Travel

Why Goma should be on your bucket list

serena-go,a

Aerial view of Serena Hotel, the only five-star hotel in Goma, located some 20 minutes from the airport in Goma’s central district was my gateway to the region’s attractions. PHOTO | POOL

If there ever was a destination that should feature in every travel bucket list then that would be the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

I remember how irritated I was when Kenya was erroneously referred to, by an international media outlet, as a hotbed of terror. Granted, we had suffered a few ghastly terror-related incidents, but this portrayal flatly bordered on hyperbole. Likewise, I cringe at the blanket bad press that the DRC has had to endure over the years.

As we waved Kenyan troops embarking on a peacekeeping mission to Eastern DRC’s North Kivu, I felt obliged to point out a few untold truths about this region that has become synonymous with rebel flare-ups and volcanic eruptions. 

First, Goma, North Kivu’s capital that I visited, has the most admirable population whose resilience is an understatement when describing them.

The Gomatracien, for that, is what Goma citizens call themselves, constantly rebuilding after the periodic (at least 34 so far) eruptions and you can hardly tell that the city was only recently covered by molten lava.

You hardly pick up their struggle when you spot them proudly riding their wooden bicycles called Tshukudu pronounced ‘chukudu’. 

Speaking of riding, I rode a horse on the green rolling mountains of Masisi not far away from downtown. Apart from the horses, the proprietors of the villa Malaika also run a cigar lounge in Goma worth your time.

Goma also boasts the beautiful Lake Kivu whose beauty rivals our very own Lake Nam Lolwe aka Victoria.

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Lake Kivu in Goma, DRC. PHOTO | POOL

While our tilapia fish tastes better, the lake yields really tasty anchovies though, called Sambaza, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Drifting on a luxury vessel headed for a sundowner on one of the private islands called Kitembo got me thinking that we have barely scratched the surface of Nam Lolwe’s tourism potential. 

Nothing lifts you better when in a foreign land than seeing familiar brands. Budget carrier Jambojet flies to Goma three times a week while Equity Bank, Safaricom and Serena hotel have a loud presence in Goma.

Visa is on arrival with the proof of covid and yellow fever vaccination required even as the chaotic Goma airport will test your patience and make you appreciate the strides Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has made.

Above all, Goma will teach you the importance of peace and sound administration because, despite their obvious natural wealth, most of the population has nothing to show for it.

Getting there

Most visitors arrive via Kigali International Airport in Rwanda and travel by road to the border towns of Cyangugu or Gisenyi, where people can cross the border on foot or in a vehicle into Bukavu or Goma, respectively. 

For Kenyans, however, it costs $450 for a return flight to the capital of the expansive North Kivu. The new De Havilland Dash 8-400, this writer flew in, packed with business folk seeking opportunity in this land was a showcase of Kenya’s go-getter spirit.

I was hoping to catch a glance of the city before touchdown but the weather had other ideas. 

Accommodation

The 109-room Serena Hotel, the only five-star hotel in Goma, some 20 minutes from the airport in the central business district was my gateway to the region’s attractions. 

Famished from the journey, I skipped freshening up to wolf late lunch in Rumoka restaurant overlooking the shores of Lake Kivu, which is the most gripping emerald lake I have ever laid eyes on.

Brasseries Simba, a locally brewed larger was a great meal accompaniment that is great value for money for its 600 ml packaging.

Satiated, I could now appreciate our Pan-African-themed accommodation and its amenities that include Signature Maisha Health club and spa that Kenyans might be familiar with.

The stand-out feature was of course the Nyiragongo nightclub that guaranteed a staggering distance after any nightlife overtures.

Things to do:

City and Mount Nyiragongo tour:

Take a drive around Goma for a feel of North Kivu’s capital. While the bustling town is still emergent you will not help but admire the resilient tale of her people who rebuilt after Mount Nyiragongo located 14km north displaced them.

You might remember the frantic headlines of Saturday, May 22 after the volcano spewed lava onto the neighbouring towns.

Touted to be among the most active volcanoes in the world and famous for its active lava lake, Mount Nyiragongo loosely translates from Lingala, the mother who lies to her child. “She lies to us that she is asleep only to awake in flames,” our guide explained.

Drive to the base of the mountain to experience this unique phenomenon that is a grander, if not more recent, version of Tsavos’ Shetani Lava Flow.

If you are keen on breaking a seat, the six-hour hike to the summit should do the trick with an amazing reward in the form of spending the whole night on top of this active volcano.

Make time to shop for kitenge fabric and designer sportswear that is inexplicably affordable here. Goma also borders Rwanda’s Rubavu, also known as Gisenyi, which is a large town on the northern edge of Lake Kivu.

Once a colonial beach resort of note, Rubavu’s waterfront is lined with fading old mansions, hotels and trendy bars on the lakeshore ideal for sundowner cocktails.

Gorilla trekking:

While Rwanda and Uganda market Gorilla Safari aggressively, DRC happens to be among the only three African countries that allow travellers to engage with endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. 

A face-to-face encounter with the mountain gorillas in World Heritage Site Virunga National Park, shared with Rwanda, is often described as an awe-inspiring experience.

This may be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on earth because endemic primates like Grauer’s gorillas, bonobos and silver-backed mountain gorillas are facing extinction.

Make prior plans with a travel agent if you intend to make this trek.

Lake Kivu

As is with the park, the DRC and Rwanda share the Lake Kivu resource that straddles their border. Interestingly, the lake is connected to Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania by the Ruzizi River.

Her emerald green waters cover a surface area of 2,700 square metres and measure more than 460 metres (1,500ft) at the deepest point and present endless possibilities for sports enthusiasts and adventure seekers, including stand-up paddling, water-skiing, motorboat rides and more.

Serena Goma Hotel boasts a private craft that provides the perfect excursion with sundowners at private Kitembo Island.

Say cheese

Masisi is the administrative centre of North Kivu’s Masisi district. While the Belgian colonial rule that lasted from 1908-1960 evokes bad memories, there is one introduction that is worth celebrating. It is hard to miss the Swiss Brown and Freisländer cows — two breeds that are native to Switzerland that were introduced by the Belgians.

In addition to the cattle, a cheese legacy courtesy of Belgian monks was inadvertently introduced. Accessing these verdant hills ideal for caseiculture (cheesemaking) is a dramatic experience not only for the traffic pandemonium but also because of the armed escort that takes a little getting used to.

And I do not doubt it is for good reason. Masisi and the surrounding countryside bear the scars of three decades of conflict.

Despite this unfortunate turn, Masisi territory remains a beautiful and fertile alpine region known as the “Petite Suisse” or Switzerland of Africa illuminated by rain relief and green hills where animals graze in peace.

It is in this region of 4,734 square kilometres with less than 10,000 inhabitants set at an average altitude of 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains where the famous and delicious Goma cheese — Italian mozzarella and French Camembert — is produced.

Most of the cheese produced in the DRC comes from this region. I rode a horse at Malaika Villas, which is one of the establishments taking advantage of the undisputable beauty of the landscape.

Eat out

It never truly is a rounded trip if one does not embark on a culinary journey and I was privileged to patronise Le Chalet, one of the finest restaurants Goma serves. 

Four things characterise this restaurant on Avenue du Lac-Quartier Himbi — art, stunning views, lush lawns and sumptuous food. Before you walk into the main building, you are greeted by an open-air art market where you can pick up a Goma souvenir.

A little wooden boat with two rowing human forms crafted from banana stems sits on my bookshelf courtesy of this market.

African art pieces like tribal masks form the bulk of the wares but you cannot fail to notice pieces inspired by Goma’s current reality, especially the toy vehicles emblazoned with the United Nations emblem that is a ubiquitous feature of the city. 

The art adorning the walls gives the space an exotic feel even as the dining set-up and the food screams west. Le Chalet’s coffee room called Le petit Chalet was bearing graffiti boldly proclaiming: Life begins after coffee, which is a testament to DRC’s coffee-growing heritage.

If you are convinced that Goma deserves a chance, remember to account for the $50 airport fee required when departing the country.