Lake Hopping Burundi And Rwanda And Dodging Ebola In The DRC

You’ve already heard about my kidnapping in terra nulius between Sudan and Egypt and the adventures that followed in South Sudan and Uganda. It’s now time to hear more about my recent East and Central Africa travels, including my experience in an Ebola-ridden city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We’ll get to Goma, DRC in a bit… plus the volcano next door and the incredible gorillas hidden in the nearby hills. But first let’s go on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River and let’s go lake hopping in Burundi and Rwanda, while also making stops to pay respect to, or rather, witness hundreds and hundreds of skulls and skeletons. Scary stuff is coming up on this Great Lakes adventure…

Getting out of Uganda

We left off on this African adventure in Entebbe, Uganda. There I had to catch a flight to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. While I was going to pay a visit to Kigali, that would wait. For now, I needed to change planes in Kigali and fly to Burundi, the first stop on the last leg of my East and Central Africa trip.

A toast to successful navigation of Entebbe International Airport

As often happens in Africa, there were problems with flights. In this case, my flight leaving Entebbe was late. I thought I’d miss my connecting flight to Burundi. Luckily, it turned out that recent bouts of thunderstorms meant there was only one plane flying to Burundi, and it was the plane I was on. So we simply sat on the runway, refueled and then took off again for Burundi.

Burundi arrival

Upon landing in Bujumbura, Burundi, immigration went smoothly. I had to apply for a visa in advance, which took me about two weeks but was approved without issues. After getting through immigration, I was lucky to find my tour guides waiting for me. I would be on a group tour going through Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC. 

I was also pleasantly surprised to run into an old acquaintance of mine who turned out to be on the same tour. He is a country collector like me and was at about 168 — several dozen ahead of me — at the start of our tour. Our paths had crossed previously in the Marshall Islands at the beginning of the year. Now, I was pleased to be spending more time with him and his wife and to have an acquaintance with me on this African adventure.

Anyway, our guides took us to the hotel to meet the rest of the people who would be on our group tour.

It was getting late and we only had one full day to explore Burundi, so we all said goodnight and got some good rest that night.

A bit about Burundi


In addition to its native language of Kirundi, Burundi is also a French-speaking nation, something that surprised me a bit. Prior to being colonized, there was a Kingdom of Burundi. Then the Germans colonized East Africa in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.

During World War I, Belgian forces took control of Brundi. And after Germany suffered defeat in the war, it had to cede Burundi to Belgium. That’s how French became spoken in Burundi.

From 1922 to 1962, there existed the Belgian-ruled territory of Ruanda-Urundi, which then separated into — as you might guess — Rwanda and Burundi. Both Burundi and Rwanda have been independent countries since 1962.

Burundi is a very small country by African standards, and it is very poor by any standard.

Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi has a population made up of Hutus and Tutsi. Also like Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsi have massacred each other in Burundi, and some of the massacres are considered to be genocide. These events, though related, are not as famous as the Rwandan genocide, which will be exploring shortly.

Out and about in Burundi

In the morning we set out in Bujumbura, the largest city and former capital of Burundi. Bujumbura, a city of 1 million people, lies on the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika — another one of the Great Lakes. You may have never heard of Lake Tanganyika, but it’s actually the second deepest lake in the world.

We kicked things off with breakfast at a bakery. Despite Burundi being such a poor country, this was quite a prolific bakery.

The bakery had all kinds of things you’d expect to see at a bakery in the West — cakes and bread and pastries. Not exactly what I was expecting to find in Burundi.

Impoverished country but cake in abundance… at least here

Slightly down the street from the bakery, there was a church and we could hear quite a lot of people singing their French gospel songs. Burundi is about an 80-90% Christian nation, so plenty of people show up to church.

Good Christians

As you can see in the photo, the colors and clothing they wear are very assorted and quite beautiful.

Given that we didn’t even have two full days to explore the country, we weren’t going to stick around in Bujumbura too long.

We had a mission to accomplish and a Great Lake to visit.

The search for the source of the Nile

Our mission was of course the search for the source of the Nile — a classic expedition that explorers have been going on for centuries.

Before we embark upon this grand journey, or day trip, a little background is of use.

You may recall from the start of my preceding East and Central African adventures that there isn’t just one Nile. There are several Niles. There’s the Blue Nile; the White Nile; the Victoria Nile — the latter two of which are generally thought to originate in Lake Victoria.

Lake Victoria was once widely thought to be the source of the Nile. People basically thought this great river flowed from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean.

Good old Lake Victoria… not the source after all?

But nowadays, it is pretty widely believed that the Nile has a more remote source or sources — somewhere to the west or southwest of Africa’s largest lake. To this day, there remains a lot of controversy within the scientific community over what is the actual source of the Nile.

In the 19th Century, various Europeans set out to find the source of the Nile. They didn’t exactly succeed.

But in 1937, German explorer Burkhart Waldecker traced the Nile all the way to a mountain near the small town of Rutovu, Burundi. A year later a pyramid was erected there with a plaque stating in Latin that man’s long quest to discover the source of the Nile had finally ended.

Waldecker discovered a spring of sorts that flows into the Kagera River, which flows into Lake Victoria.

After our breakfast in Bujumbura, it was time to trace Waldecker’s steps.

It was a beautiful drive to get there, so the couple hours it took weren’t very painful.  We passed a lot of tea plants along the way. You can see them here and get a glimpse at how green and lush the countryside is.

Tea time coming

Unfortunately, a little bit of a thunderstorm was brewing so it started to rain on our bus as we approached the place where the Nile begins.

At the location, we found out we needed to walk a bit to get to a waterfall that is located close to the pyramid monument.

Kagera Waterfalls selfie

As it turned out, both the waterfall and the monument itself were quite underwhelming. Especially having just seen Murchison Falls a few days prior.

Marking German explorer Burkhart Waldecker’s discovery

The monument mentions Waldecker, as well as some other facts about the area. 

Hot spring at the source of the Nile

Nearby there is also a little hot spring. But despite billing this as a great expedition, it really was quite an underwhelming part of the trip.

More lakeside luxury

Once we got back to Bujumbura, we headed to what is maybe the most luxurious hotel in the whole country. It was another nice reminder after the Mandari tents to be grateful for such good lodging and accommodation while you have it 🙂

The resort itself was beautiful and relaxing, but the views of the lake it offered were really stunning. Lake Tanganyika is not only the second deepest lake, but is also the second oldest and second largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the entire world. Plus it’s the world’s longest freshwater lake.

Even the name “Tanganyika” basically refers to the lake being more similar to a great plain than a body of water.

View of Lake Tanganyika over to DR Congo

The next morning our tour group decided to take a boat ride up to the natural game reserve where you can see some hippos and an alleged man-eating crocodile. As legend has it, there is a crocodile in those waters who has already eaten 300 people. I didn’t find that specific crocodile, but we saw a good amount of wildlife and took some beautiful pictures of the Congolese mountains in the background.

Paddling into a thunderstorm

After docking, we had a nice lunch at a restaurant near the lake and I was able to take this picture of the beautiful beach that I’m sure you wouldn’t guess was in Africa. ?

Great Lakes beach life

From lunch, we headed north to the border of Rwanda. 

Where the river meets the lake and the mountains and the clouds between Burundi and the DR Congo

The remains of the Rwandan Genocide

At the border, we were given a briefing about throwing away our plastic before we could enter. Getting our entry visas took only about two hours, and then we were free to go. From the border, it is about a 45-minute drive to the cultural capital of Rwanda, Butare.

We got to explore a bit and visit the cathedral there (the majority of Rwandans are Catholic) before staying overnight at a hotel.

Our Lady of Wisdom Cathedral, aka Cathedral of Butare

The next morning, after our short stay in Butare, we set out to see the biggest memorial of the Rwanda Genocide in the entire country. On the way, we stopped to take some photos of prisoners working in the fields. You can barely make out all the orange jumpsuits in the green fields here.

Inmate labor

Anyway, we continued on to the genocide memorial which was really quite depressing. They explained to us in excessive detail about the events of the genocide that happened in that area.

The African Auschwitz

For a very short genocide primer, Hutus and Tutsis had been clashing with each other for decades in Rwanda (and Burundi, too). On April 7, 1994, the plane carrying the president of Rwanda (and the president of Burundi) was shot down. Then over the next 100 days, Hutus and their supporters massacred 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis and other Rwandans. People were being butchered in the streets, and the genocide shocked the world.

And our visit to this memorial shocked me.

After the museum, we got to walk around the houses in that area where there are still skulls and skeletons of all the people who died there. 

Site of genocide

It was really quite harsh to see. Even harsher than something like Auschwitz and other memorials we have in Germany and Poland.

After being sufficiently depressed by this genocide memorial, we had a four-hour bus ride to the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The distance isn’t that long, but the roads are so bad that the bus had to drive extremely slowly.

Rwandan city life

We arrived in Kigali that night and had the night to do as we pleased. I got some work done in the hotel, then went down to the hotel bar to have some drinks and chat with the rest of the tour group.

Kigali hotel view

The following morning was dedicated almost completely to exploring Kigali. We first had a city tour which was sponsored by our tour group, then afterward meandered around the markets. Eventually, we found the genocide memorial in Kigali. This one was a little less horrific to see as it had fewer skeletons and more stories and explanations about the genocide.

Inside the Kigali genocide memorial

View of the city center from the genocide memorial

We continued to explore Kigali and found it quite a beautiful place. It’s very green with rolling hills and a nice climate.


We did pass by a small slum within the city. Apparently, there’s some dispute over this slum because it is in such a desirable location right by the river. The inhabitants don’t want to give it up for some rich developers.

Slum crossing

Slum and the city

After spending the day exploring Kigali we went back to the hotel and had an incredible dinner at the rooftop restaurant. We enjoyed beautiful views of the whole city and probably the best food that I had the entire time I was in Africa. It was expensive by African standards, but relative to most of Europe it wasn’t too bad.

View from the rooftop restaurant

This concluded our two days of essentially rest in an urban environment. The following day we would be driving to Lake Kivu, which is a very interesting great lake.

Onto Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu lies directly on the border between Rwanda and the DRC, but this is not what makes it so interesting.

What is interesting is that the lake is considered one of the most dangerous lakes in the world because it emits so much C02 and methane that it is basically a supervolcano.

There are a lot of volcanoes in this area, so if one of them were to erupt it would cause a domino effect that would likely make them all erupt. All of this methane and C02 in the air would suffocate and kill most of the population in the area.

Looks calm but…

It is a little bit of a ticking time bomb similar to Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. which is basically just a giant volcano that everybody kind of just hopes doesn’t blow up soon.

Volcanic boat trip

Anyway, because it is basically a volcano, Lake Kivu gets warmer and warmer the deeper you go. We didn’t get to see a whole panorama of the lake because it was rainy and fairly cloudy. But we drove around in a boat and saw some nice beachfront or “volcano front” property like bungalows and other such little lodges on these pretty rolling hills next to the water.

Cloudy and a bit ominous, yet scenic

We were staying at this nice place called Kivu Paradis Resort. After our boat tour, we went to our accommodation and had the rest of the day to ourselves. I wanted to go kayaking and see more of the lake, but the thunderstorm and rain were getting quite bad, so I mostly stayed inside and worked.

Paradis Kivu Resort

I did go into the water briefly just to feel the lake, but swimming in lakes while lightning and thunder are around isn’t something you should try for more than a couple minutes 🙂

When the weather cleared up a bit it was very exhilarating to see the mountains of the Congo on the other side of the lake. Knowing we were looking at the home of the gorillas we would hopefully get to see soon…

Heading to the definition of a failed state

Entering Ebola land

The next day we made our way to the border of Rwanda and the DRC. It was quite heavily raining when we got there, so we stayed in a national park office while they briefed us on our upcoming venture.

Relatively easy stamp for hard country to visit

Ebola is still a massive epidemic in the Congo, so we needed to fill out plenty of medical forms and waivers and constantly were reminded to wash our hands everywhere we went.

As soon as we left the national park office and headed into the border city of Goma, we started seeing Ebola signs like this…

Goma – Ebola city

Goma is actually a city of 2 million people. It’s located along the Rwandan border and the northern shore of Lake Kivu. Goma played a major role in the Rwandan genocide — as a refugee destination —which then led to the bloody Congo Wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

The city had its share of problems, even before becoming an epicenter for the Ebola epidemic.

Life in Goma

After leaving Goma in our group bus, we started driving up into the mountains in the direction of Virunga National Park, home to volcanoes and endangered gorillas. Shortly after we started driving we even had a roadblock that required us to get out and wash our hands before we could all continue.

Ebola traffic

After a few hours, we finally made it into Virunga National Park. I snapped a picture of some local kids before we were taken to our private “huts.”

Here’s a little bit about Virunga. It’s the oldest national park in Africa. It spans over three different countries and is home to eight separate active volcanoes, some of which have erupted as recently as the past few years. More importantly, it is one of the few remaining places in the world where you can find gorillas in their natural habitat.

Congolese kids – in Virunga National Park

We made our way to our accommodation, which I was fairly surprised by. We were in such a remote area that I expected something like what I had at the Mundari village, but what I got instead was a “glamping” experience. Glamping is “glamorous camping” and what it means is that basically, I had a comfortable bed, great internet, and even a hot shower in the middle of the jungle in the Congo. 


I relaxed in my comfortable little hut and read a bit before we were summoned to a briefing about our gorilla adventure the next day. They taught us the basics about gorillas, like how we share 98% of our DNA with them and how they are mostly vegetarians except for eating little ants which they love. There are not many Gorillas left due to poaching and things like that, but there were three big families up in the mountains. Hence, our tour group would be broken up into three groups to go visit them separately and not overwhelm them.

We went back to our huts to get a good night’s sleep before our exciting adventure the next day.

Gorilla forest

Gorilla forest

Each of our three groups consisted of about six tourists and six armed rangers. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of violence and conflict between armed rebel groups that operate in the area, so the armed guards were necessary. Two tourists were kidnapped within the last couple of years, which brought about a law requiring tours to have at least as many armed guards as tourists.

Virunga is rebel territory

Unfortunately, the group I was put into had the most difficult path to the gorilla family we were hunting. Instead of a peaceful hike through the jungle, our guides needed to hack a pathway with their machetes and it took us about three hours to reach the gorillas.

As I mentioned, gorillas are vegetarians besides eating ants. They love ants, which are like candy to them. So everywhere we walked there were fire ants, and if you stopped for even a minute they would crawl all over you. It was quite uncomfortable because until our guides could mow a path with their machetes we would have to move around in a small space so the ants wouldn’t crawl over us.

About twenty minutes before we reached our gorilla family, we had to set down all of our food and put on doctors’ masks as you can see below.

Gorilla family

This wasn’t about my health so much as it was about the health of the Gorillas. They haven’t had a chance to develop a lot of the antibodies that humans have, so it is dangerous for them to be around us without the proper antigens.

The Gorillas were incredible. It really was a sight to see and the trip was definitely worth it. For lack of a better word, it’s very trippy to see these animals which share 98% of our DNA and yet live so primitively in the jungle. 

Poser gorilla

The kid gorillas were all very playful, throwing each other around and wrestling with each other. The mothers were very protectively watching their children.

Mother gorilla with baby

And one of the gorillas even shifted around from watching us so we were able to see his back and the reason they are called “silverback” which is apparently a bit of a rare experience.

Wild silverback

Even as somebody who is pretty tall, it was impressive to see how large they are. They have massive arms and leg muscles, like a bodybuilder who takes a lot of human growth hormones or steroids. 

Wanted as pet

I would not want to get into a fight with a gorilla…

Alpha male

Eventually, we needed to head back to our camps. We got there shortly before dark and were lucky that the weather was incredible that night. 

The previous night, you couldn’t see much because of the low fog. But on this night you could clearly see the volcano and the reflection of the lava in the fog.


The tour group had an offer to take us to the top of the volcano the next morning to see the biggest crater lake in the world at a volcano called Mount Nyiragongo.

Unfortunately, I would not be able to make it. The hike itself takes about six hours and I needed to leave early the next day to make it to my flight out of Africa.

More lava

This is the only picture I didn’t take myself, but I did think it was so impressive it should be included in the blog. Here is a great shot of the famous crater lake of Mount Nyiragongo.

So, the next day we left our camp and dropped some of the tour group off at Mount Nyiragongo to make the epic trek up the volcano.

The volcano by day

By the way, when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, lava made it all the way to Goma and Lake Kivu. The lava even covered part of the runway at Goma International Airport.

Poor but blessed with very fertile soil, great views and gorillas next door. Plus a volcano, if that’s a blessing.

For me, it was back to Goma and off to this partially hardened lava-covered airport, where I would then fly back to Entebbe and from there to Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport (which I was pleasantly surprised to see had been upgraded quite a bit since I was last there). Then I’d fly to Beirut and onward to Cyprus and finally Athens, where my second voyage on the Nomad Cruise would begin.

That’s a lot of flying just to board a Nomad Cruise, but it made me appreciate being a nomad in the time of airplanes and cruise ships even more… especially when people in the location I just departed get around like this:

Goma transport — African style moped