Climbing in Comoros

I am on an instability and poverty roll on this trip – next up Comoros – the third poorest country in the world and they have had over 20 coups since they got independence from France in 1975.   It was stunning flying over Comoros…. verdant green hills with few buildings, volcanic black rock and stunningly blue sea. I had flown in from Addis, the plane was heaving until we dropped 90% of the passengers off in Dar, then the few of us remaining winged our way over the ocean, and only three gringos (the two others were guys in construction). Comoros is not a tourist destination!!!

Arrival was the usual chaotic African madness, I got to the front of the queue like normal, forms all ready to go, and was physically bumped out of the way by several VIPs. I held my ground and managed to get my passport through after six of them by physically refusing to move away from the immigration desk.

My driver found me while I was waiting for them to issue my visa – 30 euros for the privilege – and he showed me to one of the least road-worthy vehicles I have seen in a long time (and I just got here from Juba), but the car was enhanced by a stunning faux fur leopard print steering wheel cover. We wound the windows down to cope with the heat and the pungent aroma of the two police men who demanded a free ride for the 26k to town, and cruised along the coast to the capital of Moroni.

The hotel was small and sweet! I had a small wander around town, and organised my hike for the next day, mildly grumpy that the tour man insisted I get up at 5am!!! Oh well. Dinner of steak and veg, and excellent ginger tea and early to bed.

I didn’t need an alarm clock, the friendly gents at the local mosque sorted me out by getting going at 4.30, and the lovely ladies at the hotel had left me some boiled eggs and a jug of hot coffee. Hassan was there on time and we headed up the road to meet Djire the guide. Friends had told me they started the hike up the mountain from 1600m so I was somewhat surprised when we stopped at a village at 550m. Oh well – must be the long version!! Off we went.

Nothing inspires confidence like following a guide with worn military fatigues and fake prada sneakers into the dark bush at. 5.30am while he smokes a cigarette and lights the way with his mobile phone. It was hot, rocky and slippery, but I saw the wisdom of Hassan’s advice later when we had stunning views the whole way up and it wasn’t too hot. Weirdly two wild dogs followed us from 20 minutes after we started until we finished. They never got too close as the guide kept chucking rocks at them. The climb to the summit, with stunning views over Moroni, took us three hours, we had to stop once so Djire could rest and have a cigarette.

View as the sun was coming up over Moroni below
Djire hiking up the 4wd track, note this was the easy bit as the actual trail through the bush was normally 50 cm wide
you can’t see it, but I could – the airport to the far left
Eerie black bush

The view from the summit down into the main crater was stunning, a big sandy flat hole surrounded by steep cliffs with almost fluorescent green trees hanging on to the sides. Djire confessed he was a bit tired so we stopped for a banana.

Then we scrambled down to the crater floor (followed by the dogs) to check out second caldera from the 2006 eruption. Stunning!!!

We had a wander around poking into holes with steam coming out, checking out the monitoring equipment, and admiring the hardy moss growing near the steam holes!


the view down into the main crater
the flat sand bottom of the main crater
the view down into the second caldera from the main crater – from the 2006 eruption

After that we headed up to the rim to find the clouds had well and truly rolled in! We managed to avoid the rain until we were about half way down, and then the torrent opened up, it was like standing under a fire hose! So I had a good African shower for about an hour, until the sun came out and the water started steaming off us. Heading down took the best part of two and a half hours as had done something to my knee, and it was steep, rocky and slippery. Definitely worth it!!!!

I headed back for an excellent lunch of steamed fish, veg and more ginger tea, and some excellent local fruit!

Old Grand Mosque Moroni (note the name of the boat to the left)

In the afternoon I strolled around town, well hobbled is a better word as I my knee was still not working, so got a few strange looks as I limped round town. Tripadvisor has just two sites in Moroni, and they are both the same place – the grande mosque. It was nice. You can’t walk far without passing a mosque in Moroni, on my 2.5k circuit this afternoon I counted 14. They are a pious lot these comoriens.

yet another mosque

The rubbish in town depressed me. At least the goats were helping recycle.

Comoros goat recycling

It’s hot! Really hot! So I retired back to the hotel to sweat in peace.

Ministry of finance

I slept in, aided by the earplugs to keep the early morning muezzin from my ears! I had a full day to explore Moroni before my flight back to Addis, but sadly had already ticked off the major tourist site – the old grand mosque – yesterday. Oh well, perhaps it would look different in the morning light.

part of the campaign against the French – Mayotte is a French dependency, but in the same group of islands
old grand mosque in the morning light, tide out….

I wandered down, and yes it did look different. Or maybe it was because it was already so hot the sweat was blurring my eyes. I thought I better go see the new mosque also to compare and contrast – and then I made my best mistake of the day. I wandered down an alley and ended up in the Medina. It was blissfully cool(er) in the dark shaded alleyways with all the walls crammed together. I stopped and chatted to a few ladies, making sure to tell them I wasn’t French (they aren’t fans of their former rulers here), although we all speak French (though arabic and Swahili are in common usage too).

Shop in the Medina

I found the new mosque, it was new!

New mosque

And then I found the Friday market. I love African ladies in markets. And the Comorien women bought together the best of French, Arab and African ladies. All the bright colours of Africa, with the voluminous draping of the Arab world, and the ‘soigneuse’/careful arrangement of their look, just like French ladies. They sway while they walk, I wish I had a derriere like these women. It was loud and raucous as everyone stocked up for the weekend. A few ladies were out and about with their beauty cream caked on, apparently it makes them look more ‘clear’ i.e white. Hmmmmf!!!

I checked out the port, and the downtown, there isn’t much going on in Moroni, but most of the people were friendly, though a few of the guys a bit more friendly than required.
It was a lovely stroll, and then I retreated back to the guest house for lunch – more amazing steamed fish and vegetables.  I then headed out to the airport.  I had an amusing moment in security, I set the machine off, and the security lady yelled ‘oi, musungu’ at me (literally ‘oi white lady’)…..,  I get called ‘musungu’ regularly in the street here, but its not polite!!!!.   I wonder how she would have felt if I had yelled ‘oi, black lady’ back at her….., but I figured I was outnumbered.

I would recommend a visit to the Comoros, and next time would stay a bit longer, rent a car and head round the island. There isn’t much to do here, but it is remote and peaceful. There isn’t much in the way of food here, I was craving cheese, and didn’t find any in the six ‘supermarkets’ I went to, so bring stuff with you.

I stayed at the Jardin de la paix. Namsa, Adjia, Moinamina and Madame Raenfati were lovely and looked after me well. I stayed in the ‘simple’ room which was €20 per night, though perhaps I should have splurged the extra €10 on the aircon as it was pretty hot. Their food was the best I ate in town too – really good fish and fresh veg. I also organised the guide for the mountain through Namsa at Ylang tours.  Or if you have gpx, you can follow my strava link up and down

Moroni, 16 February, 2018

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.

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).

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).

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 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