Our adventure started at the bus station in Kigali, which was probably the most overwhelming experience I had yet had in Rwanda, with throngs of people, constant offers to buy brochettes (goat or beef kebabs), newspapers, soft drinks, and maps. We eventually found our bus and took the most incredible ride to Musanze, about 2.5 hours away. We crossed through the mountains, passing monkeys eating at the side of the road and kids playing soccer on rare patches of flat earth alongside goats, cows, and other livestock. We saw countless beautiful rural villages with unbelievably picturesque farms arrayed along the hillsides. Every square meter of usable land was in cultivation, and the countryside seemed to be one giant patchwork of bananas, potatoes, and other crops.
Our lodging for the night was in the guesthouse of the Millers, missionaries from Alabama who had constructed what appeared to us to be a small mansion on the outskirts of Musanze. In the house were an espresso bar, a large piano, countless pieces of American and Rwandan art, and two dogs that were just desperate for some attention. We met Saad, the caretaker, who gave us a tour and arranged a driver for us for the next morning. He was unusually sassy for the generally reserved and polite Rwandans, and kept us on our toes much more than usual. After watching a full moon rise over the immaculate backyard of the Millers, we all turned in for an early bed.
The next morning we got up early, at 5:30, and took our malaria prophylaxis before a quick breakfast. Saad made us amazing coffee with the professional espresso machine, and while we sipped our caffeine fix we made sandwiches for the hike. We met our driver for the day, and took a short drive to the park headquarters, where we paid for our day’s hike and were registered with our passports. At the headquarters, we met two young swiss men (one a medical student!) who wanted to hitch a ride with us to the start of the hike. They were great companions and kept us entertained during the trek. We got an unusual chance to compare the swiss medical education system to our own, and to be honest I was quite jealous of how their schooling was organized.
We also met our guide, a very friendly Rwandan park ranger who spoke French and English well. We would be hiking with a large group of French tourists, all part of a large tour group. He told us roughly what to expect on the hike before we got back in our car and rode to the base of the hike – or that was the plan. In reality, the French tour group’s bus was too large and unwieldy to get to the actual start of the hike, and so we walked about a mile through a small village and farmland to the actual starting point. This was a part of the village heavily catering to tourists, and we were quickly surrounded by porters and men offering hiking sticks, as well as children attempting to sell us gorilla figurines. Our entire group declined porters, and we set off through yet more fields towards the forest waiting ahead of us.
We quickly headed off down the trail, and were instantly in the jungle, surrounded by beautiful, twisted trees covered in moss and ferns that hung down over the path. We quickly learned about the stinging nettles that would be a big part of the early hike, but also about a plant that grew just alongside with large hairy leaves and purple veins whose milky sap would relieve the burn of the nettles. Personally, I was unimpressed with the effect, but it was at the very least a fun learning opportunity and a welcome distraction from the burning sensation.
We crossed a small stream, and splashed ourselves with mud during the crossing. The porters were extremely helpful here, and helped us to balance on a single narrow tree trunk as we moved across the water. We then really started to climb, and found ourselves moving over extremely rough terrain that was clearly extremely washed out from the previous rainy season. It was mercifully dry now, but still dreadfully uneven and it was not always clear what the intended trail was at all. A few members of our group decided to hire porters at this point (many of them had accompanied us without a burden, clearly expecting exactly this to happen). With varying degrees of struggle, we continued the steep climb. I began a conversation with one of the French tourists, who happened to speak great English. He was a Certified Nurse Anesthesiologist in France, but traveled often and had recently volunteered with a conservation organization in the French Congo that rehabilitated chimpanzees captured by poachers. Once he realized that I spoke French, our conversation began to veer back and forth between English and French, till at some point I began to lose track of what language we were speaking at any given point. It was great practice, and a very welcome distraction from the most arduous final part of the climb.
When we finally summited, we were treated to an amazing view of the crater lake at the very top of the Bisoke volcano. The water itself was a pale green, but the image of this isolated lake among the steep crater walls was a very satisfying reward for our labors. We were also treated to breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, which looked faintly dim – I quickly realized we were seeing everything through a thin layer of clouds that we had entered just before reaching the peak. We ate lunch, took the obligatory group photos, and rested a bit before starting the descent, which was much faster but often more challenging than the ascent had been. By the end our knees and ankles were aching, and we were happy to be back on relatively flat ground.
We quickly returned to our cars, and said goodbye to the French party. We dropped our Swiss friends off at their hotel, and only when we reached the bus station did we notice that one of them had left his bag. Our driver dropped it at a local restaurant, who called our friends’ hostel; we can only hope that they got their stuff back! We got back on a bus to Kigali, and watched the sun set over the mountains as we rested our tired legs. An orange-yellow full moon rose over the mountains late in our trip, and lit the rest of our journey back home. It was an amazing trip, and though tired we were all very proud of ourselves, and already excited for the next adventure!