Hiking Mount Bisoke

Featured image: Mt. Bisoke from the base.

By Hadley Copeland

At 4:45 AM, we were headed out of our own home base in Kigali to Volcanoes National Park and the 3,711 meter high Mount Bisoke. Packed into our rented van, we planned to catch up on the precious sleep that we had lost by waking up so early because we were still jet lagged from the over eighteen hour journey to Rwanda from New Haven.

But instead of napping, we soon found ourselves enjoying the drive, munching on the granola bars and white-bread sandwiches we had packed, singing along to the American pop songs playing on the radio. Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” (les milles collines in French) and on this morning, the countryside was living up to its name. As we drove through valleys and climbed the hills of the Northern Province, we were able to catch a rare glimpse of Rwanda that few other tourists do: the sun rising above the cloud cover as many Rwandans woke for the day.

The setting of our adventure, Volcanoes National Park is known throughout the world for two reasons: first, it is one of the last homes of the endangered mountain gorilla and second, it is  the resting place for Dian Fossey, a primatologist known for her Jane Goodall-like investigations of these gorillas. In booking our trip, we had hoped that a gorilla-sighting might be a possibility.

We arrived at the registration  center around 7:00 AM. Some us rented gaiters and boots that our over-anxious guides thought would be necessary for the day (anything but hiking boots, they emphasized, were a bad idea for the conditions we would face), and then headed off in a rented car for the base camp.

We joined a group that totaled about twenty hikers, including a Canadian who had just hiked nearby May-Ya-Moto and a young British woman who was living in rural Uganda.

As we climbed up past the terraced fields and into the mountainous jungle, the terrain became increasingly challenging. Because we were hiking during the last few days of the rainy season, the ground was as muddy as could be, and if we weren’t careful, it was incredibly easy to  be sucked into the endless muck. Initially, our group refused to take on any porters, locals who make the hike as many as three times a week, carrying backpacks and basically dragging hikers up the hill by hand, but soon, we were thankful that our guides had chosen to bring porters along despite our protestations.

The short rainy season meant an extremely muddy trail.

After an hour and a half, only four of the original nine hikers, Claire, Daud, Madelyn, and I, from The Globalist remained after the other five turned back. From then on, the hours melted into each other, marked by nothing in particular but the vegetation that evolved, from bamboo forests to desert-like rush, with each foot we gained in altitude. By the time, Madelyn and I met Claire and Daud at the Rwandan summit around 1:30 PM, it felt as if we had been hiking for days. Unfortunately, we were unable to make the final ascent to the Mount’s true summit, for it is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: throughout our hike, we were accompanied by armed guards to ensure that we, or any poachers from the DRC, didn’t try to cross any international borders. 

Hiking upwards.

We gazed out on the crater lake that we had hiked the past four and a half hours to see, but it was obscured by the mist.

“I can’t believe we made it,” each of us laughed. “But seriously, I wouldn’t have finished this hike if I had known this would have been the view.”

But we were there and now the trickiest part of our adventure remained: the descent. We were all exhausted and running out of food and water, yet we were facing another three hour hike in the same mud and mist. Although we made it back to the base camp by 4:30 PM, even Daud, who had seemed the strongest hiker from the start, fell countless times in the mud on the way back down. The guides had tried to count the number of times we fell, but soon this venture seemed pointless.

At some point, we realized that we were all going to fall in the mud—and thus, fail— more than we wanted to. Whether or not we choose to laugh it off or take ourselves too seriously was our choice. Maybe, the true lesson of the hike after all was for us to realize that even when we felt our legs giving out on us, our lungs struggling for every breath, and our legs caked in mud, the most important thing to do was to laugh and keep on trying.

Hadley Copeland is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact her at hadley.copeland@yale.edu.