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Ascent of Mont Heha on 2018-08-06

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Monday, August 6, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mont Heha
    Location:Burundi
    Elevation:8760 ft / 2670 m

Ascent Trip Report

Eric Gilbertson and Travis Greiman

August 6-7, 2018

Aug 6 – arrive in Bujumbura, climb Mt Heha, return to Bujumbura
Aug 7 – fly out to Uganda

Mt Heha is cited by some sources as the true source of the Nile River. Located in central Burundi, it’s a high, forested hill with good trails almost all the way to the summit, and supposedly has views of Lake Tanganyika from the top on a clear day.

Travis and I planned to climb Mt Heha on a short layover in Burundi on our way from Rwanda to Uganda to climb Mt Stanley. Unfortunately Burundi has gotten more difficult for tourists in the past few years, but it is still possible and safe to climb Mt Heha. In 2016 Burundi changed from issuing tourist visas on arrival to requiring an advance application for tourist visas, and this has led to a major drop in tourism. There has also recently been political unrest in northern Burunudi, though the area around Bujumbura is reasonably safe.

I originally looked into renting a car at the Bujumbura airport, but there are no rental agencies, and renting from an agency in town is very expensive. Given that Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, I expected the roads to be in rough shape, and I bet this is why renting a car is difficult.

I found it is actually cheaper, somehow, to hire a car plus driver plus guide for Mt Heha using Burundi Safaris. They charge $100 per day for a car and driver, plus $30 for a guide for Mt Heha. They can also arrange a hotel and other tours. I generally like to hike a mountain on my own, without a guide, but this seemed like the safest bet in Burundi. Surely the driver would keep us away from the politically sensitive areas, which we might not know about on our own.

We left Kigali on the morning of August 6 and landed in Bujumbura around 10am. We had each applied a month or
so earlier for tourist visas, and easily passed through customs into the country. Soon we met our driver, and drove into town to pick up our guide, Landry. Our driver didn’t speak English, but Landry did, and he acted as an interpreter.

Landry’s main job was a journalist, but it sounds like he acts as a guide as a side job for the occasional tourists that come by. Travis and I were on a tight schedule, so we soon left Bujumbura heading up into the hills. The driving situation in Burundi is unique. All cars having driving wheels on the right side, but the cars also drive on the right side. Most other countries in that area of Africa are former British colonies and drive on the left with steering wheels on the right. I’m not sure exactly why Burundi is different.

We ascended higher and higher on a good paved road, then turned right on a smooth gravel road. In general I was very impressed with the roads in Burundi. We didn’t get any African massages like in Rwanda, which had some very bumpy roads.

At one point were stopped at a spiked log laying in the road, but a man soon appeared, waved at our driver, and removed the log. Landry said the log was there to make people stop and pay a toll for using the road, but he had already paid the man.

We soon reached a small village at a high pass, and pulled over on the side of the road near a sign for Mt Heha. Landry talked to two men who were the chiefs of the village, and they accompanied us walking up toward the summit. We entered a forest of pine trees after passing by some mud huts with women crushing corn outside. Landry slowed down and told us to follow the chiefs and that he would catch up. We later learned that Landry was feeling sick, and that was the last we would see of him before we returned to the car. It turns out we were basically unguided after all.

The steep trail soon crested a ridge with a small radio tower on top. The chiefs didn’t speak English, but they seemed to suggest this was the top. Travis and I had loaded topo maps on our phones, however, and knew that the summit was actually much farther down the ridge to the south. We waited for a little while for Landry, but eventually decided to proceed on our own. We kept following a trail south along the ridge, and the chiefs followed behind us. The trail turned down the ridge at an open meadow, and this is as far as the chiefs would follow. Perhaps it was the edge of their territory.

Travis and I cut through the woods back onto the ridge, and continued on another trail past a few huts and back into a spruce forest. Here we got our first view of the summit, which was a modest forested hill in the distance. The trail gradually traversed and descended along the east slope of the summit, and we eventually realized it was not, in fact, going to lead us to the top. At an open part of the forest we left the trail and bushwhacked the remaining few hundred feet to the top.

We reached the summit around an hour after leaving the car, and it looked familiar from pictures I’d seen from another hiker. For some reason there were two large, deep holes dug near the summit, with mounds of dirt from the
holes making the highest ground. We built a small cairn on the highest mound and took plenty of summit pictures. Just to make certain, we bushwhacked through the woods to the exact point from peakbagger of the summit, but this was clearly lower. For future reference, the cairn is, in fact, on the true summit.

For the descent we tried to take a more direct route, heading due north down the ridge. We still had to bushwhack to reach the trail, but it wasn’t too bad. After 45 minutes we were back at the car and learned that Landry had returned to the car to wait for us.

We drove back down the road and stopped for a lunch of potatoes and beef at —–. Our original plan had been to continue farther into the hills to see a waterfall, but Travis was getting sick from all the windy roads, so we decided to instead head back to Bujumbura. We took a short break to walk along the beach of Lake Tanganyika, then reached the Tiger Apartments hotel for dinner.

For some reason the hotel charged us double the rate we’d agreed on with Burundi Tours, and only accepted US dollars. They wouldn’t take Travis’s Burundi currency! I suspect US dollars are safer, since they won’t be easily devalued.

It was a short trip to Burundi, and after a few hours of sleep we caught a 3am flight out of Bujumbura to our next destination – Uganda. Our next mountain would be Mt Stanley, the highpoint of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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