Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Taking the windy road to Lake Kivu

I've just got back from Rwanda where I was training radio and print journalists in the lead up to the presidential elections that will be held on August 9. (Kigali Wire has produced a good background to the elections).

A weekend break in the training offered the chance to explore Lake Kivu, which forms the western border of Rwanda with the DRC.

From the capital Kigali it's a scenic drive through rural Rwanda heading to Gisenyi. The bus trip itself was one of those, well, one of those trips that I'd rather not repeat. I'm fine with travelling in a cramped mini-bus, and can even handle listening to World Cup top 5 tunes in a loop for three hours. But I do draw the line at several small children throwing up onto you and your luggage… Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills, and while yes it's beautiful, I guess that also means windy roads increase the chances of one being car sick. Oh well, the impressive Virunga mountain range and its seven towering volcanoes did make up for it, and unlike my dear colleague, at least I didn't have to wash vomit out of my hair.

Gisenyi itself is a very little backwater town boasting quiet sandy beaches - something I had not expected in the heart of Africa. I was told it's precisely this low-key charm that lures an eclectic mix of well-to-do Rwandans, expat escapees from the Congo and independent travellers.

Unfortunately the town also has its dark side and is remembered as the location of major massacres during the Rwandan Civil War, the 1994 Genocide and the First and Second Congo Wars. Sharing a border with the DRC certainly hasn't improved Gisenyi's reputation - what frequently comes to mind are the disturbing TV images of the many refugee camps near Goma just over the border.

We decided not to cross into the Congo and stayed at the quaint Paradis Malahide just a few kilometres south of Gisenyi on the shores of the Rubona Peninsula. The lodge offers rustic rooms and bungalows scattered around a lovely garden and a tiny beach.

I particularly enjoyed watching the fishermen set out at sunrise and sunset in their majestic boats working in formations of three. From each fishing boat, long wooden poles that support nets reach out and sway like tentacles - lifting and rising the nets in and out of the water like exotic lake insects.

We also checked out the natural hot springs, which are reported by locals to cure a variety of ailments. I must admit I wasn't tempted to jump in, but then I didn't really have any ailments to cure…

Unfortunately we didn't get to swim, but our guide had warned us: There are certain parts of Lake Kivu, particularly around Gisenyi, where it is very dangerous to swim. The culprits here are not hippos or crocs, but rather volcanic methane gases that are released from the lakebed. In the absence of strong wind, these toxic gases can collect on the surface of the water, and quite a few people have been asphyxiated as a result of so-called limnic eruptions.

These limnic eruptions got me curious. To date, only two have ever been observed: in 1984, 37 people were asphyxiated following an eruption at Lake Monoun in Cameroon. Two years later, a second even deadlier eruption occurred at neighbouring Lake Nyos releasing over 80 million cubic meters of CO2 and killing around 1800 people.

At Lake Kivu scientists are expecting an eruption some day. If an eruption does occur, the exploding underwater methane is likely to push a huge cloud of carbon dioxide above the surface of the lake, as well as triggering a series of tsunamis along the shoreline. Since CO2 is denser than air, it sinks quickly to the ground, pushing breathable air up into the sky. At this point, there is little you can really do to survive, and it's only matter of time before you succumb to CO2, poisoning, suffocation, drowning or a combination of all three. Hmmm great, but it get's even better: according to my Lonely Planet guide, the last thing you will probably smell will be the warm vapours from all the combusting methane, which are somewhat reminiscent of a giant, earthy fart.


Bikejuju 2 August 2010 at 18:25  

Woah! That's pretty creepy to ponder.

Christine 2 August 2010 at 20:27  

Thanks Barb for bringing back great memories! And yes - thinking too much about Lake Kivu's explosive potential was creepy. Especially at night...

Barbara 2 August 2010 at 21:57  

Fortunately we didn't have to use our emergency backpack ;-)

Anonymous 1 December 2010 at 23:14  

What a great resource!

Anonymous 18 December 2010 at 01:41  

What a great resource!

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