Project Horizon // Race around Rwanda II

Project Horizon // Race around Rwanda II

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 rider's perspective. Now Nils shares his memories of the event from a photographer's perspective:

Until the last minute, I was counting on not flying. Will the race (or let's call it Journey) take place? Will I get my (hopefully) negative Corona test on time before departure? Where is my new credit card? Will we be allowed to move freely when we arrive in Rwanda? Hopefully I won't catch anything 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 I can have one as a photographer.

This was my fourth trip to Rwanda. Before, I had always photographed the Tour du Rwanda, one of the most important UCI races on the African continent. Meanwhile, I always imagined what it must be like to cycle there myself. So I brought my bike to the Race around Rwanda. I knew I wouldn't be able to ride there all the time, but for some sections I really wanted to get on my bike.
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 a wide range of emotions and landscapes. It's also a challenge for me as a photographer. I don't want to miss anything, but I'm also not allowed to be there the whole time because supporting the riders is not allowed (there is also emotional support). It's easier if you have to document the whole event -- then it's not so bad if the first riders slip through your fingers.
However, I should concentrate on two people in particular: Lukas Rathgeber and Raphael Albrecht. I knew that both were strong and that their goal was to test their limits. In other words, little sleep for the athletes and me. What I felt was worse was the fact that we would miss a lot of the scenery as we would spend 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 the news came that the race would not take place. Due to rising Corona numbers (not in Rwanda, but worldwide), the Rwandan government tightened measures to protect itself from Corona. This included a curfew between 6 pm and 4 am 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. For some people, this was disappointing, but for many it was a great relief. I was one of them. Especially from a logistical point of view, this was much more relaxing.

Whether it was a race or a journey, in the end it was an adventure for everyone. The beautiful landscape, the never-ending mountains, and the short or long encounters with a wide variety of people made the journey unforgettable. Even before the event, it was discussed that more was gained than lost with the new format.
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The first day began directly at 4 am. We started in the capital Kigali. From there, they went to the east of the country towards Akagera National Park. One by one, the participants set off. I was almost the last to set off with my driver (I won't mention her by name here because I can't always speak positively of her in the coming lines).
As all participants were equipped with a GPS tracker, we could see exactly where each person was at any given time. This was very useful to assess if it would be worth waiting at a location or if it would be better to go to the front. After a while on asphalt, we met a group of riders who were stopping at a very nice café. There I decided to wait for Lukas and spend the rest of the day on the bike with him.
We quickly entered the national park. There it became more and more technical and the one-handed photography didn't exactly make the single trail passage easier. I let Lukas pull with some Rwandan national riders.
So I was able to choose another location and waited there for other riders. We drove together through herds of watusirind (cattle with huge horns) and were warmly welcomed by an elderly woman as the jet-black clouds poured over us.
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The next day was supposed to start at 4am. So I got up at 3am like everyone else to have breakfast. One by one, they left the hotel. Only I was still there, as my driver apparently preferred to sleep in. With some delay, we drove along a beautiful gravel road at the edge of a lake and could enjoy the view - but unfortunately without a driver in the picture.
After this section, a long passage on asphalt awaited us. There we were able to catch up with the others again. However, I had to rush to the next bigger village to take another Corona quick test. Fortunately, it was negative.
I didn't feel like waiting in the car for the others. So I decided to exchange the car for my bike. Shortly before Twin Lakes, I got a flat tire. Lukas gave me a friendly wave as he passed, not realizing that I had broken down. He assured me afterwards that he thought I was just taking pictures. After a little fiddling, I was able to drive on. Lukas was gone, but I was able to ride with a group of three others. Then, 30 kilometers before the end of the day, my rear derailleur said goodbye and almost tore a spoke out of my wheel. From here on, I had to push. Fortunately, most of it was downhill. But when the chain is dragging on the ground and you can't pedal, even a sloping, gravel road doesn't feel fantastic.
When I arrived at the cycling center of the Rwandan federation, I could entrust my bike to the mechanic. He had to fit an old school Shimano rear derailleur to my SRAM. Supposedly this is possible, which was new to me until then. I always thought I'd heard that it just didn't work. But who am I not to trust the mechanic of the national team?
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I wanted to start the third day from the bike. I managed a whole 12 kilometers with 450 meters of altitude. Then my rear derailleur jammed. I was fed up and Raphael and Lukas also wanted/had to continue. So I had to go back to continue with my well-rested rider. From Musanze, we continued to Kibuye on Lake Kivu. Unfortunately, her plan was different. She had probably decided not to stop for me at all. For her, the empty road with breakdown bays was too dangerous to stop alongside. That day did not weld us together. But what do you say to a person who voluntarily "helps?"
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For the following day, I hired a motorbike driver including motorbike. This time, I could leave as soon as 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 cut short and headed up one of the wildest roads I've ever ridden. Today was the first day I was grateful for a motor under my butt. Once or twice we had to push the bike through the mud together. Most of the time, though, the driver was able to navigate his vehicle over any obstacle with sheer force. He showed me a few green sea cats (wrong, they are monkeys!).
Arriving at the highest point of today, the driver and I communicated with hands and feet. I wanted to get back to a spot and then work my way from there towards the "finish." That already sounds difficult when written. Explaining this in Kinyarwanda (the local language) was logically impossible for me. So we phoned four people at the same time. They solved our problem.
At the greenest point of the course, 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 and waited there on a small path in the rainforest for Lukas and Fabian Burri. Later, we were able to catch up with them on the bike only at the end of a downhill passage. But there I was able to take some exciting pictures. All in all, it was a super nice and eventful day.
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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, however, there was always a wonderful view of Burundi. Soldiers stood at attention every 50 meters. They were patrolling up and down the road, as there are repeated attacks by rebels (from Burundi and the Congo). 30 kilometers before the end of the rainforest, Eleonora and I exchanged cars for bicycles that way I could spend another very long, but beautiful day with Rapha and Fabian. Rapha had five plates, Fabian and I "only" one each. At each of these stops, we were surrounded by at least 10 to 40 people. They were all fascinated by...we don't know what. Probably by us white people who are stupid enough to ride through mud and rubble on bikes that are far too expensive. Well, and Fabian danced once, so that probably contributed to it too.
When we arrived at the hotel, they clapped for us. Which felt totally silly. It seemed like we had gone to our limit, but the opposite was the case. We left the "race" behind us. Made nonsense, listened to black metal on Bluetooth boxes, and had way too many records. More relaxation was not possible.
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The last day of the Journey began with a double rainbow and recurring rain. I was waiting for the riders at the muddiest part of today's tour. But Lukas and Rapha came and did not come. Lukas had opted for the asphalt alternative and Rapha once again had one or probably ten flat tires.
Even though it was the last day, I was able to acquire a few more Kinyarwanda words. Because I had to wait a very long time in the rain, many villagers spoke to me. These words were very helpful for my time after the Journey, as I had planned another bikepacking tour around Rwanda.
The last part of the day was spent almost exclusively on the road. Not because the organizers had planned it that way, but because road works in Rwanda are 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 share our experiences on this discovery tour through one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Two days later, a new adventure began: 1100 kilometers and 1700 meters of altitude, less than 10% of it on asphalt; once around Rwanda, on new and partly undeveloped paths. As my bike was beyond repair, I had to do the bikepacking tour on a full mountain bike. But more about that another time...

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Photos: Nils Laengner / www.nilslaengner.de / @nils_laengner

 

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