Sunday, 2 August 2015

Sleeping on an Active Volcano - Trekking Mount Nyiragongo, DR Congo (31 Jul- 1 Aug 2015)

Once of the key things I have wanted to do while living in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, is climb Mt Mount Nyiragongo (3470 m) to see the lava lake. This volcano dominates the city of Goma and is clearly visible much of the time. It last erupted on 17 January 2002 when a 13 km fissure opened in the south flank of the volcano. Lava poured from three areas at the end of the fissure and flowed in a stream 200 to 1000 m wide and up to 2 m deep through Goma. Warnings had been given and 400,000 people were evacuated from the city across the Rwandan border into neighbouring Gisenyi during the eruption. Lava covered the northern end of the runway at Goma International Airport, leaving the southern two-thirds usable, and reached Lake Kivu. About 147 people died in the eruption from asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and buildings collapsing due to the lava and earthquakes. At least 15% of Goma comprising 4,500 buildings were destroyed, leaving about 120,000 people homeless. The eruption was the most destructive effusive eruption in modern history.

When driving and running around Goma you see the evidence of this lava everywhere. 

Mount Nyiragongo is a unique volcano in that the crater at the top contains the largest and most voluminous lava lake in the world, measuring a approximately ten million cubic meters. It is one of only 5 lava lakes existing in the world and subject to regular monitoring. The most recent report highlighted the lava lake level in increasing at a rapid rate which is not what you want to hear when you live at the foot of it.

One of my colleagues, Markus, booked our trip through a travel agent as our Congolese staff suggested. Our group consisted of four of us from UNMAS (Max, Guillaume, Markus and I) and one more from the UN Peacekeeping Mission MONUSCO ( Stephanie).

At 0630 our driver turned up on time and we drove a couple of km to the Virunga National Park Office in Goma to wait for the rest of the group. We waited, and waited, and waited some more with the driver repeatedly assuring us that the transport was coming. Some of us went across the road to the only decent cafĂ© in Goma only to find their coffee machine was broken so we had to settle for tea, constantly checking across the road to see if we were leaving. Finally at 0800 there was another vehicle there and we wandered over to be told that they were not expecting us and had no vehicle to take us to the start. A quick phone call to the travel agent got that sorted and after some more waiting we loaded into a vehicle to drive 5 minutes and then wait – some more. Eventually the second vehicle joined us and we drove the 20 bone jarring minutes on the rough road to the Kirbati Patrol Base.

Happy to be moving, even if it was only for 5 minutes

Enjoying the newly sealed road, pity it didn't last long

Really strong men.

Long distance Taxi Truck

Shop and house

Empty Chukudu which is a common form of cargo transport

Partially loaded Chukudu, I have seen them much more loaded than this

Local shop - NZ equivalent of a Dairy

We arrived at 0930 and after registering were told we were not leaving until 1030 – grrr not impressed! We were not happy with the travel agent for getting the timings so wrong and making us get up so early to be waiting around so much. While annoyed I was not altogether surprised as this is how things tend to work in DR Congo. One of our work colleagues terms it NQR (not quite right). Things sort of happen but not how they should.

We are ready - even if no one else is

People steadily arrived over the next hour and finally at 1030 we were ready to go – nearly. There were 16 people consisting of a mix of UN organisations (UNMAS, UNICEF, MONUSCO), Non Government Organisations (charities) and some tourists who came across from Rwanda for the walk. Following us would be porters and I think there was around 15. Only myself and Max, my boss, were carrying our own kit (less one waterbottle that Stephanie's porter carried for me). Two other colleagues Markus and Guillaume shared a porter. Everyone else had a porter carry everything except a small day bag.

Still waiting!

At 1040 we were given a brief which gave us timings to the rest stations, types of animals we might encounter and told us we were to stay together as a group. This restriction of staying together sounded like some people would be frustrated at going too slow and the slower ones frustrated at the other people wanting to go too fast.

Finally at 1045 we left. The trail started with cut back vegetation and a nice easy path but quickly the jungle closed in and the path got rougher and steeper. I was surprised by how fast we were going and thought people were going to suffer later for the early speed. We reached the first rest stop which was a couple of benches to sit on but not enough for everyone - NQR.

Happy to be finally moving!

Walking through the jungle

Congo Line!

We then started heading up steeper and the path became covered in lava rocks which made walking difficult for some. The pace slowly got slower and slower as we steadily climbed.

Volcanic rock path. The Volcano is hidden by the clouds but is still a long way off.

Rest stop

The conversation at the next rest stop was more subdued as people were starting to realise the challenge of climbing 1600 meters from the start point of 1980 meters to 3400 meters at the top. A thunder storm started and there were some very impressive claps of thunder through thankfully there was not much lightning. It started to rain very slightly when we were at one of the rest stops and just after we left the rain came heavier so I put my raincoat on only for the rain to stop a couple of minutes later. It was too hot to keep the coat so it came off again.

As we were resting one of the guys looked down and saw some monkeys in a tree. They were a pale golden colour but too far away to positively identify what they were. We asked one of the guides and he said chimpanzees which seems pretty unlikely unless they have a lot of very rare albino type of chimps. I think they were Golden Monkeys which are rare but do live in the Virunga National Park. The colour and size match.

The pace got even slower as people were starting to get tired and I kept with one of my colleagues who was starting to feel the effects of altitude. It ended up with a group of 6 of us talking our time and resting often. We kept the rests short so we didn’t get cold but every now and again the main group would be waiting and the guide would not keep walking until he through we all rested. We could not seem to get through to him that we were resting regularly as we went. These forced rest stops were conveniently just  long enough to get cold.

It now started raining heavily and I put my raincoat on but soon had the dreaded chin drip going. This insidious drip begins as water collects on your face and condenses on your chin until there is a big enough drop which then slides down your neck, into the tiny gap past your raincoat and down your stomach. I had forgotten to take my baseball cap so had nothing to stop the rain collecting on my face.

The trail was getting steeper and steeper

Heads down in the rain

Nice interesting path

The rest breaks were now silent and everyone’s heads remained down. This was good as I got to see several huge worms that I might have otherwise missed.

Huge EarthWorm

We could now see the silhouette of the huts on the skyline so knew we were getting closer. Off to the North we could also see Mount Karisimbi, Rwanda's highest point, at 4,507 metres. This is on my list of things to do as is the highest point in DR Congo which is Mount Ngaliema (Mount Stanley) at 5110m.

Mt Karisimbe, Rwanda, in the background

We reached a hut where we were forced to stay for 15 minutes to help us to acclimatise (not sure on the science of a 15 minute acclimitisation). The fast people had already been there at least 15 minutes by the time we arrived and they were looking cold. I had just started to cool down when we were able to make the final push up the steepest part to our huts

Getting closer and the silhouette of the huts is starting to be visible on the skyline

Nice views looking back down. Not clear in this photo but we could see Goma and Lake Kivu

Finally released from the hut visible below. Looking down at the caldera of Mt Shaheru (2800m)

The final push to the huts

The huts were not what I was expecting. I had been told there were huts with mattresses and I had a vision of a simple NZ Tramping Hut. Once upon a time they were waterproof but now they were derelict and had tents put up inside. Unfortunately the tents were not waterproof and the walls sagged so much there was only half of the space actually able to be used. Also our hut door was broken and had been removed and leaning against the wall.

This is my hut. The view is fantastic but the condition of my hut doesn't inspire confidence. Our entry fee obviously does not include hut maintenance

I dumped my pack and scrambled up the final little bit to be standing on the edge of the crater looking down at the lava lake. I was a bit further away than I expected but it was an impressive sight. To start with the crater was full of smoke and then it cleared and I could see the lava lake. It was mainly grey with red lines through like cracks in broken class or a map of countries. In different parts lava exploded up and bubbled for a while before settling down and exploding in a different area.

The crater with the lava lake at the bottom

More than satisfied that the effort of getting up here was worth it I headed down to our huts which as we were last were the worst condition. I shared with Stephanie and opposite us were the two French ladies who we had walked with for the last part of the trek. They both worked for UNICEF. Guillaume and Markus were the next hut along and Max ended up in a hut up the top and to the horror of the Guides had to share with a woman because she was odd one out in her group, not that either of them were worried.

My trousers had dried by this point but my top was wet so I changed into dry top and added several more layers as the wind was icy and strong.

My tent within a hut

The next adventure was getting to the toilet. It was down a steep and slippery slope and they had strung a rope for people to hold onto to get down. Given we were all paying 250 US Dollars (normal price is USD 400 but we get discount for being resident foreigners) for the trip which had the maximum of 16 people and had to be booked well in advance as it was always sold out in the weekends and even week days average 10 people per day, I though they could have paid one person for a day of labour to chip out some basic steps to make it safer. The bonus was the toilet was clean but that is probably because everyone was too scared to get down to use it. Max claims that as he was the last hut in his row and against a cliff that is where everyone went to go to the toilet. I was also surprised the toilet had a seat as I was expecting the normal squat toilet.

The toilet.

Pretty fancy with a seat even. Nice half door so you can look at the view while on the loo

Not easy getting down or up

Heading back to our huts

Back at our huts the guys had met a girl by herself but with charcoal so did a deal that she could join us and we use her charcoal. It is just as well they did as the little camp gas stove they had brought at a local supermarket did not work.

Unfortunately the charcoal was not easy to get going. The French girls opposite my hut had some of the porters trying to get it alight and it took 20 minutes to get going. In the mean time I deployed my super expensive ($1 with bonus of coke inside it) and high tech (made it myself) coke can stove with methylated spirits and cooked my dinner, made a hot drink for everyone, cooked Stephanie’s dinner and made another hot drink for everyone.

How many men does it take to light a fire?
(in their defence it was with wet charcoal at high altitude)

I wandered up for another look at the lava lake and now it was getting darker the lava was glowing much brighter and it was a really impressive sight. It was cold in the wind so I was forced back down into shelter.

The lava is starting to show up more as it gets darker

Bubbling lava

Video of the crater and the lava lake

I set about creating wind breaks for the two communal areas and the charcoal finally started to burn so we were able to warm up a bit. Once the charcoal was generating good heat the Swiss guys, Markus and Guillaume, set about making fondue. It is their national day tomorrow so this is a little celebration. It is funny that my first time every having fondue is on top of a volcano in Congo.

Genuine Swiss Fondue

Cooked by a Swiss

And enjoyed by all

We sat around talking and drinking tea and coffee before deciding on one final visit of the lava before bed.

The whole crater was glowing red from the lava and I spent ages watching the changes in the lava surface as different areas flared up and the smoke drifted around. Definitely amazing.

The whole crater glowed red


Finally I ventured for one last expedition to the toilet before getting into our tent within a hut. The hut was on a slight angle so I put a water-bottle on the downhill side to stop me sliding down too much. I was hoping Stephanie did not end up sliding too much in my direction as that would push me onto the wet tent. I was slightly cold underneath but quickly warmed up and slept well.

We were told we were leaving at 0630 or 0700 so decided to set our alarm for 0630 as there was no way people will be ready. I woke at 0615 and packed up as there was no way for two of us to move in the tent at once. During the night I didn’t roll too much except for my feet – with a little assistance from Stephanie’s feet which slid my way during the night.

It was foggy outside and still quite cold. I joined the boys for breakfast then did my final preparations to leave. At 0700 we thought there was movement up top and saw a guide putting on his pack but it was another 10 minutes before we were finally off.

The rocks were wet and it was steep causing several people to struggle going down. The angle eased a little at the next hut but it was still steep and slippery meaning slow going. I was glad of my poles to take some weight off my legs. It was difficult going slow down the hill but I wanted to stay with the slower people and help them down, and I would just get cold at the rest breaks if I sped ahead.

Markus making much easier going than the girl in the background. There were many slips going down the mountain

Relief for many to have got down the steepest part.

Some of our security guards who were scattered through our line of hikers

Volcano in the background looking much clearer than when we descended

Jeans don't make the best hiking pants!

Lava path. It was nice to have a solid path as most of the time was loose lava stones

The views were nice and there was no rush which was just as well as it took us 4 hours 20 to get down, only an hour slower than going up.

At the end the Tour Company had a vehicle waiting so after the obligatory tipping of everyone we were on our way. There was one final NQR on our way back which was the lack of air conditioning or working windows in our van causing it to turn into an impromptu sauna for a while. Also the driver had not packed all the bags and this was only discovered once we got home so he had to go all the way back to pick up the missing bag.

Overall this was a fantastic adventure and well worth the sweat and tears of getting up and down.