A few months before I began “la grande aventure,” my sister gave me the Washington Post‘s special travel section on Africa. The front page article was one person’s story of climbing Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano in Virunga National Park in the Democractic Republic of Congo. Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site noted as having the greatest biodiversity of any park in Africa. It has also been a site of years of armed conflicts and only recently (as of 2014) reopened to tourism. The article made it clear that the violence could resurface at any time, and I dismissed the idea as too risky. Soon enough, though, I discovered these photos of Nyiragongo’s lava lake–the largest in the world–and Virunga became irresistible. For others who may find themselves curious to visit, here’s what I did and how. And for those who might want to support this special piece of the world, you can make a donation here. The rangers who protect Virunga literally risk their lives doing it. Your contributions can help with projects such as gear for rangers, the fallen rangers fund for widows and children, and anti-poaching efforts. You can also learn more about Virunga by watching the Oscar-nominated documentary film called Virunga.
There are three countries in east Africa where you can trek to see mountain gorillas: DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. At $400, the permit in the DRC generally is the cheapest (currently, Uganda’s permit generally costs $600, but the price is reduced in April and May to $350; Rwanda’s permit is $750 year-round). The DRC also sees fewer tourists than Rwanda or Uganda. I was the only person in my group the day I went, meaning I got to sit with critically endangered wildlife practically by myself (other than the guide and the tracker).
I met the guide early in the day, and we began our trek through farms that led to the forest. The guide spoke mostly French, explaining that we would be visiting the Bageni group, one that included 24 gorillas in total. Researchers had seen the group earlier in the day, so he knew generally where they were. Once we reached the gorillas, we could stay with them for one hour. We walked for 45 minutes or so through the farms, until we reached the forest, at which point the trek became much more difficult. The foliage was dense and thick, sometimes to shoulder height. Tangled, slippery vines covered the ground and its occasional potholes. I kept my eyes peeled and still tripped several times and fell once. We eventually passed the matted leaves the gorillas had used as a bed the night before–one on the ground and one nest up in the trees. And finally, after about an hour of trekking in the forest, the guide told me we were close. The tracker used his machete to slash through bushes to the location of a few of the gorillas in the group. We wore surgical masks to reduce the risk of infecting the gorillas with any illnesses, and the guide made low guttural sounds to signal to the gorillas that everything was ok. To my surprise, the gorillas were very calm. The guide explained that we would watch these few for a bit and then go find others in the group. He had told me I would have to stay back seven meters from the gorillas, but I was frequently much closer. Males can weigh up to 400 pounds or more; females average 200 pounds. The first time I saw a male blackback (a younger male subordinate to the silverback, who leads the group) walking toward me it took my breath away for a moment. He turned up a path, and we followed as the blackback, a female, and a baby moved ahead of us, stopping for a bit while the baby climbed a vine. We then spent the next hour moving to various parts of the gorilla group nearby, including watching the silverback, another blackback and several mothers with their babies. Toward the close of the hour, the skies began to darken. The trek back was nearly all in heavy rain, and it was at this point in my trip that I officially confirmed that my waterproof boots were not, indeed, waterproof. Sigh.
Gear tips: Bring rain pants, gaiters, a rain jacket and be certain your boots are waterproof!
Mount Nyiragongo Climb
I woke early in the morning to climb Mount Nyiragongo. Our lead guide gave us a briefing at the start of the trail, explaining that the trek would take 4-6 hours and there would be four stops. In all, we would climb roughly 5,000 feet. We had a group of eight climbers, several of them people working in the UN peacekeeping force in Goma. The trail was mostly dirt in spots and mostly volcanic rock in others, some of it loose and slippery from another DRC downpour. Still, I found the path much easier than the tangled vines of the gorilla trek. For much of the hike we were surrounded by lush green foliage with fresh droplets of rain dangling on the leaves. In spots the air was filled with a light spice scent that I guessed came from a flower. I never did identify it, but it was part of what made the hike almost as enjoyable for me as seeing the lava lake. At the top of Nyiragongo (3,470 meters; 11,382 feet), we had views of Goma and an extinct volcano. Clouds repeatedly moved in and covered the views and then dispersed just as quickly. We each settled into the wooden huts we would sleep in for the night. There was a toilet below the huts with an open view of the mountains and clouds below. It could only be reached, though, after a steep descent made by holding on to a rope that swayed left and right as you grabbed it. I made an early decision to avoid using it as much as possible. It was cold in the high altitude and many of my clothes, including my socks, were still soaked from the rainstorm earlier in the day. I was saving my dry socks for my sleep and spent the dinner time hovering over a tiny charcoal fire. The guides escorted us to the crater rim when we first arrived in camp to gaze at the lava lake below, often holding us at the backs of our jackets with one hand to ensure there were no “accidents.” After dinner, the guides escorted us back to the rim to get the crisper nighttime view of the lava lake. I watched the lake crust, its bright orange puzzle pieces mutating over and over, like a world map constantly shifting its borders. The red glow of the lava colored the clouds above. Occasionally someone would mention how mesmerizing the view was, like staring at crashing waves, but other than that we mostly stared in a peaceful silence. It was not only wild to see the inner part of the earth in action but also to sense what this volcano could do and has done to the people in Goma.
Gear tips: Be sure to bring a full set (or two) or dry clothes with you and pack everything you bring in dry bags or plastic bags. I discovered too late that the contents of my rented volcano pack were not protected in plastic. Wet sleeping bag, anyone? Also, you will have an option at the starting point to rent a walking stick. The trek down the mountain is perhaps the most difficult piece of the journey because of the steepness. The walking stick will give you some extra support for which your joints will thank you.
As you cross the border from Rwanda to the DRC, the differences are immediate. From my perspective, Rwanda’s culture tended to be more introverted, and the DRC was decidedly more extroverted. It felt alive. The streets were filled with cars and people. Motorcycles zipped by loaded with two people and their packages and sometimes–scarily–a small child in between. One moto driver winked at me as he sped by. Large trucks were packed with passengers on back benches, a few of whom smiled and waved at me to join them.
I read a book called Radio Congo that described people in Goma as living in the moment. This, it said, was not only an effect of living with war for so long but also because of the knowledge–brought home every night by that red glow in the sky created by Nyiragongo’s lava lake–that this active volcano could wreak havoc on the town at any time. It last erupted in 2002, the fluid lava (from a low silica content that helped it travel up to 100 km/62 miles per hour) gushing all the way through town and into Lake Kivu. The damage to the town is still visible in the blackened wood on some houses, as well as the shredded roads littered with volcanic rock. The volcano is overdue for its next eruption. Maybe that sense of never knowing what tomorrow will bring contributes to the energy I felt in Goma. Maybe not. But whatever the case, the DRC had a vitality that I loved. I wished I had more time there.
Goma also a heavy presence of expat journalists, NGOs and United Nations peacekeeping units. I regularly saw UN vehicles in the thick traffic, and I was excited to have my first sighting of Medecins Sans Frontieres vehicles in the field.
I spent three days and four nights in the DRC. I crossed the border on foot from Gisenyi, Rwanda, to Goma, DRC, early on the morning of my gorilla trek. I heard stories of mini-shakedowns by the border agents in the DRC looking for payouts, but I had zero problems. “Your name is almost the same is mine,” the border agent said to me with a smile as he handed me back my passport. Easy. I booked my visa and nearly all of my DRC travel plans directly through the Visit Virunga web site, the park’s tourism authority. The site also lists tour operators within the country, but as a solo traveler, it was cheapest for me to book each piece with Visit Virunga myself. Costs included permit fees for climbing Nyirangongo ($250 US) and the gorilla trek ($400 US), one night of lodging and meals at Mikeno Lodge, renting a “volcano pack” from Mikeno Lodge to use on my Nyiragongo climb ($80 for three meals, several layers of warm clothing and a sleeping bag), and armed transportation for each leg of my trip (e.g., from the border to the starting point of the gorilla trek, from the end of the gorilla trek to Mikeno Lodge, etc.). At $244 for the night, Mikeno Lodge was luxury, and it was the most expensive place I have slept on my travels by far, far, far. I booked it, though, because I couldn’t confirm a room in another lodge in advance. I also needed Mikeno’s volcano pack since I didn’t have a sleeping bag and the warm clothing I needed for the night at the crater rim. During my travels, however, I discovered some cheaper alternatives. Lac Kivu Lodge in Goma is an excellent lodging and food option where I stayed after an unexpected trip to the doctor (more on this in another post, but suffice it to say I’m fine). I also met a man traveling with his nine-year-old daughter who booked a cheapo place in Goma. The daughter mentioned with a scrunched up nose that this room also came with water dripping from the ceiling. I do not know the name of it, but I mention it to let people know there are ways to save…apparently, wet ways… Another creative savings idea: I met one traveler who also needed a winter jacket. He negotiated with a man at a market in Goma to pay to use a winter jacket for the climb and then return it to him on his way back from the climb. This was undoubtedly significantly less than what I paid for the volcano pack.