A photographer's perspective.
At the end of January, Project Horizon athlete Lukas Rathgeber, ultra cyclist Raphael Albrecht and photographer Nils Laengner took part in the Journey around Rwanda. Last week Lukas already gave a review of the journey from the driver's perspective. Nils now shares his memories of the event from a photographer's point of view:
Up to the last minute I had expected that I would not fly. Does the race (or shall we call it the journey) take place? Will I get my (hopefully) negative corona test on time before departure? Where is my new credit card? Are we allowed to move freely when we arrive in Rwanda? I hope I don't get infected on the flight...
Even on site, many things were still unclear. But if I can't have an adventure as a cyclist, then at least as a photographer.
For me it was the fourth trip to Rwanda. Before that I always photographed the Tour du Rwanda. One of the most important UCI races on the African continent. During that time, I always imagined what it must be like to ride a bike there myself. So I brought my bike to the Race around Rwanda. I knew I couldn't ride there all the time, but I really wanted to get on my bike for some sections.
In the meantime I have already photographed a few so-called "unsupported long-distance bike packing races". I find the format super exciting because it brings with it a wide variety of emotions and landscapes. It's also a challenge for me as a photographer. I don't want to and can't miss anything, but I can't be there all the time either, because support from the drivers is not allowed (there is also emotional support). It gets easier if you have to document the entire event - then it doesn't matter if the first drivers slip through your fingers.
However, I should concentrate on two people in particular: Lukas Rathgeber and Raphael Albrecht. I knew both were strong and their goal was to test their limits. That means: little sleep for the athletes and me. What made me worse was the fact that we would miss a lot of the scenery as we would be spending a lot of time in the dark.
I planned the route as best I could and thought about what I wanted to tell. But then came the news that the race would not take place like this. Due to increasing Corona numbers (not in Rwanda, but worldwide), the Rwandan government tightened the measures to protect itself from Corona. This also included a curfew between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. and that no more sporting events were allowed to take place. So it was clear that holding a race in this format would not be possible.
But both the organizers and the government got creative: the race became a 1000-kilometer stage event. The route was divided into six stages and at the end of each day there was accommodation and food. This was certainly disappointing for some people, but very relieving for many. I counted among them. Especially from a logistical point of view, this development was much more relaxed.
Whether it was a race or a journey, it ended up being an adventure for everyone. The beautiful landscape, the never-ending mountains and the short or long encounters with different people made the trip unforgettable. Even before the event, it was discussed that more was gained than lost with the new format.
The first day started right at 4am. The start was in the capital Kigali. From there we went to the east of the country towards Akagera National Park. One by one the participants drove off. Almost last, I drove off with my driver (I won't mention her by name here, as I can't always speak positively of her in the following lines).
Since all participants were equipped with a GPS tracker, we could see exactly where each person was at any given time. That was very practical to be able to estimate whether it would be worth waiting at a location or whether it would be better to drive to the front. After a while on tarmac we met a group of riders pausing at a very nice cafe. There I decided to wait for Lukas to spend the rest of the day on the bike with him.
We quickly entered the national park. It got more and more technical there and taking pictures with one hand didn't make the single trail passage any easier. I let Lukas go with some Rwandan national drivers.
So I was able to choose another location and waited there for other drivers. We drove together through herds of Watussirind (cattle with huge horns) and were warmly welcomed by an elderly woman when the deep black clouds poured over us.
The next day was supposed to start at 4 a.m. Like everyone else, I got up at 3 a.m. to have breakfast. One by one they left the hotel. Only I was there because my driver apparently preferred to sleep in. With a little delay, we drove along a beautiful gravel road along the edge of a lake and were able to enjoy the view - but unfortunately without drivers in the picture.
After this section, a long passage on asphalt awaited us. There we were able to catch up with the others. However, I had to rush to the nearest larger town to complete another rapid corona test there. Luckily negative.
I didn't feel like waiting in the car for the others anymore. So I decided to swap the car for my bike. I got a puncture just before Twin Lakes. Lukas gave me a friendly wave as he drove past, because he hadn't realized that I had broken down. He assured me afterwards that he thought I was just taking pictures. After a little tinkering I was able to continue. Lukas was gone, but I was able to ride with a group of three others. 30 kilometers before the end of the day, my rear derailleur gave up and almost tore a spoke out of my wheel. From here on, pushing was the order of the day. Luckily, much of it was downhill. But when the chain is dragging on the ground and you can't pedal, even a downhill gravel road doesn't feel fantastic.
When I arrived at the Rwandan Federation's Cycling Center, I was able to entrust my bike to the mechanic. He had to build an old-school Shimano rear derailleur on my SRAM. Apparently it works what was new to me. I always thought I heard that it just doesn't work. But who am I that I shouldn't trust the national team mechanic.
From the start, I wanted to do the third day on my bike. I managed a total of 12 kilometers and 450 meters in altitude. Then my rear derailleur blocked. I was fed up and Raphael and Lukas also wanted/needed to continue. So I had to go back to continue working with my well-rested driver. From Musanze we continued to Kibuye on Lake Kivu. Unfortunately, her plan was different. She must have decided not to stop for me at all. The empty road with breakdown bays was too dangerous for her to stop on the side. That day didn't bring us together. But what do you say to a person who voluntarily “helps”?
For the following day I had hired a motorcyclist including a motorbike. This time I was able to leave at the time I booked the driver. So that was already a clear improvement. We caught up with two “early birds” before they had fully climbed the first mountain. Then we took a shortcut and drove up one of the wildest roads I have ever driven. Today was the first day I was grateful for an engine under my butt. One or the other time we had to push the motorcycle through the mud together. Most of the time, however, the driver could use sheer force to navigate his vehicle over any obstacle. He showed me a couple of vervet monkeys (I guessed wrong, they are monkeys!).
Arriving at the highest point of the day, the driver and I communicated with hands and feet. I wanted to go back to a spot so that I could work my way from there towards the "goal". That sounds difficult to write. It was logically impossible for me to explain this in Kinyarwanda (the local language). So we phoned four people at the same time. These clarified our problem.
At the greenest point of the route, in the middle of a tea plantation, I waited for the first participants. After they had left me behind, I went back towards the finish line and waited for Lukas and Fabian Burri on a small path in the rainforest. We were later only able to catch up with them on the motorbike at the end of a downhill section. But I was able to take some exciting pictures there. All in all, it was a super nice and eventful day.
The fifth day began in the rainforest on the border with Burundi. The plan was that I would start by car and then later switch to Eleonora Baldi's bicycle.
The day began with mystical fog hanging over the forest. Through the trees you always had a wonderful view of Burundi. There were soldiers every 50 meters. They patrolled up and down the street, as rebels (from Burundi and the Congo) repeatedly attack there. 30 kilometers before the end of the rainforest, Eleonora and I swapped cars for bikes. So I was able to spend a very long and beautiful day with Rapha and Fabian. Rapha had five records, Fabian and I "only" one each. At each of these stops we were surrounded by at least 10 to 40 people. They were all intrigued by…why, we don't know. Probably from us whites, who are stupid enough to ride through mud and scree on bikes that are far too expensive. Well, and Fabian danced once, which probably also contributed to it.
Arriving at the hotel, we were applauded. Which felt totally silly. It seemed as if we had pushed our limit, but the opposite was the case. We left the "race" behind us. Made nonsense, listened to black metal on Bluetooth speakers and had far too many records. There was no more relaxation.
The last day of the journey began with a double rainbow and recurring rain. I expected the riders at the muddiest part of today's tour. But Luke and Rapha came and didn't come. Lukas had opted for the asphalt alternative and Rapha once again had one or probably ten punctures.
Even though it was the last day, I was able to pick up a few more Kinyarwanda words. Because I had to wait in the rain for a very long time, many villagers approached me. These words are very helpful for my time after the Journey, as I had planned a bikepacking tour around Rwanda.
The last part of the day was then almost exclusively driven out on the road. Not because the organizers had planned it that way, but because the road works in Rwanda are going much faster than in Germany.
At the end of the day we all met on the terrace of the Onomo Hotel and were able to exchange our experiences on this discovery tour through one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Two days later, a new adventure began: 1,100 kilometers and 17,000 meters in altitude, less than 10% of it on asphalt. Once around Rwanda, on new and partly undeveloped paths. Since my bike could no longer be repaired, I had to ride the bikepacking tour on a fully mountain bike. But more on that another time...