TO HELL AND BACK

JOUR­NEY TO MOUNT NYI­RAGONGO, DEMO­CRATIC REPUB­LIC OF CONGO

Adventure - - Volcano Congo Trek - STORY AN­DRÉ VROON

Mount Doom is not a fairy tale nor is it the cre­ation of Peter Jack­son’s Weta Work­shop, it is real and I have seen it with my very own eyes. And no, it is not here in The Land of the Long White Cloud but I guess you could say it is in Mid­dle Earth – slap bang in the dark, mys­te­ri­ous heart of Africa. It was a ter­ri­fy­ing sight to be­hold, yet awe in­spir­ing and a thing of un­speak­able beauty.

From my view­point on the top of the moun­tain, I peered into a mas­sive dark pit, well over 1km in di­am­e­ter and more than 300m deep. The near vertical sides of the crater ter­mi­nated in a flat ex­panse of dark grey rock and dirt at the bot­tom, in the mid­dle of which was a smaller hole that con­tained a churn­ing, steam­ing lake of hot lava, per­haps 100m across. It looked like an enor­mous blood­shot eye as thin veins of bright lava ap­peared through the cracks of par­tially so­lid­i­fied ma­te­rial that floated on top. The huge cloud of thick smoke bil­low­ing up from it glowed red, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the crater walls as dusk turned to night. The lava made an un­earthly boil­ing sound and minierup­tions occurred as it forced its way through the cracks in the float­ing, black de­bris. I could feel the heat from the lava lake ra­di­at­ing onto my ex­posed skin and the smell of sul­phur was sting­ing my nos­trils. It was like star­ing into the gates of hell. The lo­cals don’t call this place Mount Doom, to them it is known as Mount Nyi­ragongo.

Mount Nyi­ragongo (3470m above sea level) is one of Africa’s most ac­tive and danger­ous vol­ca­noes. Sit­u­ated in the east of the im­mense coun­try of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (for­merly Zaire), close to the Rwan­dan bor­der, it is a hotspot in more ways than one. Ge­o­log­i­cally, it lies straight in the path of the East African Rift, a mas­sive fault line on the African plate that also cre­ated Lake Tan­ganyika, the long­est and sec­ond largest fresh­wa­ter lake in the world. It is one of eight vol­ca­noes of the Virunga chain of moun­tains that is clus­tered around the in­ter­sec­tion of the bor­ders be­tween the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. Po­lit­i­cally speak­ing, the area sur­round­ing Mount Nyi­ragongo is one of the most volatile and danger­ous re­gions on the planet.

The sum­mit of Nyi­ragongo lies 15 km north of the city of Goma. The re­cent his­tory of Goma is a tur­bu­lent and tragic one. It was a breed­ing ground for two ma­jor wars be­tween 1996 and 2003 that can be di­rectly traced to the con­se­quences of the Rwan­dan geno­cide. Mil­lions of peo­ple lost their lives as gov­ern­ment forces and rebel groups from sev­eral African states fought each other for con­trol of the min­eral rich Congo. As much as a thou­sand peo­ple con­tinue to die in the DRC ev­ery day from eas­ily pre­ventable and treat­able dis­eases and mal­nu­tri­tion, the tragic af­ter­math of war - the big­gest since World War II. Cur­rently, there is a large United Na­tions peace­keep­ing force in Goma to help sta­bi­lize the re­gion. It is to the UN that I first turned when I made up my mind that I just had to climb that vol­cano.

I have al­ways wanted to see the mys­te­ri­ous sub­stance of lava and fi­nally I had my chance. I sup­pose it is a bit like the ex­cite­ment of touch­ing snow or see­ing the ocean for the first time as a child. I found my­self in the tiny cen­tral African coun­try of Bu­rundi, there to visit my sis­ter from Welling­ton who had taken up a post at World Vi­sion in the cap­i­tal, Bu­jum­bura. It wasn’t long be­fore some­body told me about Mount Nyi­ragongo, only 200km north of Bu­jum­bura as the crow flies. The moun­tain had been closed to tourists for some time as it was not deemed safe and my only op­tion was to try and ac­com­pany a UN peace­keep­ing pa­trol up the moun­tain as a jour­nal­ist. I packed my bags and headed for Goma by bus, via Rwanda.

I got ac­cred­ited as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist at the UN mis­sion in Goma but 3 days be­fore we were to leave for Nyi­ragongo, the UN called me to say that it was no longer pos­si­ble to ac­com­pany them as they dis­cov­ered that they don’t re­ally have the man­date to take mem­bers of the pub­lic up the moun­tain. My heart sank and I thought my dream was over but then I heard from a lo­cal that the Con­golese Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion In­sti­tute had re­cently re­opened the moun­tain for tourists and I rushed to their of­fice in cen­tral Goma al­most im­me­di­ately to in­ves­ti­gate. One hun­dred US dol­lars later and with my per­mit firmly clutched in my hot lit­tle hand, I jumped on a mo­tor­cy­cle taxi to the lo­cal mar­ket to buy food for the 2-day trip.

Be­fore leav­ing for the moun­tain, I stopped by at the vol­canic ob­ser­va­tory in Goma and had a word with French vol­ca­nol­o­gist Jac­ques Durieux. He has been study­ing the vol­cano for decades and I quickly learned why he was so ob­sessed with it.

Jac­ques told me that Mount Nyi­ragongo is “a very spe­cial vol­cano with a par­tic­u­lar type of lava”. Like Ngau­ruhoe in the cen­tral North Is­land, Nyi­ragongo is a steep-sided, ac­tive stra­to­vol­cano but that is not what makes it spe­cial. Nyi­ragongo is one of only three vol­ca­noes in the world that con­tains a per­ma­nent lava lake in its crater. The other ones are Mount Ere­bus in Antarc­tica and Erta Ale in Ethiopia. Not only that, the lava in Nyi­ragongo is very poor in sil­ica and thus ex­tremely fluid and fast flow­ing. Lava that erupts from the moun­tain can race down the steep slopes of the moun­tain at speeds in ex­cess of 100 km/hr which is what makes it so danger­ous and unique in the world of vol­ca­noes. It was a driz­zly Fri­day morn­ing as I, two guides and a porter set off from the small vil­lage of Ki­bati on the east­ern flank of Nyi­ragongo. The 3470m sum­mit was hid­den in the cloud and it was cause for con­cern: cloud equals no view of the lava lake, the very thing that I came to see. Both of my guides were armed with AK-47 ma­chine guns – just in case we cross paths with a stray rebel or poacher. Our start­ing alti­tude was just be­low 2000m and the first 45 min­utes in­volves walk­ing through an over­grown track in the dense rain­for­est of the Virunga Na­tional Park to the foot of the vol­cano. Ev­ery few min­utes, Christophe, the lead guide would point out the favourite plants that the peace­ful and ma­jes­tic moun­tain go­rilla like to eat. To­day, there are no go­ril­las left on the moun­tain but they can still be found else­where on other vol­ca­noes in the park. My trousers were well and truly soaked as we emerged from the damp rain­for­est and onto a river of so­lid­i­fied lava, a re­sult of a pre­vi­ous erup­tion.

Mount Nyi­ragongo has erupted dozens of times over the last cen­tury, the most re­cent be­ing the 2002 erup­tion that spewed lava from a fis­sure in its flank that cre­ated a path of de­struc­tion through Goma city. Some es­ti­mates put the death toll at 150 with hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple flee­ing their homes as the lava buried per­haps 4500 build­ings in its wake. Had there not been an ad­vance warn­ing of an im­mi­nent erup­tion, the scale of the dis­as­ter would have been much big­ger.

The rain be­came heav­ier soon af­ter we started climb­ing the lava slope but we con­tin­ued to make good progress. We en­tered a zone of ghostly, black skele­tons of burnt trees – an­other re­minder of the awe­some power of this deadly vol­cano. At about 2500m in alti­tude, we reached the rel­a­tively flat area above Sha­heru, a vol­canic cone on the south­ern flank of Nyi­ragongo that was filled by lava from the 2002 erup­tion. A steam­ing erup­tive fis­sure, ba­si­cally a big crack in the wall of the vol­cano, can be seen on the side of the moun­tain not far from there. We re-en­tered the rain­for­est at 2800m and the track be­came muddy and very steep. The veg­e­ta­tion had changed from the lush, dense for­est at the base of the moun­tain to one of smaller trees and shrubs, in­clud­ing many Erica trees that re­minded me a lot of Manuka back home. Af­ter emerg­ing from the for­est once again, it was only a short tramp to our camp for the night, per­haps 250m be­low the sum­mit in alti­tude.

The camp con­sisted of two shabby iron huts that were used by tourists in the 1970s. They have since been van­dal­ized and partly de­stroyed by rebels fre­quent­ing the moun­tain and they of­fered lit­tle pro­tec­tion against the wind and rain. I pitched my tent in one of the shelters and waited. Waited and prayed for the rain to stop and the sky to clear. For 3 hours I sat there shiver­ing in my wet clothes and I was al­ready start­ing to make plans to re­turn to the moun­tain in more favourable con­di­tions. But then all of a sud­den it stopped rain­ing and the mist drifted away from the sum­mit. It was an hour be­fore dusk and I grabbed my torch, cam­era and tri­pod and headed straight for the crater rim with Christophe. Af­ter 20 min­utes of scram­bling up the rocky, sco­ria-strewn slope, we ar­rived at the edge of the abyss. There was no warn­ing, no lev­el­ling off of the ter­rain, just a knife-edged ridge that sig­nalled the end of this world and the beginning of the next. For a Chi­nese tourist, she did in fact en­ter the next world in July 2007 from the very spot I was stand­ing. She at­tempted to climb down onto a small ledge in­side the crater a few me­tres down to get a bet­ter view but slipped and fell for more than 100m onto an­other ledge. She sur­vived the fall but trag­i­cally suc­cumbed hours later be­fore a res­cue party could reach her.

I was se­duced by the con­stantly chang­ing pat­terns on the lava lake, the low rum­bling noise echo­ing off the crater walls and the smell of toxic fumes that wafted my way. I have never seen any­thing quite like it and I stood there trans­fixed for sev­eral min­utes be­fore reach­ing for my cam­era and with shaky hands mounted the thing on a tri­pod and fired off ex­po­sure af­ter ex­po­sure. Day turns into night very quickly near the equa­tor and as it did so, the vol­cano un­der­went a meta­mor­pho­sis like that of a beau­ti­ful but evil but­ter­fly emerg­ing from its co­coon. The play of light from the bright lava on the shift­ing cloud of smoke ris­ing from it pro­duced a spec­tac­u­lar show of yel­lows and reds. The moun­tain was like a liv­ing, breath­ing be­ing. Ev­ery sec­ond was dif­fer­ent from the one be­fore as the “veins” of lava grew and shrunk, dis­ap­peared and reap­peared in a dif­fer­ent spot. It was al­most like some in­vis­i­ble heart was pump­ing life into this strange crea­ture from be­low. I could have stayed there the whole night and prob­a­bly would have, had it not been for Christophe. He was cold, hun­gry and anx­ious that the rain and mist might re­turn. He fi­nally per­suaded me to re­turn and so af­ter two amaz­ing hours on the crater rim, we made a slow de­scent back to camp by torch­light, care­ful not to trip over a rock or slip on the loose sco­ria.

I was sad to leave the crater be­hind but it proved to be the right de­ci­sion as it started to bucket down not long af­ter reach­ing the rel­a­tive safety of the camp. To my hor­ror I dis­cov­ered that my three com­pan­ions did not bring any food with them. I parted with my can of baked beans, a bag of peanuts and some bread and I set­tled for a greasy can of Dubai made corned beef for my­self. When the rain fi­nally abated it was morn­ing and time to head back down the moun­tain.

Back at the vil­lage of Ki­bati, I saw a con­voy of UN ve­hi­cles pull up and two dozen peace­keep­ing sol­diers from In­dia and Jor­dan dis­em­barked and started mak­ing prepa­ra­tions for their weekly “pa­trol” up Mount Nyi­ragongo. The il­le­gal cut­ting down of na­tive trees in the na­tional park for the man­u­fac­ture of char­coal is a ma­jor prob­lem and the UN help the Con­golese au­thor­i­ties to crack down on the per­pe­tra­tors. But that was only an ex­cuse for get­ting to the top of Mount Doom, to peer into its mys­te­ri­ous depths and come un­der its in­tox­i­cat­ing spell. And who can blame them?

LAVA FROM THE 2002 ERUP­TION DE­STROYED MANY BUILD­INGS IN GOMA AND KILLED DOZENS OF PEO­PLE.

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