DJ vs the Volcano - Round Two

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Congo - The Dem. Repub.  ,
Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ok, if any of you have actually been reading this blog thing, then you might remember my last volcano experience. It did not go well, with yours truly being reduced to a simpering wreck of a man, cowering on the side of a nasty volcano in northern Tanzania.

After that experience I figured I had enough. I mean, how many volcanoes does a person really need to climb in a life time? Apparently, one more.

I have to admit, crossing to Congo was a bit of traveler's vanity. Initially, I simply wanted the stamp in the passport. A piss-poor reason to visit a country, but there you have it. As it stood, my ability to visit Congo was mostly limited to Goma, right on the Rwandese border. This is because the Congolese have a distressing and tragic tendency to kill each other, and harbour any number of rebel groups, refugees, and plain criminals. Back in November, Nakunda, a rebel Tutsi commander, had caused real havoc around the Goma/Lake Kivu area, but by the time I was arriving, things had gone relatively calm. When you are speaking about Congo, that is a HUGE "relatively." I found out that about 5 days after I left there were five murders during one night in the town. Sadly, this was an event not as uncommon as it should be.

I crossed into Congo with Anna and Christina, two English girls I met in Rhuengeri where they were gorilla trekking. We spent the night at the Shu Shu guesthouse (at $15 a night, the best deal in town. All rooms come with a five pack of complementary condoms on the bed, some even unopened.)

Goma suffers from a common ailment found in many countries where the UN and NGO's flock during times of crisis. That is, lots of UN and NGO money floating around which drives up prices to sky high levels. The people with these organizations don't care as they are paid accordingly and have expense accounts. For a backpacker, it is a nightmare.

Looming over Goma is the massive volcano of Nyiragongo. Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002, cutting a path of destruction through the town. Over 40% of the city was destroyed. Despite warnings, over 100 people died, with over 140,000 being left homeless. Even today, five years on, burnt out buildings, and jagged clumps of volcanic rock give parts of the town a post-apocalyptic feel. At night, the top of the volcano glows red from the lava pool bubbling in its caldera. It's a bit ominous, and very cool - providing you don't live there waiting for the next eruption.

Acquiring permits to trek the volcano was an adventure in its own right. Technically, there is only one agency in Goma authorized to issue permits, although rumours abound that showing up at the park entrance and offering a bit of incentive can also work. Once a permit is obtained, you need to arrange transport. It's a long way out and back. The other issue is security. This is the Congo. This country has been wracked by international and civil conflict for years. It is estimated that over 4,000,000 people have died as a result of the conflict and its fallout over the last five years. Even in town, we were warmed by our guesthouse staff not to walk around at night because there were many "bad soldiers". Considering the DRC army is not always paid on time, or at all, this is perhaps understandable. The volcano is significantly outside of town, and has been the site of conflict in the past. When you arrive at the entrance to the park, you are greeted by a sign announcing the park's name, riddled with bullet holes. It all makes for great tourism slogans. "Come for the volcano, stay for the civil wars." This is not a tame country. It's another tragic example of wonderful people being held hostage by the whims and avarice of bad men.

The climb up to the top of the crater was not easy. Appropriate, given the surroundings. I struggled, as usual, with my sadly out of shape condition. Finally, I made it up the final torturous 30 metres to the lip of the crater and beheld... nothing. Clouds had covered up the summit of the volcano, and looking into the deep crater was looking into a grey void. An ominous rumbling noise could be heard and slightly felt coming from the depths of the crater, but that was all. I was disappointed. It's petty, but I had paid over $125 U.S. to climb this stupid mountain, and I wanted lava, damn it! Then, like the hand of providence, the cloud lifted. The pain in my legs was gone, and all tiredness erased. I consistently find it difficult to avoid using clichés when describing natural phenomenon. But standing on the lip of the crater and looking into the depths was primeval experience. The crater is over 2600 feet (790 metres) deep, twice the height of the Empire State Building. Looking down, hundreds of feet below, there was a ridge of ragged grey rock, with another smaller lava plain even further below. In the middle of this plan, again hundreds of feet below was the lava pool itself. It was black with red lines of molten rock webbed across its surface. At the edges the viscosity of the rock was weakened and bubbling red lava could be seen. Standing on the top of the crater, perspective was difficult to gauge, but it was immense. This is nature, as powerful, seething, and as raw as it gets. Even standing over two thirds of a kilometre above, you could feel the heat emanating from the pool.

We spent about 45 minutes at the top. After a while, the cloud blew back in, and gradually the roiling red pool faded back in the mist. We started the long trek back to the road and Goma. At just about the half way point I slipped and carved a small chunk of flesh from my right hand. As I write this, the scab is still quite large and nasty. I expect it will leave a scar. But damn, that's a cool scar. "How did you get that?" "What? That? Oh you know, slipped while climbing an active volcano in the middle of Africa. The usual."

Just after the halfway point, our guide (and guard) Jean-Basco went tense. "Soldiers." In this part of the world, that could mean salvation or damnation depending on whose soldiers they were, and when they had last been paid. As we looked harder, we recognized the baby blue caps of MONUC soldiers, the UN peacekeepers assigned to this part of the Congo. (As an aside, is there a more pansy colour that the UN could have chosen to make their soldiers wear? Possibly pink, but come on. Who gets intimidated by a baby blue ball cap?) We stumbled into the middle of a group of about 25-30 Indian soldiers who had recently arrived in Congo for a stint of peacekeeping. They were all very friendly, carrying their backpacks and machine guns, and treating us like Bollywood stars. Before leaving, they insisted on a group photo. We borrowed a few of their UN caps and snapped the shot. Hanging out with Indian peacekeepers, on the side of an active volcano, in the middle of Africa - traveling doesn't get any better than that.
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pierre on

My book "thehurdles of a young doctor in a war-torn country" found on or share my experience on the town of Goma where I lived 15 years ago.

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