Last weekend, my friend AJ and I hiked the Congo Nile Trail that follows Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. It was a really amazing time, but before I go into the story, I have two confessions to make.
First, we didn’t hike the whole thing since we only had three days. We walked the Nyamasheke district portion, from Karengera to Kamembe (spoiler alert: I took a moto for the last couple of hours because my foot was cramping so badly). I hope to hike the whole thing at some point, so stay tuned!
I’m here to report that’s not actually the case. The trail is actually a road for the greater portion of the hike, and while it’s pretty hilly, the path is usually quite obvious. The road is even paved in some areas! And because Rwanda has the highest population density in Africa, you’re rarely alone for more than five minutes. When we passed through towns or markets, there were so many people on the road, we joked that we didn’t know hiking the Congo Nile Trail was so popular in Rwanda.
All of that aside, hiking the Congo Nile Trail was amazing, and you should do it if you ever have the chance.
AJ and I started out on Friday evening by taking a bus from Kamembe, in Rusizi district, north to Karengera, which is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s site. She was on vacation, so we stayed with a young woman volunteering at the school there for the night.
Saturday morning we started out hiking towards Nyamasheke, the region’s capital and site of our Peace Corps friend Kate. The hike took about eight and a half hours total, but we were rewarded with some stunning views. The time went by quickly just chatting, even though I wanted to stop and take pictures every two feet.
AJ and I stopped for lunch at a little peninsula called Kumbya Paradise. At the very tip there was a retreat center, and I understood why they called it paradise.
The guard told us that a group from a nearby hospital was coming, and he was initially hesitant to let us eat lunch there. After a few minutes of speaking in Kinyarwanda and explaining we weren’t staying the night, he agreed that we could stay and eat our bread and hardboiled eggs. It was really relaxing, and I’d love to return to the Kumbya retreat sometime.
Back on the road, curious little kids frequently came up to us and practiced their English, often to beg for various items. In our three days of hiking, kids asked us for money, bottles, pens, candy, Fanta, and dolls. We rolled into Kate’s house around 5 pm, and she’d prepared a delicious pasta feast for us weary travelers. After eating (or devouring, rather) and showering, we made some hot toddies and watched a movie. It was the perfect end to our first day hiking.
Sunday was our second day hiking, from Nyamasheke to Shangi. After breakfast, AJ and I were on the road again. We hiked about an hour down to a peninsula near Nyamasheke where we heard there were boats that could take us across Lake Kivu to the Shangi peninsula.
We asked the fisherman if there was a boat that could take us across the lake, and they said to keep walking until we reached another little landing spot.
AJ and I followed their directions, and sure enough, we arrived at the tip of the peninsula where several other fishermen were sitting around on their boats cooking food, one even using an oar as a stirring spoon. We waited awhile for the “captain” to arrive, and after a little bargaining over the price, we agreed on paying 400 Rwandan francs (about 75 cents) to go cross the bay. AJ and I climbed into the small wooden boat and pushed off into Lake Kivu.
We landed on the other side, and spent about 4 hours walking to another Peace Corps Volunteer’s house in Shangi. The last hour or so my foot was hurting, so it was nice to arrive early and play with Kari’s little kittens—her cat gave birth just a week or two prior. After eating we walked down to a building where loud music was playing and we were told a party was happening. The room was filled with young men, students, and several singers of, um, various skill levels. A couple of times we were encouraged (or rather, forced) to get up and dance with the singers. I’m not sure what was more awkward, me dancing in my hiking sandals and rain jacket on the makeshift stage, or the audience having to watch me dance.
Advice for Hiking the Congo Nile Trail
- Get a map from Rwanda Development Board (RDB) in Kigali if you’re not familiar with the area. But know that many “attractions” on the map are sometimes exaggerated or non-existent.
- Speaking even a little Kinyarwanda will help you a lot. Speaking French might be of some help but it’s hit or miss. People will try to rip you off along the way; we experienced this even speaking the language.
- I’d recommend bringing a tent if you don’t have people to stay with along the way (i.e. muzungus who aren’t Peace Corps Volunteers)
- Don’t give to begging kids. I know this sounds callous and cold-hearted, but it encourages a begging culture; we had tons of kids asking us for things every single day, most likely because other hikers gave things away. It’s common for villagers to ask foreigners for money, even if they don’t necessarily need it, per se. For example, my co-workers at the health center (who are well-off by Rwandan standards) will often half-jokingly ask me to give them money, or some tea, or a Fanta, because they want to see if I’ll say yes and they think that I’m rich. Use your own discretion, but know that there are lots of worthy organizations that could use your money.
- The base camps and routes are generally well marked, look for green signs pointing the way.
- Because the Congo-Nile Trail is a fairly recent creation of the RDB, most Rwandans living on the route won’t know what you’re talking about if you say you’re hiking it or want directions. It’s best to ask how to get to the next town if you get lost or something.
- It’s not necessary to bring a stove or intense camping gear, unless you’re into that stuff. AJ and I would buy bread, bananas, hardboiled eggs, passion fruit, water, and an avocado or two every day from the little boutiques in villages we’d pass through.
- Bring rain jackets and umbrellas if you’re hiking in the rainy season, and sunscreen is always a good idea.
- If you're not into hiking, you can easily bike the Congo Nile Trail, at least in the dry season.