Ooh, La, La, La…Let’s Go Hiking
For months, I had complained to Sheila about how I miss hiking…while Abuja has various hills and mountains, hiking is just not a “thing” Nigerians do. I think the last time I went hiking was in 2013 in the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia…I think it was Old Rag. I don’t profess to be a prolific hiker but I do love going out into the great outdoors and appreciating the views from high above. So after tolerating my complaints, Sheila planned a hiking trip in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. She choose a well laid out trail to the top of Mt. Bisoke, an active volcano that last erupted in 1957. What makes Mt. Bisoke so popular is that a lake has formed in the crater at the top of the volcanic mountain. In addition, the area is very popular for gorilla trekking. I had the pleasure of trekking gorillas in 2009 during my first trip to Rwanda.
Before the mud and the disappointment…
I was looking forward to the hike and being outdoors during my visit to Rwanda. In addition, I was excited to visit the Virunga Mountains because the scenery is breathtaking with the various peaks and constant fog. But I knew very little about Mt. Bisoke and didn’t know what to expect. Sheila sent me a few links about the hike and I did my own investigation. The reviews were mixed…most internet sources said the hike was strenuous but walk-able and would take about three to four hours round trip.
Musanze, the Rwandan town that borders the Virunga Mountains is about two hours from Kigali. The drive to Musanze is a pleasant one that takes you from the rolling hills of Kigali, along mountain ridges and through tea plantations. During sunset, the scene is picturesque as the sun paints the sky orange and blue. I have experienced this drive many times during my trips to Rwanda. In 2010 I traveled to the border town of Gisenyi that sits along the Rwandan and Congolese border. The town, about 30km from Musanze is a popular vacation spot for Rwandans and tourists as it sits on Lake Kivu. I made the drive again in 2013 and twice in 2015. It is one of my favorite rides in Rwanda.
Sheila and I arrived in Musanze on Sunday night. We had to be at the park office at 6:30am the next morning to register for our hike and pay the appropriate fees. As with most fees in East Africa, foreigners pay significant more than locals. Sheila paid 4000 francs (about $6) and I paid $75. The night before the hike, I spent several hours reading up on Mt. Bisoke. I was becoming concerned that maybe Sheila and I were biting off more than we could chew. People who had hiked the mountain talked about the steep and often muddy trail that led to the crater. A few pictures showed ankle deep mud in various locations on the trail. I was also concerned about the altitude. I was only use to hiking mountains that were only a few thousand feet above sea level. But Mt. Bisoke was over 12,000 feet and I was still adjusting to the altitude of Kigali (over 5,000 feet). But Sheila and I jumped right in and joined a group of 17 other people to “summit” Mt. Bisoke.
The group included
- Six Germans – a family of four and a couple that stayed at the same hotel with us in Musanze.
- Two South Africans who were living in the UK. The man was training for the London marathon.
- Four Americans – a Foreign Service officer based in Saudi Arabia and his two daughters and myself.
- Three Australians who were unique and different in their own way. The three women were residing in Uganda.
- A Ugandan who was traveling with the Australians
- And a Rwandan – Sheila
The hike started in a small village at the base of the mountain. It was a very cool and wet morning. We were instructed on what to do once we entered the park. We had Rwandan military with us to protect us from stray animals and other potential dangers that reside on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I am sure if it was a decision between me and a gorilla, I would be a dead man because the gorilla is much more profitable to the Rwandan economy! After we climbed the stone wall that separated the park from the village, the fun started. We were roughly at 8,000 feet above sea leave. April is rainy season and based on the fact that we were in a RAIN FOREST, you can imagine the state of the trail. It was oblivious which hikers did their research and which ones did not.
She was all smiles at the start…
But the mud complicated the hike especially as we proceeded uphill.
Sheila and I were wearing gum boots (rain/fishing boots). Most of the team had a mixture of hiking boots and tennis shoes. It was going to be a long hike for those in hiking boots and tennis shoes. As we proceeded along the trail, it was difficult to stay upright because besides being extremely muddy, the trail didn’t switch back along the mountain side, it went straight uphill. We were also warned that the plants along the trail were dangerous and if you came in contact with the plants, you would experience a stinging sensation for five to ten minutes. I debated at the start of the hike getting a porter to carry my bag but I was thinking, “This is exercise, the more weight, the more calories I will burn.” Shortly after the hike started, I had Sheila communicate to one of the porters that I wanted his assistance. The porter’s name was Gentle and he was our greatest asset. He was helpful as we climbed through the mud, chopped down the plants that occasionally attacked and at one point applied an herbal remedy to my plant burns. If it was not for Gentle, Sheila and I would have been lost (and maybe stuck along the trail somewhere). He took exceptional care of us during the hike.
Our porter Gentle (with my bag) and Sheila marching through the mud.
An hour into the hike, there was talk among some of the hikers that they needed to turn back. The mud was too much to bear and one of the German hikers had destroyed his lightweight hiking trousers. One leg of the trousers looked as though he had walked through a shredder. In addition, two of the three Australian women were struggling along the trail. One in particular had decided to do the hike in shorts…even with the warning about the plants along the trail. Sheila and I were determined to continue and reach the lake. Four of the Germans (the mom and dad and the couple from our hotel) and two of the Australian women had decided they had had enough and proceeded to take the short cut back to the village where the cars were parked. When Sheila and I reached the midway point, we were bringing up the rear because the others had decided to return to the village. I joked that Sheila and I were late because we had to fight off gorillas along the trail. There were now 11 hikers in the group and the resting point was at 9,750 feet above sea level.
After a brief rest, we were on the move again. This time, the trail was entirely uphill. It was now around 12:30pm and we were told that the top was still two hours away. I was debating in my head if we could reach the summit and return to the village by night fall because we were slowly inching up the mountain. At this rate, it would be 5:00pm before we reached the top. Sheila had mentioned that her back was hurting so I decided to start fishing for an excuse for us to turn back. We approached a clearing high on the mountain and decided to take a break. I asked Sheila if she wanted to call it an end to the hike and head back. We were both struggling to move along the trail. After a ten minute debate, we decided that we would head back down the mountain. We were both disappointed but I also think we were relieved. At the same time, our armed guard received a call that the three Americans and two German boys were also retreating down the mountain. It made us feel a little better that five more people were joining us in our return to the village. As we proceeded down the hill, Sheila and I tried to encourage each other by saying that we had accomplished a lot. Sadly, we both wanted to reach the Crater Lake at the top of Mt. Bisoke. Just as we reached the village to find our car, the park ranger arrived and told us that only 4 people from our hike would make it to the top (it was now 2:30pm and the four people had yet to reached the lake). He said that in the rainy season, 85 percent of teams don’t make it to the top. His comments made us feel better about our decision to retreat back to the car. He also said that he was concerned whether they would make it back to the car before sundown.
Mt. Bisoke was a difficult hike and in the rainy season it seemed also impossible to do in one day. Maybe one day I will attempt Mt. Bisoke again but I will do a better job of planning. Maybe hiking the mountain during Rwanda’s dry months (June – August) so I can increase my chances of making it to the crater! All in all it was a fun outing…with numerous lessons learned!
The top of Mt. Bisoke was covered in clouds by the time we reached the village.