Lake Kivu and the Kivu Belt
The Kivu Belt Region in Western Rwanda is a place of tropical montane rainforests nestled between tea and coffee plantations next to Lake Kivu, Rwanda’s largest lake. The Kivu Belt region stretches between Rusizi and Rubavu, each at the end Lake Kivu. Even though Rwanda is a landlocked country without a coast on its own. This does not mean that Rwanda lacks coastal resorts, beaches and islands to explore. Instead of heading towards the coast, many Rwandans head to the shores of Lake Kivu and the Kivu Belt to cool down in the hot dry season. Lake Kivu is one of the Great Lakes of Africa, dotted with islands, beaches and chilled lakeside resorts. Locals and tourists come to the shores of Lake Kivu in the Kivu Belt to relax, swim and to enjoy the lake. Even though there are many resorts and experiences that hold international standard, the Kivu Belt and Lake Kivu remains an untouched gem, still unspoiled by the reaches of mass tourism and international tourist operators. Lake Kivu still hold many unspoiled beaches, islands, towns and hidden gems waiting to be explored.
Small Lakeside towns
The Kivu Belt is the name of the destination in Western Rwanda which stretches along the shores of Lake Kivu. At the northern end of Lake Kivu, at the Northwest of the Kivu Belt, you will find the border town of Rubavu. Rubavu, previously known as Gisenyi is a lively town on the borders between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The main attraction in Rubavu is without a doubt the public beach and the beach bars close to the center of town. This is a great place to hang out on the beach or enjoy some drinks and food in a laid-back setting. Rubavu is also the start of the Congo Nile Trail.
Around 10 kms south of Rubavu you will find the smaller, but picturesque town of Karongi. Karongi is known for its archipelago of islands and its many beautiful resorts along the shores of Lake Kivu. Karongi is known to locals as a weekend getaway and is mostly visited by families and couples who come here to enjoy swimming or a boat ride to one of the islands. Travel a further 10 kms south and you will find the larger but buzzling border town of Rusizi. Rusizi, also known as Cyangugu, is mostly famous for its proximity to the rainforests of Nyungwe National Park but is also a great place for relaxing or enjoying a boat ride on Lake Kivu.
Lake Kivu one of the Safest Lakes in Africa
Naturally Lake Kivu is one of the main attractions of the Kivu belt. Lake Kivu is one of the Great Lakes of Africa found in the Albertine Rift of Africa’s Rift Valley. What sets it apart from other African lakes except being the deepest at 480 meters is the fact that it is completely safe. Lake Kivu has very clean and clear water, no hippos, crocodiles or other dangerous animals. Neither does Lake Kivu contain the bilharzia parasite commonly found in tropical lakes. This makes the lake completely safe and you will find many beaches complete with sunbeds and beach bars along the shores of Lake Kivu. Many of the islands on the lake are interesting places to visit. A visit to one of the islands can easily be arranged by a local dugout canoe or organized as a tour by a proper boat company. Canoeing and kayaking on the lake is also very popular and you will find many companies offering to rent or guide you in a canoe or kayak.
The Congo Nile Trail along in the Kivu Belt
Hiking and biking are becoming more popular past-time activities with local and international visitors to the Kivu Belt. The Congo Nile Trail is a hiking and biking trail which passes through the entire Kivu Belt. It goes along the shores of Lake Kivu all the way from Rubavu to Rusizi. The name can be confusing as it draws the imagination to countries like Egypt or Congo. The name comes from the fact the entire trail runs on top of the ridge which separates the Nile Basin from the Congo Basin. All rainfall which falls west of the trail ends up in the Congo River and all rainfall which falls East of the trail ends up in the Nile River. The Congo Nile Trail is a true genuine African experience that can be completed in a week in full or over a weekend or day if only a small part of the trail is done. Apart from magical views over Lake Kivu, rainforests and the surrounding plantations, the Congo Nile Trail is dotted with experiences ranging from night fishing with Lake Kivu’s singing fishermen, to traditional pottery tours and visits to coffee plantations. The Congo Nile Trail also offers many beaches and unexplored islands along shores of Lake Kivu. Accommodation along the trail ranges from campsites at the lake shore, to very affordable community lodgings to high end resorts.
Kivu Belt, the source of Rwanda’s Coffee and Tea
Even though Lake Kivu is the main attraction of the Kivu Belt, many of Rwanda’s most famous export products are produced here. Rwanda is well known for its production of high-quality coffee not only in Africa and but in the world. Most of the coffee produced in Rwanda is of the type Arabica Bourbon and is produced in the Kivu Belt. Bourbon is a type of Arabica bean with a very sweet and smooth taste. It does not produce a very high yield but instead produces a very high quality and is considered an exclusive type of coffee. Another famous product of Rwanda is tea. Most of the tea produced in Rwanda comes from the Kivu Belt and the shores of Lake Kivu. The most famous tea cooperatives in the Kivu Belt are Gisakura Tea Estate near Nyungwe forest and Pfunda Tea Estate near Rubavu.
Because of the tea and coffee production, it is no surprise that popular activities in the Kivu Belt and Lake Kivu is to visit a tea or coffee plantation. As most of the production of tea and coffee in Rwanda is done on small scale farms organized into cooperatives. The main reasons for the cooperatives are the collaboration around infrastructure and investments needed for the processing, packaging and selling the final product. Many cooperatives will be happy to let you visit as part of a private or group tour which can be organized for a small fee. These tours are normally booked directly through the cooperative or through a tour operator who will also include transportation and if needed accommodation and food. A visit to a tea or coffee cooperative will teach you more about how these popular beverages end up on your table and you will also get the opportunity to taste the fresh product. Some cooperatives will produce a small part for personal consumption and it is sometimes possible to purchase a small amount straight from where it is produced.
Oldest rainforests in Africa
Some of the last remaining rainforests Central and East Africa can be found in the Kivu Belt not far from the shores of Lake Kivu. There are currently 3 remaining rainforests under national protection in the Kivu Belt. These are Nyungwe, Gishwati and Mukura Forests, but there are also other forests remaining, such as Muhungwe mountain and Mt. Rubavu, which are currently not protected as National Parks. The largest and most well-known of the rainforests is Nyungwe National Park in Rusizi District close to the town of Cyangogu. Nyungwe National Park is operated by African Parks and is a massive protected highland rainforest. The main attraction of Nyungwe Forest is the large primate population of Eastern Chimpanzee, Colobus and Golden Monkeys. There are many more interesting things to see in the Nyungwe Forest. The Canopy Walk gives a first-hand view of the rainforest canopy and with more than 300 bird species and 29 endemic species this is a birders paradise. , located less than an hour from Rubavu and close to Volcanoes National Park, the home of the mountain gorilla and the shores of Lake Kivu was created in 2019 and is also one of the last refugees of the Eastern Chimpanzee. Some of Rwanda’s remaining rainforest can be found in and parts of the park is currently being reforested. Both and Nyungwe Forest National Park can be visited as a part of the Congo Nile Trail as there are side trails running from the main trail to the parks. Park activities can be booked directly from the national park or from a tour operator as part of a tour.
Sambaza, sardines from Lake Kivu
Between 1952 and 1954, Belgian biologist Jean Verbeke did a series of research on the biology of Lake Kivu. His research showed that the lake did not have as many species of fish as other lakes in the Rift Valley. He also noted that the lake completely lacked pelagic species of fish (fish that live in the free part away from the bottom and the shores). Due to his research large amounts of the Tanganyika Sardine was transported from Lake Tanganyika and released into Lake Kivu in the early 1960’s. The result from this largescale experiment today is the what is locally known as sambaza. Sambaza means spread or share in Swahili and is the common name of the Tanganyika Sardine in Lake Kivu. These small fish are a delicacy and can be found in any restaurant or bar by Lake Kivu. Sambaza is usually served deep fried with chips (french fries) as an entire dish or as a bar snack.
The other interesting side of sambaza apart from the dish, is the process in which the fish is caught. There are no modern fishing fleets on Lake Kivu, all fish is caught from the lake by hand. Sambaza are caught by fishermen in a traditional way at night using traditional boats made from the trunk of a large tree or from course hand cut planks connected by hand and sealed with fibers. As the teams of fishermen head out for a night of fishing, they sing traditional chants in a nearly forgotten language called Amashi, not used by anyone else around Lake Kivu. As the fishermen reach their fishing spot and the sun sets, oil-lanterns are lit. The light attracts the sambaza which are then caught using large nets, hauled into the boats in unison by hand. Most fishermen will let you join them for a night fishing experience on the lake. A night fishing experience can either be organized directly by the fishermen through one of the many fishing cooperatives found around Lake Kivu or through a tour operator. If organized directly through the cooperative, be prepared for a full night and genuine experience with the fishermen on the lake who will not return to shore until 6 o’clock the following morning. If organized through a tour operator, you will usually be offered different options to choose from, all of which will include a tour boat to take you to and from the fishermen’s boat as to not spend the entire night on the lake. The tour can include drinks and sometimes dinner on the tour boat while you are waiting for the fishermen to start hauling their nets.