The banks on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu are marked by picturesque villages and dozens of wooden fishing boats in spectacular bays, but the views over the lake and the lush green mountains on the Congolese side are even more breathtaking. Andrea Dijkstra and Jeroen van Loon drove around the immense lake – and entered the war zone.
Text: Andrea Dijkstra
Photography: Jeroen van Loon
Smooth tarmac roads are appearing all over mountainous Rwanda. Though this development is very positive, we were more interested in the Congo Nile Trail – a dirt road (in Rwanda) along the eastern shore of Lake Kivu that has recently been marked by the Rwandan government.
The route’s name is derived from “the real source of the Nile”, located in the nearby Nyungwe Forest, and the trip takes two to three days. A map can be downloaded using the link at the end of this article. You will definitely need it, as it isn’t always available at the tourist office in Musanze.
Just outside of the beach town Gisenyi, on the northernmost tip of Lake Kivu, we turned onto a dirt road marked by a big signboard saying “Congo Nile Trail”. This is where we left modern Rwanda behind.
Small children dressed in rags ran behind our car, laughing and screaming. Women carrying large bunches of branches on their heads stared at us. For hours we hardly encountered any other vehicles.
We crossed a patchwork of gently sloping farmlands with corn, cassava, sugar cane, coffee and banana palms. In a more forested area, we encountered a spectacular waterfall right beside the road, allowing us to take amazing pictures.
Our Land Rover suddenly felt quite big in the very narrow main street of the dusty village of Nkora, passing only inches away from a hairdressing salon, a brick mosque and a crowded market place. The people seemed to like our car. They were clearly not used to seeing tourists, and enjoyed the interest we showed in their way of life.
The “Nile Trail” signboards had been placed all along the route, except for the places where we really needed them. And asking locals for directions didn’t help much. Apparently the government had not informed the local population about this scenic route, and we were invariably directed towards the tar highway dozens of miles away.
Thankfully the campsites, or so-called “base camps”, have been marked properly. Rwanda is too densely populated for bush camping, so we decided to stay in a “base camp” halfway up the route. Unfortunately, the camp was nothing more than a messy lawn next to a coffee plantation. The young “camp manager” told us that camping on the lawn cost US$10 a night, and showed us the toilet and shower facility. It had not been cleaned in years. Because it was getting dark we decided to stay, but refused to pay until the toilet had been cleaned. When the camp manager said we now had to pay $20 as he needed to pay a woman to clean the toilet, we laughed and asked him why he couldn’t do it himself. The manager just stood there, unable to respond.
The next morning, we drove through a green valley where men, women and children were cutting grass with small scythes. With the increasing altitude the landscape became drier, the road dustier and the number of begging children greater.
Coffee plantations gave way to a plush carpet of tea fields, but soon the dirt road widened and the presence of Chinese road workers indicated that this stretch would undoubtedly be tarred soon.
That evening we camped for $10 again, but this time in the gardens of the Tshana Beach Motel, with stunning views over Lake Kivu.
What we had feared became a reality the next day. The dirt track turned into a smooth tarmac road. Still, we recommend the Congo Nile Trail, especially the northern part, starting at Gisenyi. This is a beautiful, unspoiled part of Rwanda.
Vacation time was over for us and since we were taking on several assignments in eastern Congo it was time to enter the country at Bukavu – as soon as we could resolve a “small” problem. Our Congolese translator told us at the last minute that we absolutely had to have a valid international driver’s licence, otherwise corrupt police would keep demanding bribes from us. We both had international licences, but they had expired and since nobody ever asked for them, we hadn’t thought of renewing them. Because we could only get new licences in the Netherlands, we were very worried. How could we obtain driving licences in a small border town in Africa?
After staring at the beige documents for a while, we hit on an idea. Why not just forge them? Who would know? After some creative “scrap-booking”, we were ready to go.
Once at the border, we met Honeur, a friendly Congolese man whose sister turned out to be an immigration officer working at the border post. We had heard stories about corrupt Congolese border officials, so meeting Honeur was a blessing. His sister stamped our passports, and after paying just $30 for a car permit and road tax, we entered the Democratic Republic of Congo. The crossing had taken only ten minutes, and turned out to be the easiest of our trip!
Bukavu is a beautiful African city. Because the border town is spread across several rolling peninsulas, at every corner you have a different view over Lake Kivu. And thanks to its high altitude (1500m), it has a more pleasant climate than the rest of the country.
Bukavu was apparently a favourite holiday destination for Belgian colonists. Their influence is still visible in the architecture. In contrast to other African cities, many of the colonial buildings haven’t been replaced by shopping malls – yet.
Bukavu has a big Catholic cathedral, and in one of the lakeside bays we discovered an old dock that had been built in 1941 and is still in use today.
We filled most of our time in Bukavu by hopping from one ministry to the other to collect dozens of stamps and signatures we needed to visit a “conflict free” tin mine backed by the Dutch government. After three days we had all the paperwork we needed and, accompanied by a translator, resumed our journey on a rocky dirt road, heading for Goma. The locals, walking along the road, were clearly amazed at the spectacle of two whites and a Congolese travelling in a Land Rover with Dutch number plates. Although this is the only road between Bukavu and Goma, hardly anybody uses it because it is in such bad condition. And, of course, there is the very real risk of rebel attacks.
As we passed a heavily armed convoy of UN soldiers, we started to feel a bit nervous.
At the same time, we were overawed by the beautiful landscape. Although eastern Congo has been trapped in violence for more than two decades, costing the lives of millions of people and infamous for the combatants’ terrible reputation for rape, it looks like paradise on earth.
In the hamlet of Kalehe we collected more stamps and signatures. When we returned to our car, we found that our right rear tyre was flat, having probably been sliced by the sharp rocks on the road. Thankfully we had two spares and quickly changed the wheel in front of a curious Congolese crowd.
We finally reached the mining town of Nyabibwe after two more hours of driving. After a final round of collecting stamps and signatures, we were allowed to descend into the 100m-deep mine pit. Wearing rain boots, we walked through the flooded tunnels, anxiously watching the electrical wires hanging in the water.
Miners were using steel hammers and pins to remove rocks, while sweat ran down their mud-smeared faces. Although a noisy compressor was blowing oxygen into the tunnel, it was quite stifling in there. Working in that environment must be difficult.
Heading back to Bukavu, we suddenly heard a loud hissing sound. Yet another puncture! We quickly put a jack under the car as an amused crowd gathered.
At the moment that Jeroen began to crawl under the car to boost up the jack, the vehicle fell from it, nearly crushing him. To our dismay, the crowd howled with laughter. Fortunately Jeroen wasn’t hurt, but were not impressed by the actions of the crowd. It took more than an hour to change the wheel in the difficult circumstances, using our hi-lift jack.
We continued on our way, now driving without any additional spare tyres. Every sharp rock was now a dangerous obstacle. When we finally reached the tar after two hours, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was now dark and our translator mumbled, “If you run into anyone, continue to drive as fast as possible, otherwise people will lynch us.” Fortunately we made it to Bukavu without facing such a dire situation!
The following week we again took the harsh dirt road, but this time all the way to Goma, hundreds of kilometres away. We camped about halfway there at a missionary compound run by nuns at Minova.
The next morning, soldiers stopped us at a checkpoint. With arrogant smiles and raised eyebrows, they walked around the car and told us that they wanted to check it. We handed over our fake international driving licence. It was carefully studied, but ultimately accepted.
Unfortunately, though, the recently issued car permit had already expired. Customs officials at the border hadn’t told us that it would only be valid for two weeks. (In most countries such a permit is valid for a month.)
The soldiers triumphantly told us that our only option was to go all the way back to Bukavu as we could not pay a fine in Minova. After we had haggled and pleaded for ten minutes, the commander said he would let us go for $50, though the permit would have cost only $15. We eventually settled on a “fine” of $25.
As soon as we were back on the road, we added a few days to the date on the permit, so we wouldn’t have to pay any more fines. We were quickly becoming master forgers!
In Goma, we stayed with a rich Congolese family who owned two large passenger boats on Lake Kivu. They suggested we take a ride in their speedboat. Slightly astonished, we took our seats in their white, luxurious boat.
A short while later, our mouths dropped open when we docked at a festival where a band was playing live music to which hundreds of young people were dancing. We definitely hadn’t expected this in Goma. It was still a war zone, after all.
But fighting between the rebels and the army flared up again a few days later, just 14km from the city. We wanted to write a story about the new UN intervention force, so we decided to go to the front. Ideally, we would have gone with the UN forces but they had been brushing us off for more than a week, so we decided to make a go of it on our own.
With mixed feelings, we stuck A4 pages with the word “PRESS” on all sides of our car. Just outside the city we passed many army tanks, and our translator instructed us to stop close to one group of Congolese soldiers. He went over to talk to them.
“Follow that motorbike,” he shouted as he jumped back into the car, pointing at a soldier on a rickety bike. Following him, we went through countless deserted streets with empty, bullet-scarred houses.
In a more forested area, we suddenly came across dozens of soldiers, resting. We got quite a fright, but they were very friendly. All they wanted was to have their pictures taken with the Land Rover.
Suddenly there were deafening explosions. We dropped to the ground, but the soldiers just laughed.
“These are our shots, not theirs,” said a commander named Moses, pointing to some trees a few hundred metres away. There were more soldiers, firing grenades at the rebels, who were apparently close by.
As Commander Moses was telling us that the UN often assisted the Congolese Army, two white helicopters showed up and, to our astonishment, started firing at the ground.
“Don’t worry, they are bombing the militants, not us,” laughed Moses.
We were hardly reassured. How stupid had we been, travelling to the front line in our own 4×4?
When the commander asked if we would like to join some soldiers who were about to carry out an attack, we quickly shook our heads.
A few days later, we had to leave Congo because our visas were expiring. (No thoughts about forging this time!)
We drank a beer in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, celebrating our successful four weeks in the Congo. Unfortunately, the eastern Congo just isn’t a suitable tourist destination at the moment. This is a real shame, because at a peaceful time it really would be heaven on earth.