The Rewards of Never Giving Up

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Africa » Congo Democratic Republic » East » Goma
December 16th 2010
Published: January 4th 2011
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After numerous obstacles encouraging me to give up I couldn’t help but grin myself to sleep. I just hadn’t given up on a destination I had craved to see. Yes I finally gave into corruption but it was so worth it. The sounds of waves crashing into each other, the strong breeze hitting our tent with such force I thought I was going to be lifted off and boiled to death.

But we were in the middle of Africa and nowhere near the ocean. We were close to a timid lake and 3470m high. It took 5 hours to hike it, two attempts to enter it but at last after never giving up the thought. I had finally reached Congo and I climbed, than slept on the craters edge of a live bubbling volcano.

As previously mentioned I got rejected at the Bungana Uganda border post so I failed once to enter Congo DR. To recover I got drunk in Kigali Rwanda and saw the gorillas before heading to the border towns of Gisinyi and Goma (Congo DR).

Gisinyi is a nice enough sandy beach on Lake Kivu and I decided to take the opportunity to cross over with a German guy called Marcus. He had pre-organised a guy to help bribe him through. He had the same revised-plan as me. Hike the volcano and get back into Rwanda.

We both had different scenarios; His problem was, he had no Visa to start with but could re enter Rwanda no problems. This would cost him $285 worth of a bribe. I on the other hand already had a Visa but had multiple problems. One – I didn’t know what bribe I needed to pay and if I needed to. Two – For Australians in Rwanda you need to online register than pay your visa at the border. But Rwanda’s online system is very poor and what should take 5 days to respond with a Visa number did not eventuate for yours truly. This meant I got the Visa prior in Uganda but only a single entry, which was already used. This meant potentially I could be stuck in Congo because of Rwanda’s immigration incompetence.

I pleaded my case with them to guarantee that I will be able to cross back into Rwanda tomorrow once we finish the hike. I get an answer that suggested yes and no at the same time. I see one guy (after 1 hour of discussions with 3 officers) stamp my passport as an exit stamp. I try to confirm that I will be okay tomorrow and they say I will have to email immigration or call them in Kigali when I cross into Congo. I open my arms in disgust. “Well why did you stamp my passport for? I said don’t stamp it unless you give me the all clear to pass through tomorrow! I don’t want to be stuck in Congo!”
Soon after through my distressful antics I was told, “Okay we will give you a transit visa.” So that was the first part covered. Now I needed to bribe my way through Congo.

Marcus organised Emanuel to help him cross and in turn help me get through. Because I already had the Visa, which, I shouldn’t have got apparently, I was able to enter with a smaller bribe. $100 was suggested first but I said, “I will pay $50 no more. If he wants more than $50 than I will walk back to Rwanda.” $50 was accepted.

Within the minute we are in the car driving through Goma. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the town. It was devastated by a January 17 2002 volcano eruption. Mount Nyiragongo erupted with the lava running out at 64 km/h (40 mph) and 46m (50 yards) wide. 400 000 people were evacuated. Three streams of lava flowed through killing 45 people and left 120 000 people homeless.

The lava poisoned the water of Lake Kivu, killing fish. Only two planes left the local airport because of the possibility of the explosion of stored petrol. Eventually ruining the runway. This would be the volcano I’d climb. I was also told that in 1977 it exploded without warning. Nyiragongo and neighboring Nyamulagira volcanoes are responsible for 40% of Africa’s historical volcanic eruptions

We start off driving past a series of mansion houses. Emanuel says there are 200 NGO’s in Goma most of them live in these houses. The roads are not devastatingly bad but not good. A UN plane flew over us at immigration. Now trucks, cars with UN symbols on them. Soldiers look at the white tourist with a straight-faced glare. Wired fences further down the road. It is the first time a UN presence this extensive has happened in my travels. Most are Congolese, South African or Indian. The Congo UN soldiers are dangerous so had to be careful of the photos we took.

We stop off at a bank to pay the $200 to do the hike and it looks like a half complete building. So with trust we hand over our money. From there we get our permits at the parks office in town. They allow us to leave our backpacks in the office whose windows are exposed to the main street. Basically once entering Congo you are giving yourself up to Congo reality and hoping for the best.

It has been 8 years since the eruption and the town is still recovering. It looks like it has potential. There are a lot of businesses, mostly run by Indians and the supermarket run by a Lebanese guy. He’s doing alright for himself charging an extortionate amount since his only clients are UN and NGO’s. My rushed effort for food cost me an eye popping $16 for canned food.

As we drive on we ask our guide where our money went, my $50 and Marcus’ $285? The government probably gets $35 the rest is a fine for not having a VISA so the officers pocket the rest. My $50 – well that was just a straight bribe.

The drive to the start of the hike is about 20-30 minutes. And you drive past parts of town that are pure lava flow. People are building their wooden houses over the black lava. Children and some workers ride past on these fascinating chunky wooden bicycles called Chukudu. I’ve got no idea where the brakes are but it has universal uses. For the kids to play on and the worker to transport goods.

When we arrived at the park HQ we were greeted by the ranger’s children. A warm hearted greeting that was so welcoming and presented with such joy it will be one of the lasting images of Congo DR. Big smiles and big Fonzie thumbs up. “Eeehhh!” We follow that up with some high 5’s and we were off.

We are accompanied by 3 people. Two armed guards/guides and a porter. The rifles were to protect us mostly from gorillas, as in bad people. Animals were annihilated in 2002 so the only animals would be ants and birds throughout. Within a few footsteps we are in thick forest. A UN helicopter flies above, our guides rifle in his hand. We are walking through the bush at a soldiers pace. It was as if we were on a set about the Vietnam War.

I don’t think it was the heat but the pace did seem to get to me as evidence of my lack of fitness was there for all to see. Perspiration dripped uncontrollably. I was sweating like Pete Sampras’ eyebrows and to keep with the tennis analogy. My nose was dripping sweat like Pat Rafters when he was ready to serve. Every sway from my legs would lead to sweat falling off.

The feeling of walking on unstable hardened lava is the worst hiking surface. Grip is hard at times and when walking down they roll down like stones that threaten to go under your foot on a valuable vulnerable step.

Through green vegetation I reach the final stages. I was physically drained and without water towards the end of the ascent. About an hour earlier I was thinking this could be the first time I won’t be able to finish a hike through fitness. I tried to seek inspiration and would get a boost but thought what’s the point I will be buggered if I pick up the pace. So I continued one step at a time.

Marcus was up already and yells out. “It’s unbelievable!” Still that couldn’t rush me I was that dead. 5 hours of hard hiking and weakened quadriceps meant steps were short. What did get me going was the sight of the tent already up and the light rain starting to hit me. My sleeping bag exposed I had to push it. I get to the top and inside a crater about 700m wide with the guts of the earth bubbling like a melting pot steaming off smoke from the light rain hitting it.

I think the closest thing to try and understand how eye catching it is. Is to think of when you are sitting around a fire and the conversation has stopped so you stare at the fire and drift off. Imagine now looking at the fire as a pot of liquid that’s bubbling with a firewall enflaming out of the pot. Now put it on a grand scale with the level gradually rising and falling.

When the action tampered down the bubbling fiery scene changed to a cracking crusting look. Dominated by black with fluorescent orange around the cracks. A bubble will pop out from the pot and a firewall would appear and the frantic action would start again. If you close you eyes you can image being on the beach because for some reason it sounded like big waves crashing into the shore.

No sand and no water here though. Just a tent and fortunately a blow up mattress. If it weren’t for that the rocky cold bed would be torture. Food was not included so I ate my expensive canned food. At night it is either going to rain and not be windy or blow a devastating wind. Not that long ago we were told a Chinese lady was blown off the edge trying to take a photo at night. There is a cross dedicated to her near the campsite.

We are camped on the crest of the main volcano peak. You are looking at about 10 steps to the edge and that’s because some of those step are sideways from the opening of your tent. At night Gisinyi and Goma sparkle surprisingly. Because of the wind, the temperature was close to freezing. Although I didn’t get much sleep I still had a grin on my face.

Most of the night I was warm with 80% of my body so I’d move from side to side than lay on my back. When that happened the wind was so strong the tents flexibility was tested and numerous times the tents body would fold and lay across half my body attempting to suffocate me.

This was a good thing though because at different times at night we’d get up and have a look at the crater and go back to bed. The view was always different depending on the mist. We were lucky the wind was blowing the mist the opposite direction so nearly the whole time we had uninterrupted views of the melting pot.

Morning came and after some canned peaches and a pee over the craters edge we packed up ready for the grueling walk down. We watched the sunrise and soon after the suns rays would light up through the clouds Gisinyi and Goma and the surrounding area. Just below about ¾ of the way up the hike is the baby volcano, to the left the father volcano and we are standing on the mother volcano. In between that are small distinct craters now a lush green.

Despite being one of the great traveling days of this journey it also was looked upon with disappointment. A two day stay at one of the last unknown destinations of the world. Congo DR is the third largest country in Africa after Sudan and Algeria and the 12th largest in the world. A population of nearly 71 million its the 18th most populous nation in the world, and the fourth most populous nation in Africa.
Close to the equator it has the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world. The annual rainfall can total upwards of 2000 mm (80 inches) and the Congo Rainforest is the second largest rain forest in the world after the Amazon. But I had other plans for later on. I did think if Rwanda screws me over upon re-entry its not all over. I can just travel Congo and a new adventure will begin.

We walked down at a fair pace and with enough pounding, my legs would feel like cement for the next week. We were greeted by the ranger’s children again and this time with high 5’s and depart with knuckles connecting.

Emanuel picked us up and drove us around his town. He is very proud of Goma and I feel sorry for this area of tourism. Since the new rules with Visa’s at the border (asking for $285) tourism has lost 80% of their business. They say they average a group every couple of days now.

We drove through town again and there was much excitement. We were told the prime minister was arriving at the airport. He is a local boy and since this area is so far apart from its capital it was a special visit. We unfortunately didn’t stay and went to pick up our bags.

The director of the national park asked me as an Australian how did I get in. I informed that I got a Visa in Kampala. He was shocked and intrigued, he later said that he might suggest people to do this from now on. So Kampala DRC embassy sorry but you may be getting more work soon.

We crossed over Congo without a problem. As we waited for our passport to be stamped I noticed it was ‘pillow day’ with locals bringing over from Rwanda. This must be combining with ‘mattress day’ from 4 days earlier in Bunagana. Rwandan customs confiscated some of my plastic bags. There is a no plastic bag policy and had to pay $60 to transit Rwanda for 4 days.

Money wise it hurt I said to Emanuel. “What is with Africa don’t they like us? They don’t want us to come back?” But this trip will last with me for a while longer not just the pain in my legs but the images of the green volcanic landscape below me and looking into the life of earth.

If you want to help corruption stay in Congo DR (because you are never going to get in otherwise) Emanual can help you:
Email –
Phone# - +243 994328077 / 853289848
+250 783589405
He can provide a tent and mattress for the hike
VISA ranges from $60 - $285 possibly more
Hike - $200
Transport and tent was $75 but that was reduced because there were 2 of us.

Plus for Australians and some other countries $60 to re-enter Rwanda. Europeans don’t seem to have a problem.

Additional photos below
Photos: 49, Displayed: 32


4th January 2011

Fantastic photos
VEry informational blog. Good for you for not giving up. Happy travels.
4th January 2011

Great you made it!
Happy to see that you made it to DRC...and that you could meet some great people. I did climb a smaller, but neighbouring volcano back in march at the uganda/rwanda to DRC my DRC mobile number was catching the signal....enjoy your next adventures...ready to read you!
19th January 2011

Useful blogs about Africa
Yours is the first of the collection

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