Destination Kivu Belt

The Congo Nile Trail

The Congo Nile Trail

The Congo Nile Trail is without a doubt one of the best hiking trails in Africa. The trail can be completed on foot, by bike or by kayak. The Congo Nile Trail traverses a series of interconnected single paths, dirt roads and hiking tracks through the tropical Kivu Belt in Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills in the heart of Africa. As it stretches along the scenic shores of Lake Kivu, hikers on the Congo Nile Trail trekk by some of Africa’s few remaining tropical rainforests, vast coffee plantations and hidden beaches. This African hiking trail is scattered with unexplored experiences, often hosted by locals along the trail. For those looking for a genuine, yet safe African hiking or biking experience away from the beaten path, Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail is a hiking trail waiting for you to challenge her on foot, by bike or by kayak and is one of the most iconic and best hiking trails in Africa.

The Congo Nile Trail, the name is as exotic as it is confusing. As the name of an African hiking trail, the name makes you think of two completely different African locations.  The name of the hiking trail comes from the fact that the hike passes along the mountain ridge of the African Congo-Nile divide which divides the rainfall into two of Africa’s largest rivers. All rainfall which falls to the west of this ridge trickles down and eventually ends up in the Congo River. All rainfalls which falls to the east of this ridge eventually ends up in the Nile River.

In the past years Africa and Rwanda has risen as one of the world’s foremost upcoming ecotourism destinations. Even though Rwanda is mostly known for the Mountain Gorillas, the country has a lot more to offer than this. Known as the safest and cleanest country in Africa, it’s thousands of rolling hills and a nice and welcoming people it has made itself known as of the best African countries for hiking and biking. Located in Eastern Africa, the tropical climate along with the elevation gives Rwanda constant year-round pleasant temperatures of around 25°C (77°F). Since Congo Nile Trail runs along the shores of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s great lakes, the views are magnificent and the friendly smiles of the locals from the villages are sure to charm every visitor. The rolling Rwandan hills and winding roads, have in recent years seen the rise of the cycling team Team Africa Rising which have started to have international success and Rwanda has also applied to host the 2025 World Cycling Championships

The Congo Nile Trail

What to expect along the Congo Nile trail

Part of the Congo Nile Trail consists of dirt roads while other parts of the trail consists of single dirt tracks only accessible by hiking or on a mountain bike. There are two different routes which at some points cross and at places overlap. One route is for biking and one is for hiking.

Rwanda very safe compared to other places for hiking in Africa. Rwanda is known as the safest country in Africa and there is no crime to speak of. You can feel safe to pitch a tent just about anywhere without having to worry about being robbed. Compared to other places you might go hiking in Africa there is no large wildlife in Rwanda outside of the national parks. You do no have to worry about bumping in to a heard of buffalo while hiking or biking the Congo Nile Trail.

The lack of wild animals also goes for the Lake Kivu. Many other African Lakes are dangerous since there are often hippos and crocodiles living in them. There are no dangerous animals in Lake Kivu and you can feel safe to refresh on one of the lake’s beaches after a days hiking or biking the trail.

The people in Rwanda are very friendly. Rwandans are known to be a bit more calm and timid compared to other parts of Africa.  As a visitor to rural Rwanda you will stand out. For many people, seeing a foreigner is something exciting, so be prepared for many people to be curious about you, want to talk to you and great you. You will never be treated in a bad way, but in some places where you stop you might have a crowd nearby who are curious about what you are doing. The language barrier in rural Rwanda is quite strong and most people except for staff at hotels speak only Kinyarwanda and a few words of English, French or Swahili. Despite the language barrier, people will often go out of their way to help you in case you are lost or if there is a problem. 

Congo Nile Trail
View over Lake Kivu from the Congo Nile Trail

What to do along the Congo Nile Trail

While hiking or biking the Congo Nile Trail through the rolling hills, it passes different plantations and villages. Rwanda is a large producer of both coffee and tea both of which you will see plenty of along the Congo Nile Trail. To learn more about coffee production, COOPROCACI Coffee Cooperative has a great coffee tour and both Rushel Kivu Lodge and Kinunu Guest House organizes coffee tours at the nearby plantation and coffee washing stations. To learn more about tea production, Pfunda Tea Factory organizes a tea tour which includes picking tea and a look inside the nearby tea factor. One thing which amazes along the Congo Nile Trail are the banana plantations. Banana is the most abundantly grown crops along the trail and bananas are cooked and eaten in many ways in Rwanda.

Another common sight along the trail are the traditional beehives made from banana fibers. These traditional beehives can be found hung in trees along the trail and are normally harvested a couple of times a year. Local honey can be bought in many places. Some communities along the Congo Nile Trail organize honey harvesting tours.  

Sorghum is a crop commonly used to make beer in Rwanda as is common throughout Africa. This traditional brew, commonly known as kigage is thick and nutritious. Kigage is normally drunk during traditional ceremonies and weddings in Rwanda. In a village just outside Karongi, a local village organizes a very special Sorghum-beer experience. During the experience, guests are invited to take part in a sorghum beer making tour. The tour includes the entire process of beer making, from seed to drink and involves planting, harvesting and fermenting the sorghum. The experience ends with tasting the finished kigage along with traditional food.

Many of the villages along the Congo Nile Trail have specialized in making of traditional crafts. Common crafts are various types of traditional pottery and different types of weaving. The making of crafts in the villages are often organized in the form of cooperatives who support and train each other and share profits. Most of these craft making cooperatives are happy to have visitors to join them in craft making or who come to purchase some of their crafts. For pottery making tours along the Congo Nile Trail, you can visit Kiguri Pottery Rubavu or Kigano Pottery at Ishara Beach outside Nyamasheke. Nearby Gishwati Forest you will find COOVAKARU Cooperative of women who weave baskets and other things. Young Women Destination in Rubavu is a cooperative of young women who meet every Saturday to make crafts which they sell in town. They are happy to have visitors join them in in craft making or one of their other traditional experiences.

Since you are close to the shores of Lake Kivu, several different activities will take you out on the lake. Most places where you stop close to the lake will offer boat trips. The best place for a boat trip is without a doubt Karongi which has numerous interesting islands to visit. The most interesting of the islands in Karongi is Napoleon Island which hosts a large colony of straw-colored fruit bats and a nice hike to the peak of the island with a splendid view of the surrounding archipelago.

One of the most unique experiences along the Congo Nile Trail is the Lake Kivu night fishing experience. The night fishing experience is an evening with the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu where you get to join the traditional fishermen as they spend the night fishing sambaza the same way as their ancestors have done for generations.

There are numerous beaches along the Congo Nile Trail where you can enjoy a dip after a long day on the trail. For a complete list, head over to the Lake Kivu Beach Guide. 

Napoleon Island
Traditional Beer brewing experience on Mt. Karongi

National Parks along the Congo Nile Trail

Parts of the Congo Nile Trail passes on top of the mountain range which divides the Congo basin from the Nile Basin. This mountain range used to be covered in an ancient montane rainforest which stretched from Congo to Burundi. As the montane rainforest on the Congo Nile divide has been separated from the surrounding areas of similar habitats, many species here evolved separately. Many animals evolved separately from other populations in these forests. Today these animals are endemic species which can only be found in the remaining forests of the Congo Nile Divide.  Most of the original vast forest has been cut down, but some large portions of this rainforest have been preserved as national parks. These are today protected as part of Nyungwe Forest National Park and Gishwati-Mukura National Park. The Congo Nile Trail passes next to both of these national parks where you can not only see the remaining endemic species but also a number of endangered primates including the elusive eastern chimpanzee.

Nyungwe Forest National is a large area which contains some of Africa’s oldest forests. It is full of hiking trails, waterfalls and has one of the world’s largest population of the eastern chimpanzee. Gishwati Mukura National Park was recently made into a national park and contains two separate pockets of rainforest. In Gishwati Forest a small population of chimpanzees can still be found and there are several hiking trails and waterfalls throughout the forest.

Apart from the chimpanzees, these forests contain another 12 species of primates, more than 300 species of birds, 30 of which are endemic, and several other large mammals including serval cats and jackals. There are also many exotic butterflies as well as endemic flowers and trees in these forests.

If you want to visit one of the national parks while on the Congo Nile trail it is possible to take a small detour and do so. A detour to the biking stage 3 of the Congo Nile Trail will take you past Mukura Forest. The 4th biking stage of the trail takes you to Gisovu, which is very close to the northern part of Nyungwe Forest National Park. The road which passes through the Gisovu Tea Estate passes through one corner of Nyungwe Forest where you could potentially do some wildlife spotting from the road. All park activities, including chimpanzee tracking can be booked from the Gisovu Office located Gisovu Tea Estate. Be prepared that most of the activities start early in the morning and need to be pre-booked at least the day before.

Nyungwe National Park is best visited as a separate activity after the Congo Nile Trail and can easily be arranged with an operator from Rusizi or Kamembe. Most activities start early in the morning and require at least half a day to complete, so an overnight in or near the park is necessary. A good base for visiting the park is either the campsite in the park near Uwinka Visitors Center which also offers rustic cabins or one of the nearby lodges such as Nyungwe Top View Hotel or upmarket One & Only Nyungwe House.

Gishwati Forest, located a short distance away from Rubavu at the northern end of the Congo Nile Trail has one accommodation option in close connection to the park. The Forest of Hope Guest House and Camp Site is located next to the forest. They offer camping accommodation or accommodation in a nice guest house. The place is located at the edge of the forest with spectacular views of the forest and surrounding landscape.

To do a hike or other activity inside one of the national parks, chimpanzee trekking or other activities, you need to pre-book and organize this with a private tour operator, with RDB, or the operator of the national park.  Nyungwe is operated by African Parks and Gishwati Mukura is operated by Wilderness Safaris. All hiking inside the national parks require a guide and a permit. This can be bought at the park office or online in the online system Irembo which can be found here. More information can be found at one of the park offices, including booking of park activities. 

Congo Nile Trail
Congo Nile Trail passes next to the vast Nyungwe Forest

Where to stay along the Congo Nile Trail

Finding somewhere to stay along the Congo Nile Trail is easy and there are many different forms of accommodation. In Rubavu, Karongi and Rusizi there are numerous different levels of hotels, hostels and campsites. Between the larger centers there are also a lot of different places to stay from hotels to rustic community run hostels, to campsites with toilets and showers.

This list of accommodation along the Congo Nile Trail will help you, so will the plan of the Hiking or Biking which has recommendation of accommodation after each stage of the Congo Nile Trail. 

Congo Nile Trail
Rushel Kivu Lodge along the Congo Nile Trail

Planning for the Congo Nile Trail

The Congo Nile Trail normally starts in Rubavu and ends in Rusizi but can be done in any direction. Plan for 10 days to hike or 5-8 days to bike the entire trail. There are also good options for shorter weekend trips or day hikes from one of the basecamps along the trail. Accommodation and food can be found at the end of each stage of the trail but should be pre-booked. Shops and other service like bike mechanics can be found in the villages. For more detailed information, read about the hiking stages or biking stages of the Congo Nile Trail. 

Hiking the Congo Nile Trail
Hiking the Congo Nile Trail

Getting to and from the Congo Nile Trail

The Congo Nile Trail runs along the entire Kivu Belt Region in Rwanda. The towns of Rubavu, Karongi or Rusizi serve as good bases from where to start or end the Congo Nile Trail. These towns are easy to get to from Kigali by bus or your own car and offer everything you need in terms of service, food and accommodation. There are many bus companies with several daily departures from Kigali. The fastest and most reliable bus company who operate large, well maintained and modern buses is Ritco. Most buses depart from Nyabugogo Taxi Park in Kigali. Tickets can generally be bought in advance in the ticket offices at Nyabugogo but is generally not needed and can also be bought by mobile money or cash directly on the bus. 

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