It is 4.30pm on a balmy June evening in Kibuye, a small town along Rwanda’s largest lake. From the coves of lush green hills, traditional wooden boats with bent fishing rod-like bows at each end begin to appear in groups of three. The movement of their oars is synchronized, dancing to the rhythm of songs and whistles performed by the captain.
“They sing to motivate themselves,” shouts my guide Honore. His voice is barely audible over the loud singing as we drift further towards the horizon. The fishermen will stay on the water all night to catch sambaza, small sardine-like fish endemic to the lake, before returning to shore before dawn.
Lake Kivu, located between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, is one of the smallest African large lakes formed by volcanic activity around one to five million years ago. Every night, fishermen and women from both sides brave the cold and rain to collect large quantities of fish to sell to cooperatives.
“They catch anything between 5 and 50 kilos a day, depending on the season,” says Honore as the men prepare to cast their nets. First, the ten-man crew spread the boats out by extending the bamboos. Three men on a boat then drop the net 100 meters deep, while the others pull from all sides to keep it in place. Releasing and pulling the heavy net requires muscle power and balance.
Just before the sky gets dark, the captain starts pumping gas into lanterns and hangs them on either side of the boat. “The light and smoke from them helps attract the sambaza.” Honore says, pointing to the hissing lamp. With the trap set, the fishermen feast on some cassava and beans accompanied by traditional sorghum and banana wine. They pull up the net three times during the night before collecting it for the last time at 4am.
Fishing is a primary source of income for many who live on the coast, and it does not come without challenges. According to the Institute for Security Studies, Lake Kivu has seen a 28% decline in fish production over the past two years due to illegal practices using destructive equipment. There is growing concern that this could wipe out entire species in an ecosystem.
Along the 90 km long rim of the lake, rolling hills lend themselves perfectly to charming beaches, resorts and eco-tourism ventures such as Kinunu Guest House. The plantation and cooperative, staffed entirely by local people, grow and pack homemade Boneza coffee. The two-hour tour takes you through the farm, where they manually pick the beans, and the factory where they process it before finally tasting the brew prepared in traditional Rwandan style.
Kinunu is also a base for hikers and mountain bikers who brave the Congo Nile Trail which stretches 141 miles from Rabavu in the north to Cyangugu in the south. Completing the entire trail takes approximately ten days on foot and five days by bike, but you can tailor this to your itinerary. Along the craggy route, you’ll cross through small villages, climb steep hills and wake up on the shores of this island-studded lake teeming with endemic marine life.
Karongi, where we live, is close to some of the more popular uninhabited archipelagos. Napolean Island, named after the French emperor because its shape resembled his hat, attracts hikers who want to enjoy the view from 100 meters and admire the 40,000 fruit bats that live here. Next door on Monkey Island, the vervetape are so used to seeing humans that they jump into your boat and hunt for food without hesitation. On a good day you could also see cows treading water to and from Peace Island, where they go to graze – the phenomenon referred to as ‘swimming cows’.
The only way to get to these islands is by traditional boat. Several tour companies offer half- and full-day excursions with island hopping, including kayaking and canoeing. On the coast, the roads in and around Kibuye are wonderfully wide and traffic-free, perfect for cyclists. Rent a two-wheeler and paddle at your own pace while enjoying the view of the lake from different heights. The fishing village and town center are all within a mile and perfectly portray the simplicity of life here.
Along one of the winding roads to Kibuye is the newly opened Cleo Lake Kivu Hotel. With just 18 suites and one presidential quarter, it’s an intimate hideaway that offers complete escape and privacy. An open terrace full of sunbeds is at the heart of the property, looking down to manicured gardens, the open bar, a helipad and the magical Lake Kivu.
The rooms are spacious, modern and decorated in neutral tones that take nothing away from the 180-degree majestic view on the other side of the balcony. You can spend hours watching the sea life all day long and get front row seats to the most seductive sunsets. Cleo has everything you need to relax: a pool, a spa, a fire pit for when it gets cold and a bartender with great cocktail making skills.
Most of the ingredients for the kitchen come from a garden on the premises. “We want to offer our guests a gastronomic experience from farm to table. The idea is to use locally grown and sourced material, from fish and meat to fruit and vegetables,” says head chef Justine. His pride and passion is evident in the carefully curated dishes he presents. There is a different set menu every night, which you can pair with your favorite wine while watching the glowing lanterns of the traditional Rwandan fishing boats. As for the sambaza, it is available at all the restaurants in the region, consumed battered, fried and whole with a dash of herb sauce.
RwandAir is the only airline that offers direct flights from the UK to Rwanda. Book via rwandair.com or call +44 (0) 1293874922
Rooms at Cleo Lake Kivu Hotel start from £650 per night including breakfast. The friendly hotel staff can arrange activities such as kayaking, island hopping and coffee excursions.
Visit Rwanda for more ideas on what to see and do in the country