HELLO + WELCOME as we drive through East Africa on our journey from Australia to Europe.
It’s Kirsty here today writing about our first days in Rwanda; the tenth country of the trip.
After the Serengeti things looked went this: A packed ferry. A carpark camp. A bustling mining town. Spotting a rapper with a film crew in tow. An incredible veggie curry. And just like that we were at the border with Rwanda.
The border crossed Rusumo Falls and was covered with the police, army, United Nations and one helluva barbed wire fence. Our crossing was happening in Western Tanzania and close to the Democratic Republic of Congo so it wasn’t a huge surprise.
We held a piece of paper saying our East Africa Visa was approved for Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. We lodged the application online just a week before and within minutes a customs official was saying “You are welcome in Rwanda. It is a beautiful country and we are honoured to have you“
:: Pretty stoked to be on our first ferry in Africa. And kind of hoping it wasn’t going to sink on the way.
:: Zero room for driving error on the ferry. We were parked so close that old mate had to jump across the ECB Bull Bar.
:: Rusumo Falls formed our entrance into Rwanda
:: Serious security at the border
Rwanda was initially invaded by the French and so everyone drives on the righthand side and speaks French (as well as as English and Rwandan-esque Swahili). Driving on the right is completely new to us and so we employed the tactic of me repeating ‘drive on the right, drive on the right, drive on the right’ and Gareth doing just that.
We conjured up a French accent and smiled ‘Bonjour!’ to hundreds of locals who excitedly welcomed us two white Aussies. Within the first hour we knew Rwanda was going to be a unique country. It looked and felt different to the rest of Africa. It was quiet and clean. Basic homes were surrounded by manicured hedges. People were washing their front stoops. Streets were lined with trees. Land was cultivated with thought. There were street lights and traffic lights with a timed countdown. There was no rubbish, “Where is all the rubble and crap?”
It felt like we had slipped into a parallel Africa-meets-Western universe.
:: Greeted with waves
:: Tree lined streets
:: Lovely front yards with shrubs and grass
:: Cultivated land
:: Modern buildings, clean paths, street lights and a landscaped garden in the middle of a roundabout. Are we still in Africa?
:: Traffic lights with a timed countdown. Wow. Just, wow.
The more we found out about Rwanda the more we shook our heads in amazement. Here’s why…
>> The country enforces a no plastic bag law
>> The last Saturday of every month the country holds a National clean up day. ‘National Service’ as they call it.
>> People believe in their leadership and openly praise their president Paul Kigame
>> Fit, healthy, respectable police line the streets wielding guns. Not to inspect vehicles but to hold presence. One of our pet hates is seeing the obese police men/women of other African countries who laze around and heave themselves off their chairs to pull over truckies to extort bribes.
>> We were welcomed more times than we can count. In every situation. Buying a beer “You are most welcome in Rwanda!”, getting a photocopy “Hello!!!!!! How long are you in Rwanda. We are so glad you are here!”
And then this,
>> A beer cost about 60-cents. That fact alone should makes it a winner
>> We splurged on The Best Indian Ever. And promptly filed it under ‘tourist attractions’ on our budget app.
And this doozy,
>> The country’s capital Kigali has a low crime rate and so we walked the streets at night freely enjoying beers at a local bar and playing pool. I later asked the police ”Why is it so safe?”, “Because we have already suffered enough” came the brutally honest answer. Days later when we visited genocide memorials we understood what he meant.
:: Best Indian Ever
:: Trust me it’s worth two photos
:: Actually, let’s make it three
:: Driving around Kigali we got a call from our mates Marshy and Jules. So cool to have the phone ringing!
Our first intention in Rwanda was to renew the registration of our Australian vehicle. In our home state, New South Wales, we require a vehicle safety inspection (pink slip) to get re-registered. It wasn’t due for another month but having a lapsed rego would mean our Carnet and insurance was void. So, best we get onto it.
As it turns out Rwanda has a seriously organised vehicle inspection test. We spoke with the head policeman in charge and he expedited the process for us. Within minutes the Troopy was in front of about thirty cars being put through its check. It’s a check that only the Rwandan police administer. After which you get a certificate and sticker. We had heard stories from other Aussie overlanders (Overland Walkabout) that the authorities back home were very particular about the inspection and they had a tough time getting their documentation passed. So we approached the whole thing as thoroughly as possible.
Troopy passed the inspection with flying colours, we made a $16 payment at the local bank (no chance of corrupting officials here!) and then we got to reasoning with the head of their Vehicle Inspection Authority about the additional documentation we needed.
Side Note: It’s pretty crazy here how high up the chain you can get fast just by asking a few questions. Sometimes it feels unjust as locals sit waiting while our passports +/or skin colour mean we get preferential treatment. Often we rebuke unfair special treatment. But to be honest, this time we were really happy ‘the treatment’ came our way as we chatted freely with the Lieutenant General of Police in his private office.
Two days, three visits and some serious Q&A as to ’Why do you need more than our official documents?’ happened.
Then we played the Kirsty card, I went into a solo meeting with the head honcho (Lieutenant General of Police) of the ‘RTA’ and G stayed put in the car reasoning it’s better if it wasn’t a man-beating-chest type conversation.
The trouble was that we needed to dance around two countries Way Of Doing Things. Our Australian authorities needed some exact wording and a document similar to the pink slip back home. Whereas the Rwandan government issues just one piece of paper that is essentially a rego sticker. This meant we had to create documents with the Rwandan police and have them officially endorse them with their stamp, so that our Australian guys knew all documents were related. You still with me?
We didn’t think needing a simple stamp would cause so much discussion. But here, on a continent where a police stamp means ‘Official Government Document’ it carried a lot of weight. The police were completely respectable, upstanding and I’ve gotta say testament to a new Rwanda.
If I was in a private meeting with the head of our Australian police force or RTA I probably would have worn a blazer. But here in cargo shorts and scarf I set about convincing, explaining, holding my tongue, requesting “Please, today would be better than tomorrow” and really, really hoping they would help. It was after all completely up to their discretion. And I’m happy to say It all ended with an exchange of phone numbers and Facebook details.
When I finally walked back to Gareth and the Troopy clutching three stamped documents I was smiling ear to ear with relief. A relieved G welcomed me back, “Wow. That’s awesome babe. …you just don’t give in do you”
It was a huge weight off our shoulders to get the tick of approval from the authorities back home too.
:: Rwandan Police take over Troopy
:: Whizz bang computers test the Troopy’s brakes and suspension
:: Telecommunications HQ
:: All while camped in a carpark in Kigali
I hope you enjoyed reading along guys.
Next up? We venture deeper into Rwanda and experience some extreme emotional highs and lows.