Lake Kivu is beautiful. A vast and tranquil ocean-sized lake set amidst wonderful scenery. At the Rwandan lakeside town of Gisenyi there are beaches, delicious fresh fish to eat and cold Primus beer to drink as you watch another glorious sunset from a lakeside bar. If you’re visiting Rwanda, a stop in Gisenyi is an absolute must. That said, there is a small chance that this peaceful lake will kill you. You take your life in your hands visiting Lake Kivu.
Three hundred meters below Lake Kivu’s surface, lies something which could cause the death of a high percentage of the 2 million or so people who live around the shore. Dissolved in the water at the bottom of the lake is a vast amount of carbon dioxcide (CO2) and methane, which, if released, could cause a mass extinction of humans and animals. There is evidence that this has happened here in the past. It certainly happened at a lake in Cameroon in 1986, killing more than a thousand people. Lake Kivu contains several thousand times more CO2 and methane than the lake in Cameroon: it could literally explode, releasing tonnes of CO2.
CO2 and methane are found in extremely high densities in Lake Kivu because of all the volcanic activity in the region. It is volcanic activity, perhaps a massive earthquake or a huge lava flow from a nearby volcano, which could disturb and ignite the methane. This would cause an enormous explosion and release all the CO2 to the surface. The CO2 would, silently, suffocate every living creature on the side of the lake.
Not all is doom and gloom however. There is a local brewery which extracts the methane on a small scale to power its operations. The Rwandan government has now done a deal with a US company to extract the methane, and use it to fuel a power station to provide much needed electricity. Removing the methane should make the lake safer, but there are worries it might itself cause an explosion, or harm fish stocks – an important source of protein for communities around the lake. Sipping a cold beer on the beach, its hard not to look out over the water and contemplate the chemical composition of Lake Kivu.
There is little to do in Gisenyi, especially if you don’t have your own transport, but the friendly and relaxed vibe makes it a good place to recharge the batteries. Despite the fact that it is located on the border with the benighted town of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it feels very safe. I walked around day and night and never felt insecure. People largely just leave tourists alone, occasionally coming to say hello and to practice their English on you.
This is a recurring theme throughout the country. After the genocide, the Rwandan government (with no small reason), blamed the French and Belgian governments for not only failing to stop the genocide, but of supporting those perpetuating it and assisting many to escape justice. In retaliation, the Rwandan government changed the national language from French to English, and have recently joined the Commonwealth (a group of nations that were formerly British colonies).
Rwanda also sees its future as part of an East African community, alongside English speaking Kenya and Uganda. From 1st January 2014, people will be able to get one visa which will be valid for all three countries. As a result, many people are now learning English, and being an informal tutor became something of a pastime for me as I travelled around.
I decided to take a lakeside walk to the village of Rubona, about 7km from Gisenyi, where there are a couple of lakeside hotels to have lunch and take in the view. I thought I could walk on the lakeside road, until I reached an army roadblock – probably the friendliest soldiers I’ve ever met, all of whom were keen to practice English – and was redirected to a route which went over a large hill instead. On a hot day, the hill was a bit of a trial, but the effort was rewarded with panoramic views over the lake.
Rubona is a small place, but the lakeside setting was lovely. I had a late lunch of fresh fish and cold beer in the garden of the Hotel Malahide Paradis, and, feeling particularly lazy afterwards, decided to take a motorbike taxi back to Gisenyi. The driver turned out to be homicidal. At one point I thought we were going over the edge of a cliff into the lake, but he got me back in time to see a sublime sunset from Gisenyi’s main public beach.