There, in a guesthouse at the base of the Virunga mountains, I had great trouble sleeping. I was worried about my friend, who had fallen ill that evening after the bus ride from Kigali. This, in turn, made me anxious about the approaching early morning. Hayley and I had planned to hike up to Dian Fossey’s research station for mountain gorillas, Karisoke, where she is now buried after being murdered in 1985. However, Hayley was too sick for hiking, so I would have to go alone. Not that I mind doing travel activities by myself, but there was the issue of transportation. To get to the base of the trail, one has to rent a 4×4 at the rate of $80 per car. I would have to find someone willing to share.
I breakfasted while it was still dark and my worries intensified. Looking around at the other guests, I felt like an anomaly. I was the only loner I could see. The organized groups around me chattered in excitement about seeing mountain gorillas, for which they had each paid $500 for a permit. Not I. There I was, with little money and even fewer concrete plans (in fact, an impromptu trip to Burundi was on the horizon). I tried to swallow my eggs as best I could.
Fog rolled around in the cool morning air as I tramped my way down the road to the Parc National des Volcans office to purchase my permit before 7am and figure out what the hell I’d be doing. I nervously waited in line behind a group of four Spaniards who purchased permits to do a day climb of Bisoke, one of the Virunga volcanoes. My turn came and I approached the desk. No, no one else was planning to go to Dian Fossey’s grave today, unless someone else showed up.
Well, I couldn’t give up. I took a breath and approached the Spaniards. Luckily, two of them spoke decent English, because at this point my Spanish was next-to-nothing. Yes, I must join them to climb Bisoke! Of course I could share their vehicle! There was no need for me to be alone! I turned back to the park official at the desk and bought the Bisoke permit instead.
Travel is wonderful, you see, because you meet some of the best people from all over. People who are generous and curious. People who are willing to embrace others. Cliques are relatively few. Travelers are by default friends, rather than strangers.
We reached the trailhead, disembarked, and were joined by other hikers, porters, and armed guards. Yes, armed! We needed protection against the cape buffalo lurking in the jungle (in all seriousness, these guys can be very dangerous). We plodded along a gently sloping dusty path through farmland until we reached the buffalo fence, which keeps animals from getting into the crops. We entered the park and the trek began.
Bisoke, which straddles the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is 12,175 feet high and the path, rough and muddy, steeply ascends through the jungle. It is wonderful that parks like this exist to protect species such as the endangered mountain gorilla, and to hopefully provide a source of revenue from the people in the area—money that can provide alternatives to poaching income. The dense jungle seemed primordial in this otherwise very densely populated country. This wild feeling was intensified by the necessity to be on the lookout for stinging nettles, which I brushed against several times during my upward scramble.
Since I hadn’t anticipated this kind of hike, I was woefully dressed. I carried my clunky camera bag across my shoulder. I stumbled in ever-muddying jeans. Worst of all, in addition to being a bit short, my inflexible pants limited my ability to step upward and, after falling in the mud a few times, a guide began giving me a tug up to compensate for my limited leg-reach.
At last we reached the tree line and scrub predominated, spurring an exhausted me onward since now the summit was near. And indeed, we were soon overlooking the crater lake, shrouded in a layer of fog. My Spaniard friends, ever generous, shared their food and coffee with me, and then even their clothes, for after we stopped moving we cooled down quickly in the misty altitude and I, unprepared, had nothing warm to put on.
We descended the mountain, half jogging, half slipping down the muddy path with thunder echoing threateningly. In the 4×4 on the way back to the permit station, my newfound buddies refused payment for my portion of the vehicle costs. No, not even money for a drink tonight! “We will drink, but to your salud!” Instead, I managed to share some gum that I had until then forgotten in the bottom of my bag.
And then I was on the back of a moto taxi, whizzing back into the town of Ruhengeri to meet Hayley where she had been in a hospital getting checked out, and was now, luckily, feeling better. Sitting on the back of the bike, I didn’t quite want the ride to end. I wanted to move fast, as I had been all day, without truly going anywhere. I didn’t feel finished with this place. My departure from my newfound, big hearted buddies seemed abrupt, as parting from travel friends often does. Travel bequeaths an intensity difficult to find elsewhere, as you’re thrown into unfamiliar places, colliding with new people only to be soon severed from them. The tree branches flashed by overhead as the moto sped along.