On Lake Kivu, a vervet monkey with striking blue genitalia has just stolen a banana from my beached kayak. The air is heavy with the sounds of flying foxes, and the trail is motile with nut-brown millipedes. Like a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, they entwine in knot-like orgies, exoskeletons snapping loudly whenever someone missteps. We climb beyond the rainforest to rocky blonde grassland. Upon reaching Munini Island’s camel-backed summit, deep navy waters stretch out on all sides. The verdant Rwandan hills ripple in the east, and the purple mountains of the Congo swell in the west, banded by a tumpline of silver, gauzy cloud.
As I take a separate route back down to the kayak, I duck under mango trees festooned with lianas into a little hollow, then shout an expletive. A dark, sinuous form unfurls itself, its belly the same colour as the millipedes, its back jet black. It slithers beneath a large slab of basalt, its neck expanding like a bellows, revealing a pale white hood. The winding scaly mass is a forest cobra. “A rare sighting in this part of Rwanda,” notes my guide Gratien Uwikunda. I’m guessing he doesn’t believe me. Nobody ever believes a snake story.
I’m here with Much Better Adventures on one of its taster trips, which allows me to chip away at the coal face of its newest projects alongside other intrepid travellers. The company excels in providing professionals with legitimately adventurous experiences that can be fit inside a busy schedule to maximise time off work. This tour sees us kayaking the majority of Lake Kivu from Kibuye to Gisenyi, before taking to the gorilla-frequented hills in Virunga and Volcanoes National Park to bag Rwanda’s tallest peak: the 4,507m Mount Karisimbi.
Coming back down to our kayaks, I laugh at Gratien’s jokes. He reminds me of a young Eddie Murphy. Yet when he discusses the history of this remote, unpopulated island he is matter-of-fact, if not sombre. According to Gratien, during the 100 days between April and July 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, refugees attempted to hide on the island from the Hutu Power genocidaires. They were discovered and executed.
Years later, the tragedy was compounded when an overloaded memorial boat capsized on its way to spread flowers in the waters around the island. “I lost three family members,” says Gratien. His eyes are clear, his voice level. Yet, in spite of past tragedies, there’s a palpable sense of hope in this country’s young population, almost half of which is under the age of 15. A number of economic and educational initiatives have seen this new generation flourish, as well as focusing on gender equality, with 60% of parliament composed of female members.
Conversation comes easy as we paddle the still waters in Lake Kivu’s Bay of Islands. The guides are keen-eyed and knowledgeable when it comes to local wildlife. The first time I witness a hadada ibis I’m struck by its crooked neck, thin beak and wing feathers splayed out like fingers. Later, I learn that they’re the local equivalent of a herring gull, equally common and noisy. We encounter pied kingfishers and water thick-knees, as well as raptors such as black kites and African harrier-hawks. The most prepossessing of the birds, though, is an African fish eagle. It resembles a bald eagle on steroids, with enormous dark-brown and black plumage on its wings, its head and breast a downy white.
Due to its 240-485m depth, the waters of Lake Kivu are remarkably serene. Yet, at its lakebed, it’s anything but. Lake Kivu is one of three lakes to have limnic eruptions, a very rare type of natural disaster. With giant deposits of methane and carbon dioxide that could potentially erupt to form an enormous gas cloud, about two million people in the surrounding area were at threat in the case of nearby volcanoes kicking off. Luckily, scientists have found means of extracting it (utilised by companies like Heineken, which uses methane to carbonate its lager).
On the horizon, the caldera of Nyiragongo glows auburn red like a giant brazier.
The tranquil water makes it easy to spot inquisitive Congo clawless otters surfacing near the kayaks. As we draw between three small spits of land, shepherds whistle for their cattle. A piebald steer emerges through tall rushes and begins to lower itself into the strait. I’m surprised when its head begins to bob up and down, its legs propelling it forward. It dawns on me that I’ve never seen a cow swim. Later, the 18-strong herd swims together V-shaped, like the Mighty Ducks, to the eastern island, awkwardly hoisting themselves up the steep rocky banks. With no crocodiles or hippopotamus in Lake Kivu, the livestock are safe in the water.
Just after, as the sun’s setting, we encounter a three-hulled fishing rig bound together by long poles. The fishermen paddle hard in unison, singing together in baritone as the watercraft pivots, catching sambaza (small sardines) and tilapia in their nets. We pull into the leeside inlet of an edenic island, haul out and pitch tents, then climb a gentle slope between native trees to a high meadow, where we devour a vegetarian barbecue as the sky darkens. On the horizon, the caldera of Nyiragongo glows auburn red like a giant brazier. The volcano has one of the world’s fullest lava lakes. Back in the tent, sated with supper and scenery, sleep arrives swiftly.
We paddle 20 miles to the city of Gisenyi, the second-largest city in Rwanda, which sits on the shoulder of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A warm-up hike to altitude-acclimate for Mount Karisimbi takes us along the Congo Nile Divide Trail to stab at the 2,990m summit of Muhungwe which, due to wet and muddy conditions underfoot, we don’t quite reach.
It’s no rest for the wicked, as we pile back onto a transport for a long, winding drive to Volcanoes National Park and our attempt to climb Karisimbi, one of Africa’s tallest mountains, the next day. That morning during a 7am briefing, I realise that Karisimbi is going to be no walk in the park. Permits for the climb cost $400 and it will take two days to ascend the stratovolcano, with a sleepover at a campsite at 3,700m. We rent gaiters to keep mud and water from spilling into our boots and long wooden walking poles that look like something out of Middle Earth. Leaving Bisoke Village, which stands at a lofty 2,600m above sea level, we depart the fertile farmland and pass dove white fields of pyrethrum flowers, which are used to create a natural insecticide.
The trail continues beyond a rock wall laid to keep large animals out of the fields and pastures, into temperate rainforest, beyond the gravesite of conservationist Dian Fossey (made famous when Sigourney Weaver portrayed her in the Oscar-nominated 1988 biopic Gorillas in the Mist) and into the wide col between Mount Bisoke and Mount Karisimbi. The possibility of seeing mountain gorillas keeps my head on a swivel, but no such primates make an appearance.
The ascent is muddy, whether through jungle paths or boggy meadows, but after heavy rains the trail is transformed into a quagmire, and a few miles are spent plodding through knee-deep slurry. Gaiters are a necessity for keeping feet relatively dry, though they are occasionally ripped off the leg by the powerful suction of the mud. When attempting to avoid the worst of the muck, venturing off path, one has to contend with giant thistles and nettles that string through light fabric.
The way is complicated by the volume of the party. 13 hikers have been serviced by 28 porters to lug tents, food and water as well as a platoon of soldiers armed with Soviet weaponry. Most of them carry AK-47s. One sports a bipodal PK machine gun, another a bazooka. Camouflaged uniforms flit in and out of the forest, making it difficult to tell the exact number of soldiers.
Both porters and soldiers are open and friendly. I joke with a young woman named Pelagie, who catches me as I lose my balance over the slick root of an African redwood. The soldiers laugh when I refer to myself as an umuzungu umusazi – crazy white person – in the local Kinyarwanda language. Yet when we encounter a mountain buffalo they are all seriousness, silently fanning out among the trees. The creature is burly, its horns sharp and haunches rippling with muscle and sinew. Still, a bazooka seems rather strong.
We finally arrive at the Karisimbi base camp at 3,700m where a pied crow greets us, cawing from the peaked roof of a shelter constructed from flexing softwood planks. The temperature dips down towards freezing during the night. Sleep is patchy.
The mountains – Bisoke, Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhavura – appear almost lazy in the way they gently condescend from their wide calderas to kiss flat ground.
In the morning, fortified with three cups of coffee, I take in the scenery. Below, rising from the plains, a string of broad green volcanoes catches the morning sun through gossamer cloud cover. The mountains – Bisoke, Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhavura – appear almost lazy in the way they gently condescend from their wide calderas to kiss flat ground.
Right away, the terrain changes dramatically, steepening into a scramble. Scrubby shrubland studded with pineapple-shaped giant lobelia gives way to volcanic gravel covered with moss, reminiscent of Iceland. When I point out the similarity, guide Eloi notes that “an Icelandic scientist was brought over to study Karisimbi’s retreating glacier.” The name Karisimbi originates from Kinyarwanda and means ‘white shell’ for the snow that used to cover its peak in the dry season. As with many glaciers, it was a victim of climate change.
Girding my loins for the final push to the summit I feel the first knife thrusts of altitude sickness stabbing in. A thick cloud has swept in over the mountaintop, thrashing us with sleet. Nausea rises, feet feel increasingly leaden, each step up like a burpee. This is textbook type two fun. I can’t wait for it to be over, to drop a few hundred metres and have the noxious sensations of altitude sickness ebb out of me. Yet I know that it’ll be this moment that remains for years to come, and paradoxically the one that calls for a return. It’s tempting to leave the narrative here, on the cusp of summiting, when I feel the most miserable, and alive.
There’s a eurocentric tendency among travellers to refer to countries as the ‘Switzerland’ of a particular region, and I’ve heard the same about Rwanda in Africa. There are certainly similarities – it’s orderly, safe and boasts an embarrassment of natural riches – but as I stand at the peak of Mount Karisimbi, flanked by Gratien and Eloi, it feels foolishly reductive.
The prevailing emotion at the top of this mountain isn’t satisfaction at having bagged its summit. It’s not even the woozy compression of altitude sickness. No, it’s a feeling of kinship with the guides who, always smiling, have helped me along the way. With young people so visibly proud of their country and its landscape, it’s hard not to be excited for the country’s future.
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The Hike and Kayak Rwanda adventure
The Hike and Kayak Rwanda adventure is one of 180+ award-winning adventure holidays curated by Much Better Adventures. The B Corp-certified travel brand offers active adventures in 65+ countries with 5% of revenues supporting conservation projects.
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