“All those people gathered there in Zaire, in Zaire. To see the rumble in the jungle there in Zaire,
in Zaire” – Johnny Wakelin.
On the ongoing journey, it was time to jungle it. We were heading from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with gorilla trekking and a jungle visit quite clearly on the cards. We kicked things off in the lofty city of Kigali. It capitals Rwanda and tries so so hard to cover up the scars of a torn past. Genocide carved its bloody head into the joys of a country so pleasant, so undermined, so full of hope. It hurts you deep as an innocent backpacker to the country. I’ve crossed many world borders down the years, but this time I’d be crossing a border where scared Rwandans (Tutsi or not) ran to escape the horrific genocide regime.
We know nothing here, despite a teenage upbringing in terrorist rife Northern Ireland. A stark similarity hit home here. I class myself as a white (unchosen), right wing (chosen), catholic (chosen) Northern Irish (unchosen) nationalist (chosen) with a Protestant upbringing (unchosen) and a communist mindset (chosen over time – we are all equal). We don’t chose what we look like or our religion/beliefs at birth.
These days (and probably always apart from those killers), Rwandans are incredibly friendly and welcoming, as they do their best to hide a vile past unembarrassingly recent and uncouthly harsh. My head ducked in, aware of the horror…
Let’s set the scene for the birth of this trip though…beneath the surface, Kigali is one of Africa’s most loveable capitals. Fact. It’s your New York City in disguise. However, it hardly feels that way when your un-deodorated Northern Irish football shirt rocks a post sunset entrance into the less than elaborate “bus station” that does its best to be as cool as Uganda’s mayhemic Kampala.
Unexpectedly, Rwanda is a calmer pleasure cruise than all of its neighbours (and I visited all 4 of Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania and Burundi). The original plan was to whackpack from Kigali to Goma (DRC) and do the gorilla tour or volcano hike, but after a ridiculous amount of research, we discovered an alternative option. Thanks to world traveller, blogger and Podcaster Ric Gazarian, who had visited the DR Congo and Rwanda just a few weeks before us, we realised that with our three passports (Polish, Australian, Northern Irish) we could get a pre-arranged visa on arrival in Bukavu. Civil wars, threat of Ebola and unscared Belfast child aside, this was almost as smooth as peanut uncrunchy butter. Here is my guide on how to get from Kigali to Bukavu (Rwanda to DR Congo).
Leaving Rwanda’s Capital City, Kigali
So this bit is more simple than meets the eye. You head to the main “bus station” in Kigali. Get ready for the scene of magnetism if you happen to be white and in any way tourist resembling. This place is a concrete lowland kingdom of manicness. As a hat-trick of obvious standout backpackers, the three of us meander past hundreds of locals, each step in an attempted avoidance of the lure that comes with backpacking a typical African bus station in another town, on another step along the journey. There is no respite, nor exit door.
Buying a bus ticket from Kigali to Bukavu (Rwanda to Democratic Republic of Congo)
As an experienced border crossing geek, the difficulty never ceases to amaze, phase or excite me. On this particular Monday morning, I was more than buoyant. This had to be special. So this was easy. We saw a mini-bus that was clearly signposted with “Bukavu” on it.
There was a mere all letter upper case cardboard sign telling us this in blue writing. There was no bus stop, there was no DR Congo border bus, there were no other backpackers, to be clear and unracist – there were absolutely no other white people – in sight. It was three of us. After 30 minutes of lingering at the bus station, asking questions and realising the reality of it all, there were 3 main options to get to the Democratic Republic of Congo that day.
If you ever followed my blog before, you will surely know my preferred option. It was just before noon (11.43 am) and the compact mini-buses (often known locally as “matatus”) fill up and leave when full. It reminded me of my time in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan for some mini-busic reason.
When push came to shove, we narrowed our trip down to two companies: Alpha and Omega buses. Alpha were charging 600 Rwandan Francs for the cross border minibus adventure to Bukavu, a small-ish border located city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It seemed like a bargain and so we bought a hat-trick of tickets. In fact, as we mingled in the bus ticket booth, I chatted to seller Gentilly who called herself “beautiful” and we opted to buy FOUR tickets for the bus. Russell decided on two seats to house his bags and longer legs and bigger knees. It was a decision inspired as the 2.5 hour minibus fell short of its low-time promise. We chose the four back seats from the map (7,8,910). I expected this to be a death mini-bus like the ones I took in Ethiopia to Harar but it turned out to be much safer!
The Journey From Kigali to Cyangugu, Rwanda
It was all you expect in Africa. We heard rumours that the mini-bus took around 2-4 hours. We feared the worst and made that into 5 hours.Well, according to Google Maps (which I’d never trust anyway) the journey is 257 kilometres and should take 5 hours 36 minutes. The issue in the image below turned out not to be that we took the blue route, but that we took the grey route, the southern trip. That distance is listed as 285 kilometres and should take (by car) 6 hours and 8 minutes. Then there were a few added problems:
1.We were travelling the day of the 25th anniversary of the Genocide beginning (7th April 2019).
2.We would be travelling through a National Park -Nyungwe Forest National Park.
3.There would be stricter military checks due to the sensitivity of the time of year.
4.It was rainy season…
The actual journey from 12 noon when we left the Kigali bus station to arrival in Cyangugu, was more like 8 hours and it never seemed to end. The bit through Nyungwe Forest National Park took the longest as there were military there to protect the park and of course the roads were much more winding and twisting. At many points we went up and down and at some points, we were stuck behind trucks.
The first two hours of the trip went fast though. Perhaps because Malina and I shared fake Smirnoff cans and beers and we played a city name game as our bus veered out of the capital. We made a stop at Gitarama for food and drinks. It was salad in a cup and chicken, goat or beef barbecue cooked and served on bamboo shoots. We grabbed some water and pineapple juice too. None of the food or drink cost more than a dollar and at times, we even thought we were paying more than the locals. The pineapple juice was 50 cents. The Smirnoff cans were 2 dollars.
The views out the window were excellent until we reached the national park. By then it was merely trees and forest and it got dark around 6 pm. We saw a few monkeys and chimpanzees by the road side during the national park bit. The Rwandan roads are really good quality and the amount of army here was also excellent. Given what the country has been through in the past, it was nice to feel safe. Apart from the time and the twisting roads, the journey was a pleasure cruise.
After the national park bit, the place was in darkness and we really had no idea how much further it would be to Cyangugu (also called Rusizi/ Ruzizi). The military zone was only for the national park and now we stopped in about 4 random villages before we arrived at the place the bus stopped. The driver parked the bus right in front of the exit point, we were literally a bridge and 30 metres away from the Democratic Republic of Congo. So although the bus doesn’t cross the border with you, effectively it really does take you to Bukavu.
Leaving Rwanda at Cyangugu / Rusizi
Leaving Rwanda was done in darkness and though I grabbed a few quick photos, they didn’t come out so I have shared the day light photos below from the return trip the next day. I had a single entry visa to Rwanda, which cost me $30 US (cash only at the previous border from Uganda) and to leave, all I needed to do was get an exit stamp. It was very quick and easy. The queue took no longer than 20 minutes.
Changing Money from Rwandan Shillings to Congolese Francs
At the border at night, there were still a few money changers. But it was dark and we warded them off. When we returned to Rwanda, there were also many money changers. But I don’t recommend using these guys. Change your money beforehand at the many booths in Kigali bus station. Prices are listed and can be trusted a bit better. Once on the DR Congo side, I noticed some more dodgy money changers.
In fact, during our time in DR Congo, we used mostly US Dollars and Euros and it was only in change at the bar from Russell’s round that we actually got some Congolese Francs. Hotels, tour companies and national parks prefer payment in US Dollars.
** Confusion about East African “multiple entry” Visa**
Russell and Malina my travel buddies had to get a Multiple entry Rwanda (and East Africa visa) as they need visas for Uganda (and Irish don’t). This caused a huge issue however as the alleged “multiple entry visa” turned out to be a “three country hat-trick SINGLE entry visa” and they had to get extra visas. I left Rwanda and knew I’d have to pay a $30 spot to get back in. There was an Ebola ear or head check on the way out too. Then we crossed a bridge into the city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo which was right on the border.
The below river separates the country brace, both of whom share Lake Kivu.
Arrival Intill the Democratic Republic of Congo at Bukavu
While leaving Rwanda was easy, arrival in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was predictably more difficult. It was dark and gloomy and we headed on the right hand side of the immigration queue (the entrance side). There were no other foreigners so the “Foreign Visas” section was closed. It was dark.
Then when the immigration guards saw that we were white, they assumed we were not African and looking for the “others” section. Then we were escorted into a separate room with a DR Congo flag, 2 guys that would issue the visa and a television. I wanted to take photos in the room but for once I didn’t as the visas took a while to be confirmed.
I had organised three visas for us in advance by way of booking a gorilla tour in Kahuzi Biega National Park. The visas were to be placed in our passports at the border on production of this hat-trick:
1.$100 US Dollars.
2.Visa Acceptance Document (Single A4 Page).
3.Gorilla Hike Booking Document (Single A4 Page).
All three of us had all three and we arrived expecting to wait a while but to have no major issues. We filled in the yellow piece of paper (immigration form) and awaited our visas. But this is Africa and there were two points of confusion and irritation here and Malina and Russell sat quietly while I spoke because:
1.Two of us handed in the older $100 US Dollar notes only to be refused because apparently DR Congo only accepts the newest ones due to fraud and counterfeitation.
2.I am always running out of empty pages in my passports so I asked the immigration officer to place my stamp on a page that already had another stamp. He got fucking angry with me and my request. He then said “what’s your problem?” to me, making me the last of the three of us to get our visas and making me sweat that he was genuinely going to refuse me entry to DR Congo because I politely asked (ask Russell and Malina) if I could have the stamp on an already used page.
After much ado about nothing, the two guys between them finally worked out how to stamp passports and issued the visa hat-trick. I was last to be stamped and of course he put the visa and stamp on a brand new page, against my request! We were stamped in with a Ruzizi entrance stamp on 8th April 2019. This was confusing as Ruzizi is the town in Rwanda, and Bukavu should have been the stamp as we were surely now in Bukavu, DR Congo! The visa was for 14 days, though we had only booked a 1 day gorilla tour and planned to leave either tomorrow or the day after. Here is my DR Congo visa and stamp. A proud addition to the collection and another country on route to the “200 by 40” target.
Also to add that the immigration guys stole our 3 x $100 US Dollars and pocketed them. They claimed they couldn’t give any receipts because “the office is closed”. We were in the office!! So they didn’t even put any details on a computer, they just stamped them. As fate would have it, the gorilla tour didn’t happen and we ended up leaving DR Congo the next day by the same border, with no receipts, but also with no issues.
Getting from the border in Bukavu to our Hotel
So now the three of us were in the DR Congo together. It was the sixth country for Malina and I (Poland, Germany, Belgium, Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo) on this trip and the third with Russell (Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo). This rather simple trip was made more lunatical and wacaday by the fact that it was pitch black, we had no hotel booked, nor any email access to book one of the hotels all day.
However, we had all put down a random hotel on our visa applications and border immigration cards and Russell had a good plan. We had read that the Hotel Horizon was next door to the Esperance Guest House (Bukavu’s answer to a backpacker’s joint but with only two rooms. So we decided in the dark of night to share a taxi to Hotel Horizon as then we could check the prices and rooms for both and choose one.
Having loved the well designed, safe roads of Rwanda, arrival into DR Congo was something of a stark contrast. Here, uneven bumpy roads, worse than a safari tour, as we dipped in and out of puddles in a dirty dodgy taxi that had seen better days and looked like it would konk out at any given point. We were pretty tired and needed a hotel, plus had to be up at 6 am for the gorilla hike the next day so we didn’t go hard bargain on the taxi guy but got it for $5 US for 3 people. $1.33 each is really not too bad, even if the locals would never pay that.
The taxi somehow survived the potholes, mud roads and unlit streets. The place was a dark ghost city. A far cry from the bulldog excrement written in travel guides and online that said Bukavu is a cool hangout city with lots of nightlife. Not a bar or restaurant in sight. Barely a light anywhere on downtown, and hardly an open shop to speak of. This was one of the most bizarre cities I had ever been too. But our taxi driver found us the Hotel Horizon and in we went…
Sleeping in Bukavu – Hotel Horizon
So ignore the Lonely Planet for this one, likewise ignore their alleged “Burundi expert” James Butler, whose self-penned map of the former capital, Bujumbura left a hell of a lot to be desired, not to mention his 2018 update rendering the country as “unsafe to visit” and not even mentioning the top bars in Burundi or Lake Tanganyika. We stayed at the Hotel Horizon, in Room 106…
In short – sleep at the Hotel Horizon even though the guy on reception was a class A asshole, they refused to accept our $100 dollar bills (same as border guy and gorilla tour guys, yet everywhere in Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda accepted them!) and only 2 out of 3 of us got a breakfast here. But I still somehow recommend it as it’s a crazy experience to stay here! If you are in a group of mixed sexes and with different surnames, it is apparently ILLEGAL to sleep in the same room in Democratic Republic of Congo. We thought this was a wind up and a way to get more money out of us. Russell, Malina and I were sharing rooms almost every night of the trip!! They finally charged us $105 US, put us in room 106 with electricity turned off from 12 midnight to 6 am, TWO free bottles of water, TWO towels to use, TWO breakfasts. There was a double bed and a single bed but everything was in TWOs. We joked that Malina had two husbands, and after dropping our bags off, we headed to the bar for a chilled out beer after that busy day.
The place was safe and secure and had pretty gardens. However, I got either mosquito bites or bed bug bites that night. I was itching my body the next day and had to use cream, even though at night I wore LOTS of insect repellent with DEET. Our mosquito net and insect repellent clearly didn’t keep the insects at bay.
Here at Hotel Horizon, we had to tell them we are all just random friends here for a gorilla tour. There was no way Russell and I would have let Malina sleep in a room on her own, nor would any of the three of us have felt good if either Russell or I had been in a separate lonely room. The Hotel I recommend because it was safe, the Wi-Fi kind of worked and the views over Lake Kivu were excellent. Plus they had a bar where we had our first cold DR Congo beer.It was $35 US per head here including breakfast.
As the midnight bell struck, we were in the Democratic Republic of Congo in darkness. All the lights went out and we couldn’t charge our phones or cameras for the supposed gorilla tour the day ahead…
Here are the details on booking a gorilla tour at Kahuzi- Biega National Park:
You also organise the visa for the Democratic Republic of Congo through the National park by booking a tour. I may well write about the visa application sometime.
Here is the address of the Hotel Horizon in Bukavu:
Horizon Hotel, 24 Ave Muhumba, Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Here are some videos of our journey from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo: