I heard about the trip to hike the active volcano Mt. Nirangongo in Congo close to Goma in my first weeks in Kampala- and of course wanted to go. The pictures just looked to unreal to be true. Since we have been right next the Congolese boarder for our meditation retreat anyways there was no question – we had to go. During the meditation we could see Mt. Nirangongo glowing at night – a bright spot during the 10 days of sitting.
The previous week we had organized all the formalities, which included booking of the track itself, transportation from the boarder to the starting point and of course Visas, which are only given out to tourists for visiting the Virunga National Park. The booking is really straight forward – a Belgian man is managing the park – so that could be the reason:)
On March 28th it was time, I actually got really excited -not only to hike an active volcano but going to Congo, the place you hear so many horrifying things about in the news – we are going to risk a glimpse ourselves. Since many of my friends in Kampala had done this trip I was not actually worried, but still – this slight excitement did overcome me – its a similar feeling as going on a roller coaster ride.
The boarder presented no problems – even though we were the only ones checked for yellow fever vaccination, which I found slightly absurd. The transportation worked out perfectly and so 30 minutes after getting to the boarder, which consists of metal sheets here, we were in Goma. Goma is – as expected less organised than Rwanda in terms of trash and traffic- but other than that it still has the east African phone companies Airtel and MTN, commercials for lighter skin and a lot of banks – nothing overly surprising. Moving towards the city limits, there was one thing though that I’ve never seen anywhere before – giant wooden scooters. Mostly used by kids, they are used for transporting people or goods. The user is kneeling on the middle part, while pushing with the other leg. To be honest they look a bit unpractical to me, but what do I know and people probably look at my bike with all its bags and might think the same..
On the 30 minute drive from Goma we are driving on the hardened lava stream that is now transformed to a street and pass by hundreds of these wooden houses, that have a beautiful decoration and do remind me somehow of the alps – which is a weird comparison I know. I can spot one man who is missing a hand, but other than that it all seems very calm and – whatever that means – normal.
At the starting point we register and pack a bag for the porter – I am usually a high defender of carrying my stuff myself, but we had to rent warm sleeping bags and they each weighed 10 kilos – so no way I can get up a hill with that and all my cloths and food. Crazy is that he doesn’t carry the bag in a backpack, but with a cloth around the bag and his forehead- I could not walk 5 steps with that, of that I am very sure.
The hike is extremely well organised – there are 4 rest points evenly spread out for the 5 hour hike. We are accompanied by 3 rangers and – lucky us – a geologists from Goma. After about an hour the lava river starts, which consists of first big extremely sharp stones. None of us fall, but from what the ranger says, one or the other person must have fallen here and hurt themselves. The outbreak of Mt. Nirangongo has only been recorded twice – in 1977 and 2002. After a two hour hike we are at the point where the lava came out in 2002. I am learning that actually at the top of the volcano we would be safer than in Goma – how reassuring:) In 2002 no one died because the population was evacuated on time, but all of the houses were destroyed. I wonder if that’s why the houses are mostly built out of wood now- to make a future eruption less painful? This volcano exists of a lava lake but there are fractions in the volcano where the lava flows through in case of an eruption. The volcano used to be a Stratovulcano (classic idea of an erupting volcano)- which is the reason for the shape but has been now transformed and now the lava flows out in a stream.
The path is quite steep, and it does start raining and hailing like crazy for some time but finally we make it to the top. And its so worth everything- every Dollar, every step, every previous excitement. Its just so impressive- a giant giant crater, which due to the rainy season (for once an advantage) can be seen extremely clearly. And in the middle the crater lake – already impressive to look at when we get there at around 4pm, but even more astonishing when it gets dark. You see explosions, the lava changes shape continuously and smoke. Not that I’ve been there, but the only comparison I have is like looking right into hell. In the background you can see two other volcanoes, which are even 1000 m higher.
I can only say, being up there on Mt. Nirangongo was one, if not the, most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my life. The best description I can give is: shit, these places actually exist!