December 9-10, 2008
Back to Kisoro
We left Nkuringo with Hope and Meghan, going by taxi back to the town of Kisoro. Pnina and I had already stopped in Kisoro once on the way to Bwindi, but only long enough to have lunch. Now we decided to stay for a couple of days. The main reason was to climb one of the Virunga mountains, Mt Muhavura, a mountain we could see from miles away. We heard that there was a crater lake at the top and we were curious to see it up close.
If you approach Kisoro from the east (which we did the first time), you will see a refugee camp on the outskirts of town. It just looks like a well organized set of white tents, each one adorned with blue UN letters. We assumed that it was set up recently to accommodate all the refugees escaping the war in the DRC. We later learned that this camp was actually set up way back in 1994 in response to the genocide in Rwanda. Since then it’s been used for various purposes, including now for the DRC refugees. It’s not the only refugee camp in Uganda, and in fact it’s not even the largest. But it does shelter several thousand refugees.
I mentioned before that mountain gorillas are only found in two places in the world: Bwindi National Park (where we saw them) and the Virunga Mountains, found at the intersection of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. There is sort of a large national park that spans the three countries and has a different name in each one. The DRC has the largest chunk which they call Virungas National Park. Rwanda has the next largest chunk which they call Volcanes National Park. And Uganda has just a tiny sliver which they call Mgahinga.
There are no borders between the countries inside the park. That means that people and animals are free to go where they please. One side effect is that the gorillas (which are a huge visitor attraction and source of revenue) are also free to roam. Uganda used to have one of the habituated gorilla groups inside its little section of the park, but a few years ago these gorillas decided to migrate over to the Rwanda side, which means that now Rwanda gets all the tourism dollars from people visiting that group. As for people crossing borders, well, one of the worries is that both rebels and refugees will flee from the DRC through the park. It hasn’t happened yet, but it might, which is why as part of our trip in Mt Muhavura we had an armed escort.
There are seven Virunga mountains, all of them volcanos. Only two of them are still active and both of them are in the DRC. The mountain we decided to climb, Mount Muhavura, sits at the border between Uganda and Rwanda.
To climb this mountain, we grabbed a taxi from Kisoro to the park campsite. As with Bwindi, there’s no fence around the park. There’s just a point where village stops and forest starts.
We paid our $40/each entrance and got a guide, Shaban, and our armed guard, George.
Shaban was a really excellent guide. He’s been working in this area for 16 years (he started before Mgahinga was even a park) so he knows a lot about the area. He was the one who explained the situation at the refugee camp in town. He also gave his perspective on the confrontation in the DRC between the rebel, Nkunda, and the president, Cabale. In some ways it’s a continuation of the hutu-tutsi struggle that lead to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Apparently Nkunda used to be just a simple farmer near Kisoro before he began his military career.
The climb took us from 2.4 km altitude at the bottom to 4.2 km at the summit, and then back down. It was supposed to be an 8-hour return trip, but in our case it took a little more than 11 hours. Surely part of the reason it took so long is that Pnina and I are just not quite as fit as we’d like to think. But there were a few other reasons. First off, we kept pausing our hike to chat with Shaban about the DRC and other topics. Second, at one point Shaban and George spotted the habituated gorilla group in the next hill, some 300 meters away – apparently they decided to migrate back to Uganda, which was a very big deal. We paused for at least a half hour while Shaban and George radio’ed to other rangers telling them where to find the gorillas.
But the biggest factor that slowed us down is weather. As we reached the top of the mountain, the sky opened up and we got hailed upon. We had enough torso layers to stay dry and somewhat warm, but our bottom halves got seriously beat up. We were completely drenched – shoes, socks, pants, underwear. The little hail pellets really hurt since we only had thin pants. Pnina took shelter in a hole-in-the-ground she found next to the lake at the top; still, she had blue lips and was visibly shivering. I took shelter under George’s army-issue poncho; he sheltered me like I was his chick. We waited at the top, hoping the foul weather would pass. But after about 20 minutes Pnina took out her pocket veto and insisted we head down. It was probably a good call.
On the way down things got very slippery. If it wasn’t mud, it was all those obnoxious ladders. We started keeping tab of how many times we fell. Pnina was clearly the winner at the end, with 7 falls to my four. Our taxi driver, Richard, actually waited for us at the bottom of the mountain the whole time (11 hours!). And he was right there to catch me in my 5th and final fall on the way to the taxi 🙂 He got a tip for that one.
Anyhow, it was still a beautiful hike and we highly recommend it. The crater lake at the top is amazing – only 39 meters diamater! You can walk around it in two minutes, and when you do you are crossing from Uganda to Rwanda and back again. So cool! 🙂
We checked back into the Countryside Guest House, took our hot showers and had one of the best meals of the trip: fish, chips, and vegetable currie. It was so nice to be dry again!