The night before“Beiber!”
The televisions on the darkened bus began blaring whatever piece of crap video the diminutive Canadian pop star was peddling as music at the time. I rolled my eyes at my friend Jordan, who was literally dancing in her seat next to me. Most of the other passengers on the bus, all Rwandan except for my five American friends and I, seemed to be enjoying the song as well. We had been stuck in the mud on the road between Kigali and Ruhengeri for the better part of an hour, but looking around at the smiles on everyone’s face it was hard to be annoyed. And since the entire bus seemed intent on turning this setback into a party...I reached into my bag, pulled out the bottle of Waragi (Ugandan gin) that I had been saving for the hotel that night, took a swig, and passed it on.
Some backgroundI had been living in Rwanda for about four months at that point, working in Kigali with an HIV/AIDS treatment organization as a practicum for my Master's in public health. Several of my classmates were scattered throughout sub-Saharan Africa working on similar projects. I was lucky enough to be centrally located, so when it came time to pick a destination for a break from our professional lives, Rwanda was the obvious choice. Five great friends were able to visit for a week of rain forest hiking, safaris, gorilla tracking, and Waragi imbibing.
In my experience there are few places with less horizontal ground than Rwanda, which truly earns its nickname of "Le Pays de Milles Collines" (the land of a thousand hills). The third-highest of those approximately thousand hills, at 3,711 meters (12,175 feet), is known alternatively as Mt. Visoke or Mt. Bisoke, and is the subject of this trip report.
The logistics of getting to Bisoke are pretty well covered in mfutch78’s mountain page. I'll go out on a limb and assume that if you're coming to Rwanda, it's not just to climb Bisoke. And I'll go further out on that limb and say if you are, you're an idiot. Rwanda is an amazing country with an incredible variety of things to see and experience. The average traveler will come into the country through Kigali, and will then by whatever means they're comfortable with – riding a cramped bus, renting a luxury SUV, hitchhiking on the back of a moto, etc. - probably be making their way to Volcanoes National Park for the ludicrously expensive yet somehow almost worth it privilege of viewing some of the world's last mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. A hike up Bisoke is a great way to spend another day in the area, experiencing a bit more of the amazing ecology and natural beauty of the Virunga volcanoes.
Back to the busEventually the traffic jam caused by the muddy road was cleared and we arrived in Ruhengeri (note: officially, Ruhengeri is now called Musanze - I simply use Ruhengeri because it seemed to be the name used by the majority of my Rwandan friends). After securing two taxis, one of the car variety and one of the motorcycle variety, the six of us were able to finally relax in our hotel. We had been on buses, first from Nyungwe National Park to Kigali, then from Kigali to Ruhengeri, for about 10 hours total. Not counting the 3 hours spent waiting for buses to come/get unstuck from mud.
We spent that night playing cards and drinking. Well, Barry and I spent it playing cards and drinking, and making fun of the girls for not drinking. They were concerned about waking up at sunrise for the hike.
Morning of the hike
The reason I bring this up is because it's possible to hitch a ride to the trailhead with these groups, or with people doing other hikes (e.g. Diane Fossey's grave). If I were going alone or with just one or two other people, this is probably what I would do. With a large group it seemed more convenient to just bite the bullet and pay for a driver.
Once at the office we had a meeting with our head guide, Papi. My experience in Rwanda was that a guide was always required. For everything. Car safaris, gorilla trekking, even short 2 mile hikes to see some waterfalls in the rainforest. While this goes very much against the independent, take-care-of-yourself-in-the woods attitude of myself and, I would imagine, the majority of the users of this site, there's really not a lot you can do about it. Embrace it - even if a guide is completely unnecessary, they will certainly have more knowledge about the local plants, animals, and people than you can possibly hope to retain. So ask lots of questions, tip well, and enjoy.
At this point we also met the two Germans who would be hiking with us. One of them appeared to have his hair gelled (for a hike up a volcano?), but we gave them the benefit of the doubt and asked them what they were doing in this part of the world. They explained they were on an overland trip to various countries in East Africa, blah blah blah - but they kept looking strangely at my friend Barry. I assumed this was because he was wearing red suspenders and a matching bandana, but finally one of them said, "You look familiar. Were you in Entebbe, Uganda recently?"
Barry: "Yeah, I live there. But I don't recognize you guys at all."
German: "Yeah, umm… I wouldn't expect you to."
Barry: "Oh no. Shit. Did you go to this bar called the Red Rooster?"
Barry: "Was I dancing on a table?"
German: "Well, for a little while. Then the table broke. You crashed right through it."
Barry: "Riiiiiight. That night. Um, my bad."
So, with introductions out of the way, we headed off for Bisoke.
The drive to the trailhead took about 45 minutes. If you've never driven on dirt roads in sub-Saharan Africa before, well...this should be a fun experience for you. Lot's of bumps, rocks, and cute Rwandan children running after your SUV as you make your way through the villages and fields at the base of the Virunga volcanoes. Despite having driven through Ruhengeri on several occasions for work, this was the first time I had actually been able to see the volcanoes through the clouds. The views were amazing.
The way upThe trail to Bisoke started off as a walking version of the drive we had just completed. We wound our way slightly uphill through terraced fields of potatoes and pyrethrum flowers (grown commercially for use in insect repellents). Eventually we reached a low stone wall with thick forest directly behind it. At this point Papi explained that we would be entering Volcanoes National Park, and went over a list of "safety instructions" that basically involved staying together and not antagonizing any buffalo that we might come across on the trail. It was also made explicitly clear that if there were any gorillas in the area, we were to do exactly as he said. This last piece of advice was made even more explicit by the fact that we had at this point been joined by guards from the Rwandan army with AK 47s.
If you're not accustomed to hiking with dudes with AK 47s, again, this is just one of those things that you're going to have to accept. Ostensibly, the guides are there to protect you from buffalo and the one or two reclusive elephants that may still be living in the Virungas. In reality, they are there to protect you and the much more important gorillas (in terms of value to the tourism industry) from poachers straggling across the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After our pep talk, we headed into the forest. If you've ever seen Gorillas in the Mist, you should be able to picture what it was like. In fact, this is also the trail to Diane Fossey's grave and her former research station at Karisoke. The trail to the summit branches off at a sunny clearing, where we attempted one of the many jumping pictures of the vacation. At that point Jordan, who decided she was "too short" to hike up with us, headed off to pay her respects to Dr. Fossey while we began walking along a suddenly steep trail towards the crater rim of Mt. Bisoke.
Now, I don't by any means consider myself an "experienced" mountaineer in any way. But I’ve done a fair amount of hiking, was a college athlete, etc. Same for my friends - although none of us were "experienced," we're all pretty in-shape dudes and dudets in our mid to late twenties. One of my friends had just climbed Kili the week before. And I have to be honest, Mt. Bisoke was...kinda strenuous. It was a steep, muddy trail. Everyone fell at least once on the way up and at least twice on the way down. The guides enjoyed laughing at us (they climb in rubber rain boots) and would often hold the hand of any of the ladies who looked like they were having a hard time. And they set a fast pace - none of that "pole pole" bullshit here. It later became clear that the pace was necessary to avoid the afternoon rain storms, but at the time it just seemed mean.
Another fun aspect of the hike - stinging nettles. You may have read something in your guidebook warning you about them, telling you to wear long sleeves. You may brush into a sharp leaf or stem at some point and think, "Ow, I wonder if that was a stinging nettle." It was not. When you actually brush into one, you'll know. When you get bored experiencing this new type of pain that you never thought possible from a plant, the guides will break open some other plant, wipe the juices on your arm or leg or whatever, and you'll feel better. And you'll watch where you're going more carefully.
Anyway, we continued our hike up, passing through different ecological zones, seeing all sorts of flora that you can't find anywhere else in the world. As the trees were beginning to thin out (it's the equator, there isn't really much of a tree line, even at 12,000 feet) Papi stopped us, looked us all in the eye, and said, "We still have two hours to go. I don't think we will make it in time. We will have to turn back." Before we staged what would have been an ill-fated mutiny (what with the guys with AK 47s and all), he broke out laughing and said, "just kidding, the crater rim is just over that rise there. But I am making you run to get there." So we attempted to sprint the last 200 feet or so before collapsing on the crater rim, with amazing albeit cloudy views of the crater lake below. Papi proceeded to do 20 pushups while we struggled for breath, calling us whatever the Kinyarwanda word for "wimp" is.
Confession: I didn’t actually summit Mt. Bisoke. No one really can, at least not from Rwanda. The crater rim is bisected by the border with the DRC, and the highest point is actually on the other side. And no matter how nicely you ask, no matter how strong you feel, nobody with an AK 47 is gonna let you go over there.
So we enjoyed the otherworldly views, ate the delicious lunches our hotel restaurant had packed for us (mmm, hardboiled egg!), and, for those of us who thought it would be appropriate to wear a cotton long sleeve t-shirt, red suspenders, and nothing else, shivered. For real, it's a little chilly on the rim, bring a light jacket.
The way down
Sadly it was soon time to head back down, which is about when we discovered that most of our attention for the next 1.5 hours would be devoted to not falling on our asses on the muddy trail. I say most because at one point, our guides started having animated conversations on the radio and a few minutes later harshly ordered us to stop and remain absolutely silent. The air in a tropical rainforest is heavy enough without all that tension, but we patiently waited for about a minute before hearing a loud "pop-pop-pop-pop" further down the trail.
No silly, it wasn't a machine gun. The noise was more like the funny "pop" you hear when someone opens their mouth and lightly slaps their hollow cheeks. It took us all a few seconds before we realized that it was the sound of a male silverback gorilla, beating on his chest. After threatening us with years in jail (literally) if we even thought about taking our cameras out, the guide walked a little further down the trail, parted some leaves, and pointed. About 500 feet away, a male gorilla was knocking down a small tree, seemingly because he was a bad ass and he knew he could. We all watched, whispering excitedly, until the gorilla moved away from the trail. After giving him some time to get far from us, we continued down.