CLIMBING MOUNT KARISIMBI , a snow-capped volcano between Rwanda and the DR Congo, the tallest peak in the Virungas, was an arduous and fascinating experience. Many mountains, no matter how high, give you ice-field after ice field, lenghthy scrambles over loose scree and unending deja vu of switch-backs.
But Mount Karisimbi is a consummate entertainer, performing a play of carefully crafted scenes, curtains of mist their interludes; dense jungle; bogs and squelchy swamps; an enchanted wood of dripping vines and huge trees; grassy plains with grazing buffalo; spindly tree roots and fallen trunks clad with the green fur of ancient mosses; huge plants with giant spikey leaves like verdant parasols – and at the end, a 45 degrees slope up across a field of crumbly volcanic soil which, black grain by black grain, makes way for ice, hail and snowflakes. And the view above the cloud line to Mikeno in the north, Bisoke to the east and Nyiragongo in the west was the tumultuous, gob-smacking final scene.
Secretly, since the climb of Bisoke, I had hoped that Karisimbi would yield more and give one final thrill; my one big regret about living in Rwanda, was that I wouldn’t get to see the mountain gorillas, some of the of the rarest creatures on the planet. The waiting list at the time was over 6 months, so I had apparently missed out. But there was a chance, I hoped, that we might see these creatures on Karisimbi.
This post is part of the blog series called ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’
On Friday 22nd August 2008 we drove in a pick-up truck to the Parc Nationale de Volcanes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. We were a motley group of newly found friends; there was Paula, a VSO volunteer and teacher who lived in a small village beside lake Gahini; Johanna a doctor, Christine, another VSO volunteer and Mike, the country director of VSO and my tennis buddy. None of us had known each other before our own personal journeys had taken us to Rwanda, her allure had brought together a very international ascent party of British/ German/ Irish and Belgian.
As the sun set beyond mist-topped volcanoes, we arrived at Ruhengeri (today called Musanze) to buy our provisions. We had a little conference in the back of the pick-up to decide our food choices. Sure, the two day hike up to 4,500 metres would need all the energy we could muster, so nuts, pasta, dried fruits were on the list but I’ll never figure out how a tub of peanut butter and several tins of sardines made it in to the shopping bag.
We stayed at the Kinigi Lodge, and after a breakfast, Mike and I went out on the front lawn to make sure our three tents were capable of being assembled; if we couldn’t do it in the pleasant leafy surrounds of the lodge, we definitely couldn’t do it half-way up a volcano.
Mike spotted an omission – one of the tents was missing a fly-sheet – these were the days before pop up tents – so we called the Rwandan Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) and told them we needed another tent; they didn’t have one.
Five people in two two-person tents; whatever the permutations, it was going to be a squash for someone. was a squash. But like many things in Africa, travel plans work out; they just do; not always in the way you think they might and not always on time, but eventually. Just before we drove off contemplating who would be the third person in a two man tent, a kindly member of staff at the guest-house, called Serafina, said she would lend us one.
At the park office we signed our paper work and drank steaming coffees in the chill morning breeze, staring at concrete gorilla sitting on the lawn with a concrete baby in her arms.
We were assigned three guides, Placide, Thierry and Innocent, the head guide, all young, local lads with a passion for conservation and conversation; they friendly, articulate and able to speak several languages including that elusive tongue, gorilla.
Placide marched on the lawn away from the concrete gorilla, beside a row of wooden planks that measured precisely 7 metres, each metre painted in a dark line in the wood.
‘If we meet a gorilla, you must stay this far away,’ he said. That prospect thrilled me. Despite their formidable appearance, and the myths about their strengths brought about largely by Hollywood, gorillas are fragile animals. They are not the creatures of King Kong, Kong Island or Planet of the Apes and despite them weighing over 200 kgs and being six times stronger than a human, a mere sneeze from us can give them a virus they may never recover from. He then explained how to understand gorilla sounds so that we wouldn’t make them anxious. That’s why Placide laboured the point so carefully, before even talking about our own human obstacles of oxygen depletion, potential mountain sickness, the possibility of pulmonary or cerebral odeoma the cold or the energy-draining gradients of the upper slopes of Karisimbi. There are 700 mountain gorillas left in the world and 7 billion humans; his priorities were right.
After a short ride in the cool breeze in the back of the pick-up truck, we met our porters at the trail head – six of them, young guys, quiet and unassuming bearing their loads with a calm indifference; like many porters across the world, they preferred to carry the loads on the top of their heads, even if the load was a backpack; Paula asked one of them if he was okay with this – he smiled back and nodded.
We crossed potato fields on the lower slopes of the volcano, where rare golden monkeys yelped from atop old, huge trees their branches wide and sprawling in near perfect symmetry; the land there was laced with furrows of freshly tilled black soil, volcanic and rich in nutrients; the crops were growing well on sticks and trellises. Farmers all across the world who live at the base of volcanoes know what they are doing – they have managed a calculated gamble between risk and reward.
We climbed a dry-stone-wall that marked the boundary of the national park – Innocent said it was there to kept the wild buffalos in – and in my peripheral vision I could make out some other figures, men in battle fatigues, automatic weapons slung down by their hips.
Innocent made a short speech. ‘These men are men of the Rwandan army – please do not talk to them or take pictures. They come to protect us.’
Rwanda shares a border with the Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most dangerous places in the world. Across this semi-permeable border, rebels and militia have in recent years marched across to fight incursions, kidnap innocent tourists and generally cause trouble.
Innocent went on to explain the further rules of our hike; if we had a headache we should let them know; we would be camping at 3,500 metres where we would have a further water supply. And one more thing – there were no loos till the camp.
We continued our hike up the volcano for 6 hours, through magnificent forests of dripping vines and wise, ancient trees, across spongy field of moss, past curious wild buffaloes and then beside a small waterfall where we lunched sitting on sodden lumps of grass, eating bread, cheese and nuts. Peanut butter may have made an appearance.
We chatted to our guides; the men with the automatic weapons kept their distance and just washed their boots in the waterfall. I noticed their focus, their reverential, solemn and understated way of speaking to each other. ‘No photos of them please,’ Innocent reminded us.
We continued through a muddy forest of lichens, mosses, huge vines that dripped from overhanging branches caked in dark mosses.
Each trudge felt like the earth was sucking at my heel and I stepped over huge worms, past thistles and past the place where a path diverged with a sign that said ‘Dian Fossey grave, this way’’
Up until this point I wasn’t doing too bad physically, the lungs were pumping with chlorophyll-rich air, the blood was coursing warmly in my veins, the hiking group were ruddy-faced but dynamic, Paula chatting, Johanna and Mike talking and Christine focussed. Karisimbi was keeping us all entertained. My head didn’t hurt I told Placide, ‘I was expecting worse.’
‘Today a walk, tomorrow a climb,’ he replied.
We pitched the tents as the sun was dropping by 4pm – at the equator the sun sets at six. There was supposed to be a building here, but it turned out that it was a wooden platform with a wooden frame and missing corrugated iron roof. It was beautifully painted though and sufficed as something to place our tents ons.
Just as I had slowed down I felt hungry. Really hungry. We got the pasta out. A porter brought out a huge metal pot, some others filled it up with water and one brought some logs make a stand; the fire was lit. Never have I waited for pasta to boil so impatiently.
The logs that held the pot in place started to burn and we soon discovered our mistake: logs burn. A schoolboy error. The pot slowly started to kilter and then there was a hissing sound as it started to spill water. Steam rose. A hiss mocked, and the pot of pasta spilled its water over the fire.
Steam rose in the dying Congolese sunlight on the slopes of Karisimbi, perhaps not for the first time.
We needed a second attempt to boil the pasta so I joined some of the porters to climb down a grassy embankment to a spring where we filled up our bottles and the huge metal pot, carried, how else, but on the head of one of the porters.
This time we for it right and just as it had been spooned out in to bowls, it stared to rain heavily and we rushed in an old metal shelter lined with dried grass; it was warm and humid and with all the porters, a little cramped. But I didn’t care, it was dry, I was hungry and we had pasta.
We ate pasta from plastic boxes in hungry silence, rarely has a meal illumined from head-torches been consumed with such relish. Suddenly there was another head torch in front of me – it was Mike, crouching and holding a small plastic box and a teaspoon and then says, ‘Would you like some Parmesan with that pasta?
He sprinkled some on my food and then went round the metal shelter, crouching along, cheese and spoon in hand, looking for Tupperware devoid of Parmesan. Things you can do at 3,500 metres and it lifted our spirits in a small cramped space.
But that wasn’t all. We sat there in the shelter, waiting for the rain to end and then suddenly Paula pulled out a golden cardboard box of gold and untied its burgundy bow.
‘Who wants chocolates?’ she said.
Paula’s father had visited Rwanda just a week earlier from Northern Ireland and had had the foresight to present her with fine Belgian chocolates and these we ate tiny bite by tiny bite with utter contentment. Christine pulled out a bottle of Pinot Noir, but the rain had made it soggy and split the label – so we drank a glass of ‘not Noir’. It felt strangely appropriate.
The rain stopped by 9pm and we assembled our tents on the soaking wooden platform and the porters slept in the metal shelter.
I tried to sleep in the tent with Mike and heard a shout. It was Christine, their tent had had collapsed. I think it looked a little cobbled together when we assembled it, made from a Frankenstein of spare tent parts. We got up and helped them put it together. Later I think I heard it collapse again but by this time I was so close to sleep I couldn’t help. I drifted off.
I am not sure I could sleep in a tent for the sake of it. Whenever I’ve slept in a tent, I’ve always done it after a long hike at altitude, in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Atlas, and by nightfall I’ve just had enough time to enjoy the emulsion splashes of stars before falling asleep. A tent was the key that enabled the day, that unlocked the morning view, that special rite of passage of unzipping a mundane nylon sheet to reveal sublime and spectacular mountainous panoramas.
I was simply too tired to notice the the cold in the tents, the animals that would nuzzle the outside of it, the small enclosed spaces. Well that’s how it used to be. I had felt okay in a tent till Karisimbi – but that night something changed.
I woke at 1am in complete blackness, breathing heavily. Very heavily. I felt as if someone was sitting on my chest, on top of my sleeping bag. I was suffocating and looking upwards in to darkness. I was in a small space, I tried to loosen the draw-string around the hood of my sleeping bag. It was no use; I felt enclosed. Panic set in.
I got up, unpeeled myself from the sleeping bag and unzipped the tent. Up ahead I saw silhouettes by the glow of a campfire. I trudged giddy and breathing heavily, beckoned by the night-watchmen stoking the flames.
To be continued. This post was part of the series Letters from the Heart of Africa.
Featured image ‘Bursting through the cloud-line on Karisimbi’ courtesy of Mike Silvey.