Motos, bicycles, and people, oh my! Outside of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, there aren’t a lot of cars, so everyone walks or bikes, or takes a bike taxi. The biggest driving challenge wasn’t the curvy roads, dirt roads, or the occasional police stops; it was all the people and bicycles on both sides of the road, almost everywhere. Bikes are not only a mode of personal transport but a way of transporting goods including giant laden sacks of produce (sometimes 3-5 of them), piles of lumber, mud bricks, water jugs, corn stalks, giant clusters of bananas, you name it. And people walking carry all of these things on their heads, as well as delicately balanced bowls of produce, and babies tied to their backs. Schoolchildren line the roads during school transit times, all dressed in matching uniforms for their school.
The police were pervasive, always stationed in pairs of officers on foot, one on each side of the road. This was true even in remote areas on curvy mountain roads. The speed limits are low everywhere, which is good considering the number of people on the roads. Most times the roads were so windy that we couldn’t go the speed limit even if we’d wanted to. There is a system of flashing headlights and hand signals that we finally figured out was a warning of police ahead. Though we were waved over twice, they asked for a driver’s license and then we were on our way. As Frank, the manager of Kigali Car Rentals told us, the police are not corrupt. A refreshing change from other countries we have driven through.
Given we had eight people, we had two cars which gave me confidence that we could caravan and have a second vehicle should any problems arise. The two-way radios I brought were convenient for keeping in touch across vehicles. We didn’t pick up the cars until ready to leave Kigali – the traffic and huge volume of motorcycles there would make it a big trickier to navigate. Luckily a few in our group were more than willing drivers, so that made for an easy decision about whether or not to employ drivers. Given the amount of time on the road, four people per car was going to be a lot more comfortable than five. I had read we couldn’t rely completely on Google Maps, but luckily MAPS.ME filled the navigation gaps we were missing from Google. Most of the country speaks some English, so language wasn’t too much of a problem except in a few areas that were primarily French as the second language after Kinyarwanda (my French is fairly sparse). We survived with only one mishap – a broken power steering belt – which fortunately we were able to get fixed at the next service station. Turned out to only set us back about 90 minutes and less than $20. That would have taken days at home!
Aside from people watching, the best part about driving from place to place was getting to see the beautiful green and lush countryside, terraced hillsides covered with banana trees or tea, and valleys covered with rice, corn, or potatoes. That, and the smiling and waving children who looked at us with curiosity.