In the midst of the mist

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IN RWANDA:  It’s hardcore. It will take nearly everything out of you. But here is this strange thing; you will love the experience that much more. In fact, you will want to do it all over again. I speak of mountain climbing. Business Rwanda’s Oscar Kabbatende and Emile Babu recently took on the challenge of climbing Mt. Bisoke (3711m) in the Volcanoes National Park and are glad to tell the story. 

At the time of departure, everyone thought we were crazy. How many Rwandan men do you know who leave their homes on the weekend to go mountain climbing? We attracted some laughs when we insisted on it, but nothing was going to stop us. Among the copious obstacles that lay ahead, a few laughs from friends were hardly daunting. 

It was difficult to get any accurate information on what to me seemed a very logical activity for a national park with 5 volcanic mountains. Fortunately, Mr. Edwin Sabuhoro of Ecotours managed to give useful advice and connect us with our host, Gorilla Nest Hotel. Even then, we had to have been the most unprepared mountaineers in all history.  

The following day we set out to the park, where we met Eugene, the park warden who was kind enough to provide us with gum boots and water-proof jackets that turned out to be veritable lifesavers as the upcoming events would show. We were introduced to our guide, fittingly named Everest, and the rest of the tour’s six tourists, who had set out to conquer Mount Bisoke. Among them was Natalie, a program manager with a UK based cell-phone company, Greg, a machine specialist and two other young couples, one of which served as volunteers with Save the Children Fund in Tanzania. In total, the team comprised a South African, a German, two Brits, two Americans and two Rwandans.  

After a short briefing from Everest, and receiving our hiking staffs, we quickly climbed over the buffer wall barrier that demarcates the park boundary landing. We noticed a steel corrugated hut in the distance and were told that it is where Dian Fossey used to park her battered Landrover. As we chattered at the footsteps of the mountain, little did we know that what lay ahead was far more adventurous than any of us had ever imagined. 

The ‘stinging nettles, along with the thick mud on the path, up made my first hour on the trek up Bisoke very trying, but all the more fun. We learned some hard lessons about mountain climbing, such as the fact that every extra kilogram on your person is one kilogram too heavy. My tiny rucksack was turning into a sack of lead. The only thing we appeared to have over-estimated was our own fitness. For all fitness aficionados, forget about the gym, climb a mountain every once in a while and no one will ever be able to compete. 

However, after the first hour it became a bit easier and we were able to enjoy the vista around us; the sweeping views of the landscapes, the thick jungle and exotic looking insects and, every once in a while when the thick rain forest didn’t cover the view, a peek at the peak. As the path got steeper, the breaks become more frequent and lasted longer.  

At about 3200 meters, things began to change. It was no longer thick jungle but more like brush land featuring lush bushes and scattered trees, but the nettles had not yet abated. Let’s just say when you are a few meters from the peak of a volcano, everything changes, the vegetation being no exception. Temperatures were down to 10 degrees Celsius and climbing speed had dropped from 2.1 to 1.8 kilometers per hour thanks to the increasing steepness. Greg kept us updated on all these little facts whenever he observed the handy Global Positioning System (GPS) he was carrying. 

In the last hundred meters, the vegetation and weather changed once again. If it had been cool before, now it became downright chilly, dropping to 5C°. The mist soon surrounded us, giving the whole area a transcending spectral aura. Add to the changing landscape, and the whole place looked and felt almost unearthly. Our determination to conquer the peak grew as we trudged on, despite the exhaustion. The excitement of the exploration was just about to reach its climax. 

Along the path small clear streams were flowing with water so cold, yet so clean you might not have paused before using it to wash your face. It was nearly anesthetic; my fingers went numb for a while after touching it. 

Finally, after 6 hours of pushing ourselves up a mountain that was clearly trying to make things as difficult as possible, we crested the summit just as a cold drizzle began to fall.

The joy and excitement was evident from the smiles and hugs while cameras clicked away. We stood by the rim of the mountain and we could just catch glimpses of the Crater Lake whenever the mist parted a little. 

The notice advising visitors not to swim in the Crater Lake seemed almost redundant.  No sane person was going to undress to enter water that looked ice cold. Well, perhaps it pays to post the notice anyway, just in case some one gets that particular bee in his bonnet. 

In the midst of the mist it did not seem to matter that we could barely see more that 3 meters in any direction. The much vaunted view was denied to us by the capricious gods that determine weather on a mountain.  

Reaching the peak of a mountain is by any standards a feat not your average guy can pull off. As I write this piece I feel that I have understated the experience. Neither the pictures nor the article can tell the whole story. It is an inspirational experience that tested my physical abilities and mental endurance. There are few moments as precious as the one you get from conquering a mountain. At that moment all the hard work seemed worth it. This is the part where I advise others to try mountain climbing because one can only understand if one has experienced it. You have to think of the mountain as a worthy challenge. 

In this case it wasn’t just any mountain, but the Bisoke; one of the toughest climbs. ‘I have been to the Swiss Alps but this mountain has surely been one of my greatest challenges,’ Greg lamented. Natalie on the other hand, had trekked Mount Sinai of the Ten Commandments fame, ‘It is a piece of cake compared to Bisoke,’ she added. 

Once you have climbed a volcano and reached the peak, you are man enough to take on any challenge, and certainly one among many. Most interesting, you have a great story to tell and an experience that will never leave your memory. 

The experience is fairly priced at 4000frw for Rwandans and 50$ for foreigners. Remember to carry gloves, waterproof boots and a rain jacket, at least 1.5 liters of water and energy snacks like biscuits or chocolate bars. For those with cameras, carry something that can protect it from water.  

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