Situated in the African Rift Valley, Lake Kivu, shared by both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), stretches for 89 km and is Rwanda's largest lake. Millions of years old, it looks more like an inland sea. A deep shade of green, with clumps of volcanic islands, it's surrounded by terraced hill slopes with macadamia, coffee and banana plantations.
Though the lake looks idyllic, it hides a secret in its depths. Not many people know that due to tectonic activity in the area, the lake contains a volatile mix of dissolved carbon dioxide and methane laced with toxic hydrogen sulfide. At its bottom, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption could trigger a gas release known as a limbic eruption. The lake, however, is considered safe for swimming as there are no animals like hippos or crocodiles lurking in its waters.
Resort towns with beaches and a laid-back vibe line the shores of the lake and it is a popular getaway destination for the locals of this landlocked country. Many come here to hike or cycle on the surrounding trails, kayak or explore a part of the legendary Congo Nile trail—a 227 km stretch that takes ten days to complete on foot.
Our first stop on the lake is the small town of Karongi, which comes alive in August with thousands of yellow-billed kites as they migrate. Today, seeing the tranquil town, it's hard to believe that it witnessed one of the worst massacres of 1994 when more than 10,000 Tutsis were killed. The sombre Genocide Memorial Church with stained glass windows stands on a hill, in testimony of this tragedy.
We check into our luxurious hotel, Cleo Lake Kivu in Karongi, welcomed by glasses of tree tomato juice, a local speciality. The hotel, perched on a cliff above the lake, has plush rooms, a free-standing bath with a view of the lake, and a balcony with a panoramic view of the lake, manicured gardens, a helipad, and the surrounding hills. The balcony is a front-row seat to a beautiful sunset as the sky turns a peachy pink, casting purple shadows on the islands. For dinner, we are served dishes from a set menu, with fried fish from the lake and fresh produce from nearby farms.
Lake Kivu is the largest local source of fish in Rwanda, providing more than 20,000 tonnes of fish per year. It is particularly famous for its small sardine-like silvery sambaza fish endemic to the lake. Each night, local fishermen in their three-hulled wooden boats with bent arches on both ends set out with gas lanterns to lay their nets. They sing to keep themselves awake and synchronise their movements. The light and smoke from the lanterns attract the fish into the nets. Our guide, Didier Murindwa, explains that they whistle and sing in Amashi—a mix of Congolese and the local Rwandan language to motivate each other and keep going.
Along the lake's shore are eco-tourism initiatives like the Kinunu Guest House, which makes Boneza coffee. Coffee was introduced in the country by German missionaries a century ago.
We take a boat ride through the lake, enjoying views of the islands and the mountains to visit the Kinunu coffee plantation and factory for an immersive experience. We hop off on a sandy beach, trek up the slopes, and walk through the coffee plantation pretty with white blooms, to understand the process of how coffee is grown, hand-picked, sorted, washed, fermented, dried and finally roasted.
The estate employs local labour and has washing stations on the slopes where the beans are washed and dried before being subjected to a vacuum process to separate different sizes of beans. I am fascinated by how much goes into a cup of coffee and how sensory an experience it is to watch the whole process. We don white coats and caps and enter the roasting room, where the powerful aromas assail our senses. We watch how to roast the beans the old-fashioned way in a mud pot on hot coals. The session ends with a coffee-tasting session.
Over the next few days, we explore the different facets of this gargantuan lake. Each island on the lake has a speciality. From Monkey Island, famous for its cheeky vervet monkeys, to Napoleon Island, because its shape resembles his hat), famous for its endangered straw-coloured fruit bats.
Near Peace Island, we chance upon a herd of cows that enter the water and begin swimming in a line to the neighbouring Island to feed on the grass.
"The farmers in this area use these little islands as grazing grounds and have trained the cows to swim as the waters are free of predators," explains our guide.
Our last stop on Lake Kivu is at Serena Hotel Lake Kivu in Rubavu—a town known for its hot springs, relaxing beaches, and Bralirwa, a brewery manufacturing local beers like Primus, Mutzig, and Amstel. Located on the lake's northern tip, close to the border with Congo. We spend the day soaking in the sun, with cocktails in our hands, while the Virunga Volcanoes stand out in the distance. Close by is the public beach where locals play an energetic game of volleyball while some families sprawl on blankets under trees and others swim in the waters.
The next day, we drive away from Lake Kivu towards the forests—the Volcano National Park. The national park is home to a variety of wildlife, including mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, and other animals. The park was once the home of Dian Fossey, a primatologist who studied the gorillas. Unfortunately, the park was also a battlefield during the Rwandan Civil War.
Trekking through rugged paths, I encountered a blend of dense forests and barren stretches forged by past eruptions. The highlight came at dusk, witnessing glowing lava painting the night. The sight was humbling, a reminder of nature's unbridled might.
Travellers from India can apply for an e-Visa or obtain one on arrival at Kigali International Airport. Ethiopian Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Kenya Airways offer connecting flights from major Indian cities, with layovers in Addis Ababa, Doha, or Nairobi, making the journey approximately 10-15 hours long.
Kalpana Sunder is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Chennai