The banks on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu offer picturesque villages and dozens of wooden fishing boats in spectacular bays, and the views on the Congolese side turn out to be even more breathtaking. Driving around this immense lake, photographer Jeroen van Loon and I marvel at the beauty of this part of central Africa. Yet in places that beauty is only skin-deep – for parts of this region are in reality a war zone. As we’re soon to discover for ourselves.
Smooth tarmac roads are being built all over mountainous, green Rwanda. Though this development is very positive for the locals, off-road fans like ourselves couldn’t be more pleased to read about the Congo Nile Trail, a dirt road along the eastern shore of Lake Kivu that has recently been marked by the Rwandan government. The route’s name is derived from the source of the River Nile, in the nearby Nyungwe Forest, and driving it takes two to three days.
Just outside the town of Gisenyi, on the northernmost tip of Lake Kivu, we turn on to a dirt road marked by a big signboard saying ‘Congo Nile Trail’ and soon leave modernised Rwanda behind us. Small children, dressed in rags, run behind our Defender 110, laughing and screaming, as women carrying big bunches of branches on their heads stare at us, and for hours we encounter hardly any other motor vehicles. We cross a patchwork blanket
of gently sloping farm fields growing corn, cassava, sugar cane, coffee and banana palms, pass by small streams and cross ramshackle bridges made of thin tree trunks. In a more forested area, we see a spectacular waterfall right beside the dirt road.
Our Land Rover suddenly feels much bigger in the narrow main street of the dusty village of Nkora, where we pass a hairdressing salon, a brick mosque and a crowded market with inches to spare. The locals love the Land Rover and want to be photographed with it.
Congo Nile Trail signboards have been placed all along the route – except in the places where you really need them. And asking locals for directions doesn’t help much – the government apparently didn’t tell them about this scenic route, and everyone we ask directs us towards a tar highway many miles away.
Thankfully, so-called ‘base camp’ campsites have been well marked along the trail. Rwanda is too densely populated for bush camping, so we decide to stay in a base camp halfway along the route. Unfortunately, this turns out to be nothing more than a messy, unfenced lawn next to a coffee plantation.
The end of the trail
Next morning, we drive through a green valley where men, women and children are cutting grass with small scythes. Climbing into the hills, the landscape becomes drier, the road dustier and the number of begging children greater.
Coffee plantations make way for a plush green carpet of tea fields, but soon the dirt road widens and we encounter Chinese workers who are levelling the dirt road with huge machines. The thought ‘How much longer will this be a dirt road?’ pops up in our minds.
That evening we camp for 10 dollars again, but this time in the garden of the Tshana Beach Motel with a stunning view over Lake Kivu. What we feared becomes grim reality next day when the dirt road turns into smooth tarmac. Despite this, I’d still recommend the Congo Nile Trail and especially the northern part, starting at Gisenyi, while you can still drive through a beautiful, unspoiled part of Rwanda.
Into eastern Congo
After our holiday it’s back to work, as we have taken on several journalistic assignments in eastern Congo. But first we must resolve a problem. Our Congolese translator tells us we need valid international drivers’ licences or the police will demand bribes. We have one-year international licences, but both have expired. We can only get new licences in the Netherlands.
We’re in a bit of a pickle, and LRO doesn’t ever recommend what we’re about to do, but... After staring at the documents for an hour, we hit on the only answer: ‘Why not forge them?’
We carefully remove the staples, take out the white booklet written in several languages, scan the cardboard texts in an Internet café, then get some new card and a date stamp in a paper shop and manufacture a new international driver’s licence in less than an hour, looking even better than the original. We then decide to change the validity from one year to three.
At the border we meet Honeur, a friendly Congolese whose sister is an immigration officer here. We’ve heard many stories about corrupt border officials and getting in contact with Honeur seems to be a smart move. His sister stamps our passports and, after we pay 30 dollars for a car permit and road tax, we’re in Congo. The crossing takes just 10 minutes and is the easiest border passage of our trip.
Bukavu is a surprisingly beautiful African city. Every corner of the town rewards you with a different view over Lake Kivu. And, because it’s 1500 metres above sea level, it has a much more pleasant climate than the rest of the country. The former presence of the country’s Belgian colonists is still visible in Bukavu’s architecture. In contrast to other African cities, many of the old colonial buildings have not been replaced by concrete shopping malls, and the city has a big Roman Catholic cathedral.
We spend some time hopping from one ministry to another, as well as the secret service, collecting dozens of stamps and signatures to allow us to visit a ‘conflict free’ tin mine backed by the Dutch government.
Three days later we and our translator jump into the 110 and soon leave the potholed tar road behind us. The next road to test our Land Rover is a dirt track covered in sharp rocks. The locals gape as we pass by – the spectacle of two whites and a Congolese in a Land Rover with Dutch numberplates had never been witnessed on this road before. Although this is the only road between Bukavu and Goma, hardly anybody uses it because the surface is so bad and there’s also a risk of rebel attacks. Passing a heavily armed convoy of Pakistani UN peacekeepers, we start to feel a bit nervous.
We also feel overwhelmed by the beautiful landscapes. Eastern Congo has been steeped in violence for more than two decades, costing the lives of more than five million people, and the region is known as ‘the rape capital of the world’, yet it looks like paradise on earth; the rolling hills are covered with banana palms, and on shimmering Lake Kivu fishermen are peacefully casting their nets.
Kalehe to Nyabibwe
In the hamlet Kalehe we have to collect more stamps and signatures. Returning to the Land Rover, we notice the right rear tyre is flat, probably cut by the sharp rocks on the road. We have two spares and quickly change the wheel in front of a fascinated Congolese crowd.
Two hours later we reach the mining town of Nyabibwe. After a final round of signature and stamp collecting, we are permitted to descend into the deep mine pit and walk along dark, half-flooded tunnels, anxiously watching electrical wires dangling in the water. Miners are using steel hammers to remove rocks, with streams of sweat running down their mud-smeared faces.
Heading back to Bukavu, we hear a loud hiss – a rock has punctured another tyre. We put the jack under the 110, but there’s no flat surface for it to stand on – and just as Jeroen crawls underneath, the vehicle slips from the jack and nearly crushes him. To our dismay, the Congolese onlookers howl with laughter. Fortunately, Jeroen isn’t hurt, but we are not amused.
After more than an hour, we eventually manage to change the tyre, using our Hi-Lift jack. We continue on our way, with every rock in the road making us fear a third puncture – in which case we’d be in real trouble.
Reaching the asphalt two hours later, we breathe a sigh of relief. But by now it’s dark and our translator warns: ‘If you hit anyone, drive as fast as you can or we’ll be lynched.’ Thankfully, we make it to Bukavu without any accidents.
Looking for a tyre repairer next morning, the second spare – which already had a huge bulge – collapses. After quickly pumping air into it with our compressor, we drive to a fuel station. The mechanic there says he can fix our punctures, but they will probably fail again within a few days – which leaves us with no alternative to buying three new tyres.
Then we discover that our 265/75 R16 Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tyres are far from common here. Most people in Congo drive on narrow mud tyres, but we need wider rubber. We can choose Indonesian or South Korean brands, and opt for Korean Nexens, which are fitted in the street while we watch over the Defender 110.
Goma to the front line
The next week, we take the road of sharp rocks again, this time going all the way to Goma, 60 miles away. Our Korean tyres perform perfectly. Half-way there, at Minova, we camp at a missionary compound inhabited by nuns.
The next morning, soldiers stop us at a checkpoint. We hand over our fake international driving licence, which they accept. But unfortunately our vehicle permit has expired – customs didn’t tell us it was valid for only two weeks. The soldiers tell us to go back all the way to Bukavu as we can’t pay the fine in Minova because the town doesn’t have a bank.
Then the commander tells us he’s willing to let us go on for 50 dollars (a permit only costs 15). We haggle this down to 25 dollars, which goes into the commander’s pocket. Back on the road, we add a few days to the date on the permit in case we’re stopped again. It works!
The closer we get to Goma, the more refugee camps we see. Rebels are fighting less than 10 miles north of the city. We also see more and more men with chikudus – giant two-wheeled wooden scooters used for transporting anything from beer crates to bunches of chickens.
Fighting between the rebels and the army flares up again a few days later not far away from Goma. We decide to visit the front so we can write a story about a new UN intervention force. The translator we worked with last week isn’t available, but refers us to a friend.
We stick A4 sheets marked ‘Press’ to all sides of the Land Rover. Just outside the city we pass many tanks and our translator tells us ‘Follow that bike,’ as he points towards a soldier on an old motorcycle. Driving into a wooded area, we suddenly come face to face with dozens of soldiers who are resting in bushes behind a slope. They look as surprised to see us as we are to see them. After introductions, they all want their picture taken with the Defender, with bandoliers of bullets hanging round their necks and grenade launchers at the ready. Suddenly we hear deafening bangs and instinctively dive to the ground. The soldiers laugh. ‘Those are our shots, not theirs,’ their commander, Moses, tells us. Apparently other soldiers are firing rocket-propelled grenades at rebels only a few hundred metres away from our location.
Then two helicopters show up and start firing. ‘Don’t worry, they’re bombing the militants, not us,’ laughs Moses. We’re not very reassured. When he asks us whether we would like to join some soldiers who are going to carry out an attack, we quickly shake our heads. Not while our 110 is here on the frontline and we’re without helmets and bulletproof vests.
A few days later we have to leave Congo because our visas have expired. We drink a beer across the border in the Rwandan town of Gisenyi to celebrate surviving four weeks in Congo. Unfortunately, Congo isn’t suitable as a tourist destination yet. But staring over Lake Kivu, we reflect that without all the violence, this really would be paradise on earth.