Swimming cows and singing fishermen: A day on Lake Kivu

Rwanda’s largest lake is more than a ‘beach’ destination

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Thu 20 Apr 2023, 4:10 PM

Nestled in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest lake. Surrounded by majestic mountains, its emerald-green waters cover a surface area of 1,677 sq. miles, Lake Kivu offers an experience like no other.

The singing fishermen on the lake

I am in Rwanda looking for mountain gorillas, but I soon discover that gorillas aren’t the only attraction here. Rwanda turns out to be a traveller’s gem.

From Volcanoes National Park, I head west to Karongi and into a whole new world. Dense rainforests disappear, making way for the shimmering Lake Kivu. My hotel is located on the hill overlooking what appears to be a fjord. The lake is welcoming and holds immense possibilities of adventures.

And because there is plenty of light left, I join a few hotel guests on a motorboat that takes us towards the green headlands and mountains that surround the lake. In the distance is Democratic Republic of Congo, which shares the lake with Rwanda. It is easy to see why Rwanda is called the land of 1,000 hills: in the golden light of dusk, the silhouettes of hills and mountains stand out picturesquely against the pink sky.

The lake is unique and I cannot ignore the feeling of being in an inland freshwater sea.

Evening comes quickly and with it another experience I will always cherish. As the sun goes down, hundreds of fishing boats with the characteristic long poles attached to bows and sterns, become visible against the twilight sky. It is a sight to behold. As we watch, the fishermen (usually three per boat) paddle out with remarkable speed towards the deep water, working in unison, breaking out into a traditional Amashi song to synchronise their strokes, encouraging each other with whistles and melodies. (Rwanda's Amashi language belongs to the fishermen of Lake Kivu.)

As they advance to their destination, they cast out their nets by the bright light of their bobbing lanterns. The bluish light is a draw for the sambaza (a small finger-sized fish) and tilapia.

They will fish all night. As we return, I cast my eyes around. With so many lamps tinkling on the Lake, it is hard to tell where the sky begins or ends.

An extraordinary morning

The next morning Rudolf, our boatman and guide, is waiting for us on the shore. The sun is barely up but he is ready with the kayaks. There are a few kayak-enthusiasts amongst us, excepting me, but my determination makes up for what I lack in skill. I want to go kayaking on the mirror-like smooth lake. “Only paddle around that green island,” Rudolf urges me. “You will do fine. I’ll be right behind you.”

Soon the expert kayakers are out of sight as I struggle to maintain pace. Rudolf pulls up beside me and holds out his hand. “If you stop for a moment, you can hear the hawks in the trees. It is their favourite time to hunt.” He then shows me a hawk, which in turn watches us with interest from a rock. A small breeze picks up. I am suddenly wide awake.

The sun rises over the hilltop and makes the lake shine.

I don’t make it as far as the little green island, but I have something to boast about.

I have heard the hawk.

The legend of the swimming cows

After a hurried breakfast, we set off on a boat trip to an island somewhere in the middle of the lake. The journey is surprisingly calm, although there is a suggestion of rain later. The rolling hills are bluish black this morning and we sail past picturesque little islands, some of which support a variety of wildlife (introduced by the government to boost tourism) till we come to our next surprise.

“Now you watch.” The boatman tells us, dropping anchor near a small island that looks inhabited. The sky is turning grey but there is a sense of disbelief on everyone’s face.

As if on cue, first one, then two, then dozens of cows, lowing and swishing their tails begin to drop into the lake. This prompts a round of discussion — can cows swim?

As the debate continues, the numbers have multiplied and as we watch, the cows begin to swim to the next island that is full of tall green grass. It is a bovine-magnet. Then a cowherd appears at the water’s edge, waves at us nonchalantly, pulls out a long wooden canoe and begins to paddle after his herd.

“This is bizarre,” someone exclaims. “Who knew cows could swim? Have they been trained?”

This question is lost on the boatman. We drift closer to the island of grazing cows. The cowherd has already arrived and is making his way uphill, whistling.

The cows, unfazed by the curious onlookers, chew placidly.

“The farmers around Karongi use the small islands as grazing pasture for their cattle. Instead of transporting the cows by boat, they have taught them to swim there,” the boatman offers at last. “The lake free from crocodiles and hippos too — so it is safe for the cows.”

The mystery is cleared and we proceed to the next stop. It is time for coffee.

The visual treat of coffee drinking

And as a coffee lover in urgent need to refreshment, I am excited about the thought of visiting a coffee washing station. The Kinunu Coffee Washing Station, I am told, produces some of the finest coffee in Rwanda. Here at last is a chance to learn how coffee is grown, picked, washed, dried, roasted and of course, consumed. This might not sound all that thrilling but with Rwandan coffee, it is a whole new experience.

We hop off the boat at a sandy beach and trudge uphill through a plantation. I am acutely aware of how every bean transforms into the wonderful brew that makes Rwandan coffee so sought after. In my mind, I conjure up the taste and image of coffee with my eyes, ears and nose. It is a matter of time before I put my lip to the cup.

I am about to have an immersive coffee experience. Upon arrival we spread out and engage in conversation with people who work there, ask questions and learn pretty much everything there is to learn about coffee grown in the Kinunu region of Rwanda.

We sit down to a coffee-tasting ceremony to initiate us into the world of Rwandan coffee. I enjoyed the smell of roasting, the sound of pounding the roasted beans and hissing of steam as hot water is poured into the grind.

It is a pity that it is not easy to find Rwandan coffee internationally because I really am in love with the its flavour.

The vibrant acidic taste of the single origin, 100 per cent Arabica coffee with a hint of sandalwood, peach and pecans, is the perfect end to a holiday on the Lake.


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