Silver

We'll take the lake road
Tuesday 10
th October 2011

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Waking up this morning at 6am was difficult; our bodies just didn't want too. We struggled to get out of bed and as a result we were running late. To make it worse we hadn't packed last night either so we had to just get up, shove everything in our cases quickly and get out.

We didn't have time for breakfast, which didn't disturb Julie much, she's not good in the mornings especially when it comes to putting things in her mouth. We arranged for a packed-breakfast and a packed lunch to go.

When we checked-out we were pleasantly surprised to see the bill only included the cost of the massage. The local beer and selected wines were included in the daily rate. It was a good job we didn't know that last night or we'd be nursing a major hangover this morning!

We left a $20 tip specifically for the masseurs although whether they got it or not we'll never know.

Eric arrived just before 7am. He asked us if we had breakfast and we explained that we were too late. "We have time now if you would like" he kindly offered.

We decided to take his offer if only for some tea on the veranda. It really was idyllic, overlooking the estate with the sun rising over the hills.

"Another day here would have been nice" said Julie.

If it wasn't for the average quality of the food it would have been a perfect place for some rest and relaxation.

Anyway, we left on time for our long drive to Gisenyi.

Despite the early hour it appeared that the whole of Rwanda were wide awake and already busy with their day. We drove past tea pickers with empty baskets on their backs, on their way to work. Some were already in the fields picking the finest leaves for my brew.

Children, all smartly dressed in their uniform were walking to school at a time when our grand children were probably still in bed! "When do they start school?" asked Julie. "They start early but they finish at 12pm" answered Eric. We had smiles and waves from the younger ones with the older ones with their 'too cool for school' aloofness.

Just before we reached Gisakura we came across a large gathering of people. It seemed the whole community had turned out armed with long sticks. "Everyone in the village is here to help work on the land" explained Eric. He said that most of the farming in Rwanda is organised by cooperatives.

When we drove through the town of Gisakura people were milling about in the street, a lorry laden with supplies had just arrived. One guy was carrying a huge bunch of bananas on his head. That must have weighed a tonne. There must have been over 50 large ones in the cluster.

To be honest I couldn't tell the difference between a plantain or a large green banana but if I had to put money on it I would say they were probably plantain as bananas in the fruit bowls around these parts have been the more smaller sweeter ones.

Anyway, it was colourful sight either way.

 

We soon turned off the Cyangugu road headed North. There were some major roadworks here as we drove along a road newly cut into the hillside. It was so new that it wasn't that clear which way Eric should have driven but on road or off road we were always in safe hands.

To begin with the scenery was much the same as we had already seen, amazing agricultural patchwork set amongst lush hillsides with charming children waving at us the Mzunghus. It then just got better.

Our first real sight of Lake Kivu was breathtaking. This vast lake stretched out a 100km covering almost the entire Western border of Rwanda.

We could see three traditional wooden boats moored by the shore and beyond in the middle of the lake was the island of Idjwi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"There are no crocodiles nor hippos in the lake" said Eric. "It's because it is a very deep lake, about 480 metres." he explained.

"There's also not many fish because it is a volcanic lake and has high levels of Carbon Dioxide and Methane."

The landscape also became more stunning. At one point countless hills were cut into tiers. A view I would have associated more with the terraced rice fields of Indonesia rather than Central Africa.

The "Land of a Thousand Hills" was no idle boast, in fact I'm sure they under estimated. There hardly was any level ground as we climbed our way over one hill and snaked our way around the next.

The condition of the road was reasonable. It was nothing more than a dirt track but at least it was dry. I could imagine it becoming impassable when wet.

It was a permanent boneshaker however. I was already developing a bruise on my left knee as it was constantly being knocked against the door handle. It was quite uncomfortable but the dramatic views made it all worthwhile.

We drove through a number of villages such as Ngoma, Kagano, Akarereka Nyamasheke, Kirambo (some of those maybe districts rather than villages). Each entertaining us with their adorable excitable children.

In between the villages there was always a couple of farmsteads dotted around. There was also, no matter how remote it felt, always someone walking along the road, usually carrying something on their heads. The children amazed us as they often carried sacks larger than themselves!

I think the funniest sight was a lady walking with a handbag on her head. With perfect poise and elegance she walked with a red crocodile skin handbag balanced on top of her head as if that's exactly how you were supposed to carry one.

We had now been driving for two hours and were still not even half way yet. It was going to be a very long day.

The road didn't always follow the shore of Lake Kivu but every now and again we would meet up and we would gasp. Each time it felt as if the scenery was getting even more beautiful.

You could easily see how the lake had simply filled up the space in between the hills. Each inlet having its own distinct shape.

Lake Kivu forms part of the Great Rift Valley, a result of Teutonic plates separating. It's not really one "valley" but a series of connecting lakes and mountain ranges along a number of fault lines.

The Albertine rift section resulted in Virunga volcanoes, Rwenzori mountains, and a string of lakes stretching down from Lake Albert and Lake Edward in Uganda, to Lake Kivu here and then on to Lake Tanganyika.

Lake Kivu is known as an "exploding lake" because of the methane and CO2 released into the water.

Volcanic eruptions beneath the water could explain how there have been rumours of people living near the shore who died in their sleep for no apparent reason. Poisonous gases may have escaped into the atmosphere in sufficient volumes to suffocate

I had read about this a few weeks ago but hadn't dared mention it to Julie because tonight we were staying at the Serena Hotel right on the shore of the exploding Lake Kivu.

Thankfully Eric didn't mention it either!

Somewhere near Rwamatamw we came across another large turnout of people. There must have been over a hundred women all dressed brightly, armed with hoes working hard on the land.

A small group were having a break, sat down at the side of the road or leaning on their tools. They burst into big smiles as we past.

It was an incredible sight to see so many gathered together on the hillside, there to help each other cultivate the land. From a distance they looked like a troop of busy colourful ants.

Hard work was evident everywhere we looked. Almost every square inch was farmed. Entire hills, even where it seemed too steep to work, were still covered by crops. It was astonishing.

 

 

The next village we drove through was Gishyta. As the others, there wasn't much to it. Just a collection of very basic houses, most made from mud, some strengthened with red brick. They all had tin roofs.

 There was a church, a school, a shop only stocked with bananas and of course children who were so excited to see us.

Although there was the odd one or two who just stood and stared at us.

Up in these remote hills, so far removed from the modern world it was really unexpected to find small yellow posts alongside the road marking a fibre optic cable running along the entire length.

Even the mobile phone coverage was impressive; much better than home!

The journey from Nyungwe had already been epic when we came to the point in the road that Eric had been concerned about yesterday. "Oh dear" he said when it dawned on him that the had been badly misinformed.

The collapsed bridge had not been rebuilt yet. Gloom filled the air. The prospect of having to return the way we came was too much to bare.

He began to scratch his head furiously. There was no way through. Our progress was blocked by large tree trunks laid across the road. If it wasn't for them we could have driven across the shallow river. Attempting off-road wasn't an option either as the land dropped sharply.

His mood changed suddenly when one of the labourers came over and told him there was another way to Kibuye.

"That was lucky" said Julie.

Eric smiled and said "I'm always lucky"

Julie's immediate thought was "Shit, that's tempting fate." and spent the next ten minutes worried that something bad was going to happen.

The diversion took us down a very narrow track through some rice fields, popping out the other side onto a blissfully smooth tarmac road. That was lucky!

It felt so good to be rolling along without the shake and rattle.

At the point where the road met the shore of Lake Kivu we stopped briefly and got out of the jeep to stretch our legs.

We crossed the road to have a closer look at a group of men busy building a boat. I would have guessed it was an impressive 50ft long but as most men I'm probably over estimating there.

They were using only rudimentary carpentry tools yet remarkably they had built a beautiful boat.

It wasn't long before we became the attraction. A young lad, say fourteen years old, came over and engaged with us.

He spoke only Kinyarwanda and perhaps a little Swahili but through the art of mime we managed to understand that he was asking us if we wanted to go on a boat ride on the lake in his canoe.

I was up for it but we didn't really have the time. Eric told him to stop pestering us and he left us alone after that.

Two children then arrived to have a good look at us. We assumed they were a boy and a girl as one wore blue and the other wore pink. The confusion may seem strange but they both had their head shaved so it was difficult to tell.

We noticed that most children had their hair shorn short. Again we didn't understand a word each other said but it was all fine. They were absolutely delightful.

Two women who happened to be passing also stopped to stand and stare at us. One had an incredibly gorgeous baby with a mop of curly hair swaddled onto her back.

I desperately wanted to take their photo but I could sense she was a little unsure of us.

As we left the older boy returned and asked for "Money". Now that's one English word he had learned!

Eric asked us not to give him anything as not to encourage begging. "That's something you should not see in Rwanda" he said "beggars!" He said that with a sense of pride but also a hint of distain for those who feel desperate enough to beg. We couldn't leave however without giving the children something at least and threw an orange for them to catch.

Eric told us that his mother's family were from these parts, just north of Kibuyie. She married a rich man from Burundi where Eric was born but when he was only four years old his parents separated.

"He spent all his money on fast cars and other women" he said. "I do not have a relationship with my father anymore."

He didn't seem upset by that. "My step-father was a good man" he said "he paid for my school fees and had time for me."

Eric's brother still lives in Burundi.

He spoke with great affection about his maternal grand mother and how she died of cancer.

"I remember how she always used to smoke a pipe" he recalled "even in her sleep she would have a pipe!"

I talked about my grandmother and how I always remember her smoking Woodbines unfiltered cigarettes. Later in her life she had stopped smoking them but would still have an unlit Woodbine in her mouth.

We avoided asking Eric if he had lost family during the genocide or indeed if he would have been classified as Hutu or Tutsi. "Best leave sleeping dogs lie" we thought.

 

We drove along the tarmac road for a while until we reached a fork in the road. To the right the tarmac continued north, to the left there was a dirt track.

Having already endured four hours of rough terrain the smooth road ahead was tempting but the adventurer in us chose the dirt track.

We were rewarded again by some glorious scenery as it followed the lake for a while. We were entertained briefly by boys larking about on their canoe, diving into the lake.

Each one trying to out do the previous backward flip. It was good to see that the innocence of youth was alive and well in Rwanda.

The children continued to be the highlight of this journey. In every village they would all stop what they were doing and wave frantically at us. Some would even chase us calling out "Mzunghu!" and other names which Eric conveniently couldn't hear to translate.

Most children appeared to be playing in their own little world. Certainly not many had toys to entertain them.

One or two kicked a ball made from pieces of rubbish tied together with string. A few lucky ones had an old tyre which they rolled along the road keeping it upright with a stick.

I remember my father telling me he used to play with tyres when he was a child. I can't remember though if he rolled them or set them on fire.

What felt like three hours later we couldn't believe that only an hour had passed since we left Kibuye. I think we were beginning to get a bit weary. Bored Julie moved to sit behind rather than by my side. Most of the children as well as the best views were on the left hand side.

Celine Dione wasn't helping either. We were being shaken about to the soundtrack of the French Canadian songstress. Eric was a big fan. He must have had hours of her dulcet tones on his MP3 player.

Just before I lost the will to live my spirits lifted when we saw an exceptional view. We had climbed slowly to an altitude where we were now looking down over Lake Kivu.

We asked Eric to stop for a while so that we could simply absorb it. The inland sea stretching out as far as the eye could tell and the shoreline littered with a number of small islets. It was simply breathtaking.

From here we parted company with Lake Kivu heading inland; the landscape gradually changing. The hills instead of being worked into a thousand allotments were given over to grazing. For the first time we saw fence posts and wire run along the road to keep in livestock.

Most of the cattle were a cross between the longhorns we had seen yesterday at the Royal Palace and the familiar black and white Friesian dairy cows. If it wasn't for the women carrying sacks on their heads it would have almost felt like home.

In addition to the grasslands there was quite a large area of woodland. Not the wild and untamed forest like the impenetrable Nyungwe, nor were they protected by National Park status. There was a whole lot of logging going on.

Seeing trees being cut down on an industrial scale seemed at odds with the impression that we were in the Garden of Eden.

We did drive past the last remaining remnants of the Gishwati Forest. Not so long ago, as recent as thirty years, it covered a vast area over 250,000 acres but since the genocide and the demand on land to feed people the forest shrunk to only 1500 acres.

 It's now a protected reserve and is even in the process of being expanded.

"There are a few chimpanzees in Gishwati" said Eric. "They will soon be habituated so it will give tourists an alternative to Nyungwe."

As it's much nearer the gorillas in the Virunga National Park I imagine it will be a very popular choice.

The average length of stay for visitors to Rwanda is only 3 nights as they fly in, do the Gorilla trek and fly out again. Gishwati would fit neatly into their whistle-stop tour.

The landscape changed again. Large tea estates suddenly dominated the area. What was once a dense rainforest was now only a carpet of camellia sinensis.

In many ways it was sad to see the loss of the natural habitat to tea cultivation but putting on a positive spin it did provide an industry that employed a huge workforce.

We came to Nyamyumba district where village life went about its daily routine. We looked on with fascination.

We began noticing common themes like almost every village had a Saloon de Coiffure, which we found funny. Being a hairdresser in Rwanda must be the simplest of professions. The most taxing skill would be setting the shears to the desired length for the head shave.

Big hair certainly isn't in fashion around these parts. Although we've yet to see a woman without a head scarf. Perhaps beneath it some are hiding a glorious "afro".

There was also always a village shop in the "hole in the wall" tradition. They were nothing more than an open window into someone's spare room filled with supplies.

Another thing we noticed was how tidy all the villages were. Whilst the houses were well worn and the "pavement" was nothing more than dirt there was absolutely no rubbish littering the streets.

There were also not many men to be seen but those we did were often seen sat huddled over a game of Igisoro.

It's known as a mancala game, (a "sowing" game) where seeds are placed into rows of cups hollowed out of a board, usually 4 x 8.

Various localised variations of the game called Omweso, Kombe, Mongale or Bao are extremely popular all over East Africa. 

It's thought to have been introduced by the Omani rulers of Zanzibar and spread from the Swahili coast inland along the slave trade routes. It's appalling to think that for centuries the people of East Africa were harvested, herded and marched to the coast for export.

I wonder if this inhumane history has had an effect the collective psyche. In recent memory the brutal lack of respect for life is shocking. Generation upon generation of suffering must have played its part in the barbaric behaviour of the genocide.

Today however I didn't see traumatised people.

What we've seen through our window is a beautiful country healing itself through hard work and togetherness. Villagers helping each other through cooperatives to feed themselves and others and to make a living.

I'm sure if you scratch under the surface the tension and trauma still exists but there is no lack of effort to forgive and move on.

It's encouraging that the children we saw waving and smiling at us today have a safe and hopeful future.

"Look over there" said Eric "Can you see the volcano?"

"It is Mount Nyarangongo in the Congo" he added.

Not only were Julie and I very impressed by our first sight of a Virunga volcano, we were also very excited as it meant we were now not far from Gisenyi.

Well, only another hour or so!

 Our backs and limbs were aching now. We rode every bump and every turn in the road. It felt as if we had walked for the last seven hours not sat on our bums in the back of a jeep.

We were shattered and I hardly remember the last hour. My attention had expired.

The relief when we re-joined a tarmac road a few miles from Gisenyi was immense. We felt like we were floating as we glided down towards the town along the perfectly smooth road .

Despite today's journey being a test of endurance it had been a rewarding experience. Given the choice again we would still take the lake road. We wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Our spirits lifted as we finally arrived at the popular resort town, turning towards the water to our lakeside oasis, the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel.

As we did at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge we were again met by the hotel manager although this time there was a lot less "bending over backwards to please us" going on.

They handed us our room key which was connected to a large carved gorilla key bob. It was quite comical.

"We're not going to lose that in a hurry" said Julie. The reception staff smiled but I don't think they understood her sarcasm.

We said goodbye to Eric and arranged to meet him after lunch on Wednesday. Ahead of us were two nights of doing nothing. This R&R stop was perfectly scheduled into our itinerary.

After the opulence of our room at our previous lodgings our standard room at the Serena felt small and basic.

It did the job however and we even had a (very partial) lake view from our ground floor patio if we stood upright.... on tip toes.

All we had eaten all day were a few small bananas. So the first thing we did was to head for the poolside Lake View Bar & Cafe.

Our packed breakfast and lunch from Nyungwe Forest Lodge this morning was a disaster. There were no pastries as we expected for breakfast and the sandwiches were a sweaty cheese and salami combi.

I couldn't eat them on account of being a conscientious objector against meat and Julie couldn't eat as she objected to the smell and sliminess of the filling.

We both had burgers for lunch, chicken burger for Julie and a vegetable pattie for me. Once again the highlight of the meal were the chips. Proper tasty.

There was a bottle of Akabanga hot chili oil on the table with the other condiments so I sprinkled it liberally over my burger which added one hell of a kick.

"Mmmmmm" I went as tears filled my eyes and I began to hiccup.

"Really??" asked Julie.

The ice cold Primus beer was a life saver. (Incidentally the breweries for both of Rwanda's most popular beers, Primus and Mutzig, were in Gisenyi.)

After lunch we walked down to the lake. There was a small private sandy beach complete with sun loungers and parasols. It really felt like we were at a beach resort!

We had waves were lapping the shore and I'm sure there was even high tide mark. (Can a lake be tidal?)

The sand was surely imported specifically for the hotel guests to enjoy but the beach continued beyond the hotel's boundary and into a public beach where local children were playing in the water.

There was a member of staff permanently sat in shade at the perimeter to make sure no one strayed onto the hotel side.

"Are you going to go for a swim?" I asked Julie "there's no crocodiles!"

"I will tomorrow" she replied rather unconvincingly.

It's not only crocodiles that make swimming in African lakes a little bit risky. You could catch a waterborne disease called schistosomiasis. It only occurs in freshwater and is contracted from infected snails. Parasitic worms burrow their way into your bloodstream. Whilst death is unlikely if left untreated it could cause internal organs to fail.

Fortunately Lake Kivu is said to be clear of this.

We sat on the loungers for the briefest of moments but the sun without a sea breeze was actually too hot. So we decided to retire to our room for a much welcomed siesta

Today had been physically demanding. We were so tired we almost fell asleep before reaching our room! Safely on the bed we slipped into a deep four hour sleep. I think we only stirred from our coma because we felt hungry.

Awake we checked out Trip Advisor for anywhere to eat out in Gisenyi and the only place listed was Kiyaga Restaurant, which happened to be here at the hotel!

It was dark by the time we left our room and made our way up to the first floor restaurant. The hotness had dropped now to a much cooler temperature so we decided to sit outside over-looking the pool.

As it happened there was a meeting taking place over dinner with about 12 delegates sat in the middle of the dining room discussing funding. We decided to sit outside as it felt like we were attending the meeting ourselves!

We had the menu to choose from but they also had a buffet available. After inspecting what they had on offer we were happy for a help yourself and pile-it-on-your-plateful buffet.

They had a tasty aubergine and pea curry for me which was delicious. It tasted a little different to an Indian curry and I wondered if I was finally enjoying a little taste of something locally inspired.

Julie had Tilapia fish (which was probably caught from Lake Kivu) in a tomato sauce. She accompanied it with some potatoes which is a common crop in Rwanda, especially the North West

There was dessert on offer and as I still had room for pudding I polished off a large portion of a vanilla sponge covered in a vanilla sauce (which wasn't quite custard). Julie even had dessert and picked up a trio of small pots filled with different fruits. The one that I remember the most was a Tree Tomato Mousse. It sounded the most interesting but tasted the least flavoursome.

 Once we finished we had a drink at the bar downstairs. There was hardly anyone else there. Apparently at the weekend it gets a lot livelier, with a local band playing and sometime some Intore dancers but there was nothing of the sort tonight. Just some football on the telly. You get the impression that the Lake Serena Hotel is mostly used by business guests as a conference venue during the week and then fills up with wealthier Rwandans getting away from Kigali for the weekend.

Anyway, we were back in our room before we had finished our drinks and we fell asleep watching a Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film called "Knight & Day". It wasn't the film that sent us to sleep. It had been a very long day.

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