Eavesdropping

Dated: 24 Mar 18

I curse the women back in Mbeya who said “no don’t take this route”. The one which was more direct seemed on the map to be substantial. “Take this one, tar the entire way and Kavati National Park is fantastic.” But, despite looping south in the wrong direction and the three or four day stretch of hundreds of kilometres of mud roads, I can’t begrudge her too harshly, for as I parallel the Burundi border with northern Tanzania the views are jaw dropping; rich green rolling hills, growing into distant mountains, wisps of translucent white clouds sink lazily into the base of the valleys. It would be easy for me to miss, eyes down dodging ruts, as my world is focused to just metres ahead of me.

Flies are a plague here. I wear light clothing as dark colours mimic the hides of the buffalo, drawing them in. At the repeated break downs I had on the rough mud “roads” I would get swarmed. It’s the Tsetse flies you need to watch out for, carriers of Trypanosomiasis – locally known as sleeping sickness. Not that there is anything you can do to avoid them; though I would be exceptionally unlucky to play host to the protozoan parasite. An on looker to my maintenance might think I am going crazy – sporadically, I snap at the incessant berating of these little air borne pests. With no warning I might stagger backwards flailing my arms yelling obscenities. They are taken back for mere seconds before swooping in once more.

On account of the mud tracks and driving rain I have taken to mainly staying in local guest houses, for less than a fiver I can secure a room and cover my two dinners. Camping in the pissing rain and not being able to properly shed the thick layer of rich mud from my skin isn’t appealing when things are so cheap. My diet has taken a turn for the worse and can be summed up in one word: beige. Tanzanian tortillas, mandazi and chips seem to do the job as fuel, but I don’t feel fresh or healthy.

Delightfully, I have taken to Elevenses. A passer-by in a small village might not notice the local cafe which can be distinguished by a small stream of smoke from a make shift charcoal stove (an old car wheel), a thermos and a small lady bent over said “stove”. The local favour? Sweet tea and chapati. For less than the cost of a bottle of pop, I can chow down on five chapati and two cups of tea. I always ask for five, they laugh at how many I want, and anything from three to six can arrive. I take a good half hour, sat listening to the chatter and watching village life pass slowly by. Minibuses and lorries might slow to a stop, they are swarmed by women selling fruit and nuts, jostling to get to the front they reach up to the windows brandishing their produce.

I’m making my way towards Rwanda, an early start to make the final push to Rusomo Falls border crossing. I’m on a great stretch of smooth, hard mud. I don’t notice in the soft dawn light a slight slick grey tinge to the surface like that of my feet when they’ve been wet all day. Out from under me flies my bike. It wouldn’t be so bad if I wasn’t at a good 30 miles per hour; I go down with a hard thud. I clamber to my feet, clutching my hip I stride with an excessively wide gate in tight circles groaning as two cyclists idle by without so much as a look to see if I am ok. Dirt bloody roads.

Following the slip and slide I now have a raw graze extending from hip down much of my thigh. Forever getting wet, it is struggling to heal. It sticks to my shorts, slightly tacky and oozing tendrils like treacle. I now have the fear, who knows where the next fall might come so my speed is strangled. Not only do I struggle to keep a true course but so too do the speeding vehicles. Lorries lurch unexpectedly from side to side jiving down slopes. I am relieved to leave these perilous conditions as I return to the tar roads as I near Rwanda.

As I approach my next country, mountains rise up and I follow steep valleys north. Trucks rumble down the slopes, difficult to distinguish from the thunder that reverberates down the claustrophobic valleys. The mountain sides rise up starkly, scoured of trees they are scarred by tracks of the cattle making steep stepped slopes. Deforestation.

I cross the border and swap to the wrong side of the road, bloody French influence. What a change though: good roads, infrastructure, there are even bins. I climb the steep valley sides towards the towns which sit high on the crest of the mountains overlooking the vast rice paddies which fill the valley floors. At points, the air is rich with the smell of pine from plantations, I am brought back to family trips in the car where we stopped in a fleet services or cycle rides in a pine forest whilst on a summer caravan holiday in Centre Parks, Longleat; it’s amazing what ancient dusty memories smells and music can conjure.

They have actual towns with discernible buildings – some even have a second floor. The brightly coloured shop fronts are akin to a seaside town, buckets and spades are mounted on the street (albeit adult size), music blares out of shop fronts and people stream endlessly to and fro. Perhaps Newquay or Blackpool. I’m sure there are probably bright lights at night and a fair few people staggering after having one too many.

I have a day of rest and organisation in the capital Kigali. I stay at the Discover Rwanda Hostel, the profits of which I later find out go to the Genocide Memorial Centre – so I can forgive them for the high price of a dorm room. The first evening, after making myself look pretty, I potter into the bar area. A man is chatting to a few people around a table, short, with dark eyes to match the line of dark stubble. I have a sense of distain for this man. The topic of conversation – shooting, you can shoot up to twenty in a single day apparently.

I notice a patch forming on my shorts where my graze has breached the dressing. In the confines of the bathroom beneath a single dim, flickering, bulb, I conduct some first aid. Like Jason Bourne I peal back my clothes to reveal the wound in the mirror. A set of knuckles rap on the door, “just a minute” I yelp as I hurriedly douse the flesh wound in iodine, grunting (manly) and muttering an obscenity as, unlike Bourne, I wince in pain. From the other side of the door it must have sounded like I was (how to put this politely?)…..having an uncomfortable movement in there and I was not surprised that the room was deserted when I meekly emerged. I retreat to bed.

What a difference a day makes. David is a family man, short and well proportioned, he has soft features with kind eyes. Shooting was in fact with the camera lens – he works for the Aegis Trust and was talking with August, an American photographer, who is working on a feature of portraits and stories of the survivors of the genocide. Nothing like eavesdropping and getting the wrong end of the stick.

Rwanda is a country of hills, mountains, vast forests, lakes, more mountains, bustling with people, dancing and laughing. And tea. As I leave Kigali after a memorable visit to the Genocide Memorial Museum and a good bit of socialising I head north towards Uganda. The morning sees a peloton form behind me, chatting and laughing away in a language I can’t begin to comprehend. I cruise through the valleys. It is a pleasant morning. My final stretch and I crest a mountain to descend through a valley which must be known as Tea Valley. The bitter plant is arranged in neat rows along the lush flood plain and in vast steps up the steep sloping sides.

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