Heaven on a Houseboat

A new houseboat has set sail on Rwanda’s Lake Kivu, giving tourists and locals alike the chance to experience a piece of luxury while taking in the sights and sounds of one of Africa’s Great Lakes.

In the land of a thousand hills, there’s so much to see and sometimes it is hard for tourists to fit everything into their itinerary. The diversity of nature, wildlife and historical sites means there’s always something to inspire and enlighten. One of Rwanda’s newest experiences is the Iliza – a houseboat that brings heaven to the waters of Lake Kivu.

The Iliza houseboat is berthed at one of Rwanda’s lakeside paradises – Kibuye. Located on the shores of Lake Kivu, this holiday town is the perfect getaway for anyone looking to relax and rejuvenate. The journey to Kibuye from Kigali takes you along winding roads, across the Nyabarongo River and past the famed royal Rutarerwandaba site, which has a spectacular waterfall.

After two and half hours, you descend to the lake and meet the crew of the Iliza. The houseboat is only a short drive from the centre of town, tucked away in one of the lake’s many inlets.

All aboard

While the Iliza is a large boat, it’s impossible to imagine what’s inside until you see it with your own eyes. When you step up to the deck, Captain Alphonse Nsengiyumva and Stewardess Noëlla Murekatete welcome you with warm smiles. Shoes are replaced with comfy slippers and the grand tour begins.

Past the Captain’s wheel and kitchen at the front of the boat, you enter the main dining area which doubles as a fourth bedroom. That’s right, there are four bedrooms on the boat, meaning that up to eight people can easily sleep on board. There’s also a shower with hot water and a fully functioning toilet. No expense has been spared. It’s tempted to stay indoors and enjoy tea and coffee, until you realise that there’s a sundeck above. Complete with lounge chairs, it’s the perfect place to soak up the rays and watch the shoreline fade away as Alphonse takes the Iliza out onto Lake Kivu.

A great time to set off is dusk when local fishermen go out for the evening catch. It’s a special experience to be amongst them as they paddle to the beat of traditional songs with small oil lanterns guiding their way. Undeterred by the light rain, they drop their nets overboard and wait patiently for their catch. Over the next hour or so, the crew guides the boat past many of lake’s forested islands. On the horizon, lightening strikes and illuminates the lake giving it an otherworldly glow.

In for the night

As the sky slowly darkens, we head for a group of four islands called Amafundugu. Located about one and a half kilometres from the shore, this quartet of green forms a protective wall against the elements, ensuring a peaceful sleep on board.

With the anchor down and your favourite soundtrack on play, it’s time to enjoy dinner. Chef Noëlla prepares a delicious barbecue of local meats and vegetables served with fish and chips. The brochettes are a favourite with everyone who comes on board.

A dream three years in the making

Over dinner, we learn that Iliza is more than just a houseboat, but a work of passion that took three years to come to fruition. The dream of Andi Hoppe and a group of friends, the boat was originally intended to be a fun project and weekend getaway. But when word got out about just how special the Iliza is he was quickly inundated with requests to host visitors.

Today, the Iliza is Rwanda’s only hotel on the water. The most popular trips are one and two night stays, day cruises and journeys from Kibuye to Rusizi in the south or Rubavu in the north. The Iliza can also be booked for meetings and company retreats, but is most popular with newlyweds celebrating their honeymoon.

Crystal clear waters

Even though holidays are for sleeping in, when you’re on the Iliza, set your alarm for 5:30am. It might seem crazy, but you’re guaranteed the best sunrise this side of the equator. Breakfast is served on the sundeck with delicious omelettes, fresh breads, cheese, yoghurt, and cereals and of course tea and coffee – all lovingly prepared by Noëlla.

After breakfast, it’s time to tour some of the lake’s 16 islands. First up is Napoleon Island, one of the largest in the area. It’s home to beautiful untamed forest and thousands of bats. It’s possible to climb to the top of the island, but it’s a hike not meant for the faint hearted. The waters around the island are crystal clear and perfect for taking a dip.

Swimming cows

On the way back to port, you can see the famous swimming cows of Kibuye. With the smell of fresh grass wafting in the air, the cows take to the water in search of greener pastures. It’s a remarkable sight to watch a herd of cattle swimming in almost perfect formation from one island to another. So don’t be surprised next time you see cows grazing on the islands of Lake Kivu.

Goodbye paradise

As the boat returns to Kibuye, it’s hard to leave Alphonse, Noëlla and this little piece of paradise. With a cruising speed of seven kilometres an hour, the Iliza travels at the perfect pace for a relaxing journey across Lake Kivu.This unique experience gives you the chance to see one of Africa’s Great Lakes from a different point of view and in the comfort of a luxurious houseboat. It’s just one more reason to visit Rwanda.