The Guide Rwanda’s Congo Nile Trail: Hiking, Activities, Videos
The Congo Nile Trail is an exceptional pearl of adventure travel. Nowhere else in sub-Saharan Africa have I (yet) discovered a route that is so stunning, feels so remote, and is so accessible to independent travelers.
In the East African nation of Rwanda, a beautiful network of local roads and trails stretches along the shore of Lake Kivu. It is becoming more and more popular each year, but it presently provides the ideal combination of accessible infrastructure and off-the-beaten-path spontaneity.
You’ll find your adventure on the Congo Nile Trail if you enjoy exploring stunning countryside and quaint villages, waking up on the shore of an island-studded lake, falling asleep to the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and engaging in leisurely pantomime exchanges with curious locals.
In March of 2018, I hiked the trail alone and without a guide as part of a five-month journey through seven African countries. Among the many amazing aspects of that vacation, it stands out as a singular and unforgettable experience. If you’re contemplating the Congo Nile Trail for your next adventure vacation, continue reading for information on how to prepare and what to anticipate.
Congo Nile Trail At A Glance
- Time: 2-10 days
- Mode of transportation: hiking or mountain biking
- Guide: optional
- Accommodation: guesthouses or camping
- Food: buy meals and basic snacks along the way
- Highlights: gorgeous scenery, interesting villages, helpful locals
- Challenges: heat, hills, intense attention from locals
Congo Nile Trail Overview
The full Congo Nile Trail is a 227 km (141 mile) route that stretches from Gisenyi / Rubavu in the north to Cyangugu in the south along the coastline of Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. It was initially intended to be traversed as a roughly 10-day hike or 5-day bike ride, but fewer people complete the entire route now that the southern half has been paved.
Since 2014, when the southern half, from Kibuye to Cyangugu, was paved, only the northern half is typically traveled. This can be accomplished in 4-5 days by foot or 2-3 days by bike. Those who are still interested in traveling the entire route can undoubtedly do so, though hiking the paved road would be significantly less interesting and pleasant than the dirt paths and roads in the northern half. On a bicycle, I imagine that the paved portion would be more desirable.
The Congo Nile Trail is not so much a trail as it is a route pieced together by the Rwanda Tourism Board from local roads. Not that this detracts from its value as a walking path, in my opinion. Just don’t expect a continuous singletrack trail, as you may imagine when you think of the Appalachian Trail in the United States. Also, don’t expect solitude; the trail passes through a populated area, and there will almost always be people in site or within earshot (often yelling “Helloooo!” from an unseen vantage point on a nearby hill).
The majority of the route consists of a single-lane dirt road that winds along the shore of Lake Kivu, sometimes close enough to touch the water and the majority of the time high enough to experience a beautiful view of it. You will be walking through villages, along farmland, and along roads used by residents in their daily activities.
The route signage appears to be a work in progress, beginning with gleaming new signs and ending with sometimes contradictory directions from residents. Ideal for cultivating a sense of adventure! The majority of people travel the trail from north to south, which makes the most sense given that the northern section is more developed and has a simpler beginning.
During the dry season, I assume the trail is frequented by a handful of hikers on a daily basis. I encountered two other couples traveling on the same itinerary as me, as well as a number of guided and unguided groups on similar routes.
Should you hike or bike the Congo Nile Trail
For bikepacking and mountain bicycling enthusiasts, the Congo Nile Trail is undoubtedly a fantastic cycling journey. However, I believe hiking is the best method for the rest of us to experience the trail. There are several causes:
The terrain is precipitous! If I had cycled the Congo Nile Trail, I would have spent countless hours hauling my bike up steep, rutted roads. When confronted with these arduous, sweltering ascents, I appreciated the freedom to ascend at my own pace.
The pace of walking was ideal for interacting with residents. The majority of other road users are on foot, and traveling at their tempo lowered barriers and made it easier for me to get along with the people I met. Occasionally, we would trek for miles together while conversing in a rough amalgamation of English, French, Kinyarwanda, and pantomime. It is difficult to envision this occurring as frequently while riding a bicycle, except perhaps on the uphills.
Without a guide, it is logistically more difficult to organize bicycles. As of 2018, I am unaware of any company in western Rwanda that leases bikes without a guide, so you would need to bring your own or rent one in Kigali. This was the deciding factor in my decision to hike, as I wanted to travel independently and without too much hassle, and I am grateful for it in retrospect.
How to pack for the Congo Nile Trail
You will generally benefit from a light burden on those steep hills, which may necessitate leaving some belongings behind in Gisenyi, as I did.
On the Congo Nile Trail, a general minimalist setup for camping and off-the-beaten-path travel, as detailed in this list of my preferred travel gear for Africa, will serve you well.
When camping, a tent and sleeping pad are essential, and the tent must be able to withstand a heavy downpour.
To save weight, I traveled without a sleeping bag, instead combining a silk sleeping bag liner and a metallic emergency bivy (two of my favorite pieces of outdoorsy travel equipment) with warm clothing for slightly chilly evenings. This worked perfectly for me in Rwanda in March, despite the fact that I am typically a chilly sleeper.
You may already be aware that Rwanda outlaws plastic bags. If you’ve traveled in other parts of Africa, you understand what a wise decision this is and how it contributes to the country’s exceptional sanitation. They are primarily concerned with the variety of plastic bag found in grocery stores and markets. Nobody appeared to be bothered by the ziploc containers. I used to organize some of my belongings; however, I once crossed a land border at night, so your mileage may differ. The customs agent contemplated seizing the plastic kitchen trash bag containing my muddy hiking shoes, but when she saw what was inside, she took pity on me and allowed me to keep the bag. Avoid plastic grocery bags and use ziplocks sparingly, per my recommendation. If they do discover something objectionable, there is no fine or punishment, but you will be required to empty the bag and surrender it.
The Client’s Experience: Congo Nile Trail Route Overview
This is a report of the itinerary I followed, which was also followed by two other couples I encountered on the trail and appeared to be quite prevalent. However, there are alternative options, particularly in the southern half, so if you’re intrigued, do some research.
Starting in Gisenyi
Gisenyi (sometimes referred to as Rubavu, which is adjacent) is the customary starting point, just across the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
From Kigali, Gisenyi can be reached by bus in a few hours. I arrived in Gisenyi by bus directly from Uganda, and wow, was it a spotless, well-developed city in comparison. I was immediately struck by the sanitation and attention to aesthetic details, such as flower gardens and decorative architecture, which I had not encountered in Uganda.
If you have the opportunity, I would recommend spending a day exploring Gisenyi prior to beginning the trail. Walk to the official border crossing with Goma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is essentially part of the same city that has been divided in half by the international border. Observe the constant flow of foot traffic as market women transport produce on their heads between one of Africa’s most peaceful and one of its most violent nations. A soldier is stationed at each intersection where one country transitions into another, as if daring you to ask permission to cross into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (I didn’t have the nerve to attempt). Brochettes (probably goat, if your farm animal impersonations are as bad as mine) and fried potatoes are served at a small roadside tavern and restaurant. Stroll along the beach or simply observe the well-kept homes. Purchase crackers and mangoes from the women and children.
Stop by the Green Hills Ecotours-affiliated tourist information office on Avenue de Independence to obtain a map or for directions. There was only one map available during my visit, so I photographed it and left it for the next tourist. You should also be able to reserve accommodations from this page, though it is not required if you prefer a flexible itinerary.
If you did not enter this way, you may want to locate the gare on the main road leading to the DRC, just a few blocks from the Petite Barriere (main border crossing). This is where you will find public transportation to the trailhead, as well as a bus return to Kigali if that is your intention.
Gisenyi has numerous accommodations. I stayed at the Planet (also pronounced Planette) Motel, where the price was very reasonable and the proprietors were incredibly helpful and kind. They kindly stored some of my belongings for me while I hiked the trail, and there was a pleasant restaurant on site. Planette is several kilometers up the Ruhengeri-Gisenyi Road, despite the fact that Google Maps depicts it as being centrally located by the seashore. You must hire a motorcycle or a shared taxi to get to and from the central business district. Ask around until you find a motorbike driver who knows the location or is willing (like mine) to drive around questioning people until he figures it out.
Day 1: Gisenyi to Cyimbiri
The trail begins at the brewery (brasserie). To get there, hire a motorcycle taxi or, for a cheaper ride, go to the central gare (taxi park) and ask anyone for the vehicle that travels to the “brasserie.” This affordable option should cost approximately 300 RF. Ask the conductor or another passenger which stop you should exit at.
After traversing the brewery, veer right onto a dirt road. You are currently on the Congo-Nile Trail! As you ascend the slopes, appreciate the view of Gisenyi’s harbor.
This initial portion of the route is reasonably well-marked, with signs at each intersection. On day one, I encountered only one unmarked intersection, and the residents instructed me to take the sharp left. If in doubt, indicate down the road and ask anyone you see “Cyimbiri?” (pronounced chim-beer-ee) or “Kinunu?” (destination for day two), and the locals will point you in the right direction.
To conclude the first day, turn right at the Cyimbiri Base Camp sign. Then turn left at an unmarked intersection (right leads to the hydro station down the hill). You will encounter a school, which you must traverse. On the opposite side, there is a tiny, unmarked gate leading to the guesthouse. Students or residents will likely point you in its direction before you even ask.
The guesthouse is a cozy spot right on the lake with the option of a simple room for 10,000 RF, or you can pitch a tent on the lawn for 5,000 RF (and still use the common room and toilet, which includes a cold shower). When I was there, dinner cost 5,000 RF and brunch cost 2,000 RF, and both consisted of delicious and abundant local cuisine. They sold soda and water, but no alcohol.
Day 2: Cyimbiri to Kinunu
Before departing, inquire at the Cyimbiri guesthouse about the “short cut” along the lake. It avoids some uphill retracing and is one of the only singletrack trail sections on the entire route.
There are at least two lodging options that I observed in Kinunu. Both appeared somewhat more refined than the Cyimbiri guesthouse. Both are clearly marked and barely off the main road. I believe the Kinunu Guesthouse, located closer to the main road, would have been less expensive, but I was unable to check in there. About 3 kilometers off the main road, I turned left to reach the more opulent Rushel Kivu Lodge.
Compared to the more pastoral Cyimbiri guesthouse, the Rushel Kivu Lodge feels more conventional and “touristy.” There will be other hikers, as well as individuals who arrived in air-conditioned vehicles. During my stay, a yoga retreat was taking place, and a few women complained that the beer wasn’t cool enough. However, it is situated directly on a lake, has excellent Wi-Fi, tasty but pricey cuisine, and beautiful grounds.
I pitched my tent on the grass for 10,000 RF, which was the lowest price I could negotiate. I savored a bathroom with a nice, warm shower and a couple of beers on their terrace overlooking the lake. There are unquestionably rooms available, and they are presumably nice, but they were certainly out of my price range, so I did not inquire.
Day 3: Kinunu to Musasa
Day three begins with a required climb back up the steep incline from the lake. This day was difficult, lengthy, and somewhat perplexing in terms of the route. There are numerous unmarked intersections; if you’re traveling without a guide, you’ll need to ask the locals for assistance frequently. However, if it were simple, it wouldn’t be an expedition, would it?
My advice for this section is to frequently ask for directions. At any intersection, point in either direction and inquire “Musasa?” Once you believe you are on the correct path, it does not harm to ask another person the same question. A couple of occasions I received contradictory directions, and I believe there are at least two routes that lead to the same location.
When I expected to locate the guesthouse or homestay in Musasa, I came across a sign that read “Musasa Base Camp.” It appeared to signify a right turn into a coffee plantation, but locals directed me back to the road and in the original direction. I was told there was a simple campsite there, but I never discovered it; instead, I walked around confused while a young boy assured me I should continue. At the summit of an incline, I located the Musasa Homestay on the right.
In addition, during this section of the Congo Nile Trail, some hikers remain in the town of Bumba. Bumba and Musasa are in the same direction for a portion of the day, but there is an unmarked junction where the routes diverge, so you will need to ask the locals for the one you want.
I was the only occupant at the Musasa homestay, but they offered me several rooms for 10,000 RF and camping space for 5,000 RF anywhere on their small property. There is a place to erect a tent in the front yard, but if you want to avoid being observed by dozens of children, I recommend setting up your tent in the enclosed courtyard. There is a pit toilet and a bathing chamber with a bucket of warm water for washing.
It is not a residence in the sense that there is no family living there. It was staffed at the time by a young man and woman who were not a couple and who only resided there during their schedules. However, the building is reminiscent of a house, and the staff is unusually friendly, giving it a homestay-like atmosphere.
The two staff members joined me for dinner, which cost 5000 RF but appeared negotiable. Water, alcohol, and soda were available for purchase. The following morning’s breakfast was without a doubt the finest meal I’d had in months, including homemade bread that was to die for. In fact, it was during breakfast that I decided to spend my sixth day on the trail at this most primitive lodging option.
Day 4: Optional Rest Day at Musasa
I had allotted five days for the hike and opted to spend my sixth day at a rustic homestay in Musasa. Possibly due to the fact that I was the only tourist at the time, both employees closed up the establishment and walked with me a mile or two down to the shores of Lake Kivu. We observed fishermen constructing wooden vessels while conversing about life in our respective countries. I assume you could do this on your own, but it was much more enjoyable to converse with these articulate and educated local hosts, from whom I learned a great deal. I also had the impression that the fishermen did not appreciate tourists meandering through their workplace without cultural guidance from homestay staff.
Later in the day, I hung out with one of the couples I’d encountered earlier on the trail who had arrived at the homestay. We witnessed an epic storm ravage through the hills before falling asleep in our tents in the courtyard to the sound of light rain.
Day 5: Musasa to Mushubati (and on to Kibuye)
If you’ve had enough, you can apparently avoid this day by taking a motorbike from Mushubati to the main road, or by walking from Bumba to the main road. Nevertheless, I thoroughly relished this day of hiking. It was more remote and less well-defined than the others, perhaps because fewer travelers make the journey without taking a motorbike shortcut.
If you choose to walk all the way to Rubengera junction, you will need to ask locals for directions because the path is not marked. Ask for Mushubati, which appeared to be better known than the actual name of the intersection. I recommend leaving ample time for this day so that you can navigate the final road segment and arrive in town well before dusk.
At Rubengera junction, your weary soles will finally touch asphalt for the first time in days. You can purchase a snack and find motorbike drivers willing to transport you into town, or you can walk along the nicely paved and sparsely traveled road for approximately two hours until you reach the junction for Kibuye (something like chi-boo-yi). If you choose not to proceed on the paved route south, your journey ends here.
I suggest taking a motorcycle taxi to Kibuye from the Rubengera junction. I initially attempted to walk this section because I mistakenly believed it to be shorter than it actually was, but after two hours I gave up and flagged a moto taxi to complete what would have been another two or more hours of rainy walking.
Finishing in Kibuye
Kibuye is the location where guidebooks recommend beach lounging and lake boat rides to help you recuperate from your hike. I believe this heavily hinges on your budget. Indeed, Kibuye has several luxurious hotels on the water, but they are costly.
My moto taxi driver took me to the Kivu Plaza Motel, conveniently located near the taxi park, when I requested a room priced between 5,000 and 10,000 Rwandan Francs. There were rooms with shared facilities for 5,000 rubles, rooms with bathrooms for 8,000 rubles, and larger, nicer rooms for 15,000 rubles. The water only worked intermittently, and the restaurant’s meals cost approximately 3500 RF. If you look around, you can find cheaper and better cuisine elsewhere. After days of hiking, you will appreciate the opportunity to purchase refreshments at one of the few “supermarkets” nearby.
Even though I wasn’t lodging directly on the water, I enjoyed a pleasant day of hiking around the hilly peninsula. I discovered a local guide who took me on an hour-long canoe trip to an island by chance. I would imagine that any of the larger hotels could provide you with something comparable if you dropped by. The canoe trip was enjoyable, but I had to negotiate hard and clarify that I would not pay him more than one night’s lodging for an hour in his boat because I was not staying at one of the expensive hotels.
Rwanda Travel Overview
Rwanda is one of the more accessible African countries, relative to others. There is a wealth of information available to help you prepare for Rwanda in general, but before we get into the specifics of the trail, here’s a brief overview.
Beginning in January 2018, Rwanda made obtaining visas and entry simpler than ever before. Anyone from any country can obtain a 30-day visa upon arrival without applying in advance.
Rwanda is not as hot as many of its neighbors, but it does receive a lot of rain, so avoiding the wet season should be your primary concern unless you enjoy being perpetually drenched. Consider the months of June to September for drier (but not completely arid) weather, or December to February as an alternative. Days can feel quite humid. Depending on location, evenings can be cool.
Getting there: You will most likely arrive at the airport in Kigali. From neighboring countries, there are also clean and comfortable vehicles, such as the 12 hour overnight bus I took from Kampala, Uganda.
Language: As I did, you can absolutely get by with English alone. A rudimentary knowledge of French will also serve you well. Older Rwandans who have attended school frequently speak French, as it was formerly the language taught to students. In 2008, the government changed the language of instruction in schools from French to English. As a result, younger educated individuals and current students typically communicate some English.
Most Rwandans who do not work in the tourism industry do not speak English, French, or both adequately. As you travel through their villages on the Congo Nile Trail, the majority of the locals will speak Kinyarwanda and perhaps a few words of English or French. Be prepared for a combination of pantomiming, smiling, and broken, extremely simplistic English and French. Learning a few words of Kinyarwanda will make many people very pleased. Along the trail, I walked for miles with a local boy who wanted to practice his English. This is one of my most cherished recollections. As we traversed the hills together, we “spoke” in the simplest possible words from three distinct languages, along with hand gestures and smiles.
Culture and religion: The overwhelming majority of Rwandans are Christians, with a roughly equal proportion of Catholics and Protestants. The culture is not excessively conservative compared to other African nations, but it is more conservative than the majority of western nations, so it is prudent to dress conservatively, particularly outside of the capital city of Kigali. The majority of local women wear skirts, though female tourists may wear trousers. In rural areas, tight-fitting trousers or skirts above the knee may be viewed as strange or disrespectful.
It is essential to realize that every Rwandan over the age of 24 has survived a genocide, even if the impact may not be immediately apparent to most tourists. An estimated one million Rwandans perished during three months in 1994 at the hands of their neighbors in an ethnically motivated genocide led by the government. At the time, 14% of Rwanda’s population was affected. People rarely discuss it, so I would advise you not to inquire unless you know the person well or they indicate a propensity to discuss. The genocide memorial museum in Kigali is a must-see if you want to learn more about the contrast between Rwanda’s grim history and its present-day clean, orderly, community-oriented state.
The Rwandan Franc is the official currency, though some tour operators accept payment in US dollars, particularly for larger quantities. At the moment of writing (September 2018), the exchange rate is approximately 880 RF to 1 USD. Credit cards and ATMs are not widely accepted, particularly in smaller towns (and certainly not on the Congo Nile Trail), so you should bring a substantial amount of cash (carried securely in a money belt or internal pouch). Banks and forex bureaus facilitate the exchange of US dollars and Euros to Rwandan Francs.
Health: Conduct exhaustive research, beginning with the CDC website and a travel specialist. You will likely require vaccinations and malaria preventatives. Drink bottled water or purify all drinking water with chlorine dioxide or another method that is effective against bacteria, parasites, AND viruses (the majority of backpacking water purifiers sold in North America do not meet this last requirement).
Rwanda has a well-deserved reputation for being a safe nation with a very low crime rate. Although I was there for less than two weeks, my experience mirrored this. Nonetheless, it is always prudent to consider safety precautions when exploring an unfamiliar location.
In many African countries, transportation can pose the greatest danger for travelers. Be cautious when selecting a motorcycle and rider, and avoid the roads at night.
As a result of the trail’s near proximity to the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some western governments have issued a permanent travel advisory for the region. In recent years, this has not been an issue on the Rwandan side, but you should research the situation prior to your trip to make sure it hasn’t worsened.
During my solo travels through seven African nations, Rwanda was the only destination where I encountered virtually no instances of the usual benign but unwanted male attention (such as marriage proposals). I felt quite at ease as a solitary female traveler amidst the country’s politeness and reserve.
As in many other sub-Saharan African nations, it is important to understand that women’s upper legs are frequently viewed as more sexual than their breasts, which explains why wearing shorts will elicit strange stares while local women bathe topless in the rivers. I typically wore loose-fitting trousers and a T-shirt or tank top with wide straps and never felt uncomfortable.