The boat slowly pulled up to the dock in Kasenyi, an ancient looking platform made up of part stone, part wood, part cement. On the center of the extended dock was a huge metal crane, that perhaps had once been used to load boats, but now stood silently, its cables dangling down to shredded ends – a remnant of days past.
Several people milled around, some were stripped down washing clothes, others were jumping in and swimming around, while others just sat under the shade of the metal crane, taking in the day.
It took well over ten minutes for the boat to finally harbor itself up against the ancient dock. As the crew threw out lines to others on the dock, we jumped off and gathered our baggage. Before even taking two steps, a slender man with a lanyard and a badge stopped us, politely demanding us to give him our passports and follow him up the bank.
We obliged and walked with him for several minutes, navigating our way through roads and footpaths till we reached the top of the bank. There, a small white office with the letters of DGM (Congo customs) painted in faded blue sat, perched on the hilltop overlooking the lake.
Another man was sitting on the porch of this small office, reading a book. He glanced up as we approached, his eyes widening slightly at the sign of three white guys lugging bags up from the shore.
After a quick word with the man that had brought us, the man on the porch motioned for us to follow and he led us inside. He had to first unlock several of the doors before we got into his office. There he began to fill out our paperwork.
As mentioned earlier, crossing borders seems to be an issue for me. Notably, getting into Congo has been somewhat difficult, particularly in Bunia. Last time I went through the airport I spent over an hour discussing with the customs officials why they shouldn’t make me pay import taxes on coupons that I was carrying for one of our projects. After a long conversation, they finally agreed to let me go with the boxes.
However, the man checking us in here was quite polite. He made light conversation with us, asking about our trip, why we crossed the lake, what we were doing in Congo, etc… Fairly quickly, considering a Congo border, we were through and free to go. He didn’t even bother to check our bags – which surprised us.
A driver from our country office was already there waiting for us. We quickly loaded up and headed towards town. Before leaving the port-town we stopped to grab some bread and sodas because we had yet to eat that day (besides our questionable coffee) and it was already 1pm.
We were warmly welcomed back to Congo over the next hour and a half we bounced along the dirt road which made its way across the humid plain towards the mountains. We climbed quickly, snaking back and forth up the hills before cresting them and making our way down to the plateau which holds our city. By 3:30 pm we were pulling into our gated compound, dusty, tired, worn out, and exceedingly content.
The next morning, I awoke to the sounds of singing, dishes banging, and roosters crowing. Although it was hardly even light outside, people were already active. My room was still pitch black, and I lay there taking in the sounds outside. After a few minutes, a thin stream of light snuck into the room, forcing its way through under the door. I crawled out from under the covers (although being on the lake front was quite warm and humid, so it was really only a thin sheet) and mosquito net, and put my legs on the floor, finding my sandals.
Outside, the thick, warm breeze of a coastal paradise blew gently around me. The sun was creeping over the roof behind me. On my left, a couple rooms down, was a kitchen where three woman had already begun cleaning – and were singing while the worked. In front of me were several chickens, clucking away as they began their day’s task of picking up insects. To my right, where Robert and Randy’s rooms were, remained silent. First going to Randy’s room, then Robert’s, I pounded on their door until I got a response, coming out more like a groan from each, confirming that they were indeed awake.
We were given mugs, hot water, and ‘instant’ coffee grounds. This coffee was in a sketchy looking container – a plastic jar with a screw-top lid. The label said it was instant coffee, but it had spelling errors and claimed to be a mix of Spain and China…
We smelled it and it still had a coffee smell to it, so we each bravely put several spoonfuls into our mugs. It didn’t really dissolve like instant coffee, nor float like ground coffee, nonetheless it had some caffeine in it and it got us going.
Next we headed around to the other side of hotel building which was conveniently the immigration office. We filled out the exit forms without any hassles. On the form you have to fill out there’s a line that says “mode of transport: land/air/water.” This was the first time I ever got to check off “water” for mode of international travel. We then returned to the other side of the building to pay the hotel owner.
The prices hadn’t really been set when we checked in, so when we asked for the bill we weren’t sure what to expect. After she scribbled on a piece of paper for a few minutes, the total came out to 80,000 Uganda shillings – this is just about $10 apiece, which included the room, dinner, and coffee, not a half bad deal.
We then walked down from the hotel to the lake. On the way, the man who we had talked to the night before reappeared. He confirmed that we could ride his boat and after some quick discussion we jumped on the boat – each paying about $6 for the ride (over 25 miles across the lake).
To get to the boat we had walk along a wooden set of boards that created a dock. The boat was about 20 meters long and loaded to the brim. We crawled onto the white tarps that covered the cargo – which we later found out was boxes and boxes of tomatoes. Besides us three, there were three crew members and seven other passengers.
A claim of the boat manager had been that this motor (a 75 horsepower outboard) was the “biggest” motor on the lake. This trip across was also to be its maiden voyage. I asked him if we should be worried because it hadn’t been tested before – he laughed at me, saying there was no need to worry. And so the motor pushed us away from the dock and out onto the lake.
Although we never lost sight of the land on our left (port-side?), it quickly became a thin line. There was no covering over us, so for the next five hours we basked under the equatorial sun and were kissed by the gentle breeze blowing over the lake.
The crew was composed of a captain or navigator who spent pretty much the whole trip holding onto the outboard motor. The other two were “deck hands.” One was deaf and mute and so we didn’t have much conversation with him.
The other however was very, very talkative. He stood at about 5’7”, compact and energetic. As we asked questions, he explained to us in a mix of English and Swahili on how he had used to be Kung Fu fighter. He claimed to actually have spent over 16 years in China training and fighting. He was so enthusiastic about it that he had actually named his first son Bruce Lee. Although at the end we’re still not sure if he really did any of the things he claimed, it did make for interesting conversation.
About three and half hours into our trip, the motor began to sputter and finally died out. The crew didn’t seemed phased so we went on talking, not really noticing anything different. They had already had to fill the engine from several jugs, so we assumed they had just forgotten and we’re going to add the fuel now – but they never did.
For about thirty minutes we slowly drifted off course, just following the current and wind of the lake. Finally our Kung Fu fighter went to the front (brow) of the boat and waved his shirt violently into the wind. Off on the horizon was another boat. When it seemed that it had turned towards us, he finally sat down.
Another 10 minutes passed before this boat, an identical twin to ours, pulled up. It was returning to Uganda from Congo with no cargo, so it sat almost 10 feet higher than our boat. The two crews exchanged laughs and yells for a few minutes before the other crew handed our guys another jug of fuel. The crew quickly put it into the motor and in another half hour we reached the shore of Kasenyi.
Despite the fact that we stranded at sea for a while, this was by the far the most relaxing phase of our trip. It felt like a proper holiday, dozing under the sun with as much space as we could want. We weren’t cramped into buses, rushing from one place to another or traveling overnight.
The trip should have taken about four hours, but with our fuel delay we made it in about five.
Arriving in Kampala on Saturday morning, the 3rd of January, was a milestone in our journey. Not necessarily a ‘good’ milestone, but one nonetheless. The reason being that this was where the extent of our ‘planning’ had ended. Up until this point we had a rough idea of what was coming next. We knew where the bus stations were, the costs, etc… Getting off the bus in Kampala was like waking up from a dream, with absolutely no idea where we were.
Our first order of business was coffee and food. We walked back to the Café Java, the same café Robert and I had spent two hours in a few days before. From there, we began to search online, text, and call people. The issue was we had no idea what bus to use to get to Lake Albert on the Congo border. We actually didn’t even know what town we needed to get to.
For almost two hours we struggled to find any leads to help us, but no one seemed to have any clues about what we needed. Robert and I walked to three different bus stations, but none of them had buses going in that direction. Getting a little frustrated, we were sitting in the café chewing on what to do, and trying to stay awake after a sleepless night on a bus.
At this point, the coffee had moved through me and it was time to visit the restroom.I left the table and made my way upstairs to the men’s room. While walking up the stairs, I offered up a quick prayer, saying something along the lines of “God, it’d be really nice if you could just drop someone into the café that could help us.” I did my business and washed my hands and headed back downstairs. Half way down the stair case another man walked by me on his way up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that his polo said OCC (Operation Christmas Child – which is another branch of the same organization I work for). I made it down to the bottom of the stairs before it clicked in my mind. I turned around and shouted up, “You work for OCC?”
The man turned around, and replied “Yes?” I laughed, and explained who I was and what I was doing. The man, Paul, came down to our table and listened to our story. He grinned and then began to give us all the details we needed, including which bus, times, locations, etc… on how to get down to Lake Albert. We then talked to his co-worker. She, believe it or not, was from the very town we needed to head to. She confirmed what he had told us and gave us her father’s phone number so we could call him if we had any issues when we arrived.
Feeling relieved and confident, we took the information they had given us and headed out. It was about a 10 minute to the bus station we needed to use. We arrived and were put on a bus that was promised to us to be leaving in 40 minutes. Slowly the bus filled up, one person, then another, then a couple, etc… However, the bus was not going to be leaving until it was full. It took almost 3 hours for the bus to fill up to the number they needed. We slowly roasted in the box-like oven of the bus through the hours of 8-11.
Finally at 11am it began moving. The ride to Fort Portal, the first town we needed to get to, should have taken only 3 hours, but the bus driver felt he needed to stop at almost every town we passed. At one of the stops we purchased chapatti’s and grilled chicken for lunch. This entailed us choosing from the many vendors crowding our window yelling out prices, being handed food wrapped in plastic bags or on a brochette-like stick, and handing money out the window to conclude the transaction. Five hours later we pulled into town.
Fort Portal was probably the most bitter experience on this journey. It’s hard to explain exactly why, but it was a series of factors. First of all, we asked the bus driver to drop us off at or near the taxi park. He agreed to this, but after driving a few minutes through town he randomly stopped on the side of the road and said this is where we needed to get off because our taxi was there. We got off, a little confused. Once outside, we were surrounded immediately by a crowd of people, including a taxi owner who said his taxi, the only vehicle nearby, was the last taxi to Ntoroko that day (it was already 4:30pm).
We tried to decline, but they kept insisting, The whole group seemed as if they were hiding something from us. Robert, doing the negotiating mostly in Swahili, kept asking them to show us the taxi park, but they would never give us a straight answer. Finally, in an attempt to get some space we said we had some things to do first. The taxi owner tried to get us to leave our stuff with him while we went about and then we could come back and get it. There was not a chance that we’d do that with how uncomfortable he was making us.
Leaving the crowd we looked for currency exchange bureau. We found one across the road, but some of the crowd followed us, making us even more uncomfortable. After changing money, and asking other people, we were able to finally find the taxi park. It was late afternoon so it was fairly empty at this point, but one car was loading people for Ntoroko. Although the car looked like just some private car, we decided it was a better option than the other taxi. While I loaded the bags, Randy went and bought water for the ride and Robert went to the restroom. A few minutes later they both came back – Randy with 3 water bottles and 3 sodas for a deal of $3.5. Robert, on the other hand, had had to pay for a free bathroom and was somewhat offensively told that whites were not welcome in Africa.
Somewhat bewildered about the whole experience, we crammed into the back of the car. The three of us squished into the back seat, designed for two small people at most. On the way out of town, the driver continued to pick up people. By the time we began the descent from the plateau towards the lake there were ten people in the car – us three in back, four in the middle row, and three up front. This car was maybe designed for 6-7 people tops.
The road down was absolutely stunning. It began with 10 km of winding roads down the steep side of the plateau. At a fork in the road, we turned off and began down a gravel road. This road makes its way through Semiliki National Park. This is a hidden gem of Uganda. You quickly leave behind civilization. Before long, on both sides of the road, are herds of Uganda Kob (a type of antelope). It took us about an hour to navigate the park to the port village of Ntoroko. Along the ride we saw: antelope, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, and the highlight – a herd of elephants.
It was actually rather amusing: the three of us in back were straining our necks to see out the windows, acting like little kids with how excited we got every time we spotted another animal. The other 7 people in the car stared straight ahead, barely interested in the landscape around.
The only time that they seemed to show any emotion was when we saw the elephants. This was probably because the herd was crossing the road in front of us and so the driver had no choice but to stop and wait for them to finish walking across. At this point several of the passengers pointed out to us (although we could obviously see) that there were elephants and that’s why we had stopped.
Ntoroko is what you would imagine a fishing port to be like. There was a scattering of houses along the shore – nothing too remarkable to note. We unloaded and were met by various people. After some discussions, our taxi driver took us (so we re-loaded) to the customs office which was already closed. Behind the office was a hotel where we signed in. We had met a boat manager when we arrived (who was in fact related to the hotel owner), and he promised to meet us there the next morning at 7:30.
There was no power, so we took bucket baths in the flickering light of candles. While waiting for the food to be made, we messed around with long-exposure shots and flashlights. A small crowd of local kids stood around and watched – probably trying to process why three grown men were running around with flashlights in the courtyard. We retired that night fairly early because we hadn’t slept much between an overnight bus and all day of traveling.
We had already bought our tickets – this time from a Rwandan bus company called Trinity Express. Before boarding we had to get our bags checked. Then we handed them off to a guy that was loading them underneath the bus.
The bus Robert and I had used to come from Kampala had been a bus with 4 seats wide, divided by an aisle in the middle. This bus was five seats across, three on one side and two on the other. We had purchased our seats together so we squished into the side with three seats.
This time the bus had plenty of space between our seats and the seats in front of us. However, by adding an extra seat, they had cut the width per seat substantially. Let’s just say that three full grown men – not to mention two that are well over 6 feet tall, makes for a tight fit.
At around 8:20pm, ten minutes before departure, the conductor got on the sound system and announced he was going to pray. We glanced at each other, a little surprised. The driver then proceeded to pray, in some Rwandan language, faster than a rapper. For five minutes straight, only pausing to catch his breath every 30 seconds before diving back into it, this man continued on. When he said “amen,” the whole bus started cheering and clapping. Infected by the energy we joined in, hesitantly clapping along with the others.
A few minutes later we were off, beginning the long journey back to Kampala, Uganda. This time went much quicker than the first. The border crossing came quicker this time, so we were all still awake. We worked our way through customs, fishing out the $50 per person per visa once again. A total of 10 hours later, we arrived in Kampala, pulling in at about 6am, just as the sun was rising over the sprawling city.
The next morning greeted us early. We rolled out of bed and went over to the hotel restaurant to grab a quick meal of omelets and toast. The coffee was surprisingly really good. So we delayed for another 30 minutes as the hotel manager called some guys to bring us 4 bags of Goma coffee.
Once again we hopped on motorcycle taxis and whipped through town, weaving through early morning traffic – a mix of motorcycles, cars, bikes, and carts.
The border crossing was once again surprisingly easy. There were no issues getting out of Congo. The Rwandan side took our temperature, searched our bags for plastic bags again, and we shelled out another $30 each for the visa.
Less than half an hour later we were on motorcycles again, bumping across dirt, cobblestone, and paved roads to the bus station in Gisenyi.
Learning quickly from our previous mistake on this section, we purchased a seat for our bags. The buses that frequent this border and the capital Kigali are not designed to hold any luggage. Coming from Kigali we had suffered and held our huge hiking bags on our laps. This time we piled them on a seat next to Randy and traveled much more comfortably.
Once again the twisting roads, snaking through and over the hilly terrain of Rwanda, amazed us. The whole way was paved; street lights lined the roads, and there were blinking lights on the side to make sure you knew where the edge was.
Four hours later we pulled into the capital, once again at the congested bus stop of Kigali. We called up the guest house we had stayed at a few days ago. After some quick negotiating, we rented a room for a few hours. We dropped off our bags there before heading out on moto-taxis again – this time to the Rwanda Genocide Museum.
Originally we had planned to spend half an hour to an hour there. However, it took us well over two hours to walk the grounds and then read through the whole exhibit. The exhibit explained the genocide from the beginning to end – who was doing what, when, where, etc…
After being fully overwhelmed by the information and horrors, we entered another exhibit where other genocides were explained – albeit in less detail, but not less dramatic or horrible. We all left the museum quiet, processing what we had just seen and learned.
The next stop was the mall again (you have to appreciate the small things in life while you can, right?). There we ate at Coffee Bourbon again, including pitchers of coffee.
We bought some snacks in Nakumatt – the East-African version of a hybrid between Walmart and Target, before heading back to the hotel. We showered quickly, checked out, and headed back down to the bus station, once again using our standard moto-taxis.
Few cities stir the imagination and wonder more than that of Goma. This is where some the largest flow of refugees from the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 fled to. It was also the epicenter for the First and Second Congo Wars (which estimates have put at somewhere between 5 and 10 million deaths), not to mention 2 recent volcano eruptions (1977 and 2002) less than 20 km away, and a dangerous lake that harbors deadly gases.
Most recently in 2012 the rebel group M23 took it over, and then were later ousted by the Congolese government. This is a city with a more complicated, deadly history than perhaps any other in contemporary history.
How could we not choose to explore it?
After showering at our hotel we hailed three moto-taxis and were taken up the coast of the lake about 5 km to a restaurant called Le Chalet. Built on the lakefront, this Belgium-style mansion is now home to one of the more prestigious restaurants in Goma.
In a celebratory meal (and for a change of diets after canned fish for two days), we all ordered huge plates of pasta and brochettes. It probably took us almost two hours to enjoy the meal and a coffee while sitting on the dock, staring out across Lake Kivu.
We had been told (according to a source that will remain unnamed at this point), that there was a place where the lava had flowed out onto the lake. Thinking it’d give us a way to explore the city a bit, we decided to walk back from the restaurant (which was on the edge of the city), towards the border (which is the other end of town).
The next two hours were spent mapping out the coast, passing mansions, stores, kids swimming, motorcycles getting washed, an old harbor with ships, and other sites.
Despite walking almost the whole way back to the border, we were sadly disappointed because we never found the lava flow (which we later found out doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way we thought and were told).
However, this walk was absolutely stunning. It was January 1st, so everyone was a still a little relaxed after a night of partying. This meant that we had multiple conversations with people as we walked along – ranging from types of fishing nets to how our presence wasn’t wanted.
Seeing the city of Goma is like stepping into a different Congo from where we work in Bunia. There’s paved roads, crisscrossed with dirt tracks. Dark black dirt, instead of rusty brown, makes up the foundation to the city.
All over town people have collected the lava, broken it down into bricks, and built their houses and walls out of it. Some streets are stilled covered the dried out lava, making them tricky to navigate on a motorcycle.
After several hours of exploring the city, we eventually wandered back to our hotel and ate dinner before crashing for a night of sleep.
“Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
- John Muir
Phase 4: Nyiragongo Volcano
We woke up to the sound of light rain along the tin roof, gently bringing our attention to the new day. It was 6 in the morning, which isn’t particularly early except that all three of us had just switched a minimum of 6 time zones less than two days ago and were running on little to no sleep. This resulted in 6 am being a very rough time to wake up.
Nonetheless, we struggled out of bed (or the mosquito net tent, depending on the case) and worked our way over to breakfast by 6:45. The same waiter from 9 o’clock last night was there to welcome us again and soon we had hot omelets, toast, fruit, and coffee to start the day off right.
By 7:15 we were out the door and walking to the border, about half a kilometer away. The rain had thankfully stopped, but the roads remained muddy and slick. Robert and I had been able to leave suitcases in Kampala for friends to pick up and take back to Congo. Randy was not so fortunate: he had his hiking bag along with a bright blue roll-on suitcase (generously lent to him by our favorite finance manager Karen – you can tell who proofread this section for me…) that he had to lug everywhere with him.
The walk to the border was not so pleasant for him with the mud and all, but he handled it like a champ. Without a second thought, he hoisted the bag up onto this head, and continued on, undaunted by the little inconveniences of life.
The border crossing was fairly painless, all things considering. A new feature in all the countries we traveled through was that they were taking our temperatures. In theory, this is to prevent potential spreads of Ebola or other fever-related diseases – but I have yet to see anyone actually get stopped on account of their temperate. Even the Congo side, which can be notoriously rough around Bunia, was easy enough.
As we got out of customs, the horde of taxi-motos swarmed us, honking, yelling at each other, and all offering to drive us wherever we needed to go for the “best price.” After some discussion – and it felt good to be on communicating terms (i.e. French and Swahili), we chose three and were off, swerving through the paved and unpaved streets of Goma. First we went to a hotel called the Bungwe Guest House.
Originally, we had planned (planned meaning a few hours before we got to Gisyeni) to stay at this hotel but, with the border closing the night before, that was not possible. However, we were able to negotiate a free storage room for the night we were on the volcano with the understanding that when we came down we’d spend the night. This allowed us to leave all non-essentials, like Randy’s blue suitcase, at the bottom and not carry them to the top.
Next we had to find the Virunga National Park headquarters in Goma. Our contact had told us it was fairly easy to find, but apparently no moto-taxi knew where it was, or any of the landmarks that we tried to reference. We went to three different office buildings, three different places in town, before we found the one we were looking for. Let me try to explain these thirty minutes of zig-zagging across Goma.
It began with motorcycle negotiations. We had just dropped off our bags at the hotel and stepped out on the wide, dirt street in front of the hotel. It was empty. We stood, shuffling our feet, looking at each other, and tossing out the pros and cons of either trying to walk and find a motorcycle corner. On most corners in these African cities there are multiple motorcycle taxis lined up waiting for passengers. To get a moto-taxi you can either find a corner, wait for one to pass you, or raise your hand and/or whistle to a distant corner hoping one of them notices you.
The minutes slowly dragged by as we stood there, feeling the sun heat up on our backs. Then we saw a moto coming our way without a passenger. I quickly raised my hand and he pulled a u-turn in the street and drove up to us. Within in seconds another one appeared, than another, and another. It was though flood gates opened and before we were even done saying where we needed to go there were seven motorcycles boxing us in.
The first taxi-man to the scene became the spokesperson for the group, but everyone had to offer their input. Robert and I, through Swahili and French, tried to explain that we needed to get to the Virunga Park Office. They all stared back at us blankly. Next we tried the Airtel Office (because apparently “everyone” knows the Airtel Office…) but again we were greeted by silence. Not knowing what to explain after that, we waited for a second or two in awkward silence. Then the moto guys began discussing in their local language with each other. Some were animated; some were more reserved and silent. Finally, after another minute or two, they turned to us and confirmed they knew where we were going.
We jumped on the back of the closet three, getting groans of annoyance from the others (the group had now grown to over 10 motorcycles…we were only 3 passengers). Robert’s bike took the lead and they pulled another u-turn and roared off towards downtown, followed closely by Randy’s and then mine. We drove past the three main roundabouts – one with a miniature volcano, one with a statue of a man pushing a bike with produce, and one with a park in the middle, before suddenly veering off down a narrow alley.
The motorcycle bumped and jerked violently as we hit volcanic gravel. Puddles from the rain earlier that day covered large sections of the road. Blindly my driver drove forward, not knowing how deep or what rocks were hidden underneath. Water splashed, covering both our legs with brown muddy stains, while the wheels disappeared almost a foot deep. We hit another rock and the driver barely saved us as he twisted the handle bars back and forth. We emerged still atop the bike, although looking like we just waded through a creek.
At the end of the ally we pulled to stop in front of faded white gate. Across it was the faint letters stating that this was Goma’s Tourism Office. The compound, now overrun with unkempt grass and decrepit buildings, hinted at a previous time period when maybe tourism was popular. Now it stood there with slumped shoulders. We exchanged glances wondering how legit our climb was going to be.
The moto-taxis quickly talked with a man outside the gate and after a brief discussion we concluded this was not where we wanted to be. The man responding to our questions assured us that it was back the way we came and up the hill a little. Motorcycles roared to life again and we turned around to once again navigate the flooded alleyway.
Passing thorough we turned right which opened up onto a soccer pitch – a deep black, sandy terrain made up of a mixture of soil and volcanic ash, highlighted by the sun reflecting off the glistening puddles created perhaps one of the most unique and beautiful fields I have ever seen . Two teams were in full battle against each other and spectators lined the field on both sides.
The road, or what was supposed to be a road, went right through the pitch and our drivers unabashedly charged forward, right through the middle of the game. First spectators began yelling at us, then players, then even the ref. They were not happy about our presence to say the least. One player even struck a ball at us and it passed directly behind my head as my driver revved his engine to pull us forward just in time.
Upon reaching the top of the hill we were again met by disappointed as this office, some other government location that was supposed to function as an environmental agency, as informed us we were in the wrong place. However, the man there was more informed and explained in knowledgeable detail what we were actually looking for. Once it seemed that the drivers understood, we got back on and descended the hill. This time our drivers were a little more wary as we crossed the pitch, navigating players, yells and balls like seasoned professionals – all of us making it safely back to the alley and then through the puddles and boulders to the main road.
Telling our drivers we had to be at the office by 8:30, they accelerated through the city, passing by other motos (to the delight of their drivers), cars and roundabouts at deathly speeds – I felt the back tire of my bike slip as we took one turn, and finally pulling up at the Park Office with a minute to spare. While Robert checked us in, getting our park passes, Randy and I crossed the street to a local shop to buy food for the mountain.
We wandered the store, picking and choosing random items that we thought we could carry. When all was said and done we had: 12 bottles of water (1.5 L each), 6 cans of sardines, 3 cans of tuna, 1 can of chips, 6 small green apples, 1 loaf of bread, 6 rolls, 6 local doughnuts, and 1 jar of Nutella. All the essential ingredients for three healthy, nutritious meals while on the mountain.
According to the park service, we were supposed to arrange a ride with them in advance and/or meet them at the park entrance. We had done neither, but were able to hitch a ride with a Dutch couple that was also climbing the mountain. By 9am we were off, driving first through the paved roads of Goma before it switched to gravel-like roads made up of hardened lava.
We checked in along with 8 other expats (the Dutch couple, an Australian couple, 3 Brits, and one other American). Our group altogether was us 11, 1 guide, 3 park rangers, and about 6 porters. Porters were optional, and we, being full of bravado, chose to carry our packs ourselves – a choice I think we all were happy with, but one that definitely made the climb a bit more challenging.
After a briefing from the head park ranger, which could be summed up as “stay on the path and don’t fall in,” we began hiking. In equatorial Africa, the true heat of the day begins around 10am, which coincidentally is when we began hiking. The top of the volcano is about 3,400 meters – we began at an elevation of about 1900 meters. Doing some quick math, you can see that we climbed about 1500 meters (1.5 km) of elevation in about 5 hours – or for the more technical, that’s about 300 meters an hour. For the less technical – it’s steep – really, really steep.
Nyiragongo, unlike most climbs I have done, does not cater to the philosophy of switchbacks. Instead, without almost any turns or twists, the trail heads straight up the side, following old, hardened flows of lava. It is easy to think that this actually makes the hike easier because it will be like climbing a paved road or staircase.
The lava does not harden that way though. Instead, it forms fists-sized gravel which can easily twist your ankle, or, at the very least, make your feet sore after several hours of walking. The places where it did harden to a more continuous form are more jagged and rough, making just as difficult to walk on as the gravel-like-lava.
The beginning of the climb starts out through fairly dense forest. Not the thick, tall trees of the Congo rainforest, but lighter brush-like trees and plants. There were preset resting spots about every hour or so along the hike. By the time we hit the second stop, we had moved out of the forest and were walking in a fairy-tale land of 4 feet tall bushes and flowers. In contrast, the last hour and a half of the hike were a barren waste land, with an occasional small shrub standing in defiance to the gaping crater where it had chosen to make its home.
Each of us was carrying 4 bottles, or 6 liters, of water as well as our cameras, tripods, sleeping bags, etc… Although the hike only took about 5 hours (stops included), we were exhausted as we struggled up the last, steepest section. Despite pouring sweat as our bodies strained under the effort, we were shivering.
The wind tore along the mountainside, seeming to act as a guard to the summit as it pushed against us, threatening to throw us off the mountain. Finally, we reached the rim, and to the dismay and worry of the park rangers, rushed to the edge to peer over and see what we had all come to see – the lava.
Instead of bright, glowing lava, our eyes were greeted with a hazy cloud of steam, dancing to the music orchestrated by the wind. After a minute or two, almost taunting us, the wind would move the steam enough to see the vivid red lines of lava crisscrossing the jet black lake.
Before we could even snap a picture, the steam would obscure the view again. Somewhat disappointed, our group began to murmur, a little worried that this was the best view that we’d get. The park rangers laughed before reassuring us that the true view of the volcano’s beauty would be at night, when darkness had settled in (it was only 4 in the afternoon at this point).
We then let our eyes explore where we had finally arrived. The rim of the crater was a perfect cliff that dropped at least a 100 meters before hitting a plateau that jutted out for 30 meters. It then dramatically dropped again to another plateau, before dropping again into the lake of lava.
The rangers informed us that the lava was actually almost 900 meters away from the edge where we were standing. A common question we received later was if we could feel the heat from the lava. Tragically, any heat emitted by the undying fire was long dispersed by the time the steam reached our level.
Behind the ridge of the crater were 8 small wooded A-frame shacks. Inside each A-frame was enough space for 2 people. There were two-man camping tents already set up in each shack and inside the tents were mattresses and pillows. Our group chose the two closest to the edge of the volcano – probably the two coldest because they were the most vulnerable to the wind, which raged all night.
While we slept that night, it sounded like there were giants throwing rocks against our shelters as they shook under the strain of the wind, making us feel as though they might be torn out of their foundations and tumble down the mountainside.
Around 7pm the wind and temperature changed and the volcanic lake far below became completely visible. We all lined up along the crater’s edge, off and on for the next two hours, to take pictures. It was mesmerizing, and one could easily just sit and watch it, forgetting about the time.
The lake was constantly moving, its surface changing shapes, like a fragmented puzzle or a crowd in a city square. Every now and then parts of the lava would bubble up and burst, leaping into the air. At first we thought these were not that large, but the rangers told us that they were probably shooting into the air on an average of 10 meters – some reaching much higher.
We had not brought up any charcoal (although it was suggested), but thankfully the previous tenants of our shack had left an extra bag. We built a windbreak out of old clay shingles from some other building that had been there and built up a fire.
Dinner that night was heated tuna fish and sardines on top of bread. In case you ever forget your pan, note that canned fish cooks up quite well boiled in its own can… just watch out for splattering sardine juice as this can leaving a scalding burn.
As the night progressed it got colder and colder. Another group had brought up tea, but not enough water, and in a fair exchange we offered water (we still had over 12 liters) for tea. A tarp was thrown up between two of the shacks as a wind break and the majority of us huddled around one of the warmer fires, hot drinks in hand, and began to share stories with one another.
This was an interesting group. We had anticipated climbing the mountain with the “normal” European aid workers that mostly make up the expat population in DRC. However most of the people we were with had never been to DRC, and even fewer spoke French. We quickly realized that what we were dealing with was a more elite “tranche” of adventure seekers. And it makes sense: anyone who would venture into such a politically distressed country (read war-torn by rebel groups), to trek through a forest known equally known for guerillas as for its gorillas, with the goal of summit-ing one of the most active volcanoes in Africa, really must be a very serious tourist – or completely out of their mind.
I will not try to describe each and every one of these people (one because that could take a book, and two they may be reading this), but I will try to give you an idea of who were sitting next to. Take for example the Australian couple: she was working in Uganda doing a short-term stint for her master’s degree and he was an engineer visiting her for a month. Not including this trip, they had already spent time exploring Southeast Asia and doing the running of the bulls in Spain.
The other American was a grad student from Harvard who had already served four years in the military and was researching economies in dictator-controlled countries. The British man was a UN lawyer – but had no experience in Africa and had just recently arrived in Goma. The Dutch man had grown up in Kenya and was now working for an NGO doing business education in Goma. His girlfriend, who was visiting as well, had never been to Africa – and this was the adventure they chose. It was a fascinating group of people and we spent several hours telling and listening to stories from all over the world.
Due to the fact we had been awake since 6 am (remember we had been in Rwanda that morning), by 9pm we were all exhausted. By general consensus of all present, we voted to celebrate the New Year at 10 pm (it was midnight already somewhere in the east – maybe Indian?).
Afterwards we crawled into our sleeping bags, layered up with several pairs of pants and jackets and drifted off to sleep. In our defense, we did set an alarm for 11:59 and brought in the year – somewhat awake.
The next morning we were up around 5:30am. After a pretty dry breakfast of bread (our Nutella jar had broken the night before due to wind being so strong that it ripped the door off of our A-frame and landed directly on the jar, shattering the rim and dropping fragment of glass that then hardened in the chocolate overnight), and some tea, we packed up camp.
We enjoyed some last views of the volcano – which had once again been obscured by steam, before heading down around 7am. It took about 3.5 hours to get down vs. the 5 coming up. To begin, we had walk gingerly in order not to fall – but regardless I think we all slipped at least once or twice, but no major wounds. Randy almost lost his knee at one point when he slipped and a sharp tall rock tore his pants, millimeters from his kneecap.
By noon we were back at our hotel in Goma.
*Special thanks to Robert and Randy for some of the photos and ideas
** Also thanks to Karen for taking the time to proof read it (even though I probably have loads of mistakes – she at least made it somewhat respectable)
The haphazard chronicles and musings of a global nomad.