Starting Altitude: 2,500 meters [8,200 ft.]
Ending Altitude: 3,711 [12,175 ft.]
Total Climb: 1,211 meters [3,973 ft.]
Total Distance: 9 kms [5.6 miles]
Hours Taken: 5.5 hours Round Trip
Accent Rate (Climb/Distance): 269 m/km
The ranger at Volcanoes National Park that has been assigned to us as a guide for trekking Bisoke volcano is extremely unhappy. It is only the beginning of the rainy season, but it has been pouring for weeks. He wants to know why we want to climb the volcano is such poor conditions. “It is too muddy”, he complains, but we are resolute in our pursuit of a little adventure, and the chance to see the crater lake at the top. “You will not even see the lake with all these storm clouds and mists”, he promises, but we are not deterred.
Bisoke volcano is one of five volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Standing at 3,711 meters (12,175 feet), it is the fourth tallest. It is the volcano where Dian Fossey did her research with gorillas, and even if we do not get to see the crater lake, we will get to hike through the misty jungles she made so famous. Half of the volcano is in DR Congo, so due to our proximity with the border, the ranger organizes a detail of six Rwandan soldiers to escort us up the volcano.
It is hard to keep-up with them, as the trail climbs over a kilometer up in just over four kilometers of hiking, and it is so muddy it feels like climbing up a wall of melting chocolate ice cream. After an hour or so of scratching upwards while slipping downwards, we are sweating in the jungle humidity, being pelted with rain, and I begin to think the ranger may have had a point.
I watch the soldiers so easily navigate the slop in front of me, loaded down with automatic weapons and their radio gear, and think of how many times they must have braved these conditions to do it so comfortably. They stop sporadically to communicate progress through the radio, and I really feel like we are in basic training for the Rwandan military.
Then, on a particularly steep part of the mountain, two soldiers spring ahead, and one takes a position on the side of the trail, loading his AK-47 which a metallic click. He looks directly at us, and frantically motions for us to run up the hill after the first two soldiers. We obey, and he whispers, “buffalo”, as we dart by him.
We push on through the jungle, emerge in a cloud forest above it, and then shortly afterwards at the edge of the crater, which is completely inundated with mists. We hear a great boom as the Nyiragongo volcano erupts on the Congolese side of the volcano, and we can see the Mikeno volcano over the far crater wall. We cannot see the lake through the mists, and the ranger tells us that there is a local legend of a man who dove down into it and never came up. It all just feels so mysterious.
The mists dance around the crater, and then for about two minutes the winds blow all the clouds out of the crater and we get a magnificent view of the placid lake below. A Rwenzori Turaco glides between the branches, and a forest of giant lobelia in the crater is revealed below it.
The trek down is even more difficult than the ascent. It is more of a controlled slide through the mud, punctuated by some epic spills into the mud pits. There is nothing to do but have fun with it, and relent to wallowing like a pig. Halfway back down the volcano, the ranger changes his tune, and tells us how proud he is of our trekking ability. We find a gorilla nest, a chameleon, and giant foot long earth worms squiggle around in puddles trying to make it back into the ground.
Climbing Bisoke volcano after a rain is a grueling piece of work, worthy of a training exercise for the special forces, but taking your time and trying your hand at a little mud surfing down the mountain turns it into a memorable adventure and a lot of fun.