Nobody would argue against the statement that Rwanda is simply one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. With its endless hills and varying landscapes there’s no shortage of stunning scenery and awe inspiring vistas. But let’s face it; you have to shell out a fair amount of money to enjoy any of the great natural landmarks like Nyungwe Forest, Akagera National Park and the like. Even if you just want to climb a volcano you have to pay out for a permit and you must take a guide along. For people like me who enjoy hiking but live on a budget, there aren’t too many Rwandan landmarks available to conquer on the cheap.
But fear not! There is a mountain that is not only free to take hike – it’s also quite easily accessible by car or by bus. Mount Kabuye – not to be confused with the city of Kibuye, which is in a completely different part of Rwanda – is the country’s tallest mountain at around 2,700 meters. Now that may sound impressive but you should know that volcanoes are not classified as mountains, and virtually all of the volcanoes in the Virunga range exceed Mt. Kabuye in height. That being said, Mt. Kabuye still provides hikers with a challenging ascent with its own rewards that include fantastic views of the surrounding countryside as well as the opportunity to experience quaint rural villages and their friendly occupants who make up the 80% of Rwanda’s population.
Getting there is pretty simple. Take a car or bus and head toward Ruhengeri (northwest). Your destination is the town of Gakenke, which is about an hour and a half outside of Kigali. If you’re going by bus once you arrive in Gakenke just ask any moto-taxi to take you to Mount Kabuye. They’re quite accustomed to trekkers coming out for a day hike. It’s quite important that you get the moto driver’s name and phone number so you can call him to come and pick you up when you’re finished, unless you want to make the long walk back to Gakenke to catch the bus, which your legs are unlikely to enjoy after hours of traversing steep terrain.
If you’re travelling by car make sure you’re paying attention to the towns you pass as it’s one of those small towns that you could easily drive right through without realizing it. Turn right on what is pretty much the only wide dirt road that intersects the main road. Just look for the sign that directs you to the road to the hospital, or centre de santé, and take it. Continue down this road for about ten minutes. It will begin to narrow, but don’t worry, you’re on the right path. Eventually you will come to the sector office. Here is where you should park your car.
When You Arrive
If you haven’t been spotted already, soon enough some locals will come running out to you hoping to make some money by either watching your car or by guiding you up the mountain. These guys will always try to get “muzungu price” from you, asking for up to 20,000 francs each, but you can usually get both for a total of 5,000. Just make sure you get the name and phone number of the guy watching your car, just in case.
Frankly it’s not necessary to use a guide. The dozen or so local children who will undoubtedly accompany you on you climb can show you the way. It’s obviously not necessary that you pay these kids, but I found them to be very helpful and they were very appreciative when I gave a little money to the ones who guided me all the way to the top. Speaking about these children; throughout the hike they will make you feel slow and out of shape. This is their home and they make ascending to the summit seem like a leisurely stroll in the park. Try to not to feel too bad every time they stop and wait for you to catch up, it happens to all of us.
I could tell you all about the hike itself, but that would ruin the fun for you. I’ll just say that it takes about three and a half hours to reach the top if you include stopping a few times to give your legs a rest on the way up. The peak is a great place to rest and enjoy a pack lunch while overlooking the innumerable hills that crowd the horizon in all directions. Just be a good sport and share a little food with your young escorts as in Rwanda it’s rather rude to eat in front of others. Coming back down takes about two hours, but if you don’t mind taking a little longer I suggest taking another path so you can see some different villages and views as you make your descent.
Mount Kabuye may not be as glamorous as other better-known tourist stops, but it certainly offers outdoor enthusiasts a fun, day long activity that’s near Kigali and, best of all, it’s pretty darn cheap.