Mt. Nyiragongo Volcano Trek, Congo……or: ‘The Mountain was on fire when I lay down on it.’*
From a distance, it just looked like a mountain, really. A steeply tapering mountain, with a cloud-scraping flat top. A flat top that, at night, glowed a dull orange within the cloud that seemed to permanently adhere to it. Now that was unusual…a little reminiscent of something I’d seen those two big-footed lads climb in “LOTR”… what was it now? Ah yes…Mt. Doom…
Mt. Nyiragongo, around 15 Km from Goma’s downtown, sits brooding over the landscape with dark menace. Towering 1,950m above the ‘mile high’ town, this 3,470m high volcano has erupted twice in recent history – in 1977, with almost 2,000 deaths in just 30 minutes of eruptions, and again in 2002 when over the course of two days, three rivers of lava ranging from 200m to 1/2 Km in width engulfed 40% of the city, 1/3 of the airport and pushed out some way into Lake Kivu (creating a new lake-side suburb!). This second eruption, while devastating for the city itself, had far fewer casualties; the 1977 eruption had emitted the very fluid lava filling the caldera itself, lava that raced towards Goma at up to 100Km/hour and took no prisoners. In 2002, when a side fissure burst open, thicker and slower lava flows emerged, giving quarter of a million people enough time to flee into Rwanda. Goma was shattered, as widely reported by e.g. the BBC. Even with that slow lava however, horrible deaths occurred; the ruined cathedral downtown is a memorial to the dozens of credulous souls who had shut themselves into the church, believing their god would preserve them. To the extent that modern vulcanology can track and predict, Nyiragongo is closely studied and updates are issued regularly -see here.
Another ‘feature’ of this volcano was its occupation for 9 months by the feared rebel groups, supposedly cleared by joint Congo and Rwandan forces in late 2009 – I’ve mentioned the history of all this in my last blog entry. This lava + rebel history all seemed a little abstract at a distance however, despite the ever-present signs of rebuilding and the abundance of the grey-black lava rock being used for that rebuilding, and the ever-present armed forces around town (many restaurants and hotels have a “no firearms allowed” sign).
More immediately and pressingly, we faced a logistical problem that threatened to keep us at a distance from the mountain itself.
I had originally heard just a week before that Mt. Nyiragongo was newly reopened for trekking from a friend of mine living in Goma. The trek had restarted from early March of this year, and as we later learned from the Head Ranger, 69 hardy types had made the ascent in March (and including us, 90 by Easter – as reported here). My buddy Joseph had sent me contact details of a Mr. Vianney who works at the ICCN official conservation authority in Goma; ICCN handle gorilla treks in Vurunga National park as well as the volcano treks. From a couple of calls and emails with the very responsive Vianney, I learned that he could facilitate a fairly straight-forward but mostly ‘do-it-yourself’ arrangement to get the permits, guides, tents, sleeping bags, transport and porters. The costs were reasonable: US$200 per person for the permits, which also included the guides and guards; $10 for a tent, $5 for a sleeping bag; $24 per porter and around $10/person for transport to and from the mountain – a grand total of around $260-270. Food was to be pre-bought by ourselves.
But the ‘do-it-yourselfness’ of the ICCN arrangement was slightly daunting – the permit process involved our having to get to the bank the day before, paying for the permits into a specific account, then rolling up to the ICCN office with receipts to exchange for the permits, and then choosing gear and guides on the day as well as arranging transport… From far-off Kigali, there seemed plenty of scope for one missing link to spoil the plan.
One warning I had picked up from chat sites and travel blogs was to bring our own sleeping bags – rental ones are horrible, thin, torn or all of the above. We borrowed bags from friends instead. Tent quality was also a known issue – warnings abounded about leaky tents.
When an alternative to DIY suddenly turned up – an email just a day or two before we set off to Goma, from some American guys who were looking at the same weekend and had been making arrangements via a local tour company – and the cost for what seemed to be a ‘package deal’ was only another $20-30 more each, I put the option to our party and the vote went the package deal. After a bit of back and forward – the Americans were flying in from Uganda, one of our group was coming in from Kenya – we said yes and received confirmation of the booking with a Rwanda-based tour operator. I informed Vianney, who was gracious about our cancellation.
Fast-forward to Goma and the morning of the trek: no contact from the tour company. No money had changed hands, so we thought that gave them plenty of incentive to make it all happen. But after a few text messages and phone calls we ascertained that the tour operator had failed to get us permits for that day (numbers are strictly regulated); while they hadn’t asked for a down-payment, they also hadn’t told us that they relied on us physically being in Goma to do the rounds of the bank and the ICCN office… slowly we realised that the ‘package’ was wearing a bit thin. A few frantic calls to Vianney ascertained that 1-2 of our party could have joined that day’s climb, but as it would be with complete strangers we had no takers.
Instead, we chalked this up to experience and set about making the arrangements for the following day. The tour operator’s Goma side-kick turned up to try to keep the deal together. First, I made it clear we were reconsidering; then I successfully negotiated a free city tour (lava fields, Green Lake) as a partial compensation for losing a day. We shook on that and headed off to the bank, which was a bit of a scrum of heaving bodies launching themselves with papers flapping at a very few tellers’ windows. While killing time there, the Americans from Uganda turned up – two young guys on fellowships, clearly bright and apparently well-traveled in Africa, a statement accepted at face value until one of them suddenly asked us, innocently, whether we also had had our passports taken away by the Goma authorities at the border, apparently for being taken to a processing centre somewhere… I quizzed this, asking whether they thought that handing over ones passport for ‘processing’ was (I tried to put this delicately) ‘somewhat irregular??’ The lack of concern on those youthful visages was pricelessly disconcerting…hey, they had been ‘promised’ their passports would be ready for them when they left Congo…
…matched, I’d say, by the story of another young traveler who ended up on the trek with us. He related, equally blasé, that he’d spent a day in detention after being seized boarding a boat at Lake Kivu and had been forced to pay a sizable amount for a super-visa because, having initially been hit-up for an over-sized single-entry visa fee, he had instead declined and simply ‘slipped into Congo’ when no-one was looking! A slow feeling of doom started to build…
ICCN office next, and after a wait we finally met Vianney who dealt with the hour-long process of issuing us with 7 permits in as professional a manner as possible. By now I had realised we should ‘unpick’ the deal with the tour operator – we were doing it ourselves, it turned out, with just some guidance. We agreed amongst ourselves to start calling the shots and save some money. The local operator, Emmanuel (who we later got to know quite well and think is a generally good chap) had been told to secure 4 porters for the 7 of us, which sounded like profit-maximisation (we were still being quoted a per-person fee).
When I asked for advice, Vianney rightly laid out the right proportions: each porter should carry a maximum 15Kg, and with tents, our backpacks, big water bottles, food and charcoal that meant one porter per person. We had to gently shout down the Rwandan-based tour operator who insisted by phone on just 4. And on it went… we ended up hiring the porters and tents directly ourselves via Vianney’s help, and arranged with Emmanuel for transport; he also collected a commission on the permits bought. Then it was on to the foreigner-targeted supermarket where eye-watering prices for everything demonstrated what 200+ NGO’s can do to an economy: two cans of fish-meat, some bread, juice and a 5L bottle of water set me back $23.
Next day, the mountain; and in what is fairly common in societies where ‘face’ can be more important than accuracy, the assurance we’d received that we could make an early start to beat some of the mid-day heat amounted to nothing. We even missed breakfast at Hotel Ihusi because they couldn’t get their act together to open the restaurant on time at 6am. We drove out to the trek starting point early; sleepy but pumped, we assembled all our gear, we had our permits registered in a big ledger, and then…we waited.
Three hours later and finally we got underway, still unaware of why we couldn’t have been informed an early start was never on.
Perhaps some of the bullet holes in the park sign are from trekkers similarly delayed but at least armed…
The first 90 minutes or so was bush walking on a moderate slope through dense vegetation, two armed guards up front and two more at the rear. After that, the terrain opened out into an increasingly steep slope of loose volcanic rubble, interspersed with large patches of very solid footing where lava had flowed. The upper slopes of the mountain were shrouded in cloud but as we climbed higher the views across the wide valley and back along to Goma and its Rwandan sister town Gisenyi, set on the shore of Lake Kivu, were lovely and ever-shifting as we got above the cloud-line in the valley itself.
Rest stops came about every hour, which was just as well as the air thinned and muscles started complaining. Half-way up, the rain also came – inevitable in rainy season. For the next couple of hours we trudged through alternating heavy showers and drizzle. Then finally, still several hundred metres above us, we could see the final slopes of the volcano itself, and the plume of sulphurous gas it emits continuously. Finally, this looked like a real volcano trek. A side detour to see the great fissure where the lava that ate Goma in 2002 had emerged, surrounded by small fissures that still hiss gas, brought home viscerally that this thing is alive!
Another hard hour of climbing brought up to a wind-swept lean-to made of sheets of metal, on a little plateau still 200m of altitude short of the summit; apparently some trekkers can make it no further and stop here for the night, as do trekkers who may have forgotten (!) to bring a tent. The last section was really tough work; even looser surface, and, at well over 3,000m altitude (nearly 2 miles above sea-level), a bit of a breathless slog.
And then suddenly: the summit, which on a volcano is a rim, and a narrow one at that. The guards stood nearby anxiously warning each new arrival to stand back from the very edge… we had all heard of the Chinese tourist who’d taken a step too far (memorialised with a small cross); the guards clearly didn’t need the paperwork of dealing with another one!
We’d reached the summit in late afternoon. The caldera itself was generally obscured with seething, mildly sulphurous gases. With each change in breeze, though, we could see part of the lava lake itself, looking in the daylight more like a large flat area of smouldering embers than a maelstrom. Pretty cool sight, but not so spectacular as to distract us from ‘doing the needful’. Tents were being pitched and in the remaining hour of daylight we scrambled around finding bags, unpacking some dry clothing, and getting the lay of our (small – very small) piece of habitable volcano rim. That habitable space is a single rock ledge, just long enough for 5-6 tents end to end, and just wide enough for careful movement past the tents.
One step too far, and valley-side it would be a steep unbroken slide down abrasive volcanic rock for maybe 500m… one wrong step the other side, and it is a 200m fall to some crater ledges and from there another 300m or so down to the lava lake itself. So the choices were simple: being flayed by volcanic rocks; being braised by volcanic lava jets; or being very bloody careful where you stepped so that you lived to blog about the tale.
By the time we’d each had a simple meal of tinned fish and bread, distracted by the seemingly futile attempts of the guides to get a small charcoal fire to light, darkness had begun to fall. Cameras in hand and with the guards keeping a watch for hasty mis-stepping, we climbed back up the 5m ridge that separated our ledge from the crater itself, and finally there it was – the lava lake emerging in fiery reds and yellows from the dusky gloom. The sight is mesmerising; while gas plumes waft around, obscuring one moment and revealing the next, the lava lake seethes with implied forces that roar and crackle below. The lava lake is an oval of about 900m in length, 800m in width, of highly liquid lava. The thin surface crust is fractured and re-fractured constantly, like the glaze on a crème caramel. Unseen rippling forces erupt in one area and then quickly spread across a region of the lake; then another area spurts into life, sometimes with distinct jets sputtering away and spewing lava onto the rock surrounding the lake, and other times as a curtain that unfurls from the edge of the lake with bubbling menace and new plumes of gas.
It was cold up there, exposed to the wind which only gradually died down; damp clothing and no hot food added to the chill, occasionally mitigated by a gentle blast of lava-heated air sent our way. As night fully set in, the colours became ever more intense; when the wind died for a moment the gas plume visible as an orange fog above the mountain from Goma would stand as an immense pillar of lit gas rising kilometres above the volcano, lighting up the 2Km-distant opposite walls of the caldera like a cathedral lit by candles. I stood up there for over 3 hours taking photos and some video, but mostly just enjoying this primal force that far pre-dates any form of life itself.
Fireside yarns from Emmanuel around a weak charcoal fire, wet footwear slowly baking in a cranny near the fire, then it was time to try to sleep. Four of us shared one tent; the trick was to pull on every bit of dry clothing, jam on a woolly hat, zipper up the sleeping bag as tightly as possible, and then try to ignore the many lumpy rock shapes pushing back cynically in all the sorest spots… When what sounded like near-gale force winds whipped up during the night, conjuring up images of being whipped away Mary Poppins style back to Goma, sleep was something only to be diarised for a future night.
Going to the ‘toilet’ was also something to be put off as much as possible; taking that walk involved unwrapping from the protective layers of the sleeping bag and tent, then stumbling out by torchlight to be led by a guard along a jagged, steeply-sloping ‘path’ to a wind-swept and volcanic gas-shrouded niche around 50m from the tent area, where a degree of privacy was possible in the al-fresco restroom with 360-degree views…
The next morning found all tents still pegged in place on the ledge and all inhabitants accounted for, sore, cold and hungry but nonetheless alive and well. Within an hour we were about ready to head off; but first the guides burst into a lusty song to shake out the cobwebs and cheer us on. Going down should be a little easier, the optimist in me said, but rough terrain, an innate clumsiness and the wrong choice of footwear proved me wrong.
The broken rock surface was tough enough climbing up; coming down, it was treacherous, especially because I was wearing sneakers which proved to have no real grip. The first fall jolted my back as well as costing me a small patch or two of skin on hands and arms; the next couple gave my left knee a good whack and started to dent my joie de vivre just a little. I will spare the gory details, but let’s just say a fair dose of bruises and abrasions is a good illustration of what a mistake it is to weak sneakers on a volcano trek. New Balance sneakers at least; by half-way down the mountain, I would have cheerfully pitched them into the lava lake if I had the chance.
Long post, but I hope I have related how special this trek is. Mt. Nyiragongo is one of the few “must sees” that I’d recommend for anyone with the fitness for a moderately strenuous outing. The news that the trek has re-opened is just starting to get out (as seen in this recent NYT article) that tourists are once again able to come see this awesome sight – although it subsequently shut again soon after, so check with tourism authorities first. A good recent article on the economic aspects of volcano tourism is by Jon Rosen, a foreign correspondent based for some time in Rwanda; it is available here.
Hopefully the influx of trekkers will provide sustained employment and further incentives for tourism – not terrorism – in this all-too-frequently blighted part of the world.
*** TREK FACTOIDS *** (last updated: June 2010)
Ascent: 5-6 hours, including about one hour of rest-stops. Need to be at least moderately fit.
Descent: around 4 hours, or longer; quite tough in places (jarring, slippery). Wear hiking boots, not runners!
Overnight versus (for the really fit) day-trip only: the night display by the volcano is not to be missed!
How to Book and What it Costs: The three tour companies I’d contacted had quoted between $280 to $420 per person, depending upon numbers in the group, how much the operator is skimping (on porters etc) and greed. For 7 people we got it down to $260pp from Hakuna Matata; but they dropped the ball logistically. “DIY” via ICCN will be around $260-270 (note: unless you are trusting enough to somehow pay a tour operator in advance, you will do plenty of ‘do it yourself’ anyway). To save money, contact Vianney at ICCN directly (theirs is a no-fee service): tel./text: +243995693627 / email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org .
While you will need half a day to make the arrangements directly in Goma, his emailed instructions are clear and accurate. You must pay for the permits at least one day before the trek, numbers are limited.
Clothing: bring wet weather gear in the rainy season, including a change of warm clothes and footwear (temperature drops to just 3-5 degrees above zero at night, especially with wind-chill). And of course bring sunscreen, a torch and a camera (with tripod if possible).
Tent/sleeping bags: we rented two tents via ICCN; one was ok but had a dodgy zipper, the other lacked a rainproof layer and we used it only for bag storage. Sleeping bags: bring your own if possible, including a mat to ward off the hard, lumpy ground.
Phone: surprisingly good cell phone reception from the peak. ‘Boast’ calls are almost de-rigeur!
Tips: no set rules, but clearly expected; we gave our individual porter, plus our guards, $5 each as a tip. As a group we paid $40 for Emmanuel to accompany us for the day & a half trek, for his great stories.
Getting into Goma: crossing the border is usually done at Gisenyi. There are two crossing points in Gisenyi: one right up in the town market area, the other a 1 Km walk/ride down by the lake-shore. We used the lake-shore crossing and had no problems at all – paperwork galore of course (we took 45 minutes for the whole process, exiting Rwanda/entering Congo) – but friendly, helpful staff on both sides. Even a group member who arrived at 9pm alone was treated fine. From what others told us, the market area crossing is more troublesome — two people we met had been hit up for extra ‘fees’. The other entry point is down at the southern end of Lake Kivu, at Butare; again, the hear-say we received was that this is a really problematic crossing point and should be avoided. Visa for those requiring it: $35 single entry. Showing a Yellow Fever vaccination card is mandatory.
(* with apologies to Robert Fulghum)