Imagine a lake so vast and so deep it is practically a sea. Imagine turquoise waters surrounded by emerald-green hills covered with fields and forests. Imagine shores dotted with people: fishermen praising their catch of the day at the top of their voice and women in colourful garments examining the fish and bargaining without mercy.
Welcome to Lake Kivu, one of the African Great Lakes located between Rwanda and Congo (DRC). It stretches 89 km long and 48 km wide, and reaches 500 m deep. Lake Kivu is not only one of the world’s largest and deepest lakes, but it is also one of only three known ‘exploding lakes’. Occasionally, the methane trapped underwater erupts pushing a cloud of carbon dioxide to the surface. This means that a swimmer that finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time can get asphyxiated.
I catch the first glimpse of Lake Kivu when driving from the Volcanoes National Park down towards Gisenyi. The car turns and suddenly a sunny valley filled with sparkling waters opens before my eyes. The road is endlessly winding and the views take my breath away.
Gisenyi is supposedly a popular holiday resort, and indeed there are some lakeside hotels, but it is very quiet and has an atmosphere of a sleepy backwater town. It is, however, an important location for cross-border trade, as it constitutes a frontier with Congolese Goma. From hilly Gisenyi you can cast a look to the other side. The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced. On the Rwandan side, the road is clean and made of solid tarmac, with cars waiting in line. In Goma, chaos reigns. These days Rwandan vessels tend to stick to its own shores – venture too close to Congo and you’re in the ‘heart of darkness’, an unstable and potentially dangerous place.
I pick a hotel right by the shores, which offers accommodation in small wooden bungalows in a flower garden. Apart from me, there are only four other guests: a middle-aged American couple and two German girls.
I’m tempted to sit and simply stare at the glimmering waters, but the night will fall soon, so I decide to take a stroll in town instead. I walk along the lakeside road looking at street stalls selling fresh produce and women doing laundry in the lake. Of course, I stick out like a sore thumb and all eyes are on me. Within minutes I’m followed by a horde of children all shouting ‘muzungu, muzungu’ (white person).
My mission is to find the harbour and establish whether I can take a boat to the town of Kibuye the following day. It is only about 90 km away, but the road is unpaved and the bus, which supposedly leaves at 7 am every morning, takes at least 6 hours to get there. That does not sound appealing, so I want to explore the water option.
I find the harbour and a local brewery, both looking rather industrial, so I place my bet on a less conspicuous lakefront spot where there is a vibrant market in full swing.
I ask around about a boat to Kibuye, and I manage to find a few people whose French is good enough to communicate with me. However, everyone’s version is different as to which day and what time the boat leaves.
Finally, I find a young girl whose French is almost fluent who is positive that the boat leaves on Wednesdays at 7 am. I’m in luck, as it is Tuesday evening.
Mission accomplished, I return to the hotel for dinner and an early night. I find a magnificent spot by the lake where I have Primus, a local beer, and a plate of tiny grilled fish, and I watch the sun set over Lake Kivu. As night falls, fishermen make their way out to ‘sea’, rowing rhythmically in their boats that resemble giant spiders.
The night is so dark the stars look like a thousand suns. The sound of lapping waves rocks me to sleep. I’m woken at daybreak by a bird concert just outside my hut. The lake looks beautiful in the morning light, covered in delicate mist.
I swallow a gulp of hot coffee and I make my way to the harbour. It is close to 7 am and the place is swarming with people. For once my muzungu status serves a good purpose, and I get fast tracked onto the boat and lodged on one of the benches by the window. From my vantage point I watch the boat get fuller and fuller. And when it is so full it is practically bursting at the seams, what must be another 100 people get added till you couldn’t stick a needle in. I consider that my bench is just about the right size for me and my two backpacks, but of course I’m wrong. Soon two people sit down next to me and both of my backpacks land on my lap.
Slowly, we set off. The boat is so full you’d think no one will be able to move, but the ticket inspector manages to squeeze his way through, as does the seller of tea and doughnuts that taste very much like the ones my local bakery in Poland used to make. Emboldened by that, I make an attempt to go to the outside deck to look at the view. It takes me a solid quarter of an hour to get past, and I just about manage to stick my head out, as obviously the deck is also packed full of people. I snap a few pictures and push my way through back to my seat, which is waiting for me guarded by my two travel companions.
Whenever the boat moors in a town, commotion reigns. People are at the same time trying to embark and disembark together with their bags and children, while sellers of fish and all kinds of snacks and beverages swarm around us in their tiny boats lifting their products to the windows for the passengers to see.
Finally, after about 3 hours, we arrive at Kibuye. In the disembarking crowd, I suddenly spot a little white girl. She is with a group of Africans and looks perfectly at ease, although everybody stares at her as much as they do at me.
I look around for a car and I spot Kibuye’s preferred means of transportation – a moto taxi. I hesitate, given that I have two backpacks with me, one of which is rather sizeable, but the driver reassures me that it is a piece of cake.
I jump on and we descend the winding road. Each sharp turn reveals a more stunning view than before, leaving me gasping with a mixture of delight (with the view) and terror (with the speed).
My hotel is a brand new one, enjoying a superb lakeside location on a hill, but it doesn’t yet have a road. The last half a mile or so is on a steep rocky dirt track among villages. Panting, dusty and white-knuckled, I arrive at my destination.
The hotel consists of nine traditional bungalows on pillars, each with a balcony facing the lake. This must be the best view by Lake Kivu.
I enjoy lunch on a terrace perched over the waters, and I head to town to look for the genocide memorial. It turns out that there is a memorial by the lake every hundred metres or so. The best known is by the St. Pierre Church on a hill. There is a small room displaying skulls with the usual inscription – never again. The church is locked, but I manage to walk around and take a peek inside. I look down towards the lake, its waters silver in the blazing sun, I look at the hills full of green banana trees, I listen to birdchant and a distant singing of schoolchildren down in the valley, and I simply cannot imagine that these peaceful hills and the beautiful shores were teeming with corpses a mere 20 years ago.
After this, I feel the need to forget death for a while and experience life, and where else can you do that but at a market. The moto taxi drops me off in the centre of Kibuye. A single dusty road lined with shops cuts through the town. Walking around in the dust makes me feel like I’m in a Western movie.
I then spend an hour walking around the market, looking at sellers of fresh fish, fruit and veg. The fresh produce is located on the ground floor of what appears to be a local version of a shopping mall. Higher floors are for services and crafts such as ironing or sewing.
I’m dying to take pictures and I find that sellers willingly agree to be photographed if I buy something. So in the end by the time I leave I have with me a doughnut, two carrots, an avocado and a bunch of mangoes.
There is no wifi at my hotel, so I stop by Hotel Bethanie, a local hostel that is some sort of a legend among tourists and expats. I install myself on the terrace and order a drink, when suddenly the same little white girl from the boat passes by. I call out to her in English and French, and she responds in French. It turns out she is Belgian and travelling in Rwanda with her parents’ friend and her kids. Soon enough, a young woman with three little girls appears, and I invite them all to join my table. The woman is a Rwandan living in Brussels, on a trip to show her roots to the girls.
It’s getting late, so I say my farewells and catch a moto back to my hotel. Knowing what’s ahead, I decide to walk the last rocky stretch. As I enter the village, I pass by a crowd of young people playing volleyball. One jokingly passes the ball to me and I join the game for a few minutes. I introduce myself and manage to get everyone to call me Anna rather than ‘muzungu’.
It is already completely dark when I reach the hotel, plus there appears to be a powercut. Before the generator kicks in, I eat my market veggies watching the lake from my little balcony. This place is perfect. I want the moment to last.
It turns out that the Chinese construction workers building the road have accidentally damaged a water pipe. I don’t really mind foregoing a shower, but the diligent staff bring buckets full of hot water to every bungalow.
The morning is even more glorious than the evening. I spend some time watching locals go about their daily chores that revolve around the lake. Children are fetching water in big yellow canisters, women are doing laundry and then spreading the colourful garments on the grass to dry.
It is a hot morning, so I decide to have a swim before I leave. The water is pleasantly refreshing, although I’m somewhat unsettled by the knowledge that the lake is a massive cemetery of genocide victims. Had I known about the methane explosions at that time, I probably would have stuck to the shower in my room.
Finally, I take my final moto ride up the infernal road to the town centre, where I take a minibus to Kigali. I’m early and I get a window seat. The same scenario repeats as on the boat. When the bus is absolutely full, more and more people arrive, until every inch of space is occupied by limbs and bags.
The road is endlessly winding and offers spectacular views of the lake on one side, and views of hills and villages on the other.
I arrive in Kigali for my last night in Rwanda, pleased to have spent a few days by Lake Kivu, where life has a different pace and every view takes one’s breath away.