My Mount. Sabyinyo trip was a test of all senses.
Hiking an extinct volcano, making way through the thick undisturbed vegetation of one of Africa’s oldest forests and stomping past some of the oldest traits of African bushmen, gave me that “welcome home feeling”.
In the past, I had joked about how fun it would be to get stuck in a tropical rain forest; how cool it could be to be battered by the heavy natural forest rain. But like so many things, being abandoned in the jungle is easier desired than done.
The slippery and boggy trails, the steep terrain and wiggly wooden bridges; oh, the thoughts of bumping into a moody herd of forest buffalo! The wrecking sound of a nearby bush hiding a solitary untamed forest elephant; the paced heartbeats that this would cause, and the trembling of spirits it would bring, as you stood at his feet.
Combine these and you will have your perfect concoction of one of Africa’s toughest single-day hikes. Certainly not a game for the faint-hearted!
Rewinding 24 hours to the day before:
The group minibus had departed Kampala for Kisoro in Southwestern Uganda on Friday morning for the much-anticipated Mount Sabyinyo hike which was taking place the following morning at 08:00 AM. This 3-day escapade had been initially planned for September but was postponed to October because of the World Tourism Day celebrations.
Dang, it! I had pending tasks in the office and this meant I was stuck in Kampala. The earliest I could leave the office was 06:00 PM. But then I still had to rush home to pick up a backpack of essentials, mostly camera equipment.
I have for long had this vice of forgetting to pack a toothbrush and toothpaste on all those last-minute escapes. It wasn’t happening this time. I still had a couple of brushes and a tube of paste permanently sitting in the comfy side pocket of my travel bag from the previous trip. Well, your head gets pretty messed up as the years quantify.
With little time left I could not plan any private transportation, neither could I ring up the fine ladies and gentlemen of Aerolink for a discounted ticket on one of their scheduled flights to Kisoro.
An old friend of mine, “Charlie”, came to my rescue. He was trying to convince a few guys to join him for a journey by night-bus. Victoria was all hands-on deck when Charles inquired if I still had plans of joining the rest. How timely could this have been?
With my bag straddled around my back, my butt met with the dusty passenger seat on the old “jaj” (local slang for a Boda Boda motorcycle taxi) as we rode off towards the bus terminal.
“You guys know that Friday evening traffic in the city, boy does it spare no one; not even the often-indispensable motorbikes!”
With my face hidden between my fingers (oh God I am a sinner), we broke almost every traffic rule there was. From irresponsible hooting, riding on the pedestrian walkways, running red lights; it’s what you do in the rush hours… sometimes.
The doomed night seemed to start right away as I arrived late for the 08:00 PM target which my “partners in travel” had preferred to book. Who knew buses set off on time in Kampala?
On the brighter side, the traffic jam meant that even the bus could not move too fast. Reminds me of that old adage that “there’s good in every storm”.
“Don’t be a villager”, the unhappy bus operator mocked in vernacular, as he gestured me onto the relatively new bus. I guess if you can’t effortlessly jump onto a moving vehicle in Kampala, especially one moving at 5 Kmph, you get branded a villager. My self-esteem couldn’t help but plummet.
Then my heart began to race. “Jeez! I have no ticket. Where’s my ticket. I didn’t book. Oh no, not today!”
These were just some of the thoughts as I sheepishly looked at this questioning bus conductor. I made hasty checks for any signs of paper in all pockets but in vain. “What the heck!”
Once again to my rescue, Charlie had walked the aisle and handed me my ticket. Now I remembered I had actually booked.
Two empty seats close to the back of the bus were where I had been booked. Although I preferred the window seat, my long legs insisted that I choose the one next to the corridor.
Bright smartphone screens, “bongo fleva” music on the TV screens, some Muslim chap murmuring Arabic, and the rushing sound of wind beating against the bus windows kept me awake for the first half of the journey as we raced along the Kampala – Masaka Highway. I am not the kind to sleep through a road trip even in the night.
Along the way, we would pick up a noisy passenger who would take up the window seat and play some familiar radio tunes by David Lutalo and Gravity Omutujju on a loudspeaker.
Thank heavens I had the support from other passengers to get him to switch off his shiny Sony. It’s quite a test to sleep to sounds like “Parte after Parte”.
Travel tip for bus trips
“You have to tighten your thighs for a long journey as the next bathroom stop could be hours away. Only a few sips of water to keep you hydrated are recommended. Actually, nothing more than one bottle.”
Cheating death on the night bus
We went through Masaka town in record time and onto the Mbarara highway as the bus got even faster.
Then doom hit. The explosive sound of two rare tires and the piercing scent of roasted rubber.
I felt my spirit sink deep below my tummy; the silence that filled the bus pierced very deep. There were surprisingly not many wailings but the sound of a racing bus on a rubber-less rim overrode all human senses.
Most people must have been reciting the apostle’s creed or something, men held tight to the seats in front of them while mothers embraced their little ones.
Distress signals were everywhere as the driver struggled to bring the night-owl (bus) to a wrecking stop at a spot 18 kilometers to Mbarara town. We would live to see another day.
About 3 hours later our rescue arrived with a set of spare tires which would get us through the rolling hills of Kabale, the well-deserved “Switzerland of Africa”; arriving in Kisoro at about 10:45 AM on Saturday morning.
We were four hours behind schedule and there was no time for a proper breakfast. Tasty Chapatti and beans from Easy Foods-Kisoro, would do.
We hitched a ride (some rather beaten down saloon taxi) from Kisoro town a few minutes after the hour of 11:00 AM for less than an hour (about 15 kilometers) along a very bumpy road that led through villages and ended at the entrance to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Here the Mount. Sabyinyo hike and many other activities start.
Upon arriving, we were received and briefed by a team of four Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides, Benna, Ambrose, Rosette, and Kennedy. Extremely receptive, very knowledgeable.
Of course, we could not join the rest of the team that was already on the hike but were offered the alternative of trekking in the gorge between the Sabyinyo’s towering second and third peak. We would also meet some of the members descending prematurely from the mountain.
To have my heart in my stomach the entire while, seemed to be a usual feeling for most of the park’s visitors, the rangers revealed.
The hike through the different vegetation zones was indescribably entertaining. I loved the different vegetation zones, the mist over this unspoiled jungle, the waterfalls were like hidden treasures and the choral sounds of birds were heavenly.
The magnificent skyline that was formed by the three volcanic massifs, Muhavura (alias Muhabura), Gahinga, and Sabyinyo confirmed a statement by a friend of mine that flying over southwestern Uganda presents the most stunning aerial views on the continent.
We hiked until our path was broken by a seasonal waterfall. We could go no further and it was time to return to the base. Anyone who has done some serious hiking will tell you it is most challenging in the descent.
Our legs had had their test but Charles and I were determined to board the night bus back to Kampala. Yea I know we are crazy fellahs.
Seeing golden monkeys though from afar on our way down was the perfect cherry on this well-baked cake.
I will be back very very soon.
About the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park hike
Straddling the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a piece of gold and silver that forms part of the greater Virunga Conservation Area: one of Africa’s last remaining true wild places.
The park is Uganda’s smallest national park, covering a total land area of 33.7sqkm.
It is home to some of the individuals counted among the staggering population of (approximately 1000) mountain gorillas in the world
Its frontiers protect the shrinking community of Batwa pygmies, who put together an incredible trail rich in typical African bushman culture and history.
Most people visit this park in search of mountain gorillas, but we came to hike in one of its 3 extinct volcanoes, called Sabyinyo; said to be the toughest and steepest of them all.
3 Volcanic Mountains in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park:
The team that went ahead of us took on the hike which usually starts at 08:00 AM and lasts on average 4 hours to summit the 3rd peak and another 4 hours to descend.
The gorge hike, however, can last from anywhere ranging from 2 hours to even 4 hours or more depending on your fitness levels and how heavy it might have rained; and thus if the trails are passable.
The rates for all activities in the park are charged based on the prevailing UWA visitor tariff accessible here.
All the three mountains can be hiked in a single day, but have varying challenges and rewards. The hikes can easily be planned on ground at the park headquarters.
Mount. Sabyinyo (3634m), a name connoted from its appearance, translates from a local dialect to mean the gaps in an old Man’s teeth. It’s easy to see where the name Sabyinyo comes from, as the three peaks on the Ugandan side are jagged and similar in structure to teeth. Most visitors hike Sabyinyo (also called Sabinyo) because standing in the middle of its 3rd peak, explorers get to be in three countries (Uganda DR Congo and Rwanda) at the same time with no extra visa. Sabyinyo’s 4th and 5th peak are located on the Congo side while the 1st and 2nd peak are also in Uganda. The hikes in Mount. Sabyinyo can currently only take place on the Ugandan side.
Mount. Gahinga (3474m) gets its name from a local phrase that refers to a pile of stones. This is evident in the nature of the mountain’s terrain and the surrounding land that presents collections of volcanic rocks.
Mount. Muhavura (4127m) is the highest of the three and can also be hiked in a single day. Muhavura translates to refer to “a guide or something that shows direction”; actually this mountain can be spotted from miles away. The locals retell that Muhavura provided direction to travelers before modern times. Hiking to the top of this volcano opens up to a stunning crater lake hidden up in the clouds.
Recommended items to pack for the Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Muhavura Hikes:
• Safari clothes. A long-sleeved shirt and trousers are recommended.
• Strong hiking shoes. You can still hire a pair of gumboots from Uganda Wildlife Authority
• Knit cap
• Warm gloves
• A pair of Binoculars
• Camera and a spare battery with enough memory card space
• 1 liter of water is recommended
• Packed lunch and/or snacks
You can also read My Hiker’s Guide To Conquering Mountains In Uganda