To Spot Gorillas on a Budget, Try This Hike and Hope
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This six-hour trek up Mount Bisoke is cheaper than gorilla hikes and rewards with gorgeous views, and sometimes a rare beast.
“Buhoro, buhoro — go slowly,” cautioned Peace Umutuni, our park ranger and guide up Mount Bisoke, a dormant volcano located in northwest Rwanda. My friends and I looked at each other and laughed — we had each already slipped twice on the mountain’s muddy slopes, and going slowly was our only method of defense. The guides, however, seemingly unperturbed by the mud, confidently strode up the trail next to us, relaying words of encouragement.
With its bright-green foliage, bamboo forests, steep trails and a stark crater lake summit, Mount Bisoke straddles both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. At 3,711 meters, it’s one of the smaller mountains in the great Virunga Massif. The hike, which traverses through some of the region’s lushest and most diverse ecosystems, takes approximately six hours.
After meeting in the early morning at the headquarters in Kinigi for a briefing, hikers are transported to the trailhead in Volcanoes National Park, where the services of porters or handcarved hiking sticks can be rented for the day. According to the Rwanda Development Board, the mountain saw about 3,200 visitors in 2017.
As we entered the ancient park, all went still.
Once hitting the trail, the terraced Rwandan countryside quickly gives way to the otherworldly forest that is Mount Bisoke. As we entered the ancient park, all went still. Birds rustled in branches above our heads, and the far-off call of primates — possibly golden monkeys — shook us out of an almost spiritual reverie.
Park rangers, typically from the surrounding Musanze region, are chock-full of knowledge about the park’s flora and fauna, pointing out different plants along the way. On a (much-needed) water break, one ranger excitedly identified a rare blackberry bramble, thick with ripe fruit, near the trail — the dark berry is a favorite of Rwanda’s beloved mountain gorillas. The rangers had spotted gorillas on this trail just a few days prior. We stayed quiet for the next 20 minutes, hoping to spot one without having paid the hefty $1,500 gorilla trekking permit.
Rwanda has seen its mountain gorilla population grow immensely over the last 30 years. Felix Ndagijimana, director of the Karisoke Research Center for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, credits conservation successes to partnerships with the government, as well as sustainable tourism directed at the gorillas and other parts of Volcanoes National Park like Mount Bisoke. “Although [the gorillas] are still critically endangered,” he notes, “tourism plays a very important role.” Visitors and researchers all become “ambassadors for the protection of this wonderful species,” he adds.
As a torrential rainstorm overtook the otherwise silent forest, we joked that the gorillas must not enjoy the wet. (Attempting this hike in the rainy season is not advised — throughout the months of October, November, April and May, Mount Bisoke is not for the faint of heart.) After about 20 minutes, however, the threatening gray clouds were replaced by bright sunbeams.
After a few more hours and with mud-splattered pants and sunburned noses, we made it to the summit. The sky had cleared and the haze had lifted, revealing stunning views of Rwanda’s endless hills. All but ready to take a dip in the glittering crater lake, the rangers stopped us. “No swimming allowed,” laughed Peace. “We don’t have border control up here.”
Go There: Mount Bisoke
- Directions: Located two hours from Kigali, Musanze is easily reachable by public bus or taxi. Buses regularly leave the Nyabugogo bus terminal between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
- Cost: $75 permits must be purchased from the Rwanda Development Board in advance.
- Where to stay: In Musanze. For the upmarket crowd, check out the newly completed and internationally recognized Bisate Lodge. For midrange and budget travelers, look at Red Rocks Campgrounds and Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel.
- When to go: Dry season! December to Feburary and June to September will all but guarantee you clear blue skies.
- Other activities nearby: Spend a day visiting the spectacular twin lakes, or head to the town of Gisenyi on nearby Lake Kivu. In Volcanoes National Park, other activities include hiking Mount Muhabura, Mount Karisimbi, trekking with gorillas, trekking with golden monkeys and hiking to Dian Fossey’s grave.