Kissenji possesses an excellent climate, for by virtue of its 1,500 metres above sea level all enervating heat is banished. The natural coolness prevalent in consequence makes a visit there a very agreeable experience. The man who has this place allotted to him for his sphere of activity draws a prize. In front are the swirling breakers of the most beautiful of all the Central African lakes, framed in by banks which fall back steeply from the rugged masses of rock; at the rear the stately summits of the eight Virunga volcanoes.The Duke of Mecklenburg, 1907.
Known as Rubavu today, the town still has most of the attributes extolled by Mecklenburg a century ago. The easygoing tropical character that greets one walking around Rubavu is of white sandy beaches, mismatched architectural styles, shady palm-lined avenues, courting couples walking hand in hand, and children in bright orange life jackets swimming.
I was pleased upon arriving at the bus station that in spite of the light showers that had dogged our bus ride down from Byangabo, the airs of the town still retained their temperate humid warmth. Such a contrast to both the dry heat of Kigali City and the biting cold up at the foothills of the Volcanoes in Byangabo.
The first port of call – Rubona. This is the official start of the biking-favourite Congo-Nile Trail, which runs south along the lakeshore to Rusizi (Cyangugu). It is also the main harbour on the northern lakeshore and the site of the Brasseries et Limonaderies du Rwanda (Bralirwa), one of the country’s largest breweries popularly known for Mutzig and Primus.
We got there on a RWF 300 taxi ride from the main taxi park. The road tries to follow the lakeshore almost in its entirety, but runs inland for a while too. Either way, it makes for a pleasant scenic route where one sees small fishing canoes dotting the harbour further ahead.
Nyamyumba Hot Springs
Perhaps 500m past the brewery, one sees the signposted motorable track that runs downhill for a few hundred metres to the hot springs. There is a mad old lady ranting at the entrance, next to the shores of the lake, something about Kagame. A few metres behind us is a witch doctor’s enclave. There must be some relation here, methinks.
Nyamyumba, whose shallow searing water runs slowly into the lake, creates a bathing beach with temperatures of a sauna. Bathing in hot spring waters, as I’ve heard every time I’ve been to one, allegedly has a curative effect – relieving fatigue, curing skin rashes and mending simple fractures. In some places, the springs are hot enough for villagers to boil potatoes and their ever precious cassava.
It’s crowded on the mid-morning that we get there, with old women being massaged while lying on and covered in wet sand and others having their tired muscles awakened by the scorching heat of the pool water.
There’s a mix of people there – with villagers trying to make a living off of the tourists coming to visit, French-speaking West Africans who’d brought their grandmother for a massage, Germans in sandals enjoying the views of the lake, East African students trying to negotiate prices for a dug-out, urban Rwandans straight from Kigali with their nasally-spoken English.
Once we secure a dugout to take us a little bit offshore, we proceed to leave the springs. The motorized, mostly hand-built boat, is quite fast and stable. It hits the ocean-like waves with its tiny might, propelling us through the water to a lonesome far-away ‘rock island’. Well, the rock is basically 5m² at best. But it’s a nice refuge, away from the mainland and all its noise and dust, but not too far away to fill you with dread and thoughts of being marooned.
The rock is a pale shade of amber, has slimy algae growing all around its uneven surface, but takes in the tide gracefully. In the distance, towards more of the lake’s expanse, a thin cloud of smoke wafts from a floating barge. I read later on that it’s the world’s largest methane gas extraction plant — called KivuWatt. The plant works by pulling the gas from the bottom of the lake and converting it into electricity, a remarkable feat of engineering.
Kivu’s deep waters hold a high concentration of methane gas and carbon dioxide. If this concentration continues to rise, it could ultimately reach saturation and be released into the air, threatening people living nearby.
However, by safely extracting methane from the gas-laden water, the KivuWatt project reduces the threat of an environmental catastrophe — while also expanding Rwanda’s access to cleaner and more reliable power at a lower cost.
Once KivuWatt is fully online, the 100 megawatts of power produced by that project alone will make a significant difference for Rwanda, a country that is aiming for universal access to electricity.
Back on the shores, we take a taxi back to the main town and have a meal along one of its undistinguished busy roadside kiosks centred around the central market. The gloomy rain-soaked clouds that hang low on this day deny us a skyline that is usually dominated by the distinctive volcanic outline of Nyiragongo, whose active crater often belches out smoke by day and glows ominously at night.
Denied that spectacle, we hop onto motos and head for the Petite Barriere, the commercial border post between Rwanda and DRC. The border is the first in Rwanda and third in Africa to clear as many as 38, 000 – 45,000 passengers per day.
Witnessing the sheer bee-hive of activity going on as traders cross back and forth is jaw-dropping. The ease with which Rwandan residents who reside in the nearby sectors cross the barriers is a welcome relief. With APCS machines, passengers living in sectors bordering with DRC use their identity cards and the system clears them automatically. It’s a good way of saving time for business people prone to doing back and forth trading.
Gisenyi Public Beach
We end as we began, overlooking the surprisingly straight shoreline of Kivu. The ‘inland sea’ that submerges 2,370km² of the Albertine Rift floor has quite a crowd today, in spite of the periodic showers that have been pouring throughout.
The breeze gets colder as the tide rises, the sun’s rays waning. It is sad to see though, amidst all this beauty, sewage slowly snaking its way into the lake. Foul-smelling and rancid, we have to jump over it while crossing the beach.
It deeply saddened me, how humans could let this happen. And to sort of cement my sadness, the mighty waves are washing ashore neat lines of litter.