By the beginning of January the rainy season and therefore our time on Shyira hill was drawing to an end. It was sad to be saying goodbye to all the people who had been such an important part of our lives over the last few months but with all endings come new beginnings and we were excited by the prospect of what lay ahead for us.
As we bombed down Shyira hill to the valley below for the last time heading Northwards towards Uganda our team of two had doubled. One of our new recruits is Miriam, a friend from Shyira who, despite lacking a tent, sleeping bag, camping mat, oh, and also a bike, decided she would join us for a while. The second recruit is Pol's sister Beth. Beth's addition to the team has been long anticipated and we are so happy to have her with us. It was especially good to have a few days to show her around Shyira and take her on a few of our favourite bike rides there.
The new recruits: Beth and Miri
The Virunga mountains, the six volcanoes which had formed the dramatic backdrop and the outer limits to our time in Shyira, at times proudly defined, at others invisible, obscured by a shroud of mist, now became the gateway to our journey North. The four of us pedalled forth trying, with relatively little success, to spare our tyres by dodging the chunks of lava embedded in the bumpy road.
After ginger chai (tea) and chunks of pineapple on the road north of Ruhengeri we pedalled on a little further before peeling off the tar eastwards. The gravel track traversed an empty market square and we took a footpath out the bottom corner which led us between maize plantations interspersed with banana palms and Rwandan homes. Bouncing and bumping down, a crowd of children grew around us. We were headed for the shore of Lake Bulera where we planned to pitch our camp. Waving, shouting, laughing and mocking the children came, our self-appointed guides. At one point a young boy helped me get back on track when I zoomed on down a hill missing an unexpected right angle turn. At the time I was not impressed to have my momentum stolen as he caught hold of the back of my bike and clung on with all his might digging his heels in the ground.
The lake is beautiful, shimmering in the afternoon sun. We sat by the shore watching a handful of local fishermen. The children stood expectantly, watching us intently. About a mile away an island rises out of the lake like the top of a mountain pushing out of the clouds. An idea forms. On such a small island there can't be very many children living. We set about making negotiations and before long we had 4 bikes and a surprising number of bags loaded onto one of the bigger boats we could find, helmed by a stern, incredibly strong old woman.
We set off for the island at a good pace relieved by the boat's buoyancy even under the weight of the extra load. It was well built and very sturdy. We were also relieved to leave behind the many pairs of eyes which followed our boat all the way to the island in the distance.
The island inhabitants were delighted to have us. They watched in awe as we unpacked our many bags and as we started to pitch our tents an old man exclaimed in kinyarwandan; “How!!! You are building a house!!”. Just as the tents were set up everyone ran away and the most fantastic storm arrived. We sheltered in the tents wondering if we would be blown off the island. The wind was so strong the sides of the tents were pushed down against us. After an hour the storm moved on as quickly as it had arrived and we were left in peace to cook our supper and enjoy the stunning views.
The view from our camping spot on the island.
As we sat eating our food, elated by our incredible surroundings Miriam informed us she had never actually been camping before!!!!
The following morning we packed up promptly. Our old lady arrived in her boat and we left the island paradise behind.
The early start got us to the Rwanda – Uganda border at a good hour and we passed through without incident. The line of volcanoes marks the border and after a significant amount of climbing along an un-tarred road we set up camp at the foot of Sabinyo. 3,634 metres at it's ragged summit, Sabinyo marks the intersect of the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC (Congo).
“Beyond the horizon”; the volcanoes as seen from Uganda. These volcanoes are such a distinct landmark that they are known locally as “the compass”. The rainforest on their slopes is home to the mountain gorillas who hang out in the bamboo and lush vegetation.
Although still hilly, in southern Uganda the hills are a lot less tightly packed than in Rwanda. The country immediately seems wealthier with more substantial housing and the cows come in herds (with giant horns) as oppose to the individual cow owned by Rwandans.
From the volcanoes we skirted East to Lake Bunyonyi passing through some stunning primary rainforest. It was very similar to the rainforest in the national park in southern Rwanda and it was incredible to imagine how the land would have been throughout this area before it was optimised for cultivation.
Reaching the shores of the pristine Lake Bunyonyi was the first milestone after Rwanda since here we would again double in number when Ronel, Ben P, Vicci and Ben H joined us after their gruelling 9hr bus journey from Kampala, not to mention that incredible downhill from Kabale town to Lake Bunyonyi – that was in fact an Uphill!!
But they had not yet arrived and the four of us were content to watch the butterflies skit across the water, the otters bob idly and the kingfishers hover, poised for their assaults until they did.