Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rwanda Part II - Mt. Bisoke (Slowly, Slowly, Hakuna Matata)

Where to begin with my Mt. Bisoke adventure? Well, at 6:00 AM on Friday, July 15th, Gerald our tour guide picked us up from the hotel and drove us to the visitors' center in Parc National des Volcans.  The park is where Dian Fossey lived and researched mountain gorillas and is home to parts of the Virunga Mountain range, a series of six extinct and two active volcanoes.  Elizabeth, Leigh, and Rachel were there to visit the gorillas - a very exciting endeavor that requires a hard to secure permit - while I opted to hike one of the Virungas, Mt. Bisoke.  When I signed up for the hike I inquired about the level of difficulty and the rangers just said, "if you're fit you'll be fine and we'll have you back at your hotel by 3:30 PM." Not an entirely ringing endorsement of my ability to make it to the summit.

View of some of the Virunga Mountain range and the fields we walked through to get to the trailhead.

At 7:15 AM my hiking group (an Austrian couple, a British couple, a German guy, and me) left the visitors' center and drove 45 minutes to the foot of Mt. Bisoke.  We parked at an altitude of 2,400 meters (7,874 feet) and proceded on what I thought would be a short walk to the trailhead (it was an hour).  We left the parking area with our ranger Ignatius, five armed and camouflage-clad rangers, and two porters.  Before we left, Ignatius encouraged us to hire the porters to carry our backpacks, but we declined.  The fact that the porters decided to come along anyway would prove to be very important later on.
View of Bisoke from where we parked.

The trailhead itself started at the altitude of 2,967 meters (9,734 feet).  Yes, we gained two thousand feet before even making it to the trailhead.  Below is what much of the early part of the trail looked like, leafy and green.

And here is what most of the rest of the trail looked like.  You might be thinking, wait, that's not a trail, it's a very steep and muddy incline.  Indeed it was.  In fact it was incredibly steep and nearly impossible for me to climb.  After realizing that the majority of the trail would be this difficult one of the group members cried.  No tears for me, but after gasping for breath and attempting to scramble up the mountain, I did wonder what on earth I had gotten myself into.

Enter January, the intrepid porter, who saved me and ensured that I made it to the summit.  When he noticed me struggling he came over, literally took my backpack off my back, and pulled me up the mountain.  For the rest of the hike he would climb one or two strides in front of me and then reach down and pull me up.  Even with this expert help I needed to take breaks approximately every three minutes.  There was a bit of a language barrier between us, but the one thing he said repeatedly was, "slowly, slowly, hakuna matata."  After a while we would just say that back and forth to each other.  Thank goodness for January (pictured below picking some berries for me to eat).

After three hours and ten minutes, and many moments of wondering if I would make it, we arrived at the top.  Elevation 3,711 meters (12,175 feet).  Mt. Bisoke is home to the largest crater lake of any of the Virunga Mountains - hence the no swimming sign.

Here we are getting some much needed rest at the summit.  Mt. Bisoke straddles Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so we were absolutely forbidden from wandering around the summit - we went up from the Rwanda side and would go down on the Rwanda side.

Ignatius and the whole hiking group.  The Austrians and German made it up in two and a half hours, while the Brits and I lagged behind by about 45 minutes.

Left, the view down into the national park from the summit.  Right, me and January!  He also saved me on the way down by catching me when I slid down the slippery and uneven trail.  Slowly, slowly, hakuna matata.  The porter fee and a hefty tip were well worth it!
Beginning the trek down.  In many ways it was just as hard as the way up because you constantly had to watch your footing and the steepness made it very hard on the knees.  I was able enjoy the view more though.

View across the park to Mt. Sabyinyo, which at 3,674 meters is just a bit smaller than Mt. Bisoke.

Exhausted and aching, we made it back to the cars in two and half hours.  When I met back up with everyone at the hotel they kept asking if I was glad I had climbed Bisoke.  I said the view was beautiful, but in all truthfulness, I did not enjoy one minute of getting up there.  No matter what though, at least I can now say, I climbed Mt. Bisoke!  And really, I might never be in Parc National des Volcans again, so I'm glad I experienced part of it.

Lastly, in honor of my friend January, I'll leave you with Hakuna Matata.

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