Since childhood, I’ve been somehow fascinated with the volcanos. Something is mesmerizing in these enormous, lava spitting mountains, with the ability to destroy the whole cities. After numerous visits to Italy (including the famous city of Pompei), seeing Enta, Vesuvio, Kilimanjaro and more volcanos in Bolivia, I would never think that my first opportunity to climb a volcano will be in Rwanda. Hiking Mount Bisoke – the one I’ve never heard about, in the country that was never particularly interesting for me.
Why Mount Bisoke?
My opportunity to visit Rwanda came with the international students’ event. The World Congress taking place annually in different places around the world. After being held in Kigali it was ended with a 4-day tour around Rwanda’s best sights. One of the visited places was the Volcanoes National Park, where part of us got an opportunity to participate in Mount Bisoke hiking.
What’s important, Mount Bisoke trail partly covers the same paths taken by the gorilla tracking groups. Therefore, there is always a slight chance of meeting these majestic apes without paying for the 1,500$ gorilla permit. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough… 🙁
Apart from the gorillas, the main attraction of Mount Bisoke hike is the Crater Lake on its summit – 100 meters deep and around 400 meters of diameter.
Mount Bisoke in numbers
- Starting Altitude: 2,500 meters [8,200 ft.]
- Ending Altitude: 3,711 meters [12,175 ft.]
- Total Climb: 1,211 meters [3,973 ft.]
- Total Distance: 9 km [5.6 miles]
- Accent Rate (Climb/Distance): 269 m/km
- Hiking time: ~7 hours round way (4-5 up, 2 down)
Preparations for the hike
In most of the hiking guides, you’ll find lots of information about how important is the preparation. We, although being healthcare professionals, have completely failed that step.
Well, it was one before the last day of the international students meeting… and our hotel in Musanze had a nice bar by the swimming pool… So yup, the main result of our day-before preparations was a hangover and lack of sleep (4 hours?). At least I had warm clothes, water and we received cookies as the provision.
Time to set off!
From the beginning, we came across some organizational issues (student organizations aren’t the best choice for such tours), so we weren’t even sure if we will get a chance to hike Mount Bisoke.
Due to the organizers’ delay (yup, not participants), we were late for the 7 am briefing at the park headquarters. Then, the group splitting (others were heading to the Ngezi Lake and Dian Fossey’s Research Camp), transfer to the trail start, last briefing and we finally set off around 10:30… In Volcanoes National Park the time is crucial. Because of the animal activity and early sunset, everyone should start heading back at 2 p.m.
Just before the hike, there is a possibility to rent hiking sticks and a porter who can help you with your luggage and give a hand on the way. The trail is very steep, muddy and slippery, so sticks are very helpful, however, if you won’t rent them, there is a chance that your guide will make you one on the way. The same goes for porters. As a big group, we decided to just help each other on our own,. However, the porters met on the way still provided us unpaid help when it was necessary.
Besides the guide, porters (if rented) and your companions, at the gate of the park some armed rangers will join the team. However, there is no need to worry about guerrillas or terrorists. The biggest danger comes from wild animals, especially buffalos.
On the way
While the hike starts in quite a big group, participants quickly divide into small teams or even enjoy the trail on your own. Everyone walks at his own pace and there is no pressure on being accompanied by anyone. Before catching up to my Slovenian friends I hiked quite a distance totally alone. In fact, we lost our assigned guide in the first 2 hours and never saw him again – other guides were joining us for parts of the trail, other porters were helping us, everyone was mixing between the groups.
The trail begins almost flat, with a road surrounded by fields tilled by the hard-working locals. Children smiling and waving at hikers, grazing animals, just a rural idyll.
While ascending the mountain, you can enjoy the changing landscape and vegetation. Unfortunately, the trail also quickly changes to much more difficult.
Not as easy as one may think
Due to our delays, we were racing with time – 3.5 hours for the average 4-5 hour hike was quite a challenge. After passing the official entrance to the park, surrounded by a wall keeping animals on the right side, what was a nice path shifts into a neverending mud full of stones and roots. All togheter making the whole trail very difficult and dangerous. It was easy to slip and fell, and judging from their trousers condition some people were falling a lot. The trail is quite narrow and surrounded by plants, so sometimes it’s easy to save yourself by grabbing a tree. Just be aware of the stinging nettles.
Another challenge on the way is the altitude sickness. As the hike starts at 2,500 m, most of the hikers start to feel at quite early. And the last section above 3,500 m is the worst. Headache and dizziness, in some cases also nausea, could be both a sign of exhaustion after the long climb or the altitude sickness. Well… for the second half of the hike we were mostly dying and wondering what made us decide to go there…
However, in the end we finally made it to the top, in the surprisingly good time, reaching the summit at about 1:40 p.m.
Crater Lake on the summit
Now, it has to be mentioned that, besides the mud, our main companion was a mist. No wonder why the title of the famous Dian Fossey’s biography was “Gorillas in the Mist”… Volcanoes National Park is mostly mist, with a rare chance to see gorillas.
So, after over 3 hours of fighting with the omnipresent mud, altitude sickness, trying not to kill ourselves on the slippery rocks and exhausted from all the hiking, we finally saw the summit. The peak of 3,711 m volcano, in the rainforest park full of volcanos, sounds like a place with amazing views.
And what we saw was…
Not the most awarding view you could get… Fortunately, as a reward we got extra time on the top – we could take a long rest and head back at 2:30 instead of 2 p.m. Photoshoot with the sign, picnic on the summit and looking at the mist trying to see the promised Crater Lake.
Was it worth it? Definitely yes! And not only because the fog was clearing from time to time, uncovering the beautiful lake.
Overcoming your weaknesses, climbing the highest mountain so far, finishing the most difficult hike so far and everything done racing with time, without appropriate preparation. I’ve never been a hiker, last time I’d been in the mountains was years ago and the highest one in my country is only 2,503 m high (that was our starting altitude!). Yet I’ve done it.
The way back, although it seemed more difficult (is easier to slide and fall while descending, not to mention the fatigue), took about 2-3 hours. While inside the park it leads along the same trail, later it turns and goes through the village.
Definitely the saddest part of the hike, it was the only place in Rwanda where I got to encounter so many beggars. Staying almost 2 weeks in Kigali, I was asked for money/food only twice, by the children met in the evening. While on the way from the Volcanoes National Park gates to the parking, there were dozens of locals begging mostly for clothes (including shoes!) and less frequently for money or food. The question is if it was really poverty or more of the habit learned from tourists giving away no longer needed equipment after hiking…