I had read quite a bit about Richard Kandt, the first German colonial resident in Rwanda, after I visited the Kandt House Museum earlier in the year.
Indeed, Kandt was instrumental as an explorer in the country.
With this familiarisation trip of the Richard Kandt Trail organised by GIZ Rwanda and Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, began the part of my journey you could call life on the road.
Before that I had often dreamed of travelling across the country to see it all, always vaguely planning but never taking off. This was the perfect timing for the trip, which incidentally happened to be on my birthday week.
We set off at around 5.30pm on the eve of my birthday for the 100km journey from Kigali to Musanze, from where we would embark on the Richard Kandt Trail.
We arrived at the Best View Hotel an hour-and-a-half later, where we spent the night. We needed to be at the Volcanoes National Park Visitors Centre by 7am.
Golden Monkey trek
We were on time for the morning briefing by our ranger guide Emmanuel. He reminded us about the dress code for the trek: Long trousers, hats, light rain jackets and water proof hiking boots.
Our visitor permits sorted, we drove some 15 minutes to the starting point, our gear, supplies and hiking sticks intact.
It was already drizzling so we prepared for the worst. We walked through the farmers’ fields past mud houses where a crowd of children greeted us heartily.
It took us about 20 minutes to get to the base of the mountain that would open up to the forest where the Golden Monkeys live.
The ascent up the hill began at about 9am. By this time the sun was scorching. Much to my relief, the terrain was flatter than I had anticipated.
I would learn that Kandt was among the first people to discover the Golden Monkey, a rare species found in the Virunga Mountain ranges that cover Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is scientifically named after Kandt (Cercopithecus kandti) and is listed as endangered. We were fortunate that on that day the monkeys were close to the base of the hill, so we did not have to trek further into the bamboo forest.
I enjoyed the trek. We did not even need binoculars to see the animals that scampered up and down the trees looking for food, often following the group leader in groups of three or more.
It was, however, an arduous task taking pictures as the monkeys swung from tree to tree. The Golden Monkey has a prominent golden fur coat on the upper flank with orange eyes.
They are some of the least shy monkeys so you can get as close as a meter away to them. The flash is permitted unlike at the gorilla and chimp treks. The cool weather made the trek down the hill a breeze.
King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri Rubengeraresidence
The King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri residence in Rubengera was our next stop. It is about three hour’s drive from Musanze.
Theodore Nzabonimpa, a tour operator who runs Beyond the Gorillas Experience sat next to me. He was a treasure trove of information on Rwanda’s history.
King Rwabugiri was a monarch. He reigned from 1853 to 1895. He had many residences around the country. It was at his residence on the shores of Lake Kivu that the king prepared for military expeditions into the DRC.
The Rubengera Royal residence was built in 1874 after King Rwabugiri’s military expedition into Burembo in the DRC.
It was also here that the king celebrated Umuganura Day (harvest festival) on many occasions during his reign. It is also the place that Kandt first visited the then king and was recorded as the first German colonial resident of Rwanda.
We arrived in Rubengera late afternoon. Our local guide Bonaventure briefed us on what to expect. From a distance, we could hear the sound of drums beating, clapping of hands and jubilant singing by the Intore dancers behind the dense banana tree plantations.
They had recreated the ceremonial rituals including warriors recounting their feats to King Rwabugiri after a war. We had to pass through several “checkpoints” that had different passwords. They were necessary to protect the king from his enemies.
The Royal residence was abuzz with activity. At one corner stood a troop of warriors preparing for war, another corner had a troupe of dancers, another had women grinding wheat using a traditional millstone while others were tasked to pray for victory during the war.
A crowd of local residents had assembled around the reconstructed replica of the King’s royal palace to witness this spectacle.
Bonaventure led us through the rituals performed by the fortune-teller/traditional healer before the war. Local actors recreated the scene.
They chanted the incantations which made for a delightful experience. The warriors then requested the King’s permission to go to war.
The experience lasted about two hours concluding in a victory song and dance. The Intore dancers, dressed in the traditional war regalia and baskets atop their heads were energetic, pulling in all the visitors.
We would spend the night at the lakeside town of Karongi and embark on our next adventure—the National Museum of Environment on day two of our tour, some 10 minutes away from our hotel.
Our day began at about 9am to the sight of fishermen rowing their boats towards the shore on Lake Kivu after a long night of fishing; some whistled, others sang local songs. Sambaza (pilchard) and tilapia fish are local favourites. Brightly lit lanterns help to attract the fish.
Frank was our guide at the museum. It has three exhibitions: Energy exhibition which focuses on renewable and non-renewable energy; an animal and geology exhibition focusing on wild animals, rocks and minerals; and a traditional herbal medicine exhibition.
Frank explained that the museum was set up as an educational aid to share knowledge, protect the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change that have led to weather related disasters and threatened humanity, wildlife and plants around the world.
The traditional herbal medicine exhibition was the most interesting. We saw traditional plants used to heal various diseases from impotence, headaches to diabetes. The tour took two-and-a-half hours.
Kandt’s residence in Shangi
We visited Shangi later that day. It was here that Kandt settled on March 24, 1899 after his journey across the Kivu Belt in search of the source of the Nile.
It took nearly three hours to get to our destination due to the rough terrain on a winding road in the hills. The experience was draining.
Kandt’s Shangi House is palatial by 1900 standards. It has an imposing driveway with palms on the side forming a canopy.
The residence was a modest collection of huts and tents without the western frills. The house is believed to be one of the places where he wrote his book Caput Nil about discovering one of the sources of the Nile.
Kandt received the first catholic missionaries at the Shangi House. It was here too that the first catholic mass took place. Belgian owners built the existing building on the ground of “Station Bergfrieden” in the 1930s after the Germans turned over Rwanda to them.
The Shangi House sits on about 10 acres of land. Unfortunately we did not gain access into the house as it was locked. But some exterior walls have portraits of Kandt and other German explorers with the captions inscribed in German.
The Shangi House overlooks Lake Kivu and is scenic and serene. As I played a game of draft with one of the caretakers of the house I daydreamed of how I would retire to a place like this if I ran into some serious windfall.
The journey to our next stop was not going to be easy as it was already 3pm and we were tired, hungry and thirsty. We made it to a hotel in Rusizi for late lunch before embarking on the last activity for the day.
Boat Ride to Nkombo Island
Nkombo is one of multiple islands on Lake Kivu.
The boat ride to Nkombo Island about an hour away was blissful with the sunset and the cool waters massaging our minds into tranquility.
Our guide was a local polite gentleman. Nkombo Island sits squarely on Lake Kivu on the boarder with the DRC. It is surrounded by about five districts from North to South and is perhaps Rwanda’s best kept secret.
It is one of the most visible out of a number of islands on Lake Kivu at just 22km square. It has a population of about 18,000 inhabitants. There are four primary school and two secondary schools on the island.
The locals speak amashi. There are no cars on the island. We were welcomed with exuberant song and dance. I couldn’t help but join in.
This turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The beauty of the island trickles down to the beauty of the people. They seemed high on life.
Unlike the Intore dancers, the Nkombo dancers have a unique way of dancing that sets them apart. The local isambaza cooked with peanut sauce is a favourite on the island.
We could not stay there for long because we had to travel back to Rusizi town before darkness set in. It is against the local policy for passenger s to ride boats at night.
On our way back, we even ran into the marines who stopped us to find out why we were riding boats at night. To my delight, we arrived in Rusizi town safely despite the heavy tides we drove to our hotel for the night in readiness for the activity the next day.
On the last day of our trip, we travelled to Nyungwe Forest, which is one of the sources of the Nile. We began our trip at around 8am from Rusizi town. It took nearly an hour to get to the Nyungwe National Park headquarters where we obtained our visitors permit.
Our tour guide would be Claver. We proceeded deep into the forest where we chanced upon a pack of baboons crossing the road in the usual casual fashion.
It took us nearly an hour-and-a-half on the main road before we got on the a dirt road that leads to Rukarara River. It originates in the swamps of the Nyungwe rainforest.
It would take a lot of winding up and down hills and a lot of head tossing for us to get to the starting point of our hike. By the time we got there, it was already afternoon and the hike was supposed to be about two hours long as the tour operators had explained to me before. Little did I know that it would take double the time.
The Nyungwe Forest is one of the oldest in Africa with about 200 tree species. By the time we arrived at the starting point we were famished. Then began the ascent up the mountain and down the alley, through thick bushes and sliding down when you tripped on the cones from the coniferous trees.
Nyungwe Forest is a birdwatcher’s paradise and we could hear the endless chirping of birds. The breath-taking landscape coupled with fresh air and the endless trail leading to the source of the Nile was rejuvenating.
The hike was not as difficult as I had imagined having hiked Mount Muhabura which was one of the most gruelling experiences of my life.
After nearly two hours walking and probably two litres of water down we managed to get to the source of the Nile in Nyungwe Forest. Kandt discovered it in July/August 1998. This is assumedly the furthest source of the Nile.
To my amazement, the source of Nile was just a little stream of water that could probably not fill a bucket. After the backbreaking hike up and down the mountain, I felt a bit cheated but I found the irony of it all interesting.
I could only imagine how amazed Kandt must have been when he discovered that the longest river in the world came from such a small source. It was like going to an overhyped concert only to have a mediocre or a no-show performance.
The rivers originating in Nyungwe Forest contribute up to 70 per cent of Rwandan water. I later learned that these rivers feed two big rivers namely Nile and Congo.
Walking back was even tougher as we had to trek up the hills. At his point we were so hungry that we would have traded our clothes for a meal. It took us nearly two-and-a-half hours to get to our cars and travel back to our hotels.
All in all, it was for me a trip of a lifetime discovering the Richard Kandt trail. My time on the road was eye-opening and I got to see Rwanda in a way that I had not seen before.
I got to explore through Richard Kandt’s perspective and oh what a life he must have lived. As through his journey through the Kivu Belt, he had to walk up and down the mountains without cars and often unaided.