Come, Visit Africa’s Hidden Switzerland!
By “Awake!” correspondent in Zaïre
HIGH up in the heart of Africa is an area having some of the continent’s most beautiful lakes, most interesting mountains, greenest valleys and most spectacular scenery. Rightfully it can claim to be a “tropical Switzerland.”
Yet it was one of the last parts of Africa to be visited by explorers, just about a hundred years ago, and even today it is not on the great tourist circuits. No wonder, because this lovely country is at least 600 miles from the ocean and is fenced off by dense tropical vegetation, swamps and disease-infested areas. But the few who venture past these natural barriers will be richly rewarded. Here they will meet both the tallest and the shortest people in all of Africa. They will find a wealth of animal life and an abundance of crops. They will see fire-spitting volcanoes and hot springs. And as a striking reminder of Switzerland, they will behold snow-covered peaks as high as the Matterhorn, beautiful waterfalls, great lakes, lush valleys and picturesque villages seemingly glued to steep slopes.
This hidden “Switzerland” comprises the southern part of Uganda, the countries of Rwanda and Burundi, and the adjoining part of Kivu Province in eastern Zaïre.
Our Journey Starts
We must warn you, even today traveling in this area is not easy. Wherever you go, you have to expect a bumpy ride, and a slow one.
The first leg of our exciting trip will be from Kabale to Kisoro. The bus is old, is packed out with more than sixty passengers and has still more weight on its roof: bicycles, furniture, all kinds of crates, bundles and bags of foodstuffs and live animals.
Finally the bus is loaded and we are off! We pass a few villages, and as we wind up the switchback road the air gets fresher, less humid at higher altitudes. In time, we are able to see Lake Bunyoni, a pearl, as it were, or perhaps more like the end of a fjord, but one in a setting of tropical sun and lush vegetation, fringed by a curved shoreline and with a beautiful island in its midst. We go higher and higher, with our view constantly improving, enhanced now by the red of the African flame trees dotting the mountainside. In the other direction we have a far-distant view into the deep valleys below, with their cultivated slopes and small villages clinging to the sides. We stop here and there to let one or two persons get off, each taking his belongings—bags, bottles, chickens, baskets, stools, bowls or whatever—which are handed down from the roof of the bus.
But, look! On our left is the town of Kabale. Why, that was our starting point! After almost five hours of winding through the mountains, and after traveling almost fifty miles on this winding mountainous road, we are only about ten miles away from Kabale, as the bird flies. Amazing indeed!
Now we are driving through a forest of bamboo that is so dense that the road seems to be in a tunnel, and suddenly we come out to a fabulous view, the well-known Kanaba Gap. We can now see the Virunga volcanoes stretching into three countries—Uganda, Rwanda and Zaïre. On the slopes of the closest volcano is one of the last homes of the wild gorilla.
In this “land of a thousand hills,” which, by the way, is quite an understatement, traveling may seem more leisurely but still very scenic. Head and shoulders above the rest, there is Karisimbi, with an altitude of 14,786 feet (about 4,500 meters), the highest volcano in the Virunga range. South of it lies Ruhengeri, surrounded by extensive banana groves. Here we see very attractive houses made of lava bricks, with the mortar between them painted white. Here too is Lake Bulera and Lake Ruhondo, which remind us of beautiful Lake Bunyoni.
This is an agricultural country. All suitable land seems to be used to raise coffee, potatoes, millet, beans, peanuts, maize, cassava and other crops—sometimes on a forty-five-degree angle on the slopes. Here and there we pass brick factories with their typical ovens, in which a variety of gray, yellow and red bricks are produced.
But soon we are climbing again, on our way up to more than 7,000 feet (2,100 meters). For many miles it seems that we are driving along on top of mountain ridges. The equatorial sun playing on the countryside gives an added splendor to the various shades of green. There are many trees mingled with eucalyptus trees, and, in the latter, reed baskets have been attached to provide homes for honeybees.
Somebody on the bus says that we are approaching Kigali, the capital. If that is so, we have not done badly on this part of the trip, having covered about eighty miles of dirt road in four and a half hours, and this morning we have added another stretch of twenty-five miles.
One thing that has impressed us in the last hundred miles is not seeing any large villages, only one or two small ones of no more than ten houses each. But we are reminded that this is typical of Rwanda, a small country of four million people, with a density of population comparable to that of Europe, and yet most of the people live in single houses scattered over the countryside. When we passed a marketplace, however, we quickly realized how many people there are.
And what a startling variety of people! Some have the height of the Watusi, six or seven feet, and quite a number are very short. No, they are not the Batwa pygmies, for they live in the mountains some distance from here. But, whether tall or short, hardly anybody wears shoes—only about seven out of a hundred persons that we counted.
We must be going. There is another ninety miles of winding road before us, leading into the southwest of Rwanda.
Cradle of the Nile
Steadily climbing, we have now entered a big forest. Gone are the people, the houses and the fields. This is a virgin forest, with a profusion of tropical vegetation: flowering trees, shiny silvery leaves, ferns along the roadside. After well over an hour of climbing, we wonder if we are getting near the end of the forest. Others on the bus assure us that we are only approaching the middle!
More climbing, and we reach an altitude of about 8,000 feet (about 2,400 meters)—and with the altitude, mountainous vegetation, yellow, green, red and brown moss hanging from the branches. A small sign to the left, a bit faded and almost bent to the ground, tells us that the narrow brook we cross leads up to a source of the Akagera River, a headwater of the Nile over 4,100 miles (about 6,600 kilometers) away from the Mediterranean!
Beautiful Lake Kivu
Finally we are descending, and in the distance, under the setting sun, appears beautiful Lake Kivu, a pearl in the western rift valley, with the town of Bukavu at its southern tip. Here to greet our eyes are pyrethrum fields with their violet blossoms, tea, coffee, sugarcane, cinchona plantations and sheer rocks pressing upward toward the sky, at times up for another mile above the lake. The Ankole cattle with their enormous horns, which we had already admired in Kigezi, are also here in Zaïre. They try to find enough green grass on the mountainside in between the bright red of flame trees and the yellow of cassia trees.
The view changes constantly—an opening to the blue lake reveals its peninsulas, or steeply sloped shoreline, or its islands dotted over its surface. In another direction profound alpine valleys come into view, and here and there waterfalls halfway up a mountainside can be seen.
There are other stretches when, for miles, we pass banana groves. We see many women carrying on their backs big gourds in baskets, held by a band passing over their foreheads. The smell of alcohol fills the air, for the gourds contain some banana beer on its way to the market.
The northern lakeshore features a different landscape: Miles of hardened black lava, stretching from the Nyamlagira volcano to the lake, not yet thirty years old. The irregular surface is beginning to be covered by vegetation. Farther on, we see Nyiragongo, a second active volcano, touching the clouds. At night its top can be seen glowing fiery red. As we travel on, we are delighted to see the Virunga chain again, this time from the Zaïre side. It is difficult to believe that these peaks are about as high as the famous Matterhorn.
Leaving the chain of volcanoes behind and traveling farther, we are soon looking at another marvelous landscape: a plain full of antelopes, elephants and other game, grazing peacefully in their sanctuary. The-word that comes to our minds is “paradise.” Palm-fringed rivers wind their courses north toward the Nile and hippos by the hundreds lie scattered about their banks and shallow edges. In the distance glitters another silvery lake.
As we head south from Bukavu, the high clouds behind us must be hiding the Ruwenzori, the “Mountains of the Moon,” reaching up to 16,791 feet (about 5,100 meters).
We descend through the Rusizi rift valley, and as we do we look into Burundi to our left. It seems to have many similarities to Rwanda, except for the cotton plantations that we notice as we are approaching Lake Tanganyika.
What a beautiful lake, flanked by mountain ranges on either side! We are told that it was about here that the famous explorers Livingstone and Stanley had a glimpse of Africa’s “hidden Switzerland,” just over a hundred years ago. But they could not have known all of what it contains. Certainly every one of those winding, bumpy roads through these mountains contains numerous surprises to captivate one’s interest. But it would take years for us to explore them all.
Right now friendly people are standing here on the quay waving “Kwa heri!”, meaning “good-bye” in Swahili, while our boat slowly moves south on Lake Tanganyika. All we can do now is cherish the precious memories of our journey through this beauty spot of creation, this “hidden Switzerland” in the very heart of Africa.