The 227km/141mi Congo Nile Trail traverses the Western Province of Rwanda, following the shores of Lake Kivu. It was established in 2010 by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to show visitors and investors the opportunities in this amazing part of our country, and to create jobs for local people. As you cycle or hike on the Trail, you see the real life of our communities, both their everyday work and leisure moments.
The lake is an essential part of that, and my story will focus on the water element of the Congo Nile Trail. Travellers the world over know that the Trail can be done by bicycle, on foot or even in a four-wheel-drive — but it is seldom discussed that you can also do it while waterborne.
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Every Rwandan farmer needs additional skills beyond cultivating land, something productive to do in the dry season when agricultural activities cease for a while. Men may use hot weather to make bricks for house construction. Women may weave elaborate and colourful baskets to utilise in their households.
But Rwandans who live on the shores of Lake Kivu always first think of the lake itself during their down time. As they grow up they obtain skills related to water — building, repairing and riding boats, swimming and, of course, fishing. The lake is their first business idea and the first career ambition.
A favourite meal for lakeside families is fried fish mixed with vegetable sauce. They serve it with ugali, a polenta-like cornmeal porridge that originates from the coast of the Indian Ocean. They prepare their fish in many other ways too, often without oil or water. Grilled fish they will eat slowly and thoroughly, so at the end there will be nothing left but bones. And as they watch you eat, they can tell if you are a real lake person or not.
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I am not a real lake guy.
My parents are from Ngororero District, also in western Rwanda, but a fair distance away from Lake Kivu. When my father got a job in Rubavu, Rwanda’s most important lake city, he took his whole family with him. I was actually born there, but when I was two they took me back to their district of origin and I attended school away from the water. I returned to Rubavu for my secondary education, and this is where things took a touristic turn.
I had been a Boy Scout since my primary school years, trained in camping in the wild, managing difficult conditions, living and working together with different people. In many ways, without knowing, I was being prepared to be a tour guide.
In 2010 an RDB representative came to our Scout group and asked if anyone was interested in guiding training. I realised it was my big chance, as I spoke good French and some English as well. I joined a group of candidates from all five districts that border Lake Kivu, three people from each of them.
Most trainees expected to get a job from RDB after completion, and they were disappointed to realise that our status was to be one of a freelancer, not working full time and being paid by the government. Starting from 2011, we were supposed to be available, just waiting for customers to show up — to do an activity few really knew about! You would get a client very rarely, every few months maybe. Only three of us from that initial group still guide on the Congo Nile Trail, the three patient ones … By the time Covid-19 destroyed our business we were doing pretty well, and we hope the good times return after the pandemic.
This area of Rwanda was quite underdeveloped as far as tourism facilities were concerned. There were no rooms on the route, so we had to carry heavy loads on our backs — cooking materials and camping gear. Thankfully over the years local and foreign investors established all kinds of accommodation options, from simple to luxurious. Small shops and eating places have been opened, so the vision set by RDB 11 years ago is becoming a reality.
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As my colleague Oliver explained before, you can do the whole Lake Kivu length by water, in a houseboat. But the more interesting solution that clients usually aren’t aware of is to mix lake transport with hiking or bike riding.
Yesterday, for example, I had three Dutch clients staying at Rushel Kivu Resort in Kinunu who only had time for one day on the Congo Nile Trail. They knew me as a hiking guide from other Rwandan destinations and they asked me what we could do together. They were especially interested in any mountain to climb, or a nice walk. As they were in the middle of the Trail, I proposed two options to them:
- a walking loop that would take them in the direction of Rubavu to a beekeeping experience, and then back using another route
- a hike on the Congo Nile Trail towards Karongi, doing the stage to Musasa where people would normally overnight, but then be picked up from there by boat
They chose the second option, and I can safely assume that they liked it because they said they would send another group for the same trip soon.
Another way to take advantage of boats on Lake Kivu is to skip some parts of the Congo Nile Trail — you can board a boat with your mountain bike — because you may be tired or may lack the time.
SHARED BOATS ON LAKE KIVU
You can hire boats (Kinunu – Rubavu would cost USD 80 for the boat) or use shared vessels that operate every day and charge USD 1-2 per person:
Kinunu (main accommodation centre between Rubavu and Karongi)
Kinunu (6am) – Rubavu (3pm) – Kinunu
Nkora (fishing village between Cyimbiri and Kinunu)
Nkora (6am) – Rubavu (3pm) – Nkora
They leave their home base early in the morning and return in the evening. They stop a couple of times on the way, close to Congo Nile Trail overnight points.
There is also a Kinunu – Karongi – Kinunu boat, but that one operates only twice a week.
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Throughout the years I’ve added all kinds of specialised trainings to those beginner sessions of 2010-2011. One of them is community-based tourism interpretation, something that I have pretty much done in this writeup, presenting the ways of our communities.
It will be a pleasure to tell you more about the lake life of our villages and towns, during the Mega Trek of December 2021 or any other time you decide to explore the Gorilla Highlands region.
photos by the author and Miha Logar