Mt. Visoke, Virunga Mountains


Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield July 13, 2002


View of the Virunga Volcanos from Rhuengeri - our mountain is also known as Bisoke.  The chain of volcanoes form an impressive backdrop to the town, but unfortunately my pictures didn't turn out due to the haze.  The proud artist of this sketch is unknown.

When one thinks of the hazards of climbing a mountain one usually thinks of avalanches, steep rock, weather, etc.  Africa's mountains are mostly moderately sloped volcanoes, but there is one hazard you'll never find in the mountains of North America.  Rebels. 

Mt. Visoke sits in an impressive row of volcanoes in Central Africa forming the western edge of the Rift Valley.  From the town of  Rhuengeri one can see no less than six towering volcanoes between 12,000 - 15,000 feet.  Straddling the equator these mysterious peaks are covered with lush bamboo rainforests instead of ice and snow, and provide a sanctuary for some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas.  Unfortunately this area hasn't been enjoyed by many outsiders due to a dubious history of political unrest.  Most people associate Rwanda with the genocide of 1994 instead of the spectacular terrain that makes up the tiny country. 

Visoke was the only mountain available for climbing when we visited in the summer of 2002.  To climb we had to hire a guide (choose trails without land mines) and six armed guards (fend off enemy rebels).  Fighting had taken place recently in the dense forests of the hills surrounding Visoke.  Visoke straddles the Rwanda/Congo border, so there was concern about a militant group called the Interhamwe, a lingering group from the genocide who proved a couple of years before that they aren't afraid to kill a few tourists to gain attention.

Me, our guide and Fred at the trailhead named "Parking Bisoke."  Our guides and guards wore polyurethane boots otherwise known back home as "shit kickers."

The government of Rwanda could not afford the bad publicity the loss of two mzungus (white guys).  Having a guide and six armed guards dedicated to our safety made us feel important.  What would have otherwise been an excellent climb (hike) was now indelibly imprinted in our memories.  When else would we get the chance to hike with six guys carrying AK-47's? 

We got a ride from Rhuengeri to the base of the mountain.  The first part of the trail is the same used by Dianne Fossey (Gorillas in the Mist) and leads to the area where she studied mountain gorillas for 20 years.  For those not familiar, her unresolved murder took place in 1985 in this same area.

The jungle was thick, green and full of sounds.  We passed, but never saw a group of gorillas near Dianne Fossey's old cabin.  The trail became steep and finally the vegetation began to thin as we neared the summit.

View through rainforest and down to the valley below.  The national park boundary is fairly obvious in the valley below.  Every piece of land that is not preserved is cultivated.

There was a strict order to our hiking formation on the trail, as Fred and I were sandwiched by the guards in order to protect our front and rear.  I wanted badly to take a picture of the guards since this was the highlight of the trip, but that was forbidden.  Therefore, I hiked up behind them as close as possible and took their pictures.  When they looked back I pretended to have taken a picture of something else.

Three guards in front carrying machine guns.  All to protect two worthless mzungus.

I figured having six guards was overkill, but nevertheless I was still somewhat on edge.  When we reached the summit rim I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  I looked to my left and there was a man dressed in camouflage peeping over the top of a bush.  When he realized I saw him he ducked down behind the bush.  We were 12,300 feet up on the summit of a volcano, so this was the last place I expected to see someone.  I thought for sure it was a rebel from the Congo and started to frantically point and shout in the direction of the man behind the bush.  Our guards and even our guide didn't speak English and seemed oblivious to what I was so excited about.  Finally they saw what I was pointing at and calmed my fears.  No shootout took place, the man in camouflage (turned out to be five more) was a member of the Rwandan army and was there to spot rebel activity from the Congo in the valley below. 

Dave and Fred pose on the summit with the Congo's Mt. Mikeno in the background.  Mt. Mikeno looked to be the most foreboding mountain on earth.  Rebel activity on it's lower flanks and steep jungle protecting it's summit.  A future climb for Fred and I.

The summit of Visoke was something out of an old James Bond movie.  A crater filled with a lake.  We half expected the lake to slide away and reveal a hidden cave stacked with nuclear weapons, but luckily this was no movie.  We wanted to do a circumnavigation of the crater rim, but the guard said no.  His explanation made little sense, but I figured it had to do with half the summit residing in Congolese territory.  We did find a good place to eat lunch and soak in the views.  The guards for the Rwandan Army that had startled me earlier remained elusive.  They did not come within 200 yards of Fred or I, and moved when we approached.  Thunderheads began to build, so we packed up and began the easy hike down the mountain.

A guard cradles his rifle while the clouds build.

I noticed our guide and six guards didn't pack any water or food - just rifles.  This was no surprise - after traveling for over a month in Africa a lack of forethought was common.  Luckily I had packed extra food and water which they happily consumed.  On the way down I enjoyed our hiking companions who were there to ensure the safety of Fred and I from hostile rebels.

-written September 2002

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