The American Great Lakes? Pah! Or maybe the English Lake District? They don’t come even close. If you crave jaw-dropper views, colourful culture and off-the-charts adventure, you can’t beat the deep-water lakes dotting the African Rift Valley.
By: Jacques Marais
One problem with most of these water bodies is that they often come with a modicum of danger, either in the form of beasties bearing sharp fangs or claws, or the less visible evils of water-borne diseases such as bilharzia. Fortunately, this does not apply to the glorious Lake Kivu.
There are a number of access points to Kivu, and we approached it via Cyangugu, a bristling border town on the three-country juncture between DRC, Rwanda and Burundi. The vibe on the streets is frenetic, with undercurrents of chaos and poverty, but I can promise you the jade waters of Lake Kivu beckon seductively.
The shores of this pristine lake make for one of Africa’s most special mountain bike rides, with dirt tracks and villages roads winding along the shoreline for approximately 140km. We could easily have imagined we were in Corsica while pedalling along the 480m-deep lake, gazing at steep volcanic ridges rising up from the tranquil, indigo surface.
On most days, the surface shimmers like liquid glass, with gentle breezes feathering the waters of hundreds of hidden bays. We had been cranking the Congo-Nile Divide Trail to the northern point of Lake Kivu when we decided the Paradise Kivu Resort was just too fabulous to rush on by.
Setting Off On An Epic Adventure
A short meeting with the resort’s owner Odette Nyamyumba soon saw us pitching our tents on gloriously green lawns, and it wasn’t long before she had us snacking on freshly grilled isimbaza sardines from the lake. Nothing was too much trouble for this regal lady, and for the next couple of days, we had – in her own words – “a mother in Rwanda” who could just not do enough for us.
We had, however, made plans to kayak the full length of Kivu, and after a farewell hug from Odette, we set off on our epic adventure. Age-old cultures continue to unfold along the lake shore, but with a touch of added Rwandan modernity overlayed with bucket loads of breath-taking natural grandeur.
Above us, the steamy equator sky flickered with occasional flashes of sheet lightning, with subsonic rumbles rolling in from thunderstorms strafing the emerald Congo peaks along the western skyline. It was an exhilarating feeling as we bladed away in our boats, infinitesimally small yet viscerally alive, sensing the primal darkness of half a kilometre of water directly below us.
Our 150km kayak mission started out pretty uneventfully as we paddled from Rubavu towards one of the southernmost peninsulas on the lake. We were warned to steer clear of the ‘no-man’s land’ down the centre Kivu and had mapped out a route which would allow us to safely camp on the picturesque islands dotting the Rwandan side of the lake.
Despite overcast skies and some thunder activity, it turned out to be a gem of a paddle, with our boat gliding effortlessly past dozens of small islands as we approached our first wild camping spot. That night, many a tall tale was shared in the dancing light of a fire flickering amidst the gentle sway of island trees.
An early start saw us then set course for Kirongo, but with a short stop at Napoleon Island. Pistol (Peter Kirk, the video cameraman who joined us on the expedition) and I decided a quick mission was in order and legged it up to the highest point on the island to capture the arrival of the stragglers in the last boats. We were amazed to see a herd of cattle swimming towards the island.
They must have swum a considerable distance from the mainland, presumably, and were accompanied by a chugging wooden boat laden with calves and cows too old to swim. On the way down, we scouted around until we discovered the bats. These ‘flying foxes’ were massive, with individual wingspans of up to 80cm and huge testicles, and we accordingly renamed the outcrop ‘Big Bollocks Island’.
We grabbed a quick snack and continued across the shimmering lake to a remote lodge from where we headed into the final 16km stretch. The wind had by now picked up markedly, but the weather still looked as if it would hold long enough to make it to our next island camp site.
One thing you can bet on in Africa is its unpredictability, and within minutes, the weather ramped up to level epic. Dark, cumulus clouds had stacked up in the east, and soon after all hell broke loose. I thought we might outrun the tempest, but within seconds, our kayak was swamped by a solid wall of rain charging across the lake surface.
Sniping gusts of wind soon whipped Kivu into a frenzy as we turned tail and made a run for shelter. A small headland offered slight protection from the rain sheeting down, and we cowered there for 45 minutes while waiting for the storm to abate. The temperature had plummeted, and we made a sketchy call to run the gauntlet of lightning strafing the lake, all while next-level pyrotechnics spider-webbed above the nearby DRC skyline.
By now it was properly dark, but we fortuitously managed to locate our wooden support boat with the crew and passengers well shaken and stirred. They had waged their own elemental war within the eye of the storm, to the extent where the flimsy craft was at one stage stranded between Rwanda and Congo, buffeted by the swell and gale-force winds while dangerously taking on water.
Line of sight navigation had become a gamble along the rocky shoreline, so after paddling for another hour with head torches and no sign of the designated camp, we voted to opt for landfall at the first suitable spot. This is easier said than done in a country as densely populated as Rwanda.
A Priceless Adventure
Within a minute of us landing on a remote grassy bank, with a cow lowing forlornly in the distance, villagers were streaming down from the surrounding hills to check out the wizardry of dry bags, pop-up tents and drowned-rat mzungus. A self-appointed fire chief soon had a blazing pyre going, and we settled down to a quick bite to eat.
One major downside was that our liquor stores had been reduced to a measly papsak of warm white wine, and this was certainly not the manliest way to celebrate our survival on the high seas (or lake, in this case). So, there we were, drenched to the skin and with damp kit scattered all round – with no red wine and stuck with a bovine background soundtrack. The plus side, though, was off the scale. We were in one piece after an adventure money could never buy.
That night, I lay in my tent and listened as peace and quiet slowly returned to the island, and once again came to the realisation that the Rift Valley region rated as utterly remarkable. Look no further if you’re planning a journey into Africa, because it boasts a full house, from nature and culture to some of the friendliest people on the continent.
The beers are cold, the coffee is strong, and your smile muscles will work overtime.
Words: Jacques Marais
SAA flies to Kinshasa every week. From there, take a quick connecting flight to Goma and make an easy border crossing to Gisenyi in Rwanda. Once in Rwanda, the cost of living is extremely affordable. www.flysaa.com