Walking in Dian Fossey’s footsteps… Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

“When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what has past and concentrate on the preservation of the future” – Dian Fossey

A silver back sitting eating in the Volacnoes National Park, Rwanda

A silver back sitting eating in the Volacnoes National Park, Rwanda

It seemed fitting to finally trek and visit where Dian Fossey or Nyiramacyibili, as local Rwandans call her, had spent her days researching and working so hard to protect the mountain gorillas in Rwanda and neighbouring DRC and Uganda.

So a few days after our climb in the DRC we were meant to hike to the top of Bisoke to view the crater lake but with sore and tired legs we decided to take a smaller hike and visit Karisoke and the area Dian Fossey had spent so much time in working to protect the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Sunrise over Sabiyano Volcano

Sunrise over Sabiyano Volcano in the Virunga Volcano Range

We set off early in the morning ahead of the groups trekking to the Gorillas – hoping maybe we might stumble upon them first and have a wee glimpse at the great apes she had worked so hard to protect.

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Walking through farmland towards the park and Bisoke

“Little did I know then that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virungas I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries.”  — Dian Fossey, writing in her book “Gorillas in the Mist,” about the founding of the “Karisoke” Research Center, a name she created from the nearby Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke (Bisoke). 

There were signs along the trail that one of the Gorilla groups were near. We saw prints and fresh pooh but they stayed hidden from us amongst the forest and we were all hoping to catch a quick glimpse of them but it was not to be.

Gorilla prints fresh on the trail

Gorilla prints fresh on the trail

I can’t recommend this hike enough. I have been up into this range of mountains three times prior to this, each time on a different mountain and every time has been different in the trail and the experience. The jungle on this trek was nothing short of stunning throughout the hike, that alone and the views of the mountains (we did have an exceptionally clear day) were truly breath taking – along with knowing you were trudging the trail a true legend had many times before.

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Becoming at one with nature

At 2967 meters the trail splits, with the left branch leading to the grave site of Dian Fossey and the right climbing to the summit of Bisoke.

IMG_9808_thumbWe reached the area Dian Fossey and her team lived in worked in which was a  relatively flat area that was being reclaimed by the forest. There were many pieces of the old buildings still remaining in place and we could see why she had chosen such an amazing spot to live and protect the gorillas.

IMG_4990Dian Fossey spent 18 years in and out of the forest studying and trying to protect the Mountain Gorillas. She brought much attention to their plight and surely without her efforts they would certainly not be around today. In 1967 she founded Karisoke research centre – those two tents she first set up were the beginnings of a world known research centre. Sadly on December 27 in 1985 Dian Fossey was killed at the age of 54. There are many theories on her murder but it was never determined who killed her.

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Dian Fosseys grave – known to the people of Rwanda as Nyiramacyibili

The Gorilla graveyard was the final place we stopped at on our visit to the area. It was quiet and peaceful with beautiful light coming through the trees. Dian was laid to rest along one of her favourite gorillas Digit who she had met in 1967 but was brutally killed by poachers in 1977.

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Her beloved Digit’s gravesite right next to where Dian Fossey was laid to rest

Learn more about the Volcanoes National Park here and other treks you can do or visit Rwanda Tourism to learn more about activities in Rwanda.

To book your trek to visit and pay respects to Dian Fossey visit  contact reservation@rwandatourism.com

The trek costs $75 usd and you will need to have your own transport as you have to meet at the park head quarters in the morning and be transported across to the trek.

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Climbing Nyiragongo Volcano in DRC

I inched out of my damp sleeping bag that had been caught in the rain on the climb up the volcano. Even though my head was saying no, I couldn’t get comfortable with the thin ground mat and tent between me and the volcanic rock I was trying to settle in on. My head was thumping and I felt like crap but the rangers had called us out convinced we had to take a look. We crawled across the volcanic rock and up a few meters from our camping ledge and peered down… I instantly felt heat on my face, could hear the gas explosions below and was mesmerized by the sight in front of me, I hadn’t imagined this at all.

I had gazed up at the volcano seeing the golden glow in the sky late at night from Rwanda for a year before I managed to convince my friend Shannon to take a trip back with me to Rwanda and cross the boarder into DRC to make the climb up. I am not sure I mentioned we would be sleeping on volcanic rock on a small ledge and only meters from the craters edge… I’m not sure I really knew either but it was so worth the effort!

Shan DRC Nov 2010 136 copy

That was in October 2010 and now almost five years on I was back again to take on Mount Nyiragongo with more great friends. They asked how tough it was and I mentioned it must have been an easy climb as I couldn’t really remember it being a challenge. However, five years on, a bunch more kilos under the belt, age catching up on me and still not having got my act together following a broken ankle last year it was far from easy!

We were picked up from the boarder where Gisenyi (Rwanda’s most North western town) meets Goma at the top of Lake Kivu which boarders both countries. The crossing is simple once you have your paperwork for the DRC side (see information below in ‘how to’ section below) and make sure you bring your yellow fever certificate for DRC. The process took about 15 minutes and then we were met by Elie from Virunga Parks and taken to the office to sign in for the hike.

Park signs at the bottom of the trail

Park signs at the bottom of the trail – show a bit of wear and tear

Once we were signed in at the office we set off up the road towards Nyiragongo to meet up with the rest of the group and start the climb. The drive is about 30 minutes from Goma town and as we got closed the volcano started to appear. Mount Nyiragongo is Africa’s most active volcano standing at 3470m at the crater rim just North of Goma in the East of DRC. The volcano last erupted in 2002 causing large scale evacuation and destroying part of Goma town and the airport. All the roads around Goma bare signs of this with volcanic rock on every road you’re on.

Heading up the road towards the start of the climb

Heading up the road towards the start of the climb

By 11am we were ready to set off from the starting point at 1996m we had to climb to 3470m to the top. A group of fifteen tourists set off on the trail after a briefing from the guides and rangers. Most people had hired a porter who are readily available at the start of the trek (great to support the local community) between two of them carrying their packs and gear for the night. So with the rangers and porters we were close to 30 people.

Starting point at 1996m

Starting point at 1996m… only 1500m vertical to ascend. Nyiragongo rising up in the background.

The first section of the climb was through the bush

The first section of the climb was a very gradual climb through the bush

We took scheduled breaks along the way as each section of the climb changed in terms of vegetation and steepness. This also allowed the group to keep together and everyone to catch up. The pace our group had set was pretty fast at first and certainly slowed as we got to a higher altitude – my lungs were in my ears by the time we reached the last break.

Large section that was over rough volcanic rock

Then into a large section over rough volcanic rock and gradually got steeper after each break.

Nearing the final section

Rain came in for part of the climb and it cooled off

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Looking down

Looking back down towards Goma over the final steep section of volcanic rock

Once we reached the top, after about 5 and a half hours of climbing, we made a fast move into our cabin/ tent and changed out of our wet clothes. The temperature at the top was significantly cooler and we were feeling pretty rough from the last section of the climb so after having a brief look into the crater took a short nap. I won’t lie I felt like a new woman after sleeping even for just 30 minutes (I highly recommend it if you feel crappy when you get to the top).

Cabins at the top

Cabins at the top – home for the night.

View into the Crater from the top

View into the Crater from the top

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The main crater is about two kilometers in width

Groupie at the top

Groupie at the top

View into the crater

View into the crater at night – you can feel the head and see the larva bubbling

Amazing smell, sounds and views - mesmerising

Amazing smell, sounds and views – mesmerising

After a solid nights sleep of about 10 hours (everyone was in bed early) we started the decent. We started walking before 7am and were back down at the car park by 11am. I recommend you take a rain coat if you plan to do this trek no matter what time of year – about 15 minutes from the end of the trail the rain came in hard – we felt sorry for the people who were just starting to head up for the night as they were going to be drenched all day.

Heading back down

Heading back down – a steep decent from the top.

The trek back down

The trek back down

Printing some photos from the porters on my Polaroid printer

Spent some time taking photos and printing some photos from the porters on my Polaroid printer

So want to make the trip and want to know how and some TIPS?

I highly recommend the trek – its safe and you are well supported. Contact the Virunga Parks directly for advice they are helpful on email and respond quickly to questions.

What to take?

Food supplies…  You need to take food for lunch on the way up and dinner at the top. You will also need something from breakfast before you start the climb down early in the morning. We prepared some pasta for dinner pre-cooked so we didn’t need to buy coal and cook at the top (its way too cold to sit outside for too long). We also took a bunch of snacks to eat on the way up and down – so at each stopping point had a snack rather than a big meal.

Clothing wise. Its cold at the top and its likely to rain at some stage on the way up or down (we had rain both ways) so bring a jacket and cover for your bag. You need a change of clothes to put on at the top. I took a long sleeve thermal and large warm sweatshirt, beanie (woolen hat), long skin pants, long wooly socks. I also would have liked to have had gloves as it would have been more comfortable staying outside to watch the volcano at night.

Sleeping. There is a wooden hut with a tent inside for you to sleep in. Inside the tent has a good mat and pillow to sleep on. You need to bring your own sleeping bag. We were warm in our clothes and sleeping bags.

Shoes? It really depends on your preference and how strong your ankles are. We all wore trainers but there were some in hiking boots. I hate boots so my Asics running shoes did the trick for me and I had a broken ankle just last year. However, there is a huge amount of volcanic rock you have to walk on so make sure your shoes at least have good grip – I also used a walking stick (as did loads of others) which was really helpful on the way down.

Money for tips and other. Make sure you have small USD and make sure none of them have as much as a small nick in them. They won’t be accepted in DRC by anyone if they even have a tiny tear in them, so make sure you have recent notes and small denominations. You will need to pay a porter to carry your bag (trust me you want this – I’m pretty sure everyone in the group used someone) 12usd per day (24 total for the way up and back). You will also have at least 3 rangers with the group who deserve a  tip as well. Coal is 5usd a bag as is a walking stick you can get to use if you think you want either. The walking stick I ended up using and it was really helpful on the way down on the loose rock.

How do you do it?

Visit Virunga National Parks website that will talk you through everything. Permits for the climb and park including overnight at the top cost $250usd can all be booked online http://visitvirunga.org/treks/

Once you have your permit order number you will be able to apply for a DRC Visa (Valid for 2 weeks) for $105usd https://visitvirunga.org/visa/visa-application/

You will also need to book transport from Goma to Kibati (the start of the trek) which can be done online for $28usd per head (Again through Virunga National parks website)

You can stay in Gisenyi on Rwanda side and cross over the morning of your hike and leave the day you come down or stay in Goma to do some other activities – plenty of information on the website also. Crossing over at the boarder took about 20-30 mins either way and was simple with the permit and pre-approved visa.