“Of all the Rwandan tales, that of a mythical woman, Nyiransibura, is the greatest. It explains the creation of Lake Kivu,” began Didier Mulindwa, my guide as we drove through the Kivu Belt region, the sparkling body of water spread out before us.
According to Rwanda’s oral traditions, Nyiransibura lived during the reign of King Ndahiro III Cyamatare. Her marriage to the rain maker (umuvubyi), who lived in the beautiful valley of Kinyaga, led to the birth of their son Nsibura – his delivery resulted in the creation of Lake Kivu, Rwanda’s largest lake.
“During delivery, the placenta ruptured and filled the valley, creating the lake. The home of Nyiransibura’s witch was left in the middle and became an isle, what we now call Ijwi island,” said Mulindwa.
He explained the meaning of another of the island’s names, Akarubwakabakwoga. Historically, the islands were where young girls who fell pregnant before marriage were banished to. “Communities used to warn the young ladies to keep their virginity until marriage. Those who didn’t would be dumped or abandoned on one of the small islands known as Akarubwakabakwoga, which means “the island of girls”.
Apart from the storytelling, the drive in itself was captivating as we meandered through the lush hills. Lake Kivu seemed to be playing hide and seek with us, giving tantalising glimpses of its seductive beauty as our 4×4 skirted along its shores.
I was excited to be enjoying these views for the second time, but in a different country. I had first set eyes on Lake Kivu two years ago on its western shores in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I had been fascinated by the fact that Kivu is often referred to as the “killer lake” and yet has a notable absence of hippos, Nile crocodiles and the bilharzia parasite found in other tropical bodies of water on the continent.
Lake Kivu – Africa’s deepest, at 480m – is safe for swimming since its great depth and grass-less waters do not provide a suitable habitat for crocodiles or hippos. However, there is a more existential threat beneath the water’s surface.
Scientists have been conducting research here since the 1950s, discovering that the lake contains about 55 cubic kilometres of dissolved methane gas. Small-scale extraction began in 2004, the gas used to run boilers at a brewery, the Bralirwa in Gisenyi, but a far-larger project is under way to construct an offshore extraction facility and on-shore processing plant, potentially removing huge quantities of the gas.
Kivu holds a substantially larger amount of dissolved carbon dioxide – about 300 cubic kilometres. It is feared that an eruption of DRC’s nearby Mount Nyirarongo – one of Africa’s most active volcanoes that last erupted in September 2021 – in Gomo, DRC, could produce a life-threatening limnic eruption, sending a huge cloud of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. There is potential too that the methane extraction could be disruptive.
Only three lakes in the world are this dangerous: Kivu and two in Cameroon, Monoun and Lake Nyos. The latter two experienced limnic eruptions in the 1980s; more than 1,700 people died at Nyos as a result of the toxic release of carbon dioxide.
When I traveled to Goma, Nyiragongo had burst suddenly into life without the usual seismic warnings five months previously. The volcano spewed lava and smoke and displaced nearly half a million people in Goma, but the lake remained relatively calm.
“We feared that if triggered, the eruptions would result in a huge explosion [of] surface gases from the lake. That’s why it is called the killer lake,” explained Daniel Kambale, my tour guide in Goma at the time. Luckily, none of those fears came to pass and locals in both countries carry on with their lives as normal.
Meanwhile, Lake Kivu’s Rwandan shores are being positioned as the country’s new adventure centre, with canoeing, kayaking, boat tours and night fishing on the water, and tea and coffee plantation tours, village hikes and camping in the fertile hills around it.
We arrived at Cleo Lake Kivu hotel, midway along the east coast, at sunset. A divine glow warmed the sky and the lake’s waters. The next morning, it was time for a boat trip. The turquoise waters shimmered as the boat cut through it gently, as if mindful that any faster movement could disturb the serenity. The cool early morning air caressed my face.
The lake is a source of food and livelihood through fishing. There are 28 species, half of which are silver fish (sambaza) and cichlids found only in the lake. As our boat continued, we waved to fishermen in their wooden canoes as they waited patiently for a catch. If you are lucky, you might hear them singing traditional songs that lend them the nickname of the singing fishermen of Lake Kivu.
The lake’s shoreline is dotted with upmarket hotels, backpacker guesthouses and family-friendly hotels for all budgets, although Rwanda has the most developed tourist infrastructure. It is here that landlocked Rwanda is blessed with beautiful beaches, peninsulas and tropical islands.
“People can enjoy both sunrise and sunset here. They can go kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and night fishing. They can also hike Nyamunini island, an island known as the Napoleon Hat,” so-called for its pointed topography, explained tour guide Jean Paul, who was leading a group of visitors on the lake.
While gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park remains a primary draw for tourists to Rwanda, the lake is a great stopping point. As our boat glided across the water, I was delighted to see the renowned swimming cows off Karongi island. Farmers here use the island as grazing pasture for their cattle and the cows swim instead of being transported by boat.
It was a glimpse of a way of a gentle way of life that relies on this magnificent body of water, whose depths are for now tranquil but unknown.
How to get there
Lake Kivu is around four hours’ drive west from Kigali airport, served from Heathrow by RwandAir. Connecting flights are available with Kenya Airways, Qatar, Emirates and Egyptair.
Where to stay
Cleo Lake Kivu hotel has double rooms from $350 (£287).
Kinunu Guest House has double rooms from around £50.
Kivu Belt tourist association