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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 participated in the Journey around Rwanda. Last week, Lukas already gave a review of the trip from the rider's perspective. Now, Nils shares his perception and memories of the event from a photographer's point of view:

Until the last minute I had expected that I would not fly. 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 get infected on the flight.
Even when we had arrived, 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, I had always photographed the Tour du Rwanda. One of the most important UCI races on the African continent. Meanwhile I always imagined how it must be to ride my bike there myself. That's why I brought my bike to the Race around Rwanda. I knew that I wouldn't be able to ride there all the time, but for some parts I really wanted to get on my bike.
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 variety of emotions and landscapes. It's also a challenge for me as a photographer. I don't want to miss anything, but I also can't be there the whole time, because supporting the riders is not allowed (there is also such a thing as emotional support). It's easier if you have to document the whole event – then it's not a big deal if you miss the first riders.
This time, 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. Meaning: little sleep for the athletes and me. What I felt was worse was the fact that we would miss much of the scenery as we would spend a lot of time in the dark.
I planned the route as best as I could and thought about what I wanted to tell. But then the news came that the race would not take place as planned. Due to a rising number of Corona cases (not in Rwanda, but worldwide), the Rwandan government tightened measures to protect itself from Corona. This included a curfew between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. and that no more sporting events were allowed to take place. Thus, 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 longer encounters with a wide variety of people made the journey unforgettable. Before the event had even started, people already stated that more was gained than lost with the new format.
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The first day began at 4 o'clock in the morning. The riders started in the capital Kigali. From there, they headed to the east of the country in the direction of Akagera National Park. One by one, the participants left. I was almost the last to leave with my driver (I will not mention her by name here, because I cannot always speak positively of her in the coming lines).
Since 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 estimate if it would be worth waiting at a certain location or if it would be better to go to the front. After a while on asphalt, we came across a group of riders pausing at a very nice café. There, I decided to wait for Lukas to spend the rest of the day on the bike with him.
Soon we went into the national park. There it became more and more technical and the one-handed photographing did not make the single trail passage easier. I let Lukas go with some Rwandan national riders.
I chose another location and waited there for more riders. We drove together through herds of Watusi cattle (these are cattle with huge horns) and were warmly welcomed by an older woman as the black clouds poured over us.
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The next day was supposed to start at 4 a.m.. So, like everyone else, I got up at 3 to have breakfast. One by one left the hotel. Only I was still there, since my rider 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 riders in the picture.
After this section, a long passage on asphalt was waiting for us. There we could catch up with the others again. But I had to rush to the next bigger village to do another Corona quick test. Fortunately negative.
I didn't feel like waiting in the car for the others anymore. So I decided to exchange the car for my bike. Shortly before Twin Lakes, I got a flat tire. Lukas waved me friendly while passing by because he didn't realize that I had a flat tire. Afterwards, he assured me that he thought I was just taking pictures. After a little fiddling, I was able to continue. 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, 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.
Arriving at the Cycling Center of the Rwandan Federation, I was able to entrust my bike to the mechanic. He had to attach an oldschool Shimano rear derailleur to my SRAM. Supposedly this works, which was new to me until then. I always thought to have heard that this does just not work. But who am I, that I should not trust the mechanic of the national team.
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The third day I wanted to start from the bike. I managed a whole 12 kilometers and 450 meters of altitude. Then my rear derailleur jammed. I was fed up and Raphael and Lukas also wanted/had to go on. So I had to go back to continue with my rested driver. From Musanze we went on to Kibuye at Lake Kivu. Unfortunately, she had a different plan than me. She had probably decided not to stop for me at all. For her the empty road with breakdown bays was too dangerous to stop at the side. This 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 had rented a motorcyclist incl. motorcycle. This time I could go at the time I had booked the driver. So that was already a clear improvement. We caught up with two "early birds" before they had fully climbed the first hill. Then we cut short and headed up one of the wildest roads I've ever ridden. Today was the first day I was thankful for an engine under my butt. The one or other time we had to push the motorbike together through the mud. Most of the time, though, the driver was able to navigate his vehicle over any obstacle with sheer force. He also showed me some green monkeys.
Arriving at the highest spot of today, the driver and I communicated with hands and feet. I wanted to go back to a spot, and from there again work my way towards the "finish". This already sounds difficult when written. To explain this in Kinyarwanda (local language) was logically impossible for me. 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 and waited there on a small path in the rainforest for Lukas and Fabian Burri. With the motorbike, we could catch up with them later only at the end of a downhill passage. But there I could still shoot some exciting pictures. All in all, it was a super nice and eventful day.
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In the rainforest, at the border to Burundi, the fifth day began. The plan was that I would start by car and then later switch to Eleonora Baldi's bike.
The day began with mystical fog hanging over the forest. Through the trees, however, we had a magnificent view of Burundi. Every 50 meters there were soldiers. These patrolled the road up and down, because they regularly get attacked by rebels (from Burundi and the Congo). 30 kilometers before the end of the rainforest, I changed my car for Eleonora’s bike. This way I could spend another very long and beautiful day with Rapha and Fabian. Rapha had five flat tires, Fabian and I "only" one each. At each of these stops we were surrounded by at least 10 to 40 people. These were all fascinated by... we don't know. Probably by us whites, who are stupid enough to ride on way too expensive bikes through mud and debris. Well, and Fabian once danced, so that probably contributed, too.
Once we arrived at the hotel, we got some applause. 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. We fooled around, listened to black metal on bluetooth boxes and had way too many flat tires. More relaxation was not possible.
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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 Lukas and Rapha did not show up. 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 since I had to wait a very long time in the rain, many villagers started to talk to me. These words were very helpful for my time after the Journey, because I still had planned a bikepacking tour around Rwanda.
The last part of the day was then ridden out almost only on tarmac. Not because the organizer had planned it that way, but because the 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 17000 meters of altitude, less than 10% of it on tarmac. Once around Rwanda, on new and partly unexplored roads. Since my bike was not reparable, I had to do the bikepacking tour on a full-suspension mountain bike. But more about that another time...

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

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