The Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda is a four day hike through the lush green hills overlooking lake Kivu. You walk from village to village following dirt roads and trails through agriculture fields, meeting plenty of locals along the way. As such, it’s more of a cultural experience than our usual remote backcountry hike.
The name Congo Nile Trail is a bit confusing: the trail is neither in Congo nor anywhere near the Nile. It is called the Congo Nile Trail because it follows the watershed divide between the Congo river and the Nile river. Any rain that falls west of the watershed eventually ends up in the Congo river, and any rain that falls east ends up in the Nile river.
According to the official Rwanda Development Board website, the entire trail is 227km long and requires 10 days of walking. However, the vast majority of hikers only walk the 4 day section from the town of Gisenyi at the very north end of lake Kivu to the town of Kibuye, which is about halfway south along the shore of the lake.
Some people continue all the way to the town of Kamembe, which is at the very south end of the lake. We haven’t done that section, but I am pretty sure that is now all tarmac road; it would only be worth considering if you are doing the trail by bike and don’t mind riding on a fairly busy tarmac road.
Don’t confuse the Congo Nile Trail described in this blog with the very similarly named Congo Nile Divide trail in the excellent Nyungwe Forest National park. We didn’t hike that one, but it appears to be very worthwhile too. It is a 3 to 4 day 42km long jungle hiking trail, which involves camping in the jungle and for which a national park guide is mandatory.
Bike or hike? Guide or no guide?
You have two main decisions to make. First: do you walk or do you bike? Second: do you go by yourself or do you go with a guide?
Hiking or biking is a matter of personal preference. Me, I prefer to walk because it gives you much more of an opportunity to absorb the experience and to interact with the locals. Also, if you bike you will be limited to the main dirt road, whereas if you walk you can take the tiny narrow side trails that take you through the hills and the fields.
It is definitely possible to do the trail by yourself without a guide. We met several people doing exactly that. The main trail is pretty well marked with large signs. Expect to take a few wrong turns because there are some junctions where the sign is missing.
If you choose to go without a guide, you can still bike: it is possible to just rent bicycles without a guide. It is probably a good idea to make reservations for the basecamps along the way. These are pretty much the only places to stay, even if you are pitching a tent.
We chose to walk with a guide and we thought it was very much worth it for a couple of reasons:
- If you walk by yourself, you will have to follow the main trail, which is a dirt road (with little or no traffic, thankfully) for most of the way. If you go with a guide, he or she can take you down tiny little side trails. Just make sure that you let your guide know that this is what you want, because the default for most guides will be to follow the main dirt road for the whole way. If you are bicycling, you will have no choice but to stick to the main dirt road.
- You will attract a lot of attention as a muzungu, especially if you are walking. Hiking with a guide can help moderate this to a reasonable level.
For guiding services, we can recommend Go Gisenyi Tours. The young and very friendly owner Francis met us at our hotel in Gisenyi to discuss all options, and his brother Fred ended up being the guide. TripAdvisor reviews are here. Back when we did the walk, they specialized more in walking than in biking, but Fred recently WhatsApp’ed us that they have bought some state-of-the-art mountain bikes.
What to bring
If you are staying in rooms in the basecamps along the way, you just need a tiny daypack with lunch, water, a rain jacket, a towel, etc. You can buy safe bottled water in the villages along the way. All basecamps provide dinner and breakfast.
If you are camping at the basecamps, you obviously also need a tent, sleeping pads, and a sleeping bag. I would not recommend camping anywhere else than the basecamps.
If you are not coming back to Gisenyi after the walk, Go Gisenyi Tours can transfer your luggage from Gisenyi to the endpoint of your hike.
Surprisingly (given it’s history) Rwanda is one of the safest countries in all of Africa. Crime is almost unheard of, particularly in the rural areas, but even in the capital Kigali. We traveled by public transport throughout Rwanda and we never had any moment that we felt unsafe, even late at night.
The same is true for this walk: it is perfectly safe. That said, as mentioned before, you will attract a lot of attention. At every corner, there will be hordes of children running down from the hills enthusiastically yelling muzungu! It is all good natured and friendly, even if some kids (or even adults) can get a bit carried away with begging for handouts or money (see for example this blog). Please don’t encourage this by handing out things; it is better to organize a formal donation to a school or hospital or church if you want to help.
The trail is also blissfully devoid of any trash or rubbish. Rwanda is famously clean, even by western standards. Plastic bags have been outlawed and every last Saturday of the month, the entire nation performs a community cleanup, known as Umuganda,
Day 1 (2 January, 2018): Gisenyi to Cyimbili Basecamp (6 hours)
Francis (the owner of the travel agency) and Fred (his brother and our guide for the trip) picked us up at our hotel (the Beach Garden BnB) and drove us by car to the beginning of the walk close to the Inzu lodge.
After passing past a huge brewery, we started on the officially marked Congo Nile Trail. We soon hit the first official signpost for the Congo Nile Trail and continued down the main trail, which at this point is a wide dirt road that snakes through fields and villages.
Except for an occasional passing motorbike, there is hardly any motorized traffic on the road. But there is plenty of foot traffic: the villages that you pass through every 30 minutes or so are filled with people, and between villages there is a constant stream of people carrying supplies to and fro.
And, of course, after almost every corner there are the ubiquitous children running down the hills enthusiastically shouting muzungu!
Along the way, we passed some fish farms one the lake and a tiny church where a very cheerful worship was in progress with much singing and dancing. You are welcome to enter but will be expected to contribute a donation.
After a while, we convinced Fred, our guide, to leave the main trail and head down some of the tiny side trails through the fields. Of course he did not know every little side trail, but he could talk to the people working in the field to keep us headed in the right direction.
After about 6 hours of walking we arrived at the end point for the day: Cyimbili basecamp. This was a nice quiet house literally steps away from a tranquil little beach on Kivu lake. We had a room with a private bathroom, but there was also another couple pitching their tent on the inviting grass field next to the house.
After settling in to Cyimbili basecamp, we paid a local boatman to bring us to a little island right off the lake shore to have a look at the coffee plantation there.
Day 2 (3 January, 2018): Cyimbili Basecamp to Kinunu Guest House (5 hours)
By the second day, the main dirt road petered out to much smaller trails through more fields and villages.
Not long after leaving the basecamp we reached a small village, where the fishermen were repairing their boats and nets, and where a rickety transport ship was being unloaded.
We also passed by a local shop where they were grinding cassava roots, a local staple.
For the rest of the day we more or less followed the shore of the lake, passing through more lush fields and small villages, and attracting plenty of attention along the way.
After about 5 hours of walking, we arrived at the Kinunu guest house. This was by far the most luxurious guest house on the trail, with a large immaculately clean rooms with private bathrooms organized around a central dining area.
There is a coffee farm nearby which is worth a visit, and you can continue walking beyond the coffee farm along the lake short for an afternoon stroll.
Day 3 (4 January, 2018): Kinunu Guest House to Bumba Basecamp (9 hours)
The third day was by far the longest day, with a kick-in-the-but uphill part towards the end (especially if you are biking).
Just as the previous days, the route took us through fields and small villages, but it tends to me more hilly and veer more inland away from the lake than the first two days.
We tried to seek out the small side trails, but weren’t able to avoid walking some long sections on the main dirt road (which still have little to no motorized traffic).
After about 9 hours of walking we finally made it Bumba basecamp, set on top of a hill with great views just beyond the village. It sit run by a very sweet gentleman with ambitious plans to start a library and a computer lab for the local youth, but at this stage it is the most basic (but still perfectly adequate) accommodation of the four places where we stayed.
Day 4 (5 January 2018): Bumba Basecamp to Rubengera (6 hours)
On the fourth day we completed deviated from the official route. Whereas most people continue to the town of Kibuye, we headed for the town of Rubengera (about 5 miles east).
We wanted to go to Rubengera to visit the “Abaja ba Kristo” community of sisters, which runs a highly acclaimed technical school and which also has some Dutch connections (a friend of ours had visited them before and introduced us to them.)
We completely improvised the route from Bumba basecamp to Rubengera, crossing through the hills, passing through fields and villages using a combination tiny trails and small roads. I imagine it would be very difficult to find this deviation from the official trail without the help of a guide.
After about 6 hours we reached the town of Rubengera and the very welcoming and impressive “Abaja ba Kristo” community of sisters.
Go Gisenyi Tours is the travel agency that we used to provide the guide, to book the accommodations, and to transfer our luggage. We highly recommend them.
Rwandan Adventures is another travel agency that is frequently mentioned and that specialized in bike tours.
The official Rwanda Development Board website has some information about the Congo Nile Trail.
Sam Waldock has a comprehensive trip report on Brandt travel guide website. It has very useful contact details for all of the accommodation options along the trail.
TripAdvisor has an entry on the Congo Nile Trail.
This article on bikepacking.com has GPS coordinates (which I have not tried out myself).