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VAS

Expedition to the heart of Congo’s ‘little Swiss Alps’

LIFESTYLE
By Jayne Rose Gacheri | October 10th 2021

Aerial view of Malaika Lodge, Masisi Nord Kivu. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

You cannot visit Goma and not experience its outskirts that is dotted with pristine wilderness, palatial rolling hills with its resilient inhabitants that are part of an ideal destination after a neck-breaking road trip to Masisi territory, Nord Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The road trip, an expedition to the ‘small Swiss Alps’, says James Nzaywala, Manager Goma Serena Hotel, is courtesy of the hotel, Jambojet and Malaika Lodge.

The partnership, he says focuses on supporting local businesses. Before “daring out” for a road trip to the Alps”, Huguette Bishweka, Sales and Marketing Manager, Goma Serena, took us through a briefing that emphasised a security detail that almost scared some of us out of the adventure.

However, the witty Serena Tour Guide Daniel Hanamali quickly explained that there was nothing to fear. This calmed us down and soon we were all ready for the adventure. The expedition would take two hours.

Security versus adventure

We set off from our base at Serena Goma in a convoy of three Land Cruisers, a chase car (Covid-19 protocols observed) with Huguette (a daring driver) at the steering and two special squad security personnel.

Five minutes later, we are cruising through the early morning traffic of Goma CBD at high speed with the chase car clearing traffic for our entourage. The drive was exciting, but some of my compatriots looked scared. It felt like we were VIPs in Goma City.

Soon, we are out of the city skirting through a rough road. The outskirts of Goma have striking and natural scenery consisting of forests, hills and mountains.  From a distance, we can see the eye-catching Lake Kivu. As we drive, one can see the destitute lives of the villagers, with some living in makeshift structures. The security personnel also live in similar structures.

About 20 kilometres, driver Muzungu Mayange, of Goma Serena explains that we are travelling through Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Its location outside the Virunga National Park, he says, has made it a tourist hub in East Africa. (DRC applied to be a member and is waiting to be part of the EA Community).

I ask Muzungu about the high alert on security and he tells me that not so long ago, travellers only travelled to and out of Goma only if it was essential to travel because of insecurity.

However, he says, Goma is now safe but not quite so in the city’s outskirts, which is why we are travelling in a convoy. All Goma Serena drivers take a special drill in security.

As we edge our way up the hills, through scary cliffs, extremely rough road sections (sometimes there seemed to be no road at all), stiff bends, high peaks that seemed impossible to conquer, most moments I found myself gasping and covering my eyes from the daredevil challenge. It felt like I was a participant on the Rhino Charge or a 4x4 motor challenge. I cursed why I took up the front seat.

“No worries,” Mzungu tells me as if reading from my emotions. “This baby (the Land Cruiser) is specially made for this terrain and the driver is from a special squad trained for this,” he chuckles, as he tackles, a sharp bend missing by whispers a dreaded cliff. To say the drive is rough is an understatement – my stomach is churning.  

Ten minutes into this mode of drive and with the driver warning that it does not get better, I inhale deeply (builds up confidence), and with a high five, I tell the driver, “Right here is your co-driver”. I relax and enjoy every minute of the tough drive up the endless hills, taking in every thrill encountered. After all, this is an adventure!

As we scale the hills higher, the weather gets erratic as pre-warned; one time it is warm, suddenly drizzling, then chilly and by the time we have scaled the highest point of our destination, the weather is so unfriendly.

 Invigorating cheese

The temperatures are barely 18°C, but the atmosphere remains cool and humid. A thick cloud hugs the hills without letting hope for a possible ray of sunshine, but to my surprise, the hills are so unimaginably beautiful.

When our Land Cruiser comes to a halt at the magnificent Mushaki Malaika Lodge welcome bay, no one is interested anymore with the cup of hot drink that we had been yearning for.

We have our eyes fixed on the natural beauty that we have found ourselves in – in the middle of breathtaking endless hills. The scenery captures my imagination of Switzerland’s Alps!

Welcome to Masisi’s North Kivu small Swiss Alps,” Hanamali announces to our delight. Soon, it is every man for himself as we scatter to explore, discover and capture these unforgettable memories through the lens. I could not wait to roll down the hills to the stables to ride a horse.

All around me are seamless rolling hills, with spectacular old-style villages dotting them. This is the Mushaki in Masisi Territory, North Kivu Province in Eastern DRC. The region, I learn, is nicknamed “The valley of kings”, a befitting name. On these beautiful green hills, many cows graze the tender grass peacefully. These bucolic landscapes that could make one think of Switzerland invite the visitor for contemplation.

“We are here in Mushaki, about 80 kilometres from the city of Goma (and a good two hours’ drive) in Masisi territory in North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, says the Serena tour guide.

He expounds that it is at these hills where Masisi cheese nicknamed “Gouda” is made. The cheese is so popular with the Congolese as far as the capital Kinshasa.

Hanamali further explains that the local economy revolves around cheese making. The city of Mushaki has several farms that supply several towns in the DRC with cow’s milk and cheese from the region despite persistent insecurity.

In the small valley that we are visiting, we find about 10 workers on the site of Malaïka farm milking cows.

Each worker has his bucket in his hand, which when filled; they pour the contents into a 20-litre can, which is then transported to the cheese factory to be transformed into cheese.

The cheese is sold in local towns and the cities of Goma, Lubumbashi, Kisangani, Bukavu, Matadi, and Kinshasa.

The dairy farmers are called mushumba (cow keepers), whose workers are called cowboys (they don cowboy attires).

“The cowboys can milk up to 50 cows (no milking machines), a day if the season is good. During the rainy season, the cows consume good grass, and when they eat well, they also produce a lot of milk,” says Malaika Farm’s Mushumba.

However, as I learn from Hanamali, this apparent tranquillity can be misleading, because, in the past, militia attacks have often disrupted this peace, profoundly bringing to a halt not only cheese production but also visitors.

These attacks have been mainly from militias who are attracted to the exploitation of minerals from the nearby Rubaya mine.

Nonetheless, things have changed, and the national government has boosted security, which is why we have been able to visit this extraordinary attractive region of Kivu North with its extraordinary tranquil, outstanding farms all of which are a pulley to both local, international tourists, and investors such as Kenyan investor Farah Mohamed.

“I am excited about this visit and I am looking forward to meeting and interacting with more Kenyans now that Jambojet has opened the frontier by launching two flights per week,” says Farah.

In Mushaki as elsewhere in Masisi territory, despite the instability, the cheese industry is the pride of its inhabitants. In a way, it symbolises with the Tshukudu (mixture of large scooter and balance bike) the resilience of the Congolese in this part of the DRC.

As we make our descent from the “little Switzerland’s” rolling hills back to the hotel, my thoughts are on this country that is among the poorest, has suffered many years of turmoil, yet it is the richest not only in minerals but is also endowed with natural beauty – DRC is rising like a phoenix.

 

 

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