Nyiragongo Part 1

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There’s lava down there, purportedly.

Reading this week:

  • True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway

It was time to climb Mt. Nyiragongo. This was the other highlight of my COS trip. Nyiragongo is an active volcano in the south of Virunga National Park just over the border from Rwanda in the DRC. People climb the volcano every day and it is a two day event, climbing up one day, staying at a camp at the summit, and then climbing down the next. After another luxurious night at Kibumba Camp I woke up early for breakfast and was driven over to the volcano.

When I arrived at the start of the trailhead there was a pretty big crowd and I was kinda disappointed, but it turned out most had just come down from the summit and I would be climbing up the volcano with just two other guys, Jeremy and YP. They were French and Swiss, and worked for Olam. Jeremy was actually familiar with the Isanya Coffee Plantation near Mbala which was pretty neat. But since the guides spoke French, and these two guys spoke French, I was the only Philistine around that didn’t speak French. They held all the briefings in English for my benefit and man I should have studied my French harder.

I had opted for the full package, so at the trailhead they had a backpack waiting for me with most of the necessary supplies. It included a sleeping bag, a fleece sleeping bag liner, a fleece sweater, a parka, and a rain poncho. I packed a change of clothes, extra socks, a notebook, and my little camera. I should have brought a flashlight but didn’t even think of it. I also should have brought toilet paper, because there isn’t any at the top, but, uh, this didn’t come up. I was actually woefully under-prepared for this whole event, because I only had kinda crappy tennis shoes instead of hiking books, just regular clothes, and my little point and shoot camera felt massively under-powered compared to my Francophone friends’ massive rig. Hiring a porter was an option, but being a manly man of manliness I opted out. Food was taken care of by our amazing chef Honoré and a porter hired to haul food for the whole party.

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At one point it rained on us.

I suppose I’m not exactly a mountaineer but this hike is tough. The trailhead is at about 2000m and the summit is at 3470m, and the trail is 8km long. I guess on average that’s a 9% grade, but it gets steeper and steeper as you go along. We wound up doing it in about 5 hours which is pretty much dead average. The guides will do the trip 2-3 times a week. The first part was a fairly pleasant hike through the jungle. There are a four pre-planned stops along the way and you eat lunch as you ascend (they had given us sandwiches and fruit at the trailhead).

About halfway up you pass by the vent that was the source of Nyrigongo’s 2002 eruption. The trail until that point is on a stretch of lava from the eruption, and the vent is still visibly off-gassing a bit. Besides that though, you couldn’t tell the area had been a lava-strewn hellscape only 17 years before. The lava from Nyrigongo flows extremely quickly, and given the steep sides of the volcano it moves fast. So we are told. The other interesting fact about the vent is that it is at the same height (again so they told us) as the lava lake inside the crater, and there was a lot of mountain left to climb.

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Last rest stop before the final rock scramble.

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After ascending into the cloud line it is very cold. On the way up though I was just in a long-sleeve t-shirt and was still sweating. Don’t try this climb without a change of clothes. Depending on the time of year apparently it may or may not be cloudy at the top, but for us it was walking through pea soup. Not having ever seen the Alps, between the wind and the fog it felt very alpine, which was amazing considering we were hiking through steamy (not that steamy) jungle just that morning. Frankly I was glad the fog was there. The last chunk of the mountain is a steep rock scramble with a big heavy backpack and I was glad I couldn’t see how far I had to fall. Until we were back down it the next day I was scared of the descent the whole time I was up there.

Finally though the small “cabins” of the summit camp came out through the fog and we were at the top! I was a bit ahead of the other guys and one of the guides pointed out the smell, and initially I thought he was talking about the toilet. It was of course the sulfer smell of an active volcano. Besides our immense joy at having finished the hike, exhausted as we were, the top was a bit anti-climactic for us because it was solid fog. I had convinced myself that the heat of the volcano would keep the crater clear but this was not the case. It was pretty amazing to hear the lava boiling some 700m below us. After settling in and changing clothes we mostly hung out lamenting the lack of view for all that hiking. We took some pictures of us with fog and then hung out in the kitchen hut because there was a big warm brazier there. They gave us some tea and hot chocolate and it was a lovely time.

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Chillin’ in the kitchen hut.

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Gorillas!

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After two weeks of blog posts about traveling somewhere, finally we’re on some content – gorillas! My first major event at Virunga National Park was going to go see some gorillas in their natural habitat. As explained to us the previous night in a brief by a ranger, we were off to see a family of 27 gorillas that had been habituated to human contact and were constantly tracked by park rangers. I woke up pretty early and enjoyed watching the sunrise over the park and watching the mountains come out of the mist. There was drumming in the distance that started up around 0500 and kept going for an hour. In the morning I also saw some very large hummingbirds getting some breakfast at the flowers around the camp.

We set off probably around 0730 and after another quick briefing we were off to see the gorillas. They were fairly close, but we had to hike for about an hour and a half up a very muddy trail in the quickly warming jungle. Before we set out they had given us face masks to protect the gorillas. The gorillas can contract human diseases and so we had to stay far enough away and wear these masks to prevent germs. Eventually we got to where the other rangers had been tracking the gorillas and were told to don our masks. We stepped off the trail and looked for gorillas.

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Me with the gorillas.

After stepping off the trail, we turned a corner and BAM, gorillas. That was stunning to turn the corner and then just be meters away from four gorillas just chilling on top of a little hill grooming each other. Then I looked around and there were quite a number more in the surrounding area. Experiences like these make me think that bigfoot or the yeti could be real, because despite weighing 500 pounds the gorillas could easily hide in the dense brush and if they didn’t want to be seen you would be hard pressed to spot them.

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Ranger helping Peter get that shot.

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We had an hour allotted with the gorillas. The rangers try to get you to the gorillas around the time they take their mid-morning nap and therefore aren’t moving much, but we showed up a bit early and wound up slowly following the gorillas as they moved through the underbrush eating leaves. We saw all sorts of fun family scenes. I remember seeing a mom holding a baby and a small juvenile hanging out in a little pocket of green and eventually a silverback came over to hang out. I really enjoyed watching the little baby gorillas, especially the ones that were climbing trees and hanging out up there. They were super cute. What else? A couple of times we got really good looks at a silverback just sitting down eating and then maybe moving away. We saw some larger gorillas climb up trees. I guess they’re not supposed to be all that arboreal but they’re pretty good at it despite that.

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Gorilla in a tree.

At one point a silverback got kinda mad at us I guess and came at us. I dropped into a crouch (per our briefing – you’re not supposed to run) but the guides said don’t be scared. He backed off eventually. There was one what I assume was a female that would keep watching us pretty close as she ate. I scared a baby that was staring at me; I waved my fingers and then it looked surprised and ducked down behind some bushes.

Eventually our hour was up and we head back down the trail. The rest of the afternoon was spent just hanging out at Kibumba camp, staring at Nyirogongo and imagining what it was going to be like to climb it the next day. Seeing the gorillas was really cool, and it was amazing to see them in their natural habitat. I was especially pleased that we had a small group; it was just Peter and I and the rangers and the gorillas. If you want to see gorillas I highly recommend coming over to the DRC; this was according to the biased rangers, but not only is seeing gorillas in Rwanda $1400 as opposed to $400 in the DRC, but the rangers say often they don’t even see gorillas. Plus Kibumba Camp at Virunga is gorgeous and just being in the area was phenomenal.

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The baby kept trying to run off and the juvenile kept dragging him back. Babysitting, you know?

Travel to Kibumba Camp

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Mt Nyirogongo, viewed from Kibumba Camp bar.

Reading this week:

  • The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

After an evening in Rubavu, the next day it was time to cross over into the DRC to visit Virunga National Park. I was supposed to be at the border at noon, so in the morning I went for a walk. As I was walking around, there were a lot of other people carrying large carafes like the kind you keep hot water or coffee in. I also spotted two people carrying large pots on their heads, and in Rubavu and on the way there from Kigali I spotted a large number of little old women sweeping up sidewalks or weeding hedges. I was impressed. Eventually I took a taxi to the border, though I was delayed again by the president giving a speech or something preventing the taxis from getting to the border.

The border crossing went largely smoothly, though it was a bit confusing. First you have to check out of Rwanda, but there weren’t any signs or anything being like “check out of Rwanda here.” But I figured it out and then just waltzed across the border to the DRC. I had to wash my hands and had my temperature checked twice I think as a precaution against ebola. On the DRC side I had to go through immigration of course.

In the DRC they speak French and I had meant to brush up on my French, but then got lazy and figured my high school French would see me through. I really should have brushed up on my French. At DRC immigration I got in a line and went up to a counter with a sign that said “Rwanda -> RDC.” I figured that was for me but when I got there the dude behind the glass immediately yelled at me “ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE YOU GO. ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE.” I stood there bewildered and eventually he explained slightly better that I should go to window number five. I went to Window #5, got my stamp, got my yellow card checked, and went to the Virunga office which is right at immigration. Waiting for our ride to the park to arrive, I met Peter from Belgium. He has spent most of his career though working around Nigeria. He’s a pretty interesting dude and liked to talk.

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Goma street scene.

Eventually our driver showed up and took us to the park. The thing about the DRC of course is that if you are a consumer of US you only ever hear bad things about the DRC if you hear about it at all, so I didn’t know what to expect. To get to the park we had to drive through Goma, the border town and home apparently of 1 million people. I don’t know what I was expecting but Goma isn’t it. A lot of it was really nice though as you got to the outskirts it looked more familiar to my Zambia experience. I was struck by the stylishly dressed people. I guess I shouldn’t have been but I was. Outside of Goma we went through a checkpoint where we met the park rangers. That checkpoint was kinda wild. There were tons of motorcycles going through, dudes with guns (the rangers), run down buildings and volcanic stone, and it was sorta gloomy and the whole thing had a Mad Max vibe to it.

The rangers showed up and we got back in the Land Rover and drove the rest of the way to the camp. We drove through a few villages. The kids yelled Muzungu at us. The villages had goats and lots of sheep and a few cows, and the trees were these trees that look to me like bamboo but are regular trees, and the views got more and more gorgeous. Eventually we got to the camp and had a welcome passion fruit juice. Almost immediately there was a delicious lunch and then we got shown our glamping tents.

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Glamping.

The tents at Kibumba Camp in Virunga National Park have hot showers and running toilets and hot water for coffee in the room. It’s lux. They have a bar and patio with a fireplace (it was pretty chilly that high up) with stunning views looking right a Nyirogongo. I don’t have the words to describe this part of the country. The volcano was covered with mist most of the day but it rained eventually and cleared up and it was stunning. Off to the right is another volcano, also stunning. At night you can see the glow of the caldera on the clouds. In the evening one of the rangers came by and told us all about gorillas and about our trek the next day. After that I had a beer with Peter the Belgian and a German guy, and then a delicious dinner, and then returned to the tent to find a hot water bottle heating up the bed for me. The DRC is nice!

Travelling to the DRC

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Nyirogongo from Rubavu.

Reading this week:

  • Endymion by Dan Simmons

After my jaunt to Zimbabwe, my next destination was Virunga National Park in the DRC. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Kigali, Rwanda, and then head to the border from there. Getting to the airport in Harare and flying to Kigali all went very smoothly, and I arrived in Kigali a little after the sun had set. I had arranged to stay at the Teahouse B&B in Kigali, and they sent a taxi to pick me up. First impression of Kigali was that it is beautiful. It was just warm enough to be very pleasant and seeing all the lights on the hills during the taxi drive was amazing. It reminded me of landing in Guam for the first time and driving down the beach with the weather and the lights reflecting on the water.

The next day confirmed my first impression over and over. After a fantastic breakfast at the hotel they called me a taxi and took me to the bus station. Rwanda took some getting used to though after two years in Zambia. In Rwanda they drive on the right side of the road, as opposed to the left in Zambia, so for a while I kept thinking we were driving on the wrong side of the road. I also had to get used to the currency. It’s 900 francs to the dollar, but I would just think of the 5000 franc note as five bucks. Then, when something was five bucks, in my head I’m like “five bucks?! It’s practically free!” But in Zambia in Kwatcha I would hesitate before spending 50 Kwatcha (aka $5) on something. The taxi ride to the bus station was 8000 francs which I felt was pretty cheap, but that’s a 80 kwatcha taxi ride.

The bus station went smoothly with the taxi driver finding me a bus. I got on the bus and we actually left pretty quick. It didn’t really matter though; I thought this trip was supposed to take no more than three hours but it took five. I think this is because we were more or less following the president of Rwanda and there were roadblocks that slowed us down. Some thoughts I wrote down on the ride: First off Kigali is like, so so nice. It’s nicer than American cities. I wonder what the hell Peace Corps volunteers do in Rwanda. If things were this nice in Zambia I’d be thinking to myself “development complete.” At the bus station a guy was walking around selling magazines, and offered me the English-language version of The Economist to give you a sense I guess of what people are reading around here. I was excited to see people growing cocoyam in the gardens I could see by the road. I was also very impressed by the cushions on the bike racks. In Zambia and here people ride around on people’s bike racks. But no one in Zambia has ever apparently thought of putting a cushion on the bike rack, and when I saw that here I was like “oh man that’s genius.” A lot of the buildings also have these super sweet tile roofs, like the Italian (I guess) tile that’s semi-circular. It looks super nice and cool. I also saw sheep along the way which I thought was unusual (also goats and cows). The whole country is comprised of gorgeous valleys, some terraced and others covered in banana groves. I spent the whole bus ride staring out the window mesmerized by how gorgeous it was.

After arriving in Rubavu I checked into a hotel and then set off to check out the town. I went by this crafts co-op where I spotted a knife that looked like a shona knife in Zimbabwe I had wanted to get for my brother. It’s wrapped in what I think is goat hide and is perfect because it is super dull. I bought it, fearful I would never see another like it (this fear was misplaced). When I went into the crafts shop next door they had more of the same. Walking up that street was cool because the street frames Mt. Nyirogongo and man it is imposing. It’s like, 2000 meters above Rubavu and has smoke coming from the top. I can’t wait to climb it. I wandered around Rubavu and eventually bought a black market sim card. Sort of. I stopped by a sim card stand and asked how much. There was a language barrier. He eventually said 3000 which I think it actually about 10 times too much. He asked if I had a passport and I said no. I handed him 5000 and he thought for a bit and gave me the sim card. I asked for change; he said we were “finished.” So I think I bribed my way into a sim card and I think I paid 100x too much considering they are 5 kwatcha in Zambia but oh well.

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Lake Kivu from the bar.

I kept walking and got to the lakeshore, eventually stopping by a gorgeous bar where I had two beers (Turbo King, which I initially figured was motor oil or something) and dinner and another beer. It was lovely and had great views of the lake. The bar also played country music (and “Hotel California”) which, I can never decide how jarring it is to be so far from America, really in the deepest part of Africa (I mean Wakanda is supposed to be nearby) and hear American pop culture. After that I walked back to the hotel. I passed a number of guys working out and a pretty enthusiastic basketball game, both of which impressed me a lot because I never saw that sort of thing in Zambia.

After I got back to the hotel it was slightly jarring to read a news article in Al Jazeera saying a town in North Kivu (Virunga National Park is in North Kivu) was attacked and captured by guerrillas, severely hampering efforts at fighting ebola. I checked and the epicenter of the outbreak was only about 200km to the north of me. Disease and fighting was raging 200km to the north of me but everything where I was felt and looked amazing. I wondered how close it had to get before they close the park?

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