Published: November 9th 2011November 1st 2011
Is walking into the world’s most dangerous city something to be proud of? How about walking into the middle of a conflict zone? Why not hire Congolese soldiers and climb on one of the world’s most deadly volcanoes? Sod it, why not camp in a war-torn area next to a lava lake? It sounds extreme, almost insane, but it is all a load of hellfire and brimstone to me.
“Nyiragongo is a two-mile-high volcano towering over the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—one of the world’s most active volcanoes. When? Is the question that haunts a team of Congolese Seismologists; when will Nyiragongo erupt?” (Finkle, 2011, National Geographic)
Arriving in Kigali (Rwanda) and hearing about the possibility of visiting an active and deadly volcano strangely appealed. Realizing the volcanic creator contains the worlds most active and voluminous lave lake, an opportunity not to be missed.
Only a stone throw away from the “safety” of Rwanda, how dangerous could the Democratic Republic of Congo be? You hear stories of child soldiers, rape, and genocide, but nothing can prepare you for the truth.
You ask around, but hit dead ends. Everyone with an opinion but
no one really knows. You want a visa to cross the border; you want a guide who knows the area. You want to travel safely in a volatile region; you want to walk the extreme!
“For the past 20 years the eastern DRC has seen nearly constant warfare, including a spillover of the massacres in neighboring Rwanda. One of the largest United Nations forces in the world, some 20,000 troops, currently maintains a fragile, and often broken, peace” (Finkle, 2011, National Geographic)
With few backpackers visiting before, you question how it is possible? With a list of local guides, you fear walking into a political trap. You worry about ambushes, kidnapping, and robbery. You are concerned about entrapment and bribes. You begin to have second thoughts; you wonder who to trust with your money and your life?
Like a shooting star Emmanuel approaches, a tiny pixy larger than life. Knowledgeable and educated he is friends with the rebels, soldiers, and police. Capable of giving you the answers you seek, he gains your trust and organizes your trip, without demanding upfront payment or bribe.
Arriving at the boarder you pass through immigration where others have failed before.
As you travel in a Land-cruiser through Goma, nervous tension and paranoia becomes excitement. With Nyiragongo in the distance and toxic gases billowing into the atmosphere, you take in the strange enticing glow reflecting from the bottom of the clouds.
As the Land-cruiser rattles along the lava roads, you can’t help but stop and stare. While houses are made from lava rocks, the streets are black from brimstone. As you pass buildings corroded by acid rain the reality of visiting the world’s most dangerous city sets in. Torn apart by war and poverty, refugees live in the aftermath of an apocalypse, overshadowed by a volcanic cloud, awaiting their impending doom.
On arriving at a checkpoint, you finally get to meet Rambo. Armed to the teeth and built like a wrestler he casually approaches, carrying a mounted machine gun in his arms. Dressed in combat gear and demanding a bribe, eventually the barrier is raised and you continue your journey, cautiously heading towards Nyiragongo volcano.
Arriving at the ICCN Head Quarters, you pass a bullet ridden sign before being introduced to the expedition team. The soldiers armed with AK47's, seismologists carrying volcanic instrument, Porters carry food, water and
sleeping bags, travelers carrying nothing but a sense of adventure.
“The lava had steamrolled through forests and neighborhoods. It looked as if a ten-lane highway had been dropped down the mountain's flanks, right across the city.” (Finkle, 2011, National Geographic)
As your eyes follow the lava highway down the volcano and towards the city, you clearly see the devastation. The jungle is thick yet the ground is black, volcanic rocks scattered across the ground. While looking at the burnt trees covering the landscape, you struggle to balance on the volcanic rocks rolling beneath your feet. As you scramble past active vents, you stop in your tracks while sulfur blast past you and upwards into the sky.
Arriving at the summit you see the wooden cross of a fallen traveler dated 2007. Undeterred and high on adrenaline you climb along the craters edge, peering into nature’s fury. As the 1800°F lava explodes from the lake, thick plumes of toxic gases are blown into the atmosphere. You are surprised to see so much activity; you are surprised to feel the volcano rumble. You are surprised it is safe to camp on the rim!
“In 2002 the volcano shot
more than 15 million cubic yards of lava into downtown Goma, destroying 14,000 homes, burying buildings to the top of the first floor, and forcing 350,000 citizens to flee. The eruption was a mere grumble, though, compared with the fury Nyiragongo is capable of unleashing” (Finkle, 2011, National Geographic)
As day turns to night, you sit in awe, mesmerized by the kaleidoscope lake. While your eyes follow lava ripples across the surface you are entertained by a ballet of orange cracks violently moving and rolling, changing shape, changing size, rising and falling. One moment the crust takes the form of a calm lake hiding behind the clouds, the next an exploding array of fire in a jigsaw puzzle map of the world.
Even from the rim of the volcano you are surprised to feel the heat. As the stunning orange geysers explode into a symphony of fire balls and molten rock, you carefully hang from the rim in awe. Both spectacular and terrifying the lava lake seems alive, breathing, moving, changing mood, ready to explode, ready to consume the city lights in its path.
“And if Goma doesn't have enough to worry about, the thousand-square-mile Lake Kivu
conceals an enormous underwater concentration of carbon dioxide and methane. The theory is that a major eruption could release it, spreading a lethal cloud across the city that would spare no one” (Finkle, 2011, National Geographic)
While the whole periodic table burns before you in a theatre of fire, you stay awake all night high on toxic fumes, hypnotized by the mesmerizing colors and strange smells while staring into the gateway of hell. Nyiragongo Volcano, one of the most beautiful sights on earth.
Ironically, while sat at the internet café writing this blog, I have just heard news that the volcano opposite Nyiragongo has erupted, just over ONE WEEK after our adventure on the volcano and in the DRC.
HOW TO DO IT
Contact: Emmanual Rufubya
Notes: Emmanual can arrange the $50USD national park visa, otherwise $120 for 30 day visa from DRC embassy in Kigali. Alternatively a $285USD unofficial visa is available from the boarder. You do not need to be a Rwanda resident as some may tell you. There is no 7 day visa as suggested
in the Lonely Planet!
Request: If you contact Emmanual, please let him know you got his details from my blog. Many Thanks, Darren (Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel).
I would not advise just rocking up and crossing the boarder - Its a dangerous city and you will probably encounter boarder bribes or possibly get arrested and locked up forever. Use a local guide. I used Emmanual. He speaks 8 languages and knows the city. He collects you in Gysini (Rwanda) and keeps you safe. Most importantly he knows the boarder guards, soldiers and police. Highly recommended!
Please research the political situation before going. The elections are looming, capable of pulling the DRC and the entire region (Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi) into conflict. The east, especially Goma and the Kivu area is extremely volatile and can change quickly.
There are more photos below