The following account was forwarded to me by Wil Resing
This was not my first visit to the Virungas. I had visited the Susa group back in 2002, the golden monkeys in 2004 and hiked Bisoke in 2006. But now my eyes were set on Karisimbi, at 4,507m the sixth-highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Ruwenzori, Mount Meru (Tanzania) and Ras Dashen in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains.
Before heading for Ruhengeri, I visited ORTPN in Kigali twice for information. And twice I was told that I did not have to make an advance reservation for the Karisimbi hike, I must just pitch up at the ORTPN headquarters at Kinigi and pay. But once in Ruhengeri, Francis (my taxi driver in the volcanoes region, m 078 8448958), told me this was not possible. I called the park warden and he confirmed that normally you must book a Karisimbi trek a couple of days ahead so that they can make preparations. (As an aside, I went to ORTPN in Kigali after I returned from Karisimbi, and the staff there apologised profusely for having given me the wrong information, and assured me that it would not happen again – I’m confident they will do their best to avoid similar mistakes in future.)
Finally, I was told they would make an exception I could leave the next morning. I did not have to be at Kinigi at 07.00, the normal reporting time, but at 08.30. Just before darkness fell, the sky cleared after an afternoon shower, and the magnificent volcanoes appeared – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi – though the summit of Rwanda’s highest remained hidden in the clouds, as if it wanted to tell me: I won’t reveal myself to you entirely, you have to conquer me first.
At Kinigi I was told I should have booked before and that they don’t normally organize Karisimbi treks for solo tourists. But they agreed to make an exception. I paid them the US$175 for the two-day trek, US$10 to rent a tent, and I met my guide, who spoke perfect English and French. The drive from Kinigi to the trailhead was 16 km and took 30 minutes. At 10.15 we arrived at the car park where the road finished. There we met the porters. One for me and one for the guide, at Rfr5,000 per day, not included in the price. I paid my porter after the trip. The guide paid for his own porter. Both guide and porters wore rubber boots: not a bad idea compared to my mountain shoes, as the trail is very muddy.
We set off at 10.20, starting at around 2,600m altitude. The guide carried a phone for communication with rangers/soldiers patrolling the park. At 10.30, we crossed the stone wall that separates the park from the potato fields. Now we were in the jungle. Here, several armed soldiers had joined us, as protection against buffalo and elephants. We walk the same trail as for the Bisoke climb. With my binoculars I see a group of tourists approach the Amahoro group. There is a lot of fresh buffalo dung on the trail.
After an hour’s gradual ascent, we reach a junction at 2,967m, with some benches. A signboard points right for Bisoke and left for Karisoke. We go left. A light rain starts falling. We walk close to Dian Fossey’s tomb and gorilla graveyard, but don’t visit, which would involve paying extra. I put on my rain trousers, also good protection against the stinging nettles that hem in the narrow trail. The rain trousers become essential to combat the mud, which is everywhere – not so much a mountain hike as a swamp walk! We see a squirrel, and hear what the guide reckons to be a gorilla research group not normally visited by tourists.
We cross different vegetation zones: bamboo and wild celery on the lower slopes, ideal food for gorillas. Then hagenia forest, with old man’s beard moss on the branches. Then above 3,000m, the marvellous giant groundsel and giant lobelia. At 3.50 pm we reach camp (3,700m), a similar altitude to Bisoke, which can be seen behind us. So today we climbed 1,100 meters in five and a half hours. I don’t feel the effect of the altitude, but my legs are tired.
The staff pitches my tent. At 17.00 the sky clears and I finally see a glimpse of the top of Karisimbi, as well as Mikeno volcano in the Congo. I count how many we are now: one guide, two porters and seven soldiers, for just one mazungu! The wood is damp, so it’s difficult to make a good fire and my porter uses the opening of his rubber boots to blow air into it. Around the fire we share the food we brought. At 8 pm I head to my tent for a deserved rest.
Dawn at 05.30. I eat biscuits and drink water. Beautiful morning light. We leave at 06.10 am. The trail gets steeper, while the fog closes in. Sometimes I have to use my hands to crawl over the labyrinth of trees and branches above the muddy ground, which I would not like to fall into. On several occasions my porter has to give me a hand to pull me up. The terrain is more difficult than I had expected.
At about 4,000 meters we are above the tree line. The slope becomes more exposed and a cold wind blows. My guide already wears a hat and gloves, I put them on now too. The last couple of hundred meters we walk on volcanic scree (fortunately, not loose, more like grey gravel). The wind gets harder and visibility drops to 25m. I see more and more junk and rubbish lying on the ground, and wonder where all this dirt comes from. Metal pipes, empty cans, etc. Suddenly I realise I don’t climb anymore. It is 08.45 and we are on the summit!
The rubbish is construction waste, left by the builders of the huge telecom mast at the summit. The Congolese border must be somewhere here, but the fog is so thick I don’t have a clue where. There are two abandoned huts for the builders of the mast. One is open and we use it as a shelter. I put on all my warm clothes and take pictures outside, while my Rwandan companions, unused to this bitter cold, remain inside. The temperature is maybe 0ºCe, but the wind chill factor makes it feel much colder. My guide hugs and congratulates me: “You are very strong, many people don’t make it to the summit”.
At 09.15, we start the descent, arriving in camp at 11.00. The warm clothes can be taken off again. It is basically the same way down. En route, the sun starts shining, for the first time in two days. We spot a beautiful reedbuck and cross the stream where Dian Fossey was amazed to see gorillas looking at their own reflection in the water. At 3.10 pm we are at the car park, so today we hiked for about 9 hours, including breaks: 800 meters up and 1900 meters down. We pay the porters and get into Francis’ car. I turn around for a last quick look at Karisimbi, but Rwanda’s roof has vanished in the clouds again. Did I really conquer her heart? Although she is invisible and far away once more, I know for sure she conquered mine.