The gates of hell

May 4, Nyiragongo Summit Shelters – Democratic Republic of Congo

After a relaxing couple of nights doing precisely nada at Mikeno lodge in the heart of the Virunga National Park, we roused ourselves early this morning to prep our gear for the climb up Nyiragongo summit (3470m), home of Africa’s largest lava lake.  The volcano last erupted in 2002, wiping out a significant portion of the nearby town of Goma as well as killing all of the tourists who were camping at the summit.  Apparently things have improved since then and there are now volcano experts monitoring the situation so we shouldn’t expect an eruption overnight.

We met our hiking fellows, the wonderful Alexei, Sergei and Dimitri from Moscow (who had all left their ladies at home), and the amazing Heather and sardonic Billy from San Francisco (more about them later).    And of course, our whole troup of rangers, guides, cooks and porters who were going to accompany us to the top.  Steph and I felt a bit low key as we only had a cook and one porter (as while we carried all our own gear, I didn’t want to carry the extra 8kg of water we needed), whereas our Russian colleagues were fully prepped with a support crew of five.

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Our hiking companions…. and the 25 staff couldn’t fit in the picture

The climb was actually pretty easy (relative to my recent Ironman training). We ascended 1600 metres over 8km with some steep, rocky and muddy sections,  with the DRC rain storms pelting down on us for the last two hours.   Dear hubby had a rough time of it, as he was hit by a bout of altitude sickness relatively early on, with fluid on the lungs, a fever and a pounding headache.  He soldiered on like a good stubborn french man, and the fantastic Heather (conveniently an ER doctor) dosed him with some diomax, and we all eventually made it to the top, albeit with frozen fingers.  The view at this point was non existent, and we were surrounded by pea soup fog, so we were all crossing those frozen fingers hoping that the fog would clear so we could see the lava lake.

Our glamorous accommodations for the evening were small huts with comfy plastic mattresses, and an extremely luxurious outdoor loo with an epic vista over lake kiva (or at least out into the fog…. yes that is the roof of the loo you can see down the slope in the mist).

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the long drop with a foggy view

Unfortunately reaching said loo required scrambling down a step rock face holding onto a rope, so most of us figured out how to discreetly pee between the huts.  The wonderful Joshua (our deeply christian and delightful chef) warmed us up with homemade biscuits and coffee, and then whipped up a three course meal of soup, chicken and veg, and cake around the fire.  He even decided to feed Heather as he felt sad that she had only bought some sandwiches with her.   The fog finally cleared by the time we finished dinner, so we all sat by the crater edge checking out the view until we were too cold to stand it anymore.   We were collectively proud of the sardonic Billy for making it out of his hut and sleeping bag to check out the lake….. he was so cold at one point, he told Heather that he would be happy checking out the pictures on wikipedia and youtube when he got home  (he wins my prize for the driest sense of humour I have ever found in an American).

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the largest lava lake in the world

After a huge breakfast at 6am the next day, we ambled back down.  I won the award for falling on my butt the most, in spite of having two hiking poles rather than the single wooden sticks which everyone else had.   It was sunny the whole way, and the porters were all clearly keen for a drink as we only stopped twice for ten minutes each.    It was definitely worth the trip, though next time I would take even more wet weather and cold weather gear!!!!

Am pretty sure I am talking some nonsense given the expressions of my companions
Am pretty sure I am talking some nonsense given the expressions of my companions

Note I found out a few days later from a guy at the British embassy in Kinshasa that they don’t advise anyone to climb the volcano – not because of the danger from the volcano, but the likelihood of being kidnapped on the road between Goma and Kibati.  We had no problems, as we had booked direct with visitvirunga.org and were accompanied on all road trips with armed (but friendly) rangers.  If you are interested in checking out Virunga, it is worth checking out the film Virunga on netflix

Gorillas in the mist, rain and thunder

May 1, Bukima Tented Camp, DRC

After a damp cold night at a tented camp at 2400m where hubby and I were the only guests, it was lovely to wake up this morning to a perfect view of Mikeno and Nyiragongo out across the farmlands in the Congo.

View from Bukima

We shared our breakfast with Jacques the mouse catching cat and then headed off for the 8am briefing.  About an hour and a half later, some faffing about the lack of permit documents, a bit of back and forth on what gorilla group we were going to go visit,  the briefing commenced.   5 minutes later we were off, with two rangers (toting the rustiest guns I have ever seen), and two UN workers who have been living in Goma and weren’t exactly the fittest couple we had ever met, so it took us an hour to reach the park boundary.

Mandatory facemasks were donned, and our trusty rangers hacked away lots of the foliage so we could have an amazing 60 minutes hanging out with the gorillas.  The highlight was watching these two little gorillas play energetically, while the rest of the family were snoozing, eating bugs off of each other, and licking their armpits (amazing to think of licking your own armpits).   The hour passes in about 5 minutes, and hubby and I took 300 pictures.   The rain thankfully held off until we had done and then the skies opened up!!!

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contemplating life
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having a snooze
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how delightful to be able to scratch your face with your toes!

After some warming coffee we were treated to a free African massage on the hour long ride from Bukima to Mikeno lodge bouncing up and down in the 4wd.  The national highway in the DRC is a fantastic example of infrastructure development!! (yes this is national highway no.2)

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National Highway No. 2

Note – if you come, please tip generously.  Rangers and trackers do a huge amount to support the gorillas and any money you give to them (and indirectly their families and communities) reinforces the value of preserving the gorillas and the national park.   On occasions like this, I tip often.   If in doubt, give more.  As my darling hubby always says, whether we give $10 or $20 makes no difference to us, but makes a huge difference to the recipient.   Being a ranger in the national park is a high risk occupation! see article on  rangers killed! We tipped $25 to each ranger and $25 to each tracker