Surprisingly, I had a cellphone signal. For one giddy instant, I actually considered calling home: “Hi Mum, you’ll never guess where I am. . .” and then thought better of it.
For if there was one thing sure to put Mother’s nose out of joint, one thing guaranteed to catapult her into a torment of parental panic, it would be the revelation that her son was standing on top of a hyperactive volcano in the Congo.
Plundered by its Belgian colonial masters, bedeviled by 50 years of kleptocratic misrule, theater of the deadliest conflict since World War II, the Congo has languished pretty low on Mummy’s vicarious holiday wish list for the past hundred years. Only a couple of days before, I hadn’t been sure whether to go . . . .
“But the Hutu militia are 200 kilometers north,” Kennedy had insisted with a broad salesman’s grin. “They won’t come near the border, because that would give Rwanda the excuse to cross into DRC to crush them.”
This, I imagine, was how most people had been arriving at their decision to defy the travel advisories. You’re sitting in Gisenyi, perhaps a little underwhelmed by the sanitized Rwandan resort town on the shores of Lake Kivu. You know that Goma, the gateway to the Congo, is a mile down the road. Then one of Gisenyi’s émigré travel agents — a little grasping, but full of Congolese charm — gets wind of your interest and tries to offer some reassurance.
“The route is safe.” Kennedy leaned forward insistently, and I sorely wanted to believe him, for there was one glowing reason to cross the border. Yesterday evening, as yet another power cut snuffed out the lights of Goma, I had seen that reason casting an orange incandescence in the northern sky.
At 11,382 feet, Mount Nyiragongo — the mountain Kennedy was cajoling me to climb — isn’t the largest of the eight volcanoes, known collectively as the Virungas, that stud the border between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. But deep within its crater there broods a special treasure: the largest and most accessible lava lake on Earth, one of the most spectacular natural marvels in all Africa.
I had arrived in the region in summer 2011, during a fortunate window. Since mid-1994, when the Hutu-Tutsi divisions that precipitated the Rwandan genocide spilled over into the Congolese interior, the province of North Kivu has been at the epicenter of Central Africa’s Great War, the desultory and shamefully underreported conflict that has claimed an estimated 5 million lives and displaced millions more. But I’d reached Gisenyi during a lull in the fighting; curious tourists were crossing the border daily.
The peace was to be short-lived. Within months of my climb, the paraffin-soaked touch-paper would ignite again, as a ragtag band of militiamen calling themselves M23 swept into the Virungas from the north to launch an offensive against the combined forces of the Congo’s national army and MONUC, the UN’s 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission.
As North Kivu’s latest chapter of misery unfolded and fighting raged anew, Virunga National Park, the 3,000-square-mile tract of verdant highlands, equatorial forest and Rift Valley lakes in which Nyiragongo resides, was closed indefinitely. But following a truce between insurgents and security forces in November 2013, the park — Africa’s oldest protected area, established in 1925 — finally reopened to visitors in early 2014.
This rare piece of good news came at what appears to be a critical juncture in the battle to save the region from threats both at home and abroad. In April, a feature-length documentary about the park, “Virunga,” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, to widespread acclaim. Ahead of its global release on Nov. 7, an accompanying campaign to halt the activities of the British oil company Soco, whose alleged explorations around Lake Edward are exposed in the film, has been gathering momentum. As celebrities and conservationists pile on to highlight the park’s vulnerability and importance, this vital cradle of biodiversity, home to a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas, is finally getting the attention it deserves.
And with the embattled park unlocking its gates to visitors, the mists have once again begun to lift on Nyiragongo and its extraordinary lava lake. Although the trail to the volcano’s summit remains closed at the time of writing, park officials are hopeful that it, too, will open before the end of the year.
That footpath, Kennedy had explained to me, starts 12 miles north of Goma, along a heavily U.N.-fortified road. I would be in, up, down and out within 36 hours — hardly penetrating the Heart of Darkness, just taking a quick foray along a peripheral capillary.
My mind was made up.
At 11 a.m. the next day, I stood at the Kibati Ranger-Post accompanied by four more victims of Kennedy’s reassuring smile: two fearless young women from London and a pair of perspiring Finnish physicists, who looked like they were anticipating a rabid, tourist-slaying horde to jump out of the bushes at any moment.
The post marks Virunga National Park’s southern boundary. From here, it runs north for 120 miles, towards the snow-clad peaks of the high Rwenzori Mountains. But the sign at the post still bore the original name: “Parc National Albert” – yellow capitals on a metal disk peppered with bullet holes, collateral damage in a military engagement, or perhaps strafed by a drunk with an AK-47: disconcerting, either way.
After some formalities and a security briefing from a soldier, most memorable for the jovial injunction “Don’t fall in the crater!,” we were introduced to Mwendo, a park ranger in threadbare camo-green fatigues, an antique Kalashnikov that he would later introduce as “Anastasie” slung over his shoulder. Mwendo’s job was to take tourists to the summit and back again and to provide the post chief down here with hourly updates of our progress and welfare. His easy manner belied the constant danger his cadre faces from the rebels who still inhabit the park’s northern reaches. Outnumbered and often outgunned, more than 130 of his colleagues have been killed in the line of duty over the past decade. With an economy of words that would become characteristic over the coming hours, he led the way into the trees.
It was midafternoon before we got a first glimpse of the summit we were aiming for, although by then we were already halfway up its eastern flank. For the past three hours we’d slogged uphill through tangles of cloud forest. But it was only now that the haze was lifting, giving context to the ground beneath our feet. Looking back the way we’d come, verdant flatlands ran east toward the rolling hills of Rwanda, while far to the north, the symmetrical cone of Karisimbi, tallest of the Virungas, stood regal beneath a bowler hat of cloud. Our target’s aspect was more foreboding: Up ahead, Nyiragongo’s great dome had broken through, its silhouette all bulbous and misshapen by the push and pull of forces underground. In local mythology, Karisimbi’s summit represents Heaven. Nyiragongo is Hell.
From what we’d seen, the reputation seemed well deserved. Quite apart from the region’s continued instability, Africa’s most active volcano conceals a violence of its own, and its latest major eruption had defined our trip so far. The tsunamis of craggy rock that loomed behind the makeshift homesteads along the Goma road, the chink of ankle-twisting rocks under our boots, the charred stumps of incinerated trees: all were remnants of the molten river that had spewed from the mountain in January 2002 before hurtling toward Goma, engulfing 14,000 homes and forcing 350,000 people to flee the city. Someday, volcanologists have warned, Nyiragongo will blow again, potentially transforming Goma into a modern Pompeii.
At “le troisieme repose,” a clearing at about 9,000 feet where we stopped to rest our aching legs, Mwendo pointed out fists of rock lodged high in the branches of charcoaled trees, spat out when that 2002 eruption broke. More ominous still was the steam that could be seen billowing up from moss-rimmed fissures, not 60 feet from where we were sitting. As recent events on Japan’s Mount Ontake tragically reaffirmed, climbing an active volcano gives much reason for pause.
“Most people think the lava came out the top,” remarked porter Yassin, relishing the opportunity to drop the burlap wash-bag full of tents and sleeping bags that he had been balancing on his head for several uphill hours. “Actually, it came out from here. It took five days to reach Goma. From here on up we are safe!”
Minimally reassured, we plowed on through the final band of jungle, until the trees gave way to a bleaker environment of giant lobelia and musenze bushes. With a thick mist reducing visibility to a few yards, and our trekking group strung out in various stages of exhaustion by the steepening slope, it came almost as a surprise when the trail finally petered out, and a multilingual sign bade us bienvenue, karibuni and welcome to the summit of Nyiragongo.
It could hardly be described as a welcoming place. Up here, the mountain is desolate — a cold and lifeless jumble of carnelian-colored lava terminating at the serrated lip of the crater rim. At first, all we got was a hint of what lay within. Standing at the brink of a great void inundated with swirling cloud, we had only the heat on our faces and the sulphurous smell to go by. That, and the sound — a churning, roiling monotone — of something very restless down below.
Only at the onset of dusk — with our three dome tents all perched on an exposed rock-shelf and a charcoal fire burning to counter the plummeting temperature — was Nyiragongo’s secret finally revealed. At Mwendo’s beckoning, we gathered along the razorback, around a foot-high crucifix crudely welded from iron bars, raised in memory of “Le Chinois,” a Chinese man who fell — some say threw himself — into the crater in 2007 and didn’t come out alive. The view beyond his humble memorial showed that he didn’t have a prayer either way.
Beyond the rim, the ground fell away sheer and hellish, down to a point where some seams of bright orange had begun to slice through the fog. The picture sharpened as the light dwindled. By nightfall we were looking at the lava lake in full cry: a giant disk of molten rock 800 feet wide, surfaced with a mosaic of crusty plates that you could watch harden and tremble under the mighty pressure before imploding back into the roiling cauldron. The whole scene seemed to breathe, each exhalation spitting out coronas of liquid fire that faded from orange to black as they cooled. It was a window into the forces that shaped the world, our inanimate planet at its most alive.
For hours, everyone stood there dumbstruck, listening to the lake’s purr in between the thunder-cracks of an electrical storm breaking somewhere far away. Even our Congolese companions seemed cowed, the familiarity of many expeditions having done little to quash inherited superstitions. While we balanced cameras on rocky nooks to take photos through the dark, they stood and pondered a crucible of evil spirits, each molten belch a symbol of an ancestor’s torment.
“We say that people who are evil in life must come here when they die,” Mwendo murmured. “The angrier the spirits become, the more the volcano burns.” And this evening, it was burning bright, for this fabled mountain has had lots of ammunition in the Congo, where bad spirits have been particularly busy.
It wasn’t the sort of place where sleep came easy, and by lunch the next day our foray on Nyiragongo was done. A whistle-stop trip indeed, but I was glad to get down, if only to re-validate my insurance policy and for the sake of my mum’s sanity.
Although true stability remains elusive, few but the most intrepid are about to make a habit of holidaying in the Congo. But later that afternoon, clinking bottles of Primus beer with new friends on Kivu’s lakeshore, I couldn’t help wondering, as people have since the days of Stanley and Livingstone, what other marvels this great green blank on the tourist map might hold.
Wismayer is a freelance journalist based on London. His Web site is www.henrywismayer.com.
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KLM and Ethiopian Airlines offer one-stop flights from Washington Dulles to Kigali, Rwanda. Several other airlines offer two-stop flights from Dulles. From Kigali, a taxi to Gisenyi, at the Rwanda-Congo border, costs about $100-$120. Once you have walked across the border to Goma, pre-booked transportation to park trailheads and accommodations is available for $122-$174 per vehicle through visitvirunga.org/getting-there.
All U.S. citizens require a tourist visa from the Congolese immigration service. With a prepaid activities or hotel booking, visas can be applied for online.
Rumangabo, North Kivu , Congo
011-243-99-128-0312 or 011-243-99-392-6033
Twelve luxury bungalows with lounging area and fireplaces, soaking tubs and curved stone showers. Meals are served at the main lodge. Rooms for $244 single occupancy or $325 double occupancy. Prices include breakfast.
Bukima Tented Camp
Virunga National Park, Congo
The Bukima camp is one of the main starting points for mountain gorilla treks within the park. Comfortable tented accommodation commands wonderful views of Mount Mikeno. Rooms for $162.50 single occupancy (shared tent) or $325 double occupancy. Prices include breakfast.
Lac Kivu Lodge
162 Avenue Alindi, Quartier Himbi, Goma, Congo
One of the better options in Goma, this midrange lakeside lodge has a range of rooms available from $70 per night.
Virunga National Park
The Nyiragongo trail climbs from 6,525 feet to 11,382 feet, and it normally takes four to six hours to hike. A reasonable level of fitness is required. There are now huts near the crater-rim for people to stay in overnight. The trekking permit costs $232 per person. Porters are available at $12 per day. The trail is currently closed, but it is expected to open soon.
Gorilla Trek, $465 for trekking permit, plus $116-174 for transportation to Bukima.
Virunga is also home to two populations of habituated chimpanzees, one in Tongo and one near park headquarters in Rumangabo. Permits cost $116. Trips to Tongo are currently closed, but trips to the Rumangabo group are available to guests at Mikeno Lodge.
In the far north part of the national park, the Rwenzori Mountains, the fabled “Mountains of the Moon,” offer spectacular trekking among peaks reaching more than 16,000 feet. Trekking permits cost $232 , plus $112 to make use of the mountain-hut system along the main route.