When I travel in the developing world I pretty much jump at every tantalizing and slightly crazy opportunity that pops up. Cross the Sahara Desert on the back of local trucks in 1972? Hell yes! Ride the broken-down barge up the mighty Congo River in 1982? Absolutely! Climb up to and over the spectacular 5,540 meter (18,176 foot) Kongma La mountain pass in 2014 instead of taking the easier and less interesting route on the way to Everest Base Camp? You bet I will!
Why do I do such things? It’s certainly not that I am particularly brave or profoundly fit. I have never been attracted to technical mountain climbing, for example, which is genuinely dangerous. I don’t crave serious risk. It’s more that I am deeply drawn to challenging, unpredictable and very exotic experiences, and willing to put up with significant hardships and what I call a reasonable amount of risk to do such things. Besides, I never feel happier or more alive than when I am on these long, adventurous journeys and when I am back home I always look forward to the next one. There is an ancient Greek saying, ‘Good things are hard,’ which I take very much to heart. I have always tried to avoid what I call ‘sleepwalking through life,’ instead embracing the more difficult but also more appealing alternative, Robert Frost’s road less travelled. And yes, to me, that has made all the difference. Now, if I could just bring the same energy and commitment to the chores of everyday life.
In late January, 1982, I had one of those wonderful opportunities. The driver of the overland truck I was temporarily riding on down the eastern side of the wild and edgy Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) asked the people in the group of about eight if they wanted to climb the nearby live volcano, Mount Nyiragongo. I quickly and excitedly exclaimed ‘Yes!’ Unfortunately, everyone else then firmly said ‘No’. I was crushed. When I planned my trip through the DRC (then known as Zaire) I was hoping I would get a chance to climb the magnificent but occasionally deadly, 3,470 meter, 11,380-foot high volcano, which had erupted violently and unexpectedly, killing hundreds of local villagers five years earlier. The driver, a Dutchman who had become a good friend over the past two weeks, came to the rescue. He wanted to climb Nyiragongo too, and told the others the two of us were going and would be back the next day. They did not look happy. We were both looking forward to the climb but neither of us had any idea of the wonders of nature that awaited us.
We grabbed some food and drove 20 kms north from Goma, a city of nearly a million people beside beautiful Lake Kivu and the Rwanda border, to the Virunga National Park headquarters in Kibati, where we hired a porter to lead the way up Nyiragongo and carry some of our things. We were starting very late and had a steep 4,900-foot climb to the crater rim ahead of us, so we headed off quickly. After a short, flat walk the trail entered tropical jungle and we began to climb rapidly. We were both in pretty good shape but our porter was like an Olympic athlete. He shot up that path so fast we nearly had to run to keep up, even though he was carrying far more than us. I also noticed that he was doing it barefoot, which is remarkable when you realize he was walking on hard and sharp volcanic rock for a big part of the hike.
Today, walkers have four separate resting spots where there are comfortable benches to sit on. Lucky them. Our porter did not believe in resting. We virtually had to beg him to stop for a few minutes about half way up the volcano because we were totally gassed. It was getting much colder as we gained altitude, but we were gasping, shivering and sweating profusely at the same time, a strange sensation that made me think of the James Brown song, Cold Sweat.
As we continued to ascend there were fewer and fewer trees, opening up magnificent views that eventually stretched all the way to Goma and Lake Kivu to the south in the fading light. I could only shake my head in disbelief that no one else in the group decided to do this fabulous climb and that was before I had any idea of the spectacle we were soon to witness. It only cost about $20 (think at least $1,000 today), and I began to realize that most of them had very little money left. A week later most of the same people declined to spend $25 for a close encounter with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, my most powerful and unforgettable wildlife experience, ever. Earlier, the same people also skipped the fascinating week-long boat ride up the Congo River for the same reason. I understand the necessity of travelling cheap sometimes, but I don’t see the sense in paying to ride through the wondrous heart of Africa if you can’t afford the most interesting and inexpensive experiences available.
The dirt trail eventually gave way to volcanic rock, which our shoeless porter handled easily. As we plodded on the trail got steeper and steeper, and we slowly approached the summit in the twilight. Today there are 12 very spiffy looking huts by the crater rim and many hikers hire a local cook to climb up and make a meal for them at the top. A lot has changed. There was only one tin hut back in 1982 and it was a pathetic wreck. There were no cooks either. We were the only two hikers when he climbed the volcano. Now it is common to have 15, 20 or more walkers per day.
On the other hand, although the eastern Congo was certainly very unstable back in 1982, as exemplified by a very scary encounter we had with a couple of dead-drunk, heavily-armed, bribe-demanding (and receiving) Congolese soldiers, it is a LOT more dangerous today. There are various bloodthirsty militias, marauding through the general area, killing, robbing and raping indiscriminately, earning the eastern Congo the unofficial title of “Rape Capital of the World.” That is why it is now mandatory to pay well-armed park rangers to accompany you or your group and the entire experience must be booked through a local guide or outfitter, or organized with private companies through the park office, which drives the price way, way up.
It was nearly pitch dark when we reached the top, wolfed down the humble sandwiches we brought along, and decided it was time to take a peak over Nyiragongo’s massive crater rim into the heart of the beast. Neither of us was ready for what followed. The noxious sulphur smell was very off-putting but the vision of a flaming, churning Hell 500 meters below us will stay with me for the rest of my life. Only five active volcanos have a lava lake at their core and Nyiragongo’s 700-meter wide, 600-meter deep sea of molten lava, easily tops the rest. Its massive tongues of leaping orange flames explode from the surface of a lake of pure fire. The molten rock meets the air, cools slightly and forms plates on the lake’s surface in ever-changing patterns that are mesmerizing to watch and even hear. I was astonished by this display of the supreme power of nature. It was like a gigantic fountain of flames gushing upwards that I could not stop staring at. I will connect to a YouTube link that will display what my poor words cannot do justice to. I had to take a break because of the sulphur smell, but I kept going back again and again looking at the fabulous spectacle below me, which was powerfully accentuated by the darkness. I knew we had to go back to that wretched hut and try and get some sleep but it was hard to tear myself away.
It was very cold in that dreadful shed, but we had brought our sleeping bags along, so it was reasonably tolerable. I felt very sorry for our porter who was shivering miserably and I remember the appalling bed frame he was attempting to sleep on collapsing in the middle of the night, sending him crashing to the floor, moaning and cursing. Morning eventually came and we staggered out of the hut very early, had a peak over the rim at the still impressive daylight view, which was not in the same league with the nighttime one. I found the walk down very easy but my very tall and lanky Dutch friend found it to be incredibly hard on his knees, so we took our time. We were supposed to pay our porter in Zaires, the country’s constantly devaluing currency, but I offered him a far more valuable amount in US cash, which he declined. As we walked to the truck he ran back and said he’d changed his mind, as his fellow porters had wisely urged him to accept my offer. We exchanged the money and shook hands warmly. Then my Dutch buddy and I hopped in the truck and drove back to Goma.
Many years after this wonderful experience I learned that volcanologists see Nyiragongo as one of the most dangerous volcanos in the world. The Volcano World website at Oregon State University (OSU) describes it as the most dangerous of them all because its lava is very fluid and fast moving, the lava lake is so deep it produces an unusally large volume of lava when it erupts and because it is perched on top of a very tall and steep sided volcano, increasing the remarkable speed of the lava flow. Not only did Nyiragongo erupt in 1982, a few months after I climbed it, and again in 1983, but it has produced two massive and deadly eruptions in the past 40 years. The OSU site notes that in volcanic eruptions the lava usually moves between one and ten km/hr, but in Nyiragongo’s January 10, 1977 eruption the super fluid lava flows “reached up to 100 km/hr, wiping out several of the surrounding villages and burning almost 300 people alive.” The lava reached the city of Goma in only 20 minutes. Kind of scary.
Obviously potential victims can neither out-run the molten lava or even drive fast enough to escape it on the DRC’s horrendous roads. So why are there still villages near the base of Nyiragongo? Because the soil is exceptionally fertile and local farmers are willing to endure the risk. Another eruption on January 17, 2002 also sent masses of lava all the way to Goma, resulting in 127 deaths, the evacuation of 400,000 people to Rwanda, and the destruction of thousands of buildings, leaving 120,000 people homeless. Volcano World also says that merely climbing Nyiragongo is dangerous because the crater walls could rupture at any time, as they did in 2002. No doubt they are right, but having walked up that spectacular volcano and stared down into its lava lake of fire I think the incredible experience is well worth the minimal risk.