Hiking Kisoro, Uganda, most amazing experiences I’ve ever had

Uganda - The Volunteer Life - By Karen Graaff:

Hiking Kisoro, Uganda, most amazing experiences I’ve ever had

So end of week 5

Time seems to be picking up pace here, and I’m already almost halfway through everything, which is totally crazy!

We went hiking this past weekend in the south-west of Uganda in a place called Kisoro, in the Mgahinga nature reserve (where a lot of people do gorilla tracking) – it’s on the border with both Rwanda and DRC. Because it was just so super-duper amazing, I haven’t even got as far as doing the usual summary, so if you don’t want to hear millions of superlatives and over-the-top adjectives about the hike, you may as well just stop here!

The whole weekend was just the craziest most ridiculous adventure!! 4 of the volunteers here went – me, Kristin (my favourite germo-phobe Canadian); Sophie (from the US); and Tara, our new volunteer from Australia. Joanna was supposed to come, but had to take Maureen to the hospital last week, and has been there since. – we were all pretty bummed she couldn’t make it L

So we headed into Kampala super early on Friday morn (bus due to leave at 6am!!) – we were there by 5:15, and in a weird shocking break with tradition, the bus actually left EARLY – this is Africa, that NEVER happens! Either way, we were pretty excited, cuz we thought it might mean we’d get there early too – was due to be a 12hr bus trip, so the sooner it gets done, the better! As was to be expected, the bus had windows that didn’t close, and pretty much non-existent skokbrekers (shock-absorbers, for those of you not in the Afrikaans know!) so it wasn’t exactly a smooth, warm ride, but was pretty beautiful scenery as we trundled along. We crossed the equator on the way past Masaka, but it was still dark, and we were asleep!

We were making pretty good time, until we got to Kabale – the last biggish town before you get to Kisoro (which is literally just a village). At Kabale, we were all ordered off the bus and into a mini-bus taxi. Not exactly comfort personified – there were 25 of us squashed into a vehicle intended for 14!!! I had numerous elbows and knees poking into my back, along with only 1 butt-cheek on a chair! Oh, and let’s not forget the 2 chickens that were also crammed in! We then took off on the most ridiculous windy narrow muddy mountain roads to get out to Kisoro – pretty nerve-wracking, plus they were busy doing construction on the roads, so tons of trucks and loose gravel, while in a taxi which also did not exactly have the best road-holding or skokbrekers!!! Suffice to say, the ride was not the most comfy thing ever! Also, we got ripped off by the bus driver, who told us it would only be 10,000 UGX (Ugandan shillings) – it was 12,000; and the taxi conductor threatened to keep our luggage if we didn’t pay! He also evicted a woman with a baby in the middle of nowhere cuz she couldn’t pay either – victim of the same dodgy bus driver! 2hrs later, we finally got to Kisoro, and nearly died with happiness when we were met by our favourite guy – Innocent (dude from the hostel we were staying at). We got picked up in a pretty beat-up old Land Rover, which was pretty much luxury compared to what we’d been in before!! We were excited J

Then another 30min drive up some of the worst dirt roads I’ve ever seen to get to our accommodation – for the record, Land Rovers can do ANYTHING – I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about them! Our hostel was awesome tho – cool little dorm rooms, and we got a coal stove to keep us warm in there at night (it was pretty nippy in Kisoro, thanks to all the rain and the altitude). The main common room also had a huge wood fire, which was amazing!! Food was also awesome and, since we were the only people staying there, we could pretty much do as we liked J

Saturday morning we headed out pretty early (around 7am) to start hiking – important note: I even managed to get cereal and milk for breakfast, which is super rare here! We hardly ever get dairy (no fridges, so no place to keep it) so I get dairy cravings pretty often. Everyone else was ordering omelettes or French toast – I just wanted a bowl of cereal J

Our hostel was just outside the gate of the national park, so we just wandered up the road, met up with out guide (Ismail) and two gun-carriers (apparently there’s a lot of buffalo in the park, so they have 2 guys with guns for every party that goes out – thankfully we didn’t see any!!!) and we headed out. There’s 3 peaks in the park – Muvahura (the highest); Mgahinga (the smallest); and Sebinyo – the one we decided to climb. About 3600m. What they didn’t tell us is that Sebinyo is the most difficult hike, but never mind – we probably wouldn’t have changed our minds anyway! The big drawcard of Sebinyo is that it’s on the border between Rwanda and Uganda, and on the top of the last peak (you go up 3 peaks), you simultaneously stand in DRC, Uganda and Rwanda – pretty awesome idea, right??

Anyways, so we start out walking through a giant swamp (ah yes, who had the bright idea of going hiking in the rainy season – but since I always seem to get my shoes wet anyway, it seemed pretty fitting for me!) – basically we all ended up totally muddy and wet, cuz it was impossible to avoid every mud-trap. All the guides were wearing gum-boots so they were OK – would’ve been great if they’d mentioned that to us!!! So after about an hour of trekking through a bog, our guide says “OK, now we start to climb”. Epic. The first peak was pretty tough – quite steep, and you start to feel the effects of altitude near the top. You also have to climb some ladders on the way up (should’ve warned us of the impending doom to come, but more on that in a minute), so it’s quite hard walking. We ended up split up into two – me and Kristin mostly walked together, with one of the gun-guys; while Sophie, Tara, Ismail, Innocent (who tagged along) and the 2nd gun-guy walked together.

We got to the top of the 1st peak in about 3hrs, pretty exhausted! And, in what became the trend of the day, it was totally cloudy, so you couldn’t see a thing! After a while the clouds cleared a bit, and you could see down into both Rwanda and Uganda. What an awesome, beautiful view!!! Everytime I looked out, I just couldn’t quite get my head around what an amazing concept it was – and the scenery was just epically stunning anyway – super steep drops on both sides, heading down into these beautiful vast pleins in amongst more massive mountains – the hills were way steep, covered in jungle-like vegetation, with clouds rolling by to make it look kinda ominous! Very Gorillas in the Mist (this is actually the area where Diane Fossey was based – on the Rwandan side – when she was doing her work with gorillas). You could totally imagine these giant gorillas swinging through the trees just below us – so awesome!!!

After awesome lunch (ham and cheese with crackers – all pretty rare here, so totally exciting treats!) we headed off again. You first go down a little way the side of the 1st peak, then head up the 2nd. The path down the 1st peak is way way steep, with more steep ladders. You walk along a super narrow little path, with massive drops on each side, and it was beautifully muddy thanks to all the rain (which had briefly started up again). So it was pretty hairy walking. Didn’t make it much easier when it turned out that 2 in our group had pretty serious height phobias!! But like the awesome troopers they are, they made it up and down this crazy mountain in one piece, with only minimal panic-attacks and tears ;)

So up the 2nd peak, and again it’s just really steep and narrow – I don’t even have a height problem, and it was pretty intense! Then you have to climb up these rickety old wooden ladders, that basically look like they’re attached to the mountain by spit – you can’t see any bindings or fastenings, and it’s not like there’s any rock to bolt them into – it’s all mud and plants! But, best not to think about it too much, suck it up, and climb! Quite an experience when you look down between your feet on a ladder, and realize if you slip, you can fall a loooooong way down into either Rwanda or Uganda!!!

The 2nd peak took us another hour; and again just the most amazing beautiful scenery on all sides – the vegetation and surroundings in that area are completely different to what we get in Bulenga, so it was such an awesome experience! What was really weird is that you can actually see a difference between the 2 countries, even from that distance. Rwanda has had a whack more foreign aid pumped into it (can anyone say Western guilt??) so it’s a lot more developed and built up than Uganda. From the top, you can just see really neat organized farms and proper brick homes, with tarred roads. Uganda – lots of haphazard little farm plots, dirt roads, and people living in tiny little stone or mud houses. Really weird. BUT in that part of Uganda, because it’s all in amongst the mountains and really steep, they’ve worked out a system of tiered farming, where they make tiers on all the hill-sides – so all the hills are covered in these really precise horizontal lines demarcating all the different farms – it’s a really awesome effect to look at. Plus, a lot of hills and mountains in those areas are old volcanic craters, so they tend to be hollow on top, or at least have a biggish dip at the top – again, a cool effect! When I finally get back to quick, functional internet, there are gonna be a LOT of photos posted!!!

Then onto the 3rd peak – much of the same, only way more hairy!! This time we had to go up way more ladders, some of them about 30 or 40 rungs high, and again, seemingly held onto the mountain by sheer belief! It also started raining, so the ladders were pretty slippery. It was really scary, and it took a lot of deep breaths and concentration (only on the ladder, not the surroundings) to get up at all! But at the top…. Oh man, so so so worth it!

What an awesome idea – standing at the point where 3 countries meet, and being able to look down into them from that amazing height. It was pretty emotional (I think there were a fair share of tears going around, including from yours truly!) just at the achievement of getting 4 mildly- to semi-fit girls (some with height phobias) up a completely intense, pretty dangerous mountain! Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in on cue, and then, to add to the delight, we got rain and HAIL! Yes, it started to hail on us. Awesome! (As an aside, what was even funnier – I could get cellphone reception at the top, so was able to send some sms’s! Maybe we were getting 3 countries’ signal!)

Anyways, so we cut short celebrations on the top, and started the trip down – basically, you go down the way you go up, so we had to get down and up all 3 peaks again; and then do our awesome hour-long swamp trek at the bottom!

So we start out in the rain – again, slippery ladders (had a few intense moments when my foot slipped off the rung; and when I looked down and couldn’t see the next rung below me – could just see cloud, and some really steep hills!) and the rain and hail was making all our hands freezing, so none of us could grip all that well!

We had a pretty bad scare, when Tara slipped off the path, and was actually hanging off the side of the mountain! Again, like the trooper she is, she basically just swung her leg back up and kept going! But it was definitely an adrenalin moment!

Getting down was basically just a really long slog. It rained a lot of the time, and was pretty tough going down really steep slippery hillsides – trying to keep your footing, as well as shield your knees, was not all that easy. It took us a really long time – 7hrs up, and another 6 down – so by the time we got to the bottom of the mountain, it was already dark! We then had another hour walking in the dark through our favourite mud-swamp – part of it goes through a bamboo forest, so it was pretty much pitch-black and we only had 1 head-torch and one cellphone with a torch! Not quite sufficient for 8 of us! Either way, we sludged away down, basically giving up the hope that we’d get anywhere even vaguely dry or clean – we all just walked straight through deep mud patches, cuz there was no way to avoid it! I nearly lost my shoes twice in knee-deep mud! Mom, dad and Simon – remember the vertical bog on Mt Kenya? A lot like that!!! Only in the dark!

About 20mins from the bottom, we got met by a bunch of the guides from the visitor centre, who came to bring us torches to help us down – apparently we took longer to finish the walk than any other group ever has! It’s supposed to be an 8hr round-trip – we took 13hrs!! Good to be famous for something!! ;) We were then super glad that we stayed so close to the park – out the gate, turn right, collapse next to the fire place! We were all super cold and wet, so we all snuggled up next to it for the next 3hrs, moving only to eat, and have warm showers – absolute bliss!! Then we all passed out!

The next day, we took it super easy – we were all pretty stiff, and it just pissed with rain all day, so we all set up camp next to the fire, and spent all day getting our clothes, shoes and bags dry from the hike! The people at the backpackers were really awesome, and we hung out with them a lot during the day. The surroundings were also beautiful, so we all just read, took photos and chilled all day J

Sunday night, Sophie and I were taking the bus back to Kampala – Tara and Kristin stayed on to do gorilla tracking. We headed back down to the bus-stop – again, on some of the worst roads known to man, and had to help not 1 but 2 trucks out of the mud! We pulled the one out of a majorly deep rut (the truck was literally in mud deeper than its own wheels!) and then pushed another truck clear after that! Again, Land Rovers are amazing!!!

The bus drive was, predictably, another adventure all in itself! About 20mins outside Kisoro (again, after racing round hairpin bends on amazingly steep dirt roads), the bus breaks down, with much smoke and smell of burning. We end up waiting 2 hrs for a mechanic (from Kisoro – less than 20mins away) to get there and fix whatever the problem was. We start chatting to the driver and one of the other passengers, which was cool since we had so much time! Eventually we get up and moving again, but it turns out the problem has only been temporarily fixed, and it means we have to stop every 20-30mins to pour more water into the engine, and wait for the smoke to stop! But the drive back was beautiful – the scenery is way dramatic, with steep drops down next to the road into the valleys with the tiered farming, and the moon was super bright, so you could see it all in that slightly eerie moonlight!

After 5hrs, we finally trundle into Kabale (remember, it should only be a 2hr drive), and then have to switch buses for our next 8hr trip back to Kampala!! So not impressed with life! The bus was really full, and the only available seats were next to windows that either didn’t close properly, or had only 1 pane in a 2pane window! So we head off, freezing cold and wrapped in our sleeping bags and all our clothes. After about an hour, the window pane falls right out of its frame – we get it fixed, it falls straight out again, and eventually breaks in half on some old woman’s head! Around this time (roughly 2:30am) Sophie and I finally pull mzungu rank, and go and grab seats way up front of the bus, trying to get some sleep! We FINALLY got back to our little swamp around 8:30am the next morning – 13hrs later – stiff, disoriented, and exhausted! But despite all of it, I think it really was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. Even if the scenery and surroundings hadn’t been as beautiful and impressive, the difficulty and stamina it took all of us to get up that mountain would’ve been enough. But for me, the feeling of standing on that mountain peak, looking down into 3 countries after a 7hr hike was just mind-boggling.

Even after almost 5 pages of typing, I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice!

That said, I realize everyone must be thoroughly sick of this by now, so I’ll stop here!!

In super quick updates: most of the schools are about to start exams, so we’re gearing up some holiday programmes for the next few weeks. We got another 2 volunteers this past week; another 1 leaves on Friday; and Sophie leaves next Wednesday, which is going to be a major blow to a lot of people in the village here – seriously, Sophie is more at home here than most locals!! So that’ll leave a pretty big gap! Otherwise, life ticks on in its usual merry way J Oh, and internet connection is FINALLY back up, but predictably still ridiculously slow, so I am in slightly better touch, but not by much!!!

So love to all – send me news, as always!

Written and contributed by Karen Graaff via Global Volunteer Network
www.volunteer.org.nz