Sunday, July 25, 2010


I climbed my first volcan today: Bisoke. At 3,711 meters, Bisoke’s is the middle height of Rwanda’s five volcanoes, but the trail covers the biggest altitude change in one day and is said to be among the hardest and muddiest climbs. (I’ll let you know how it stacks up after I get around to climbing the other four.) Bisoke is most notable for the crater lake at its summit.
We left Gisenyi before light and were treated to an amazing view of the rising sun over fog-filled valleys, above. Upon arrival at Volcanoes National Park, we paid or fees and drove 30-40 minutes over a terrible road, littered with volcanic rock. Patience, our wonderful guide, called the bumpy ride an “African massage.” We set off at about 9:20, a late start.

During the first hour or so we climbed past neat rows of crops and entered the forest. It’s possible to see animals like buffalo and occasionally gorillas on the hike; the closest we got was seeing their excrement. (Buffalo, left; gorilla, right). To protect us against any animal encounters, however, we were accompanied by several soldiers who did the grueling hike with rifles. They assured us the safeties were on.

About an hour into the hike we reached a clearing where the bath to Diane Fossey’s Karisoke research camp diverges from the path to Bisoke’s summit. From there, it was over two grueling hours to the top.

Along the way, we passed through several distinct vegetation zones. In the dense part of the forest there were plenty of stinging nettles growing close to the path. As the guide said, “Nature is well organized;” the leaves of the plant below produce a milky substance that somewhat reduces the pain caused by the nettles. (When I say somewhat, I speak from experience: on the way down they got my elbow and finger.)

This huge tree right by the path was at least 400 years old, according to Patience.

The path eventually changed from thick mud through the forest to a mud-and-grass mix with more open space.

Towards the top there was a beautiful turquoise bird.

There were times throughout the last hour when I thought I wouldn’t. get to the top, but I made it! I had to get bundled up; it was cold. Fog rolled in and out at a rapid speed, sometimes obscuring the bluff on the other side of the lake.

The vegetation at the top was really interesting:

Here’s a panorama. It was really gorgeous, but I had to pass on the offer to hike down to the water: there’s no way I could have made it back up again. I did walk a few minutes up the hill until the soldiers said to stop: Bisoke lies on the Congolese border, and the highest point is technically in Congo.

The way down was tough, and took almost as long as the way up. During the ascent, mud represented a threat to forward progress and the volcanic rock made convenient steps. On the way down, the rocks became death traps and mud was a friendly cushion for sore legs and knees. I soon gave up on being clean and competed with one of my friends for who could fall the most. Between exhaustion and the thin air, much giggling occurred on the way down.

After we passed the Diane Fossey clearing, we took a different way than we’d came: a narrow path through dense jungle. Along the way we passed this rainbow cucumber-like fruit that the guide said is a favorite among gorillas.

We finished around 5pm, walking like drunks with legs of jelly. I’ll be sore all week!

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