Hiking: Long live the rescue team | The new times

Some of us grew up listening to Marvin Gaye’s famous “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” whose lyrics struck me as questionable after finding this mountain. Its name is Kanyinya, located in Nyarugenge district, and it is not even the highest in Rwanda alone. For someone who grew up in the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, you might think that hiking skills come naturally, but no, it’s not!

It had only been an hour and a half since we started the hike and a shoe was washed away by the strong Yanze river. We were all worried because we hadn’t even made it halfway, so how could the owner have walked barefoot the extra five miles of rocky mountain? Fortunately, a member of the “rescue team” ran to shore and stretched to pick it up.

We had started the three to four hour hike around 7am but did some simple warm up exercises first. In my head I wondered why a friend who had invited me told me not to show up again when I asked him if he served free food after the hike. But there I was, part of me convincing myself that they’ve never had such a determined athlete like me before, so they threaten people with their good hiking skills.

Commonly known as “The A-Team”, the adventurous team of over 130 members have trekked through many of Rwanda’s steepest mountains, their main treking sites being Kabuye, Fumbwe and their favorite Rulindo since 2019.

This group marches mainly on Saturdays, and none of them know where they will go, except their leader whom they call “Captain” (who also preferred anonymity). He only informs them about a WhatsApp group where they will meet, and off they go.

This Saturday I went we were told to meet at Gitikinyoni in front of the famous Riverside Motel but commonly referred to as ‘Arsenal’. When the captain said we were going to do the Kanyinya-Yanze hike, a few people didn’t seem enthusiastic because “it was so easy”.

We started on level ground which was very disappointing for someone who wanted to do some hardcore hiking. Initially, my plan was not to be in the last group. But as the mountain got steeper, I was only grateful that I didn’t have heart failure at the time. Only an hour later, I wanted to cry. “What was I thinking? A young girl who wakes up before dawn just to climb mountains, what for? I thought to myself. Every time I thought, ‘That’s it! I can’t go any higher,” the harder it got.

The only sweet thing about the hike was the mango juice which I sipped, but slowly so as not to die of thirst. But thank goodness for the rescue team.

New arrivals are assigned to members of the “rescue team”. Their job is basically to hold your hand when you’re tired and pull or push you up the mountain when your legs decide to stop working.

The captain says to be aware that energy levels vary; it would be a shame if some people didn’t complete a hike. “The rescue team is made up of brave hikers who are committed to helping those who can’t get around any faster. They cheer them on, wait for them, and help them get to the top and complete the hike. We always walk with the concept of the Latin phrase in our mind; ‘nemo residento’ or ‘leave no one behind’. We make sure to walk as a team,” said the captain.

Indeed, there is no bridge or river that is not crossed in a team, most often in pairs. Yanze River, for example. Experienced hikers found the shallowest part of the river so we could cross smoothly. But we had to take our shoes off, throw them across the river and fold the pants up as much as possible. “Let today be the day we only fish for shoes, please,” the captain said, warning people to keep their phones safe as some have already accidentally sunk them.

After crossing Yanze, the mountain then looked like a wall, but to be clear, going down the rocky mountain is just as difficult as climbing it. We would be holding tight tree branches and grass for support because the rock that looks like it might be holding you down can actually drag you down the mountain like a ball.

We passed through crops of coffee, beans and Irish potatoes. It’s also where I learned that when someone cultivates, you don’t greet them “Muraho” for “Hello”. We say “Murakora, murakora” for “You work” and it is meant to encourage that person. The farmers were friendly and gave us directions saying “dore ni aha baciye” for “they just passed here”.

The hike wasn’t just rough, at least we had a good laugh at the jokes made by some of the crew. We also had bananas and water when we reached the top, before coming back down the mountain.

The captain told The New Times that the A-Team hikes for mental and physical well-being, discovering and exploring the hills of Rwanda and the way of life around it, but also the dynamic links of the team that end up being created.

The hiking exercise that is gaining momentum in recent times has not always been the favorite of Rwandans. While high jumping, arrow shooting and spear throwing were popular in pre-colonial Rwanda, walking long distances was reserved for the poor. The wealthy had servants to transport them wherever they wanted to go.

“Back then, people were used to walking and they could really walk long distances. During the colonial period, for example, people would walk to remote parts of Uganda to find decent jobs. It was not for fun or sport. They had no other means of transportation,” Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a historian told The New Times.

While the government has been working to encourage citizens to embrace the sports culture – through Friday sports hours for civil servants and the car-free day, it is claimed that many are still lagging behind. Other people also got creative with it, like the A-Team.

However, they still face challenges, but more people would join them if they were solved. “We want to approach the city of Kigali for help in our plan to plant trees on different hills in this city. We would also like to have signage on these mountains to make it easy for everyone to find the trails,” Captain said.

He also encouraged people to try hiking up a mountain or two, even to see how beautiful the country is from above. “It’s a great experience and the best way to experience how good it is to hike the first time and the rest becomes history. We would like everyone to take that first step and experience a positive change in their physical and mental well-being,” Captain said.

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