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Each of these mountains in the Virunga chain has its uniqueness so tempting to any hiker to end up yearning to make it to their respective summits. Mount Bisoke particularly has a spectacular crater lake at the summit, so large and is the biggest in the Virunga mountain ranges. Midway to its summit is another crater lake called Ngezi. This was formed after the eruption that occurred in 1957, the last one so far. Inexperienced hikers and those of advanced age usually take a shorter hike upto this Crater Lake without reaching the summit. The lush bamboo forests on the slopes of Mount Bisoke are a great habitat to the endangered Mountain Gorillas, one of the most treasured tourist attractions for Rwanda and Gorilla trekking being the most sought after tour in Rwanda.
Also called Visoke, Mount Bisoke is a dormant volcano in the Virunga Mountain chain shared between Rwanda and Congo. The biggest part of this 3,711m high volcano plus its summit lies with in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Its summit is filled with fog not snow. Bisoke is a Swahili word meaning soaked in water. Perhaps the name was coined by the locals due to the fact that Bisoke’s summit is covered by a large crater lake, the biggest in the Virunga ranges. Midway to the summit of Bisoke is Lake Ngezi, another crater lake on this volcano. With these crater lakes, the locals quickly named it a mountain soaked in water and hence the name Bisoke or Visoke.
The hike to the summit takes 6 hours round trip. It is 4 hours for the ascent and 2 hours for the descent but experienced hikers can do it in a relatively shorter time. Since Bisoke hike takes less than a day, it becomes a quickest alternative for other interesting activities to combine with Gorilla trekking in this park. To most visitors, Volcanoes National Park is mainly for Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkey trekking. Bisoke hike is usually done as a supplement to Gorilla trekking for which the park is most popular. The Volcanoes hosted by the park (Bisoke, Karisimbi, Gahinga, Muhavura and Sabinyo), have turned it into a famous mountain climbing destination as well. Except Karisimbi hike that requires 2 days, the rest can be hiked in a day.
Hiking Mount Bisoke in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
Converge at the park headquarters at Kinigi to register as visitors and attend the usual briefing that prepares you for the hike. Kiningi is not the hike starting point, you will have to drive for some 40 minutes on a bumpy road for the most part before meeting the rangers and porters who are stationed at the trek starting point. These are experienced park staff with a wealth of knowledge about the park as a whole and Bisoke in particular. They know the park like at the back of their hands so feel free to interact with them, bug them with a lot of questions and in doing so, you will be getting to know more about the park, other Virunga Volcanoes and the Kinyarwanda culture.
It’s at the trek starting point that you separate with your driver to join your guides and the rangers who provide you with walking sticks, take you through another simple briefing plus agreeing on the pace at which you can move. Kindly hire a porter to assist you during the hike. In this very spirit, you will be contributing to the peaceful existence of the park and the surrounding communities. Porters are the local people from the park’s adjacent areas and are well trained by Rwanda Development Board.
Bisoke hike involves 2 major trails. The major and most popular is the longer one for 6 hours that takes you upto the main crater lake at the summit while the short one involves reaching Lake Ngezi which is located midway to the summit. A hike upto Lake Ngezi is a nice option to mostly the non-seasoned hikers who may wish to atleast have an experience of taking up the Virunga hiking challenge but can’t manage the unrelenting uphill hike of 6 hours. The shorter trek to Lake Ngezi takes 3 hours, round trip.
At about 2700m above sea level, you will be starting off the Bisoke hike, but just outside the park. You are to cross to the park through a stone wall after like 10 minutes. The stone wall was constructed to guard animals from crossing to the communities and farmlands while at the same time restrict/stop community encroachment/trespassers to the park land. The first ascent is through farmlands and local communities which is usually a cultural encounter in one way or the other. Generally, the hike to the summit is through muddy trails which become worse especially after heavy rains. Regardless of the season, just know rains are a usual occurrence this being a high altitude region so you have to attempt the hike with appropriate foot wear and rain gear at all times.
Right from the start upto the summit, Bisoke hike is an interesting one though abit challenging. Apart from the great scenic views, you will be rewarded with encounters of the different flora and fauna inhabited by Volcanoes National Park. Bisoke is an entirely green volcano with mainly 3 vegetation zones; Hagenia forest, sub-alpine and alpine. Its wealth of forests and other vegetation is a suitable habitat for Mountain Gorillas, forest elephants, buffaloes, Golden monkeys, many birds, among others. During the hike, it is possible to stumble upon Gorillas and Golden monkey troops. However, you are not allowed anything beyond 2 minutes before them because it will then be unfair to the visitors who paid a whooping US$1,500 to particularly track them. Also don’t take it into yourselves that you will have to find them, it’s only by chance.
‘The higher one goes, the cooler it becomes’…so goes the saying. You will notice a gradual fall in temperature as you approach the summit so a polar fleece jumper and rain jackets become very useful. Atop the Bisoke summit, you are treated to great mountain views of Mikeno in Congo and the closer Karisimbi which lies with in Rwanda and Congo. With clear/sunny weather, the view of the Crater Lake is majestically beautiful. The summit is surrounded by beautiful alpine vegetation. All these give you a feeling of being away from the rest of the world. Very relaxing!
How long you stay at the summit before descending largely depends on the weather for that day. Ofcourse, you can stay upto 30 minutes and even have a picnic at the summit on a clear/sunny day while the dull weather can not let you stay even 10 minutes there. Sometimes temperatures could be too low to bear with or in anticipation of afternoon rains, it could be wiser to leave early. Except for the mud, the descent is relatively easier and only takes a couple of hours. You will get to your waiting car at the base and drive back to the lodge or to your next destination.
More information about the Bisoke hike:
- The trek starts early at 7.00am with a briefing at Kinigi park headquarters. The actual starting point is outside the park at Musanze some 40 minutes away from the park headquarters. First report to the park offices for registration, briefing and clearance before driving to the trek starting point.
- It is a day hike and the permit is at US$75 which includes the park guide but not the porter. The hike only starts in the morning with no other sessions in the day. Permits can be secured in advance or on the day of the trek. A porter is hired at $10 per day.
- Consider these for your packing list:
- Good hiking shoes to manouver through the muddy and (sometimes) slippery trail.
- Long hiking pants and shirts/tops to protect your body from the stinging nettles. These can itch at even a slightest contact with the skin and their effects can be beyond the swellings you get after the itches.
- Woollen gloves, head gear and rain coats plus a fleece jacket for the cold summit shouldn’t miss on the list.
- A small back pack to carry your packed lunch and water.
- The fact that Mount Bisoke slopes harbour Mountain Gorillas, please do not sign up for the hike in anticipation of finding the Gorillas. You can only bump into them by chance and it is very rare.
- Be aware of the heavy deployment at/around the park. Also you will be accompanied by some armed park rangers during the hike. These are for protection incase you come across poachers, the aggressive wild animals like buffaloes, elephants and wild Gorillas.
- Jungle Escape Africa can arrange your Bisoke hiking trip and it can be a 1 day, 2 day, 3 day or even longer. You can combine Bisoke hike with Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes Park of Rwanda or in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park. Suggesting Bwindi for Gorilla trekking is because permits are cheaper in Uganda than in Rwanda so we can design an itinerary starting in Rwanda for the Bisoke hike, cross over to Uganda for the Gorilla trek and return to Rwanda. This can be a 3 or 4 day trip.
- Although Bisoke hike can be done throughout the year, the best time would have been the dry season (January to March and July to mid October) when the trails are relatively drier.
- Some level of physical fitness is required for any hike however easy it may seem. Bisoke hike is doable to even the inexperienced hikers, nonetheless.