Climbing Muhabura and Gahinga, Volcanoes NP

Wil from Holland writes:

Hiking in Africa – set yourself a goal in life

For avid hikers with summit ambitions but without mountaineering skills, Africa is the place to be. It offers numerous 3000ers, 4000ers and even a 5000er that can be summited with only some sturdy boots, a strong will and the necessary stamina, provided of course you are reasonably fit.

I was born in the Low Countries. For me as a child, mountains were no more than dikes and sand dunes that protected us against the caprices of the North Sea. My father once told me though there were mountains even higher than that, and showed evidence of this during our first family holidays in the Swiss Alps. My love for mountains was born. A decade later, I discovered Africa on an overland trip, back in those early nineties when it was still possible to cross the continent from north to south without major security problems. From then on, I had two hobbies: mountains and Africa. What was more logic than to combine both?

My very first multi-day hike took me to the Ruwenzoris, the remote and legendary Mountains of the Moon of Ptolemy and Stanley in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the Wusuwameso viewpoint at 4462 meters allowed me to see snow on the equator. Hardly a week later I bagged my first volcano: the notorious Nyiragongo (3470 m), also in what was then still called Zaire. In those days the Kivu provinces were safer than Rwanda, where war had just broken out. From the top of Nyiragongo I perceived the vague contours of Rwanda, and decided to save it for better times.

I dreamt of more tropical snow and in the following years my dreams came true on Point Lenana (4985 m) during my second Mount Kenya attempt, as well as on Africa’s rooftop, Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 m). In the meantime I had also reached the top of Mount Cameroon (4095 m) after one grueling day of climbing from the town of Buea at the foot of this volcano, probably the hardest trek I ever did. During another holiday in Africa I discovered the breathtaking Simien mountains in Ethiopia, where I was lucky enough to spot the rare Ethiopian wolf on a hike to the Imet Gogo viewpoint (3926 m).

When I was about to turn forty and awaiting my midlife crisis, nothing could seduce me to buy a red sports car or anything else for that matter. I preferred to use my savings on something more satisfying: the desire to reach the highest points of north, east, west and southern Africa. East (Kilimanjaro) and west (Mount Cameroon) were already in the pocket. North Africa’s highest, Toubkal (4167 m) in the Moroccan Atlas followed, just like the rather unknown top of southern Africa, which is Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 m) in the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho, quite easily reached from Durban and the spectacular Sani Pass in South Africa. None of all these hikes involve any technical climbing. Apart from time and money, all you need is just to go for it! I didn’t ever really suffer from fear of heights, although the summit ridge of the gorgeous Mount Meru (4566 m) in Tanzania sometimes felt quite scary.

Eventually peace had returned to Rwanda. And of course the Virunga mountains (ibirunga means volcanoes in Kinyarwanda; the singular is ikirunga) could not be missed out of my quest for African mountain beauties. There are eight big volcanoes in the Virunga region: three in the DRC (Mikeno, Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira) and five in Rwanda (Karisimbi, Muhabura, Bisoke, Sabyinyo and Gahinga).

Ibirunga, a love story

I fell in love with ibirunga when I visited the Susa gorilla group in 2002. Since then, for me a trip to Rwanda is not complete as long as I haven’t seen the volcanoes. RDB (Rwanda Development Board, in charge of tourism) offers hikes to four of the five major Rwandese peaks, with the exception of Sabyinyo, the dramatically shaped mountain in the middle of the Rwandese quintet.

The most popular hike in the Volcanoes National Park leads to the beautiful crater lake at the summit of Bisoke (3711 m). It is a pretty straightforward climb, mostly through forest and moorland. The path is rather steep and can be very muddy after rain. If you leave the parking at the Bisate trailhead at around 8.30 am, you might have lunch at the summit around noon. The descent can take up to 2,5 hours. The cost of a permit (which always includes the guide, but never the car, which is about 80 USD per day) is 75 USD.

Getting up to the roof of Rwanda at Karisimbi (4507 m) involves a two days trek and an overnight stay at about 3700 meters, in your own tent. The permit costs 400 USD per person or 300 USD if you are in a group. Not cheap, but hey, Switzerland is expensive too and Karisimbi is higher than most of the summits of the Swiss Alps! Be prepared for swampy conditions in some places. (For an article about this hike see page 254 of the fifth edition of the Bradt guide Rwanda).

For my fiftieth birthday I set myself the goal of completing my Rwandese quartet. There were two volcanoes left.

The ascension of Muhabura

Where on earth will you find a notice on the wall of your hotel room saying “Dear customer, we would like to inform you that breakfast is 6h15 am” ? At Kinigi Guest House they know tourists have to be at the park headquarters at 7 o’clock.

It is August 2014. With my good old taxi driver Francis (phone 0788-448958) we drive the 300 meters from the guest house to the headquarters, where all tourists who have booked a park activity for the day are welcomed with tea, coffee and traditional dances by the local Sacola group (Sabyinyo Community Livelihoods Association), which benefits from gorilla tourism. Indeed most tourists here have gathered for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a meeting with the biggest apes on the planet, but I try to get concentrated for the hike up to Mount Muhabura. I wonder whether I will be able to climb and descend 1700 altitude meters before night falls; eventually it will all depend on how determined I am.

At the office, I show the receipt for the 100 USD I paid at the RDB building in Kigali for this trek. After a briefing by our guide Patrick, who speaks both English and French, we leave at 7.05 am. We have to hurry; I have bad memories about rain forests in the dark of the night. But the ride to the trailhead takes longer than expected, a bit more than an hour for about 35 km. We take a dirt road first, then get back to the asphalt road RN 8 in the direction of the Uganda border, before turning left again, passing the village of Nyagahinga with its blue-roofed market building, until we arrive at a small track in between some potato fields. Patrick and Francis start discussing about which track to take, we turn around, take another track and then decide to just start walking, as every minute counts. We leave Francis and his car behind and set off at 8.30. We are at about 2400 meters and right in front of us is a terrifying volcanic giant. At a junction near some houses in this densely populated and fertile agricultural area we first pick up five armed rangers (soldiers) who are going to protect us in the park, supposedly against buffaloes and elephants, and then a local man with a panga, who accepts to carry my day pack for ten USD. Hence, five Kalashnikovs and a machete will go with me into the forest. No wonder I feel safe.

Along eucalyptus trees and little walls made up of volcanic stones we head for the park boundary, which we reach at 8.55. This is where the forest starts. We cross a ditch and almost immediately the trail gets very steep. I feel the sweat under my Kilimanjaro shirt but I am reassured when I see my guide, porter and rangers sweating as abundantly. This hike is tough. It is important to control your breath and assume a steady pace. I prefer to make several short stops (so as to sip some water and to take some pictures) in stead of a longer one. At 10.25 the forests starts to clear, giving way to moorland with giant heathers. We walk through high grasses and now start feeling the wind, although it is not really cold. Fortunately the trail is dry. Several times I feel the wind disappearing, meaning we have yet again passed one of the several false summits. We continue going straight on a large ridge, which is getting rockier. Strangely enough I don’t feel the effects of the altitude. The reason might be that I am in Rwanda for two weeks now during which I went jogging regularly at the Primature roundabout in Kigali, where the runners of the capital gather every evening around sunset.

We must be above 4000 meters now. In my mind I hear Captain Beefheart singing Zig-zag wanderer. Suddenly I see a signboard indicating a trail to the right which is going down to Uganda. Two minutes later, we are at the Rwanda/Uganda border, at 4127 meters. Summit time! It is 1.09 pm, so it took us 4 hours and 45 minutes to climb 1700 meters. When you gain almost 350 meters per hour, you can imagine how steep it is. This ascension might not be doable for everyone, but I would certainly recommend it to people who are able to maintain a good rhythm and pace sustainably, like long distance runners. Basically you just have to keep on going without asking yourself too many questions. A sufficient dose of positive stubbornness and a good mental preparation definitely help.

Near the lovely little crater lake, a signboard says we are in the afromontane belt, at an altitude of 4137 meters. Ten meters above the official summit! How high can you get? I thank my friendly staff for their help, share some biscuits and walk around the lake in a few minutes. We stay at the summit for an hour. The weather is fine, but the clouds in the west don’t allow me to see any of the other five nearby volcanoes. The compulsory group photo is taken. The armed soldiers are quite serious and shy, but when I ask the one with a walkie-talkie if this is “Radio Muhabura” (the RPF radio station during the war), his face produces a gentle smile.

We start the descent at 2.10 pm, so we still have about four hours before it gets dark, which should be long enough. Looking down I manage to distinguish Lake Burera, Kidaho, Kisoro, Lake Bunyonyi and the blue roof of Nyagahinga. But soon I start losing my focus and concentration. Fatigue is starting to take its toll; several times I slip over loose stones and I start wondering how this descent can take so awfully long. If I continue at this pace, I will certainly be remembered as the muzungu who was faster going up than down. Finally, after a nerve-wracking struggle, we reach the park boundary at 5.40 pm. We take a rest before we continue through the potato fields back to civilization. Scores of children are yelling “muzungu, good morning!” We reach Francis’ taxi after a descent that took four hours and fifteen minutes. Next to the car I want to tip my porter, but it is difficult to see the banknotes as night has fallen suddenly. It is pitch-dark, Muhabura is nowhere to be seen anymore, and still I hear “Good morning muzungu!”

The next morning I sleep late and enjoy the tranquility of the Kinigi Guest House garden with its prolific birdlife. With sore legs I walk to the park headquarters to book the Gahinga hike for the day after. I pay 75 USD and call Francis, who will assure transport again for 80 USD.

The ascension of Gahinga

A porter joins us in the car as we leave Kinigi shortly after 7 am. The drive to the Gahinga trailhead, where the altimeter of my guide Fidèle indicates 2330 meter, takes almost 50 minutes. We have 1140 vertical meters ahead of us. Today four armed soldiers assure my protection. After an hour, the potato fields give way to an undulating meadow. Just before the park boundary we see a green wooden trekkers hut, which is apparently not in use. I had initially planned to pass the night between the Muhabura and the Gahinga hikes in this hut, until RDB told me this wasn’t possible for the moment. At nine o’clock we cross a ditch and enter the forest.

Muhabura had been quite a copious dish and I had imagined Gahinga would be a nicely light dessert to end my holidays in beauty. The reality is pretty different. Although the two volcanoes are very close to each other, they are not similar. There is much more bamboo forest on the Gahinga trek, but the main difference is the trail. Muhabura is hard because of the steep climb. What makes Gahinga difficult is the fact that the trail is muddy and narrow, with often dense vegetation almost until the summit. Sometimes the trail runs through the bed of a little stream. At the entrance of the forest I had followed Fidèle’s example and put on my rain trousers, a very wise idea. The higher we get, the more my porter has to use his machete to cut away branches and leaves that makes the path hardly visible. It almost looks like we are the first visitors here since the late Dian Fossey arrived in the Virungas. (Later I was told RDB recorded 34 Gahinga tourists in the whole year of 2014, whereas Muhabura received 92 visitors that year. Just to compare: when I summited Kilimanjaro, there were more than 200 persons arriving at the top in one day!).

At 11.38 am we reach the summit, at the rim of a marshy crater. We are surrounded by giant groundsels and giant lobelias. 1140 meters up in three hours and 45 minutes, that means an altitude gain of about 300 meters per hour. Big Brother Muhabura is towering above us. The other volcanoes hide themselves, but I know where they are.

The descent is slippery. Going up, I had eliminated all thoughts as I was only concentrated on making it to the top, but now my brains start working again. I think about Bruce Chatwin’s book What am I doing here. The large bamboo zone is reminiscent of the inhospitable bamboo forest of Mount Kenya where I once spent two solitary nights after getting lost in the fog of the Vertical Bog. In the dark without any shelter, I prayed the bamboo would provide some protection against the buffaloes. Did I have to hike Gahinga to chase my old demons? Is that what I am doing here?

At 3.25 pm we arrive at the car. The descent has taken 3.10 hours, the whole trek about 7 hours. It starts thundering. From inside our taxi we see the rain pouring down, as if Imana, the God of Rwanda, wants to wash away my footsteps, so that only memories remain. The Virunga quartet is complete, the demons have vanished, my goal is reached. I know I will return to Rwanda to admire ibirunga, but only from a distance.

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