Yay me! I'm 37.
Was planning just to have a very quiet night in, but my friend lured me down to her restaurant for a 'quick drink'. Like a trusting lamb, I followed her - all the way across the garden. Then a group of friends jumped out of the cocktail cart shouting 'surprise' and proceeded to feed me cake and caipirinha.
Lovely night. Ended up drunkenly reading tarot cards and dancing to Iron Maiden.
I'm always astonished that I've managed to live this long.
A couple of days later, Maia, myself, and her six-year-old daughter decided to go on a little road trip. We were originally planning a weekend away with a couple of other friends, but they fell by the wayside for one reason or another. Looking back, that's not such a bad thing. Our little road trip turned into a monster expedition.
Originally, we were just planning on hopping a boat over to Idjwi, which is an island between Rwanda and the DRC, technically belonging to DRC. There's all sorts of ancient myths about the place. A colleague once swore she'd met a one-armed pirate from Lake Kivu, and it's traditionally known as the island that Rwandan families would row their unwed pregnant daughters out to. They'd tip them overboard, they'd swim to shore, and the Congolese men living on the island would wander down to the beach to pick up a ready-made family.
Anyway, with stories like that, we really wanted to go and take a look at the place.
As Rwandan residents, we can cross into Eastern DRC on a CEPGL, which is a piece of paper you get for around $10, rather than the $150 for a tourist visa. I think you need a full visa to travel further into DRC, but the border region is fine.
We were a little nervous as there have been a couple of incidents recently. It started with Rwandan soldiers reportedly shooting six Congolese soldiers along the border, then a mass protest over food cuts at Kiziba refugee camp, which saw Rwanda respond by shooting eleven Congolese refugees. All reports indicated that the border was still safe for civilians though, so we decided to go ahead.
The journey began with a three-hour bus ride up to Gisenyi, on the northern border with DRC. We left around mid-day to get there in time for dinner with our friend Jo.
Jo runs Rwandan Adventures, a cycling business along the Congo Nile Trail. She took us to a hotel with an incredible swimming pool overlooking Lake Kivu, then on to a beach bar for Indian. Lake Kivu is a funny place. As well as being one of the world's three exploding lakes, it's so large it appears to have a tide. Waves lap against the sand and it's easy to pretend you're at the seaside.
|View from Rwandan Adventures|
|Building Sea Defences|
We stayed in a hotel in Gisenyi and got up at 5 a.m. the next morning to cross the border into Congo at 6. Our ferry to Idjwi was leaving at 7:30 and we wanted to leave enough time to clear Immigration. It's a good thing we did as there was a long queue on the Rwandan side. Thankfully it was moving, but as we stood in the middle of the queue, a massive commotion kicked off. A line of about twenty men came charging into the hall and physically pushed the people in the first line out of place. It was queue-jumping on a massive scale and there were no security guards to bat an eyelid. It's a good thing we hadn't been standing in that line with a small child.
We made it across the border and took a taxi to our ferry, Kivu Princess. Maia had thankfully booked our tickets in advance, because they were all sold out when we got there. Happily, there was a café on the dock and the waiter came to serve us coffee and sandwiches before we set sail.
|The no guns sign is to indicate there aren't any|
guns on board, in case of attack. The idea is to stop people
who do have guns from using them.
|Ferry bound for Bukavu.|
|Overtaking the Bukavu Ferry|
We came in to land in Bugarula Bay in North Idjwi, and booked into Hope Land Hotel, which is right on the waterfront.
There were a couple of local traders selling sambaza and oranges. When the ferry comes in, they row out to greet it and sell food to the passengers.
It was still really early by the time we arrived, so we had a little nap and then set out to find the local market. We had been told it was about ten minutes by moto, but we decided to walk. As one guy explained 'Here on Idjwi, we have very few politicians,' so it's a safe place to wander around.
We even met the local police chief, and a school boy who was willing to show us the shortcut across the hill. Even with the shortcut, it was a long trek, we were probably walking for close to three hours, but we really got to see the island.
We eventually made it to the market, which was very busy. We had a little wander around, then found what we thought might be a bar, but the owner swiftly shepherded us away to a secluded section overlooking the lake. I think it might actually have been a brothel. We took Fanta refreshment, then went back to buy sugarcane, pineapple and a bag of sambaza, which are tiny fish that you fry, a bit like Devilled Whitebait. The gas levels in the lake mean that tilapia don't grow big there and are mostly imported from Uganda.
|I'm somewhere in this crowd, trying to buy sugarcane.|
|Stopping for a Fanta.|
We took a moto back to the hotel and hung out playing with their adorable puppies.
|Pineapple and Sugarcane|
As the sun set, we headed down to the restaurant, where the cook had prepared our sambaza with sweet potato chips.
The next day, we decided to take a two-hour moto ride from the north of the island to the south.
|(panoramic, click to enlarge)|
|Where we came from.|
|Where we're going.|
|A sunken ship which marks the border between North Idjwi and South Idjwi.|
|Stopping to stretch our legs.|
|(panoramic, click to enlarge)|
We booked into Congomani, which our friend Manu recommended. Hotels on Idjwi are fairly basic. Electricity is often only on at certain times, when the generator is working, running water is a luxury and hot water comes in a bucket, which you get outside your door in the morning for washing. this is when I realised that buying a battery pack for my phone is only useful if you remember to charge that battery pack before leaving home.
|TV for decoration.|
They fed us incredibly well at Congomani: pineapple, avocado, omelette, oranges, rice, potatoes - we were stuffed by the time we left.
We had just planned to go and have a look at Idjwi, but neither of us had ever seen Bukavu, and we decided we were curious enough to go. As we were headed to mainland DRC anyway, Maia suggested we might as well stop off at Lwiro Chimpanzee Sanctuary on the way, as it's run by a friend of hers.
Crossing to the mainland was another moment for consideration as we're talking about the Kivu region, and North and South Kivu are pretty much a rebel-held war zone. But the advice was that the chimp sanctuary is along a safe corridor and tourists can go in confidence. So, we did.
We hired a private pirogue with the very last of out money (there's absolutely nowhere to withdraw cash on the island) and headed over to Katana. We spent about twenty minutes floating round in circles on the lake when the boat developed a fuel problem, but our captain sucked out the line and fixed it. When we arrived, Maia's friend had sent a taxi to take us up to Institut Conglais de Conservation de Nature.
We had a wander around the institute, guided by a very lovely dog, whilst we waited for Lorena to introduce us to the chimps. This is about the time the battery on my phone died, so we don't have many pictures. It's an incredibly old school Belgian colonial building.
|Looking at tadpoles in the fountain.|
We saw all kinds of incredible monkeys, rescued from all over Congo and further afield. You have to wear masks to prevent catching or spreading diseases between species. I had a moment of mild panic as we passed an enclosure for adult chimps, which can grow to over a meter in height. One was quite aggressive, throwing sticks at the wire - they were giant lumps of muscle. Fully-grown chimps are absolutely terrifying. Much prefer the babies.
From Lwiro, we headed by taxi an hour south to Bukavu and booked into Kivu Best. The roads in Congo are serious. Cars fall into potholes on one side and have to crawl out the other. Even a short journey feels long, and it's quite possible to get seasick on dry land. The contrast between Rwanda, where everything's tarmaced and clean, and eastern DRC, where nothing is, immediately strikes you.
There's a curfew in Bukavu, but we ventured out before dark to look for a place to eat. After sitting in the depressing side room of a supermarket with plastic chairs and no waiters, we noticed a sign on the busy street saying L'acacia Restaurant. It was pointing down a steep set of narrow steps, and we decided to follow it. Turned out to be the best restaurant ever. It opened out onto a stunning view of the lake, with an extremely attentive waiter. We stuffed ourselves on pork and chicken, washed down with beer. Exactly what was needed after a marathon adventure.
Something else that's really striking about the DRC is the two-story houses. Most houses in Rwanda are bungalows, but in the DRC you get a lot of residential houses with more than one story, and lots of unique details like carved window casings, even on Idjwi. Everything is much less uniform, and artistic in a ramshackle sort of way.
the next morning we woke up leisurely in big, soft beds, had a hot shower and a yummy breakfast, then crossed the border to Cyangugu and boarded a seven-hour bus back to Kigali. I'd done that journey once before, back in 2008, and hoped never to do it again. The road turns serpent and it's hard for even hardened travellers to keep their food down. But the road straightens out at Butare, after Nyungwe Forest. We made it back around 8 p.m., fell into a taxi and then bed.
|View from our hotel room.|