Rwanda is often referred to as the land of a thousand hills. It’s hard to dispute this given that you see hills everywhere you turn. I am not sure if anyone has ever done the actual counting but at my age I wouldn’t volunteer to count anything besides money. However, the hills being everywhere doesn’t mean every place looks just like the other.
I have been blessed to visit different parts of this country although I haven’t yet been everywhere. From my travels around, I can safely say that Karongi District is the most beautiful part of Rwanda. If you want to argue please ask The New Times to give you space to write your own article (which I won’t read because this is not something I am ready to argue about).
Karongi is so beautiful that you often feel like you are inside a fine piece of art by just being there. I have been to Karongi more than once but each time feels fresh as I am always awe-struck by the unapologetic beauty this place effortlessly exudes. The sight of calm lake waters a few metres from the road as you drive around serve like a strip tease session before you finally make it to your destination.
How to get there
Karongi (former Kibuye) is 139km or about 2 hours drive from the capital Kigali and 86km from Muhanga. The road Kigali to Karongi is in great condition and one can easily take a bus from Nyabugogo to Karongi, organise with a tour operator to be driven there, hire a car or simply drive themselves there in a private car. If driving from Rusizi, it is about 133km away but the drive is much slower due to the sharp corners on that road. No matter where you are driving from though, the drive is very scenic and even much better if you can afford a helicopter ride so you view it all from above.
This resort town has many offerings when it comes to accommodation, ranging from some very exquisite lodges with only a few self-contained rooms, to budget offerings for those whose finances may not be as flexible. Almost all these nice hotels will give you a breathtaking view of the lake and if you are lucky you can catch the sun hesitantly setting or rising so you can capture that great shot and use it as proof anytime someone doubts why you added photography to your CV.
What to do in Karongi
Some of the well-known places you can stay at include but are not limited to Bethany Hotel, Moriah Hill Resort, Golf Eden Rock Hotel, Cormoran Lodge, Holiday Hotel and Rwiza Village Guest. From most of these hotels one can enjoy water sports like kayaking, swimming or go for a boat ride and head out on the lake to see some amazing islands and even visit some.
Many of these islands offer panoramic views of the lake and are loved by birdwatchers since they are home to many bird species. Some of the most famous Islands include the Mpembe Island, Peace (Amahoro) Island and Munini Island, also referred to as Napoleon’s Hat – an Island shaped like – yeah you guessed it right - Napoleon’s hat! Sometimes just sitting by the lake and listening to the waves washing up on the shore is therapeutic enough for one used to the fast paced and stress-filled city life.
On my last visit to Karongi, I enjoyed a boat ride courtesy of the Rwanda Defence Forces’ Marine Unit. The discipline of Rwanda’s uniformed men is not hard to notice. They kept time and were smartly dressed. Three of them appeared so comfortable on the waters but anyway what would you expect – this is their zone.
The marine captain was armed with very interesting stories about their line of work and life on the waters. He shared tales of the different islands like the one where Rwandan girls who used to get pregnant out of wedlock would be dumped and how fishermen from the Democratic Republic of Congo would find them and rescue them and take them as wives.
“On the lake there is no angry person, people on the lake are always so calm and peace loving,” he said. “We do not have enemies here, unless there is a war,” he added. He told us how on the waters, fishermen/sailors are expected to help anyone in distress and so they see each other as members of one family even though their nationalities may be different.
Of course the conversation would have been incomplete without him telling us about the super fast boats that the marine unit operates when it comes to safeguarding the territorial integrity of Rwanda. He is a very knowledgeable and amiable fellow who clearly enjoys his job and life on the water in general.
While in Karongi you can also visit Nyungwe National Park, Mukura Forest (now part of the Mukura-Gishwati National Park). One can also embark on the Congo–Nile Trail or visit the Bisesero Genocide Memorial, which serves as a reminder of the more than 50,000 Tutsi who assembled here to protect themselves from the Genocide – only to be betrayed by French soldiers under the infamous Operation Turquoise mission.
On our way back, about 20km from Kibuye, we stopped at the view point of Ndaba Waterfalls, better known as Urutare rwa Ndaba. Here you are more likely to be amazed by the young children who run down and up a hill to come and narrate to you the history of the falls. Their enthusiasm blew me away.
Karongi is ripe for investment
While areas like Rubavu are targeting the party lovers and the adventurous kind, Karongi is more of a holiday destination. The kind of place you head to when you really want to relax, lay down and take in love away from any stress or noise. It is the kind of destination I would recommend for a honeymoon for anyone.
Rwanda Development Board has elaborate investment plans for this area that local and foreign investors ought to embrace. The plan is to develop Karongi into a prime holiday resort with beautiful hotels and cottages for those looking for a serene place. Investors willing to invest in the tourism sector in this part of Rwanda can expect government subsidies.
We visited a new hotel under construction and it was quite obvious that it is not easy to invest in some of these places given the hilly terrain and absence of major infrastructural amenities. However, this is all set to change as investors can now be assured of government support to extend piped water and electricity to their sites. Investments don’t have to be just in terms of new hotels but all related services like water transport along the lake.
On their part, tourism operators need to up their game, especially when it comes to customer care, because people are paying for experiences and it is your duty to make them worthwhile experiences. The tendency of paying staff peanuts and having them pass on their frustration to your clients is no way to do business. Pay them well and train them to handle customers in the best way possible.
Ultimately all these investors need the support of domestic tourists. Why fly to far off places outside Rwanda for your honeymoon when you can go to Karongi and use all the money you would have spent on visas and air tickets to have another drink or another boat ride as you spend more days enjoying the natural beauty of Rwanda in a place where this beauty is concentrated.