The Congo Nile Trail (Bikepacker’s Edition)

  • Distance

    160 Mi.

    (257 KM)
  • Days

    5

  • % Unpaved

    75%

  • % Singletrack

    12%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    6

  • % Rideable (time)

    98%

  • Total Ascent

    19,100'

    (5,822 M)
  • High Point

    8,200'

    (2,499 M)
Perhaps the best bikepacking route in East Africa, Rwanda's Congo Nile Trail traverses a scenic stitchwork of dirt roads, lakeside singletrack, and a rerouted pass through the forested Nyungwe National Park. This a bucket list ride for any bikepacker, and a great introduction to Africa for those yet to pedal in the motherland.
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Imagine a stretch of primitive dirt roads and single trails winding through verdant jungle and farmland, exuberant children cheering and chasing as if you were riding for Team Rwanda. There are banana trees, coffee plantations, small fishing communities, and colorfully dressed women carrying impossibly large bundles of firewood, bananas, and avocados to market. To your right, peninsulas of terraced hillsides create the amorphous coastline of Lake Kivu and countless islets dot its sparking waters. The track pulls away from the lake and ascends into the crisp air that surrounds the enchanting emerald tea plantations, where pickers shear an endless wave of black tea. The route continues to ascend along the divide that separates the Nile and Congo rivers, hence the name. Rugged dirt roads turn in to a faint path that enters the thick Nyungwe rainforest in which the call of chimpanzees can be heard; there’s a good chance that you’ll encounter orchid, tropical birds, butterflies, chameleon, and at least one of 13 species of primates.

  • Congo Nile Trail, bikepacking, Rwanda, Bike Touring
  • Congo Nile Trail, bikepacking, Rwanda, Bike Touring
  • Congo Nile Trail, bikepacking, Rwanda, Bike Touring
  • Congo Nile Trail, bikepacking, Rwanda, Bike Touring
  • Congo Nile Trail, bikepacking, Rwanda, Bike Touring

This vignette pretty much sums up the Congo Nile Trail — a far cry from Rwanda’s tarnished reputation, one that’s been long overshadowed by the 1994 genocide. The reality is that today, the country is among the most politically stable, safe, and beautiful destinations in Africa. This is a result of a massive reboot and the unusually well-managed appropriation of international funds, which includes a required national monthly cleanup day. The government has made a significant effort to position Rwanda as a mainstream destination, and the tourism industry has benefited. There’s no doubt that they made a good decision when they founded the Congo Nile Trail in 2011. Unfortunately in 2014 (well, fortunately for the Rwandans who live in these parts), the latter half of the original Congo Nile Trail became a paved thoroughfare to connect Kabuye and Kamambe. This won’t effect folks who plan to simply stop at Kabuye and take a ferry back to the start, and it will no doubt be welcome by cycle tourists who like tarmac. Being dirt seekers, we wanted to continue the full length of Lake Kivu to the port of Kamambe, where it’s possible to either ferry back to Gisenyi, or take a bus to the capital of Kigale.

There have been talks about reworking this portion to appease hikers and mountain bikers, but nothing is yet published. That’s where the ‘Bikepacker’s Edition’ comes in. We took it upon ourselves to find an alternate reroute to connect Kabuye to Kamambe at the southern end of the lake, via mostly dirt road and trail. This is the portion that traverses tea plantations and the Nyungwe National Park. Read details in the trail notes below for options and a detailed itinerary.

  • Highlights

    camera

  • Must Know

    alert

  • Camping

    home

  • Food/H2O

    drop

  • Trail Notes

    signpost

  • Pedaling an incredibly scenic stretch of trails, primitive dirt roads, and paths along Lake Kivu.
  • Interacting with curious and friendly locals along the way.
  • Being immersed in a culture of subsistence farming and fishing, and the sights that go along with it.
  • An epic climb through the verdant green tea plantations near Gisovu.
  • Spotting primates and other wildlife amongst the thick forests of Nyungwe National Park.

One thing to note about this route, and other routes in developing countries, is that things often change. As of March 2016, the bulk of this route is made up of incredible, and very rugged, dirt roads and paths, but that could change. It’s hard to gauge when and where will be paved next. So if you plan on making this trek, make sure to do a little extra research to check the status of the trail. Also, please update us on any related recon.

Weather and When to Go

  • Rwanda experiences two dry seasons, the long dry season from May to September, and a shorter ‘less-dry’ season from December to February. We recommend going in the shorter dry season, as long as you don’t mind getting wet on occasion. Generally the land is greener, temperatures are more mild, and roads are less dusty. That said, if you choose the longer dry season, it might be worth considering May or early June while the scenery is still lush from the rains.
  • Bring rain gear; more than likely, you’ll need it at one time or another.
  • Temperatures are generally warm and pleasantly cool at night. In the highlands and the forest temps can get fairly chilly at night. Bring a couple of extra layers.

Logistics

  • Flying: There are multiple flights weekly to Kigali from Qatar on Qatar Airways (which doesn’t charge for bikes).
  • Riding to Gisenyi: The roads from Kigali to Musanze, then Gisenyi aren’t too bad. Drivers in Rwanda are much more courteous than those in neighboring countries. We didn’t have time, but there is also an off-tarmac option from Musanze, through the volcanic highlands. Ultimately, it might be nice to make that part of this route.
  • Bus from Kigali to Gisenyi: There are multiple bus types and lines. The easiest are the mid-sized ‘short’ busses. However, bikes require seats; if they are unboxed, expect to buy 2 seats per bike. If they are in boxes, you should be able to fit two in two seats. Tickets are around $5/seat from Kigali to Gisenyi (3.5 hours). Busses leave from the Nyabugogo bus station.
  • Bus from route end (Kamambe) to Kigale: The same seat rules apply, but prices are a little higher at $7-10 per seat.
  • Ferry on Lake Kivu: One of the perks of this route is that if you time it correctly, you can make it a loop by taking the ferry from Kamambe back to Gisenyi, where the route starts. The boat costs about $5 and takes 9 hours. At the time of this writing, ferries departed from Cyangugu (Kamambe) on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Dangers and Annoyances

  • Some folks might complain about the children on this route. They do see tourists on occasion and some will ask for money. Our general stance is to ignore these requests, or even wag a finger. Begging ultimately harms tourism and should not be promoted. If you wish to donate money or clothing, do so to an organization which promotes education or something with positive results.
  • The general rule of thumb in off the beaten path East Africa is that if you stop and stand still, a crowd of curious onlookers will gather. If this bothers you, this route isn’t for you.
  • There have been reports of occasional, and very petty, theft on this route (water bottles mostly). Virginia actually dropped a strap and turned around to find it gone before her eyes. This isn’t a serious problem, but worth noting.
  • There are a multitude of Base Camps built in to the route. Some are primitive camping, and others are lodges. Before setting out, if you aren’t planning the suggested itinerary (in Trail Notes), ask Rwandan Adventures to find out which are open.
  • There aren’t many options for backcountry camping, save a few level spots in the Nyungwe National Park.
  • Water can generally be found in the form of springs or boreholes. Bring a filter; there are plenty of parasites and bacteria lurking in this H20. We used a combination of a Sawyer Squeeze filter and a Steripen Freedom.
  • Most lodges on route offer a complimentary breakfast that consists of bread, an omelette ,coffee or tea, and local fruit such as bananas, passion fruit, and pineapple.
  • The main sources of resupply are at the route start in Gisenyi, very minimal snacks in Kinunu, Kabuye, Gisovu, and the town at mile 129.
  • Additional snacks, fruit, and bare necessities can be found in small villages throughout the route.
  • The longest stretch without food is the forested track between Gisovu and the highway at mile 129.

Suggested Itinerary

All rider’s are different. This itenerary is designed for cyclists who are in decent phyisical shape with some experience bikepacking. That said, it’s easy to use available lodging and make this a longer 7 day trip. See GPS for available points.

Day 1: Rubavu (Gisenyi) to Kinunu (26 miles/42 km)

This is probably one of the most scenic and rewarding days of the trip. Follow along the shores of Lake Kivu, through fishing villages and over pristine dirt roads and tracks. Arrive in Kinunu and descend to the shore of Lake Kivu for a camp at Rashel Kivu, or the adjacent Base Camp.
Camping at Rachel Kivu Lodge ($20 with Breakfast)

Day 2: Kinunu to Kabuye (40 miles/64 km)

This is possibly the toughest and most challenging day. There are options to break it in two days. To do this, stay at the base camp in Musasa (noted on GPS) or Bumba (not on on the GPS as we didn’t go offroute to the location, but look for it around or after mile 40; ask locals and look for signage).
Lodging in Kabuye at Hotel Bethany ($25 and up rooms)

Day 3: Kabuye to Nyungwe (28 miles/~45 km)

Expect a long climb on day 3. The dirt road from Kabuye climbs over 3,200′ (almost 1,000 meters into the beautiful tea highlands, then into the Nyungwe forest.
Camp at National Park outpost or in the backcountry (free); other options include the guesthouse at Gisovu Tea factory (this may require advance booking).

Day 4: Nyungwe to Ishara Beach (40 miles/64 km)

Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this section of the route. During our forest traverse we had to negotiate about a dozen tree falls. Also, the weather can change at any time; it is a rainforest. Expect a muddy slog should a storm arise. Should you desire a less ‘adventurous’ option, there is an alternate route to avoid the very primative forest track traverse. To do this, at mile 93 follow the newer gravel road that spins off to the west; this will lead down to the paved road (the old Congo Nile Trail). To see it on a map, use the Open Cycle base map. Do note that this alternate will require a bit of extra tarmac, and you’d miss the chance to spot wildlife.
Camp at Ishara Base Camp or a stay at adjacent lodge.

Day 5: Ishara to Kamembe (45km)

This is the easiest day of the route, and relatively the most boring. It’s 100% tarmac all the way to the route end at Kamambe/Cyangugu. But it’s still beautiful, nonetheless.
Lodging options abound in Kamembe and Cyangugu, including the recommended Hotel De Chutes.

Parting Thoughts

Would we recommend the Congo Nile Trail as a destination bikepacking route? Folks from North America might consider it difficult to justify the travel time and expenses, only to spend 5 days cycling the route. However, combine this bikepacking trip with some of Rwanda’s other attractions and it becomes the trip of a lifetime. Rwanda is home to three national parks (complete with giraffe, elephant, and other big game), over 700 bird species, 13 primate species, and is one of three countries where you can see the last remaining mountain gorillas on earth, albeit an extremely expensive endeavor. Almost 22 years since the horrific genocide which killed over 20% of the population, Rwanda now has a bright future and is generally recognized as one of the most beautiful and safe places to travel in Africa.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Mark Troup

    I absolutely love following these African trips. What an amazing experience you’re having! Ride on!

  • Thanks for the moral support Mark!

  • Mark Troup

    How great is that kid’s bike? Is it a kick bike or is there a treadle up front that spins the front wheel?

  • It’s a downhill coaster kick bike. There are also bigger ones made by farmers for hauling grass and bananas.

  • mikeetheviking

    One of the best posts ever, Excellent photography! Loving the pic of the young man hanging onto the grip and the photo of Gin bushwhacking.

  • Thanks man!

  • inseguitore

    What preventive medical measures have you had to take with traveling in Central Africa? Malaria comes to mind, what about vaccines?

  • HoppyPaynts
  • ali

    There are some awesome hot springs, if you go straight down the road from Ntendezi along the lower road to Bugarama, then back up to Cyangugu

  • Thanks. Yeah, I heard about those…

  • CR

    Great post and excellent bikepacking suggestion. I’m in southern Uganda
    at the moment (riding around east africa) and considering crossing the
    westermost border to Ruanda to get to Gisenyi to do this trail. Do you
    think it can be done in a fully loaded bike? Where is the start of the
    trail exactly?

  • Ari

    Great post and pics, and full of useful information – thanks for sharing!

    Can I ask how many of you there were on this trip? My boyfriend and I are thinking of doing this route in January. It’ll just be the two of us, and while we’ve done plenty of cycling we haven’t done any in Africa before. Would you have felt safe as a pair?

  • Absolutely. This was just my wife and I. We felt safe the entire time.

  • I apologize for the delay. I just saw this. Were you able to find it?

  • Christian

    Did you use BOTH the Sawyer filter and the UV filter for treatment of the same water? Is the filter recommended over UV treatment in this region?

    I’m hoping to ride the route early next year. Looks fantastic!

  • Christian

    The road looks a bit rough here and there. Would fatbike tires (4.0) be overkill for this route?

  • Yes, we used both… the filter first, then the UV.

  • Hmm, I would probably consider it overkill, but a fat-bike would be fine…

  • Christian

    Many thanks. A Pugsly is what I have (with a Rohloff rear), but I could go with 26+ as I have done before on bikepacking trips (and the 26+ options just grew with the WTB Rangers). Works fine. But I also hanker after trying full fat ….

  • You’d be thankful for the fat tires in the Nyungwe National Park section; the rest are fairly rugged dirt roads more suited for a standard MTB tire or plus tire…

  • Updates from November 2016

    We just completed the trail from South to North, starting in Gisakura (junction of the Congo-Nile road and the Nyungwe Forest road NR6). Thanks for the great description, we used it along with the GPX track.. good stuff. Here are some updates from our trip:

    Ishara basecamp – Gisovu day:
    We opted for the mellow version of the bikepacking edition, following the Kilimbi river (trail to Gatare). The trail is exceptional and the scenery is spectacular. Coming from the south, it’s a constant uphill. This was perharps the most beautiful day despite heavy (and cold) rain for the last 12 km. As of November ’16, the National Park Lodge was not open yet and they did not let us camp. We would not have stealth camped because of the baboons.

    Gisovu – Kibuye day:
    Nothing to add except the downhill is brutal! We wish we had brought more spare brake pads!!

    Kibuye – Kinunu day:
    Also challenging coming from the South. A long portion of the trail from Karongi to about 10 km higher North is in the process of getting paved. We saw lots of fat Chinese guys and big Chinese trucks.

    Kinunu – Gisenyi day:
    Nice and fun, the trail is more forgiving than previous days.

    The reason we did the trail ‘in reverse’ is that we are now headed to Uganda. We’ll ride part of your Trans Uganda trail before going to Kenya, Tanzania,… to South Africa.

  • tirador

    Since I will be staying in Rwanda for a while, and I have to decide which bike to bring with me: do you think this one to be doable with a gravel type bike (eg Specialized Diverge, Specialized Sequoia of Trek 920)? Same question for the route Rwanda to Kampala (part of the Uganda trip you wrote about)
    Thanks!

  • Nice! Great to hear insight about doing it in reverse… Cheers!

  • Hmm. Well, most of it would be fine on 40mm or larger tires, but there are sections (especially the national forest stretch) where big tires were great. I’d recommend 2.1″ or bigger for both routes, but anything is possible if you can appreciate underbiking.

  • tirador

    Thanks. I guess I’ll go for the Sequioa. I’m completely new at bikepakking as such, right now I’m more a commuter with also day trips in Belgium and the Alps, but I really want to get into it. Since I am not sure where I will end up after my year in Rwanda, I think this one fits my needs best on the long run.

  • Sounds like a plan. Others to consider that fit bigger tires (should the need arise): Salsa Fargo, Kona Sutra LTD, Bombtrack Beyond.

  • Joachim

    Hi, great post, it’s very inspiring and helpful, thanks! I’m going to Rwanda for a month bikepacking. You think it’s possible to travel through Rwanda without a tent with a budget for accommodation of 30$ max / night? I want to go as light as possible…

  • Hmm, tough call. You probably could, but you might get stuck without a place to sleep the further you go into the countryside… Probably doable though

  • John

    I’m considering this trip for later in the year. How do you think one would go on a tubeless 26″ tyre like the WTB Ranger 2.8? I would be riding my 2014 Surly Troll. Thanks!

  • Sounds like the perfect bike, really!!

  • Marc Conti

    We rode the transcanada trail in southern Bc this summer and had a blast !! We are hesitating between into Rwanda or Kirghystan for next year… Do you think this would be doable pulling a 3y.o. in a trailer ?

  • Amazing one. Sing up a gorilla Trip to Uganda, Rwanda and Congo with Katona Tours and Travel

  • Hmm. I would have to hesitate on providing recommendations for this. Since I just don’t have experience, I simply don’t know. Plus there are many downed trees along the latter section through the national forest…

  • Bertrand October 2017