Mt. Muhabura: Incredibly demanding but enormously rewarding!

How thrilling it always is to spend time and share ambience in the home of Mountain Gorillas, the mighty mist, the endless Hagenia, and the rare Golden Monkeys, but this time for a rather tough hiking adventure!

Mt. Muhabura (4137m above sea level) is one of the eight mountain peaks in the Virunga Mountains National Park, the others being Mghahinga (3474m), Sabinyo (3699m), Karisimbi (4506m), Nyamuragira (3056m), Musoka (3711m), Mikeno (4437m) and Nyiragongo (3470m). That makes Muhabura, the 3rd highest peak in the Virunga only after Karisimbi and Mikeno. The Virunga is one of the most interesting ecological places on earth being the single home to the largest number of Mountain Gorillas on this planet and with some of the most active volcanoes – Nyamuragira being one of them. The Virunga is shared geographically by the countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Because of her free standing elevation, Mt. Muhabura was always used as travels and explorers for navigation and that’s where it got her name – Muhabura – a local word in the Kinyarwanda-Kifumbira dialects meaning ‘source of direction’. And that is practically very true because the mountain can be seen from far distances in many parts of Rwanda, western Uganda, and Eastern Congo. In fact, our curiosity to hike this mountain was inspired by the stunning view we enjoyed at dawn from the South Western District of Kabale, and the mountain raised her head above every other feature franked by the dotted Bunyonyi archipelago and we vowed we would step on her top.

1974061_674817695914019_1578979241_oMt. Muhabura appears as a dome at dawn in its cradle on our earlier visit to Lake Bunyonyi, the scene that inspired this adventure!

I traveled on the 4th of July 12, 2014 from Kigali – where I had been to attend the Pan African Youth Conference – with Daniel, we moved through the Northern Rwandan town of Musanze (where we enjoyed an early wide of Muhabura, Mghahinga and Sabinyo) and headed for the south western Ugandan town of Kisoro through the border post at Kyanika reaching at about 7:30 PM. We would later be joined by our hiking crew from Kampala led by Jojothetraveler and another crew from Kabale led by our friend Edwin Ashaba. So we are now about 20 hikers in Kisoro at about 9pm, we grab a bite at a local restaurant (I had had enough roasted maize on the roadside so I was already covered when it came to food) and we retire to our camping site. The tents and sleeping bags had been brought by Michael Otti of Uganda On Foot Safaris and I personally had one of the most comfortable nights. At 5:30am the morning of 5th, we go through a light breakfast and grabbed a light packed lunch at the local restaurant dabbed “Serena” and we head for the starting points.

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One group opted for Sabinyo as we dared Muhabura. On our way to the starting points, we used every slightest opportunity to jump out of our vehicle and grab the best shots of the peaks at dawn. With the sun rising over them, the scenes were spectacular! Every second gone gives a different perspective so you literally have to “steal” every shot to capture some of the most amazing pictures.

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At the UWA starting point, we get some quick briefing and paid the hiking fees (we were never given any receipt though for the money we paid, which was close to 500,000sh!) and at about 8am the long day trek to the 4137m peak begins. One of our hike-mates – Dr. Omulondo, sets his own pace at a terrible speed, some rare hiking pace that surprised everyone, so he goes alone. But the rest of us set our own pace as we move through the rain forest at the lower part of the mountain, telling all sorts of funny stories, the energy is still consistent. It’s beginning to get colder and people are covered in their hoods, scarves, gloves and warn cardigans and we quickly reach the first resting hut at …m above sea level. The vegetation is gradually changing with no clear cut and with Edwin setting the pace, we go through the longest and one of the most demanding parts of the mounting – the afro-montane stretch – with falling rocks all over, we keep moving with the hope of seeing the 2nd resting hurt in vain. The ranger guide keeps assuring us that it’s near but near is never to come. Some people are practically running out of energy to go on, but we are all determined to make it so they keep moving. With a backpack weighing about 8kg on my back, my pace is consistent; I am overly convinced that this is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. With numerous quick rests by most of the hikers, we finally make it to the 2nd resting hut. It’s about midday now and people are practically worn out, its freezing cold and some hikers are beginning to suffer from noisier.

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After a short rest and each of us grabbing a bite on our packed lunch, Edwin commands us to get moving gain. Remember, we have to get to the peak and remain with enough to trek down before dark. The journey looks tougher, the temperatures are dropping every other second that passes, the hanging rocks instill some fear, the vegetation itself is very strange, but it’s all part of the price. We are now moving at different paces, some hikers are really struggling but sure, I follow the footsteps of Edwin who was the most consistent of us all. We get signs that the peak is not very far but it’s getting much tougher, I personally feel much drained for the first time but my spirit and bravado are very strong as negative thoughts begin to set in. Remember, I am also the source of inspiration to many people behind me so I can’t submit I am doing badly. We climb up the wooden ladders literally crawling and I choose to take a quick rest after that. Edwin is calling and I am struggling to whistle as a form of giving energy to the rest of the crew behind. Some people are still very far so they can’t even hear my whistles but some are close and we soon meet the white couple (who had started the hike before us) trekking down and they assured us the peak was only minutes away. The lady was much encouraging when she voiced ‘if I can make it, you too can’. And indeed in a matter of less than 10 minutes, the sign post reading ‘peak’ welcomes us. But hey, this wasn’t actually the peak, it was only showing direction to the peak but it was much promising nevertheless.

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We proceed to the peak and indeed, it’s not any far from this sign post. The Crater Lake welcomes us; we quickly indulge in a photo fiesta to capture the memories making all sorts of triumphant signs. Only about 6 of us have made it by this time, the rest are still struggling behind, but one by one they make it to the peak. We eat our packed lunch, viewed the best of sceneries in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, Lake Mutanda is waving at us from a distance, the rest of the peaks now appear closer but covered in partial mist, the homesteads in the valleys appear ridiculously smaller almost like dots, an indication that we are very far from life, I am personally soaked in awe and wonder. To my surprise, there are birds of air subduing the mountain peak in the air. You wonder what they eat!

It is 3pm and we are getting late. Remember it took us over 6 hrs to make it to the top so we have to rush down as quickly as possible. As we begin to move down, we meet Owen, one of our crew, he had blacked out on the way and almost given up. The peak wasn’t far from where he was so we encourage him to gather energy and make it; some of us go back with him. As he waits at the peak taking shots, I slip into slumber. I was exhausted.

We soon begin our trek down, a journey that was equally harder and ridiculously longer. But it gave me the opportunity to muse at different forms of plants and vegetation types, capturing pictures at every point as we moved down the slopes. By 6:30pm, we have not made it to the UWA starting point.

At about 7pm, tired, bruised, hungry and some people angry, we made it down and we unanimously agreed that only mad people could do what we had just it. The price was too heavy to pay but the reward was with a commensurate value!

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