I have always been keen on outdoor activities, so one cloudy Saturday morning, I joined a group of hikers to climb Mount Muhabura.
We set off from Kigali at 5am, for the nearly hour and half drive to Musanze and then Kinigi, home of the Volcanoes National Park and Mt Muhabura.
At the park’s visitors’ centre we had breakfast and were issued with the permits for entering the park and hiking.
Mt Muhabura is famous for gorilla trekking, hiking, and the Dian Fossey primate centre.
We were assigned tour and armed guides for the hike and we set off. Mt Muhabura is an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains and straddles the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. It is 4,127 metres above sea level and the second highest mountain in Rwanda.
The name Muhabura means ‘‘the guide’’ in Kinyarwanda.
I soon learnt why Mt Muhabura is considered a difficult hike — its down to its steepness and the fact that hikers are expected to finish the roundtrip before sunset. It is a one-day round trip.
We started off 9am under scorching sun; just 20 minutes into the trek, I was drenched in sweat under my leather jacket. And this was before we had reached the base of the mountain. An hour later we assembled at the base for debriefing by the head guide.
We had four hours to get to the summit, by 2pm. If anyone was not going to make it by then, they were advised to start their descent to the starting point. The idea was to be off the mountain before sunset.
The head guide assigned eight soldiers, one guide and two porters to accompany us. As we climbed, the group split into two, the pacesetters who were accomplished hikers at the front, and the laggards behind. You can guess which group I belonged to.
As we climbed higher the trail got steeper and harder. Soon we were gasping and out of breath. We had to rest after every 50 steps. My leather jacket became heavier with every step under the hot sun.
At one point, we had to rest after every 20 steps. It was a physical and mental test. I didn’t think I had it in me to keep going, and with every step I took I became desperate to get to the top. This was my undoing as I became completely exhausted and had to rest for 10 minutes after each 50 steps.
By the time we got to the first rest stop, called the ‘‘The Restaurant,’’ I was beat. It was 1pm, which meant I was time-barred for the summit, which was two hours away. My knees were aching, I had been stung by a bee on my way up and since we were 3,700 metres above sea level, it was now freezing and the wind was threatening to blow me away.
We took solace in the breathtaking views from The Restaurant of the Virunga Mountains and the twin lakes of Ruhondo and Burera.
After resting for about half an hour, we began the descent. I thought climbing down would be a walk in the park. It proved to be a lot harder; my knees began to ache and my toes were throbbing.
I had worn normal sport shoes rather than hiking boots, and with the wet and slippery trail, I slipped and slid one too many times. The soldiers had to support me all the way down.
The soldiers, guides and porters were unfazed by the physical exertion even as I cursed with every step.
I was neither mentally nor physically prepared for this hike. Descending hurt my knees as I was constantly braking and digging my heels into the rocks and mud. By the time, we got back to base, it was almost 5.30pm and we had to wait another hour for the pacesetters to get down.
This was the hardest physical thing I have ever done. It’s not as easy as it seems on National Geographic. The hike took nine hours, from 8.30pm to 6.30pm. Almost all of us passed out in exhaustion on our way back and my body was sore for two days.