Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Rwanda: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
I feel like the last posts were posted too close together and entirely too long. Sorry for the inundation, I’ll restrain myself in the future.
Like I have said, Uganda is conveniently centrally located. My friend and I took advantage of this fact and traveled to Rwanda for a nice weekend out of the country. We wanted to maximize time in the beautiful country of Rwanda and minimize both costs and time off work. Done and done. After a 10 hour overnight public bus ride we were deposited at 6:15 am local time, bleary eyed and disorientated in the Kigali bus park. I have to say it felt a little sketchy to be crossing international borders in the mountains and the dark at 4am, but hey they said it was official.
Let me tell you folks, Rwanda has got its act together. For an African country it is remarkably well planned, paved, and put together. Since we were on a tight schedule we got right down to business looking for the tourism bureau to purchase some much needed mountain hiking permits. One of the main tourist attractions in Rwanda is gorilla trekking where you go out with a group of guides and other trekkers and hopefully get to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitats. Pretty cool. Really popular. Last year over 18,000 people paid the $500 USD just for the permits. That is a lot of money for just one year in a relatively small country. Understandably the government doesn’t want you hiking near gorillas and seeing one without paying for it so we had to buy permits just to summit one of the nearby mountains. We got the permit and assurance that if we could make it to the office camp then the trekking company would have 4x4 cars ready to take us to the mountain base camp.
We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon touring Kigali. Tragically, in 1994 Rwanda was torn apart by tribal genocide that left 1 million people dead after a horrific 100 days of unimaginable violence. The end of July marks the end of the national mourning in remembrance of loved ones lost and the national tragedy. As such there were lots of tributes going on at many of memorial sites left to honor those who sadly lost their lives and we visited several of them. While this atrocity is not being covered up there is definitely an initiative to remember and honor the dark past while searching and reaching for a brighter future.
After a depressing and reflective morning we boarded another bus to take us to up into the mountain range. Another 3 and a half hours on a cramped bus gave us plenty of time to enjoy the natural beauty that Rwanda boasts. The motto of Rwanda is “Country of 1000 Hills” it is aptly named. At the end of the twisty bumpy ride we were safely in Munsaze, the mountain town closest to our starting site for the morning hike. We didn’t know where we were going to stay in Munsaze, I still need to develop my planning skills, so we decided on the very first one proposed by a “marketing specialist” who was standing by the bus stop. It worked out well and the hostel, whose name I didn’t ever get, was clean and plenty comfortable after 40 hours with no sleep.
The next morning we were up before dawn to get to the site on time. On paper the official languages of Rwanda are French then English finally followed by Kinyarwanda, the native language. My traveling partner is fluent in French and I have English pretty much down pat but that helped very little. We know absolutely no Kinyarwanda and that became painfully obvious as we tried to check out. Eventually we just handed over our key and hopped on some waiting motorbikes for a cold early morning ride to the office base. When we got to the office we got to meet dozens of excited people ready for their encounter with the gorillas. They we all geared up and the energy was palpable, even so early in the morning.
When we presented our permits to the office the manager explained the rundown of the day and then asked to be introduced to the driver that we had hired to take us up the mountain. Huh? We had definitely been told no transport was necessary passed our getting to office and we did not have the money to hire a driver for all day. What to do? Put on some smiles and pathetic eyes and hope a fellow hiker with a driver would take pity on us. Luckily people who are willing to get up early and pay to hike a mountain are, in my experience, categorically nice people. We hitched a ride with two men from Mali who work with UNICEF and we were off. The roads in Rwanda are pretty well paved except for those leading up to the mountains. We were treated to an “African Massage” which is basically just being thrown side to side in the back of a truck. At one point our truck ran aground with a terrible noise and we walked the rest of the way while the driver got himself unstuck.
At the base of the Bisoke Mountain we were equipped with walking sticks and several harrowing stories as to how this peak was the hardest climb offered. Not comforting. Anyway our intrepid group of 12 set off with high hopes and lots of energy. We had 2 Malians, 1 Liberian, 2 Canadians, 1 Belgian, 4 Germans, 1 English, 1 American; a veritable United Nations ready to conquer a mountain. We had several guides with us and seemed to acquire more the higher we went. At one point we were joined by soldiers in full camouflage carrying rifles. Our guide told us they were there to protect us from the animals that lived in the mountains. He very clearly said elephants and buffalos but I remain skeptical that such large animals could live in the mountains. Also, I didn’t see any. That proves their non-residence.
The climb was exhausting! A war of attrition was waged; Bisoke mountain and gravity versus all of us. As the mountain wreaked havoc on our precious supplies of energy and muscular abilities we countered with a stalwart dedication on achieving its summit despite its 3711 meter elevation. It was like four hours going up the down escalator except with much better scenery. While other mountain paths wind back and forth providing switchbacks to make the ascent easier, Rwandans have not adopted this policy yet. Their paths went straight up through trees, vines, little rivers, and lots of mud. At one of the rest points we were very close to the burial place for Dian Fossey, an American who lived and worked in the mountains with the gorillas for 18 years. As we climbed higher and higher the mists of the mountains were easy to see sweeping in and closing us off from each other. It was amazing! We finally reached the tippity top and got to take in the beauty of the lake there. The lake fills in the crater formed by inactive Bisoke volcano. I was making contingency plans on what to do if these sleeping giants decided to go all Vesuvius on us, but thankfully they weren’t needed. The mists were so thick on the top of the mountain that you couldn’t see where we started from or even each other at times.
One hill down, just 999 to go. Time to descend and get on with the rest of our day. You might think that going down a mountain would be much easier than going up. If so, you would be wrong in terms of Bisoke. The crazy steep paths we took up were just as treacherous going down and we fell lots of times amassing bruises and scrapes to add to our tired muscles. We took more breaks on the way down and the total descent took about 3 hours from peak to base camp. The wonderful guys from UNICEF offered us a ride all the way back to Kigali since they had the extra space and we gratefully accepted.
The trip back was an adventure. After weaving our way back through the villages and being accosted by lots of children who were entirely too close to the truck, we made it to the real road and started making time. Then our driver randomly stopped, got out, and crawled under the truck. He got back in and calmly told us that we had punctured a hole in our gas tank, we were leaking fuel, and would have to stop and get it repaired. The men at the service station fixed the gas tank in about 30 minutes and we were back on our way. About a half an hour later two cars flew around us on a sharp curve and then were promptly in an accident and almost drove off the side of the mountain. We stopped to make sure everyone was alright and then continued on as we saw they had everything covered. An hour later we were pulled over by the police. Apparently our driver is a pretty sweet talker because we were back on our way in a few minutes. We finally made it back to Kigali and checked into our hostel for the night after what was an exhausting day in many respects.
The next morning we hopped back on our friend the Kigali-Kampala bus and settled in for our 10 hour ride back to home. The Jaguar Bus Company, if you are ever in the area and are in need of transportation, runs amazingly on time. We got back to Kampala around 6:45pm just in time for a nice boda boda ride through the rain to get us home. Not bad for a weekend :)