructed tar roads. Much of the construction seems to have been undertaken by Chinese companies, and you'll come across vehicles and notices with Chinese lettering and work crews under the supervision of Chinese engineers across most of the country.
The bad news is that the roads that haven't yet been attended to (or are only partially completed) - notably the road that tracks the eastern shore of Lake Kivu - can be absolute shockers.
A a result, the fastest way between two destinations is very often not the shortest distance, and counerintuitively, you might find that it's quicker and easier on both your suspension and your body to drive back into Kigali and out again.
One last note about planning your road trip. Even if the road is in good condition, the Rwandan terrain is still challenging, and even major roads tend to be winding with steep gradients. As a result, I'd only plan on being able to cover 60km/h on a major road, and considerably less on a minor road ... as for the Kivu road, lower your expectations to 20km/h (especially following heavy rain), after which you'll be shaken, not stirring and thinking longingly of a date with your chiropractor!
If you're looking for a good map, I can't recommend the International Travel map of Rwanda (including neighbouring Burundi) highly enough.
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THE ROAD TRIP TO BURUNDI AND BUTARE
Ok. So you want to go from Kigali to Butare in the south or even cross the border and go to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. There used to be 2 bus lines called variations of Yahoo! Car Express. Now there is just the one called New Yahoo! Car Express. Sometime shortened or called another variation depending of the signs in some of their locations.
This is the cheapest way to get between Kigali and Bujumbura. You have to fly otherwise. It cost 6000 RWF ($10.50 or 7.30 Euros) from Kigali to Bujumbura and takes between 5 and 7 hours depending on the driver. The 7 hours was the safe driver. The 5 hours was the crazy driver who killed a pig, raced the other Yahoo bus around blind bends, almost collided with the other bus and a lorry and made 2 passengers sick. Take some whiskey with you. It may be necessary.
They are located in the Centre Ville of Kigali across from the Union Trade Shopping Centre (where Nakumatt supermarket is). They have a bus leaving at 6am every day then apparently every 2 hours after that. Be there at least 15 minutes early as there is some possibility over over-booking some departure times. I recommend the 6am departure from Kigali as you still have daylight time in Butare and/or Bujumbura. Also buy your ticket the day before. French is the optimal language for the ticket people, but you can get by with some English.
Security at the stops (2 in Rwanda, once at the border) is generally good, but someone did try and grab a small bag of mine through an open window when I got out. It had a locking cable attached to the seat, so they had no chance.
On board is a bit cramped and you change busses sometimes while still in Kigali. The environment was fun and friendly though. Good music, laughing fellow passengers and the staff took care of the large bags. It is a great way to experience local life, see the countryside and sometimes have long conversations with Rwandans about their country.Related to:
- Budget Travel
- Road Trip
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Buses and moto-taxis
The main roads connecting the main cities in Rwanda are made by foreign companies and they are good and easy. Buses are reliable and not very pricy. The most reliable bus companies, as I was told, are Velvedere and Capital, and Impala.
On country roads you travel at your own risk...
The moto-taxis are a swift and cheap way to move around the cities. They are all registered and they all wear their uniforms. They carry a second helmet for the client. Their price is always negotiable and much cheaper than a taxi.
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RwandAir is one of the youngest and most modern airlines on the African continent. Operating with the latest Boeing 737-800 NG planes and the only ones in Africa with the Sky Line Interior the airline operates flights to and from Kigali to Johannesburg, Brazzaville, Lagos, Mombasa, Nairobi, Bujumbura, Dubai and a number of other destinations.
Safe and modern operation with spot on service!Related to:
- Jungle and Rain Forest
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
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pass the jam on a moto-taxi
the roads are quite good in Rwanda and if you do not want to take a cab or walk in Kigali (they call Rwanda the land of thousand hills for a reason - and a number of these hills are quite steep), you can take a moto-taxi, riding on the back of a motorcycle. Has the advantage that during rush hour you can actually move... Passengers are also equipped with a hard hat for more safetyRelated to:
- Budget Travel
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Want a cheap, quick and even SAFE way to get around? Take a motorcycle taxi! No, really. Known as ‘Taxi Moto’ they are actually regulated across most of Rwanda. You will see these guys scooting around in their green jackets, helmets with ID numbers, AND an extra helmet for you! They belong to a Union known as ASSETAMORWA (Abayobozi b'Ishyirahamwe ry'abatwara moto mu Rwanda) and have 9,000 operators with 3,500 of them in Kigali. If they belong to the Union, it means that your driver is insured for accidents! You will find them in every big town and quite a few small ones. I found all of these guys to be safe, friendly and reliable. Only on ever tried to ask for a higher price and I said ‘No’ and the correct price was then quoted. The helmet they provide you is required by law – so do wear it. You will also find that the strap does usually work.
The Taxi Motos in Rwanda are the safest in Africa. And they are insured! They are also cheap and provide a fun experience. You also will find it hard to find a regulated/insured car taxi outside of Kigali. And many of the ones in Kigali are unregulated!
A few rules about Taxi Motos:
* Agree the price first. Most trips are 300 RWF anywhere
* If they look confused or don’t understand – wait. Get them to ask other Taxi Motos until someone understands you and your destination. Another Taxi may then take you.
* Wear that helmet!
* If you do think they are going too fast shout “bahoro, bahoro”. I never actually saw one going too fast in my travels with them in several cities.
* It is more polite to hold the back rail rather than the driver, but do what ever is safer. Just don’t hold the guy too tight.
* If you want to go for longer trips you can ask a price for a ‘tour’. They will also wait or come back for you if you want to stop somewhere like a restaurant. I was not asked for any extra money for them to come back in 1-2 hours.
* There is etiquette for flagging them down, but any polite hand gesture will do.Related to:
- Budget Travel
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VIRUNGA BUS TO GISENYI, RUHENGERI & GOMA (DRC)
Virunga Bus is the best way to get from Kigali going east all the way to Goma in the DRC. OK, well Gisenyi is its twin border town anyway. Why? Because for a few pennies more you do not have to stop in every village, wide spot in the road, the odd large tree or when some local waves down the bus. Many other bus companies operate a crazy affair where if they have a seat and some guy in a field waves- they stop and he’s on. They also stop EVERYWHERE. They also operate as a haulage firm so guess what? They stop at shops and businesses moving goods and packages.
Virunga calls itself an ‘Express’ service meaning it only stops in Ruhengeri in between Kigali and Gisenyi. They may let someone off on the roadside, but no new passengers and bags are allowed on. This keeps it relatively quick.
I also found their ticket people professional, their drivers safe and they leave ON TIME. I would suggest you buy your ticket the day before. They also do not overbook. They are simply the best bus service in Rwanda. They start their first departures from Kigali at 6am and Gisenyi at 5am. Their latest departures are at 5pm in Kigali and 6:30pm in Gisenyi. The Kigali buses run every hour, the Gisenyi buses every half an hour through most of the day. Just speak to the staff for more information.
The Virunga bus depot in Kigali is located slightly off-street and the ‘Bus Touts’ will try and ‘kidnap’ you in the mornings to go onto a different bus line! They are nice, but persistent. That is why it pays to buy your ticket the afternoon before.
There are other bus lines like ‘Volcano’ and variations of that name. I saw them stopping to pick up people and goods form remote areas constantly. They also wait until they are full. Virunga has a large sign with the departure times and they go on time.
Virunga has variations of their own name like ‘Virunga Ponctuel’ which is French for PUNCTUAL. Sadly they misspell this on their own tickets.
VIRUNGA. Accept no substitutes!
Fares are 2800 RWF ($4.90 OR 3.41 Euros) between Kigali and Gisenyi
LOCATION IN KIGALI
Rue du Lac Rwero. It is 1 block west of Simba Supermarket and 2 blocks from the Union Trade Centre in the Centre Ville.Related to:
- Budget Travel
- Road Trip
Motorcycling around Rwanda
My friend and I went to Rwanda for a week last December and discovered the best way to get around was on motorcycle! After paying for cabs we stopped at a cafe and our waiter recommended that we take motorcycle taxis instead. We're used to being in Kenya and Tanzania where it would be totally unsafe to do this but decided to give it a go to save money. What fun! We took them all over Kigali, all times of the day and night. It's an inexpensive and great way to see the city. They're all licensed by the government and wear a vest so you know they're the real deal. They'll give you a helmet and then off you go! They didn't tend to speak much English so if you know French or Kiswahili it will be helpful. If not, you can usually find someone to translate for you. Ask a local for acceptable rates because the drivers will bargain with you.
We also did the gorilla climb without hiring a safari company to take us. We took a bus, to a matatu and then hopped on motorcycle taxis (with our luggage!) and went to our guesthouse. The looks we received upon arrival from the tourists already there were classic!Related to:
- Budget Travel
Impala Express Bus to Nuyngwe rain forest
If you are using Impala Express to visit Nuyngwe Rain Forest note that you may be charged a whole seat for your luggage if it cannot fit at the tiny luggage department at the back of the bus. Tickets cost 4000 rwandan franks, a little less than ten US $. In that case you must pay 8000 franks to accomodate your luggage.
Book early so that your luggage can be next to you on the seat. Otherwise you will pay the ticket and your bag will be placed on the floor.Related to:
- Road Trip
- National/State Park
Casco-Worst Coach Between Rwanda and Uganda
If you wish to travel between Rwanda and Uganda by bus do not make the same mistake I did and use Gasco bus company. Their coaches are old, they are overcrowded, (even people standing up for a 9 hour trip), you are like a sardine and if you sit at the back you will end up with a wound on your bum from the pot holes and the crazy speed these buses are driven. I had to ask the driver to slow down and bring us safely to Campala. The guy thought he was driving a Formula one car on one of the worst and most dangerous roads that I have ever encountered in my life.
I used Jaguar for the trip between Uganda and Rwanda and it was just slightly better.
Warning! This is a difficult and long trip. It is good for the experience but it is very dangerous too. The part of the road between Kigali (Rwanda) and the border is full of turns and the road between the border and Campala (Uganda) is full of potholes.
Boulevard de la Revolution, Central Kigali, P.O. Box 7469, Kigali, Rwanda
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