FEATURE : The Kivu experience

A lot has been said about this lake which is one of the African Great Lakes. Many of you probably know about its huge deposits of methane gas that lie under the blue serene waters. Some have hinted on it being a potential disaster waiting to happen due to these very deposits. Some stories published in international science journals are so scary and sensational that you would think Lake Kivu is literally smoking and spitting fire but that is not what it is.
L-R : Beautiful Islands litter the lake ; Yours truly (L) enjoying the boat ride.
L-R : Beautiful Islands litter the lake ; Yours truly (L) enjoying the boat ride.

A lot has been said about this lake which is one of the African Great Lakes.

Many of you probably know about its huge deposits of methane gas that lie under the blue serene waters. Some have hinted on it being a potential disaster waiting to happen due to these very deposits.

Some stories published in international science journals are so scary and sensational that you would think Lake Kivu is literally smoking and spitting fire but that is not what it is.

Well, I am not a scientist and I will not distort any scientific facts but for the moment I will focus on the opposite side-the calm and extremely beautiful side of Lake Kivu, at least for now.

The ‘dangerous side’ will be for another day. In any case Rwanda plans to harness this ‘dangerous’ gas deposit into something more friendly, energy for industry and homes.

Lake Kivu lies on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, in what is known as the Albertine (Western) Rift, a part of the Great Rift Valley.

The lake sits on a high altitude that when you see it from a distance you would think it is part of the sky. At about 1,460 metres above sea level, L. Kivu covers a total surface area of some 2,700 km2 (1,040 sq miles) shared between Rwanda and DRC.

I had a 4-day Kivu experience, stretching from Rubavu down to Rusizi-some 90 or so Kilometres full of adventure, fun and sometimes life threatening experiences-call them part of the adventures if you want.

In a bid to tap into the untapped tourism potential of L. Kivu, Rwanda Development Board together with United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and SNV Rwanda organised a 4-day itinerary for tour operators and journalists.

Lady luck was on my side and I happened to be on this entourage, that is when it came to my mind that it is possible for one to live in country and die in there without knowing the beautiful things the country offers.

It is also not surprising that a tourist can come from thousands of miles to enjoy these beauties which the natives will die without partaking of.

After spending a refreshingly peaceful night in the serene Rubavu town, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, we embarked on a four day trip along the shores of the lake which would eventually end in Rusizi, formerly Cyangugu,-some 90km down south.

Every stop we made along the slippery murram road along the shores of the lake had something attractive. From the hot springs at Nyamyumba bay to Richard Kandt’s residence at Ishange down in Rusizi, every attraction has a story behind it.

On our way down to Karongi district, the road which is currently under construction gave us quite some hard time but thanks to the powerful 4X4 vehicles, we managed to make it to Karongi town almost 8 hours later, but not without a scratch.

As the engines roared up and down the hills, we encountered difficulties on the slippery mud road which hangs on top of sharp ridges that at some point you would imagine any slight mistake to go a few inches off the road would see the vehicle roll several hundreds of metres down into L. Kivu.

It is not an ideal road to take for the faint hearted. Some of the members of that tour who were not the adventurous type shed tears imagining how their lives were hanging by the thread on top of sharp cliffs while down under the waters gaped at them with contempt.

We made several stops such as at Rwinyoni Village where we interacted with locals who especially engage in coffee growing. But at all stops, the Kivu never got out of our sight. Each angle, each hill gave a different view of the lake and different spectacles.

The weather never disappointed. It stayed sunny most of the day and the blue skies ensured that the waters were blue and calm too. The view was a sight to behold. Breathtaking, I must say.

From the small isles and the big, imposing Idjwi Island everything was spectacular. We snaked our way up and down the hills and stopped at Nkola Market and Nkola Coffee washing station. At Nkola market huge wooden boats loaded all sorts of merchandise-from bananas to beer.

Trade with the DRC booms here and the sight of young energetic men loading cows, pigs, sheep and goats destined for DRC is one to behold. We stopped again at Kinunu Coffee Washing station and Farm owned by Senator Chryslogue Kubwimana.

The Senator took us around his coffee and banana plantations, orchids and farm shortly after serving us a refreshing lunch. The old man also showed us the islands on the lake as well as the history of some of the isles before we proceeded to the Congo-Nile Watershed on top of Rutsiro.

This point which separates Congo and Nile basins provides a spectacular view of the Kivu and the hilly green part of Rwanda which includes Gishwati forest. New tea plantations emerging on the hills add to the beauty of this attraction.

We spent the night in Gold Eden Hotel, Karongi town where we rested after a long day in the hills. It was even more refreshing that the hotel lies on the Lake shores. The air here is so refreshing.

Day three was the day to experience the real Kivu. As Umunezero Boat made its way towards the beach where we had been waiting, chills went down my spine as the newly acquired 600 Horsepower engine 22-seater roared towards us.

The 2-engine Mercury Boat that can power up to 100 nautical Km per hour was supposed to take us around different islands on the lake with different attractions up to Rusizi and back to Karongi where we would get on the cars again back to Rusizi by road for another night and then Nyungwe Forest on the final day.

I could not wait to get on the boat as the crew was briefing us on safety precautions and how to react when disaster strikes. It all seemed like one long lecture. I could not wait to slip on the life jacket.

A ride on this comfortable speed boat is incomparable to anything else you would have on L. Kivu. As it smoothly navigated the waters creating a trail of beautiful waves behind us, there seemed no better experience the lake can offer than Umunezero (which literally means happiness) Boat.

Once in a while, it slowed down for the guide to give a few explanations on the different islands on the lake such as Idjwi and Amahoro. The powerful binoculars provided on the boat ensured an up-close view of different features of the lake and far away on land.

Our first stop was on the uninhabited (perhaps by humans) Napoleon Islands which is home to over 200,000 Fruit Bats.

They are as huge as kites. Once the boat stopped over and honked, the nocturnal creatures woke from their sleep and in a minute the sky was littered with the brown bats.

A stop at Nkombo ensured that we were able to buy some of the local handcrafts especially necklaces which are trademark of the place before we proceeded to Rusizi. A spectacular view of Gihaya Island with the remains of King Bouduin’s residence is also provided.

Three hours later we made the last stop in Rusizi at the Marine Pier where we had a good view of Bukavu Town across in the DRC. The hilltop at the landing site also provides an amazing view of Lake Kivu and has a beach for those who love swimming.

Soon it was time to get back on the boat for what was supposed to be a 45 minute trip back to Karongi. This time round the boat hits up to 80n/km per hour since there were no stops to be made but that was not meant to be.

What had earlier started as a shiny day on the lake on our way to Rusizi came out to be windy and rainy on our way back to Karongi. Shortly after we started the return journey the skies turned grey and the formerly calm waters went into a rage.

As the rain intensified and waves increased by the second, it became eminent that water is no friend to man and will always be unpredictable. Panic struck the faint hearted who started crying while others threw up as the boat took on the waves head-on.

We started contemplating death as we seemed to be nowhere near land as the waves continued to slam onto our boat like no man’s business. Water started filtering through the side canvasses that had been lowered when it started raining.

Danger had struck, Titanic moments flashed in our minds but we were not going to sink. The boat is custom made to deal with such sea troubles and with our mean looking and experienced captain; we were slated to make it back.
Soon the rain subsided and the landing site at Gold Eden Hotel was approaching.

There were big smiles on the previously gloomy faces but the captain seemed unfazed. “This is our life, we are used to this,” he said as we looked on in wonder.

Ends