With global Coronavirus lockdown restricting international travel, my mind has been wandering to past adventures that provide an effective remedy to the claustrophobia of staying at home. Living and working in East Africa for several years (until recently), I have been privileged enough to have visited some amazing places – big on adventure, vibrant in culture and rich in biodiversity. One of my favourites is the mountainous region that straddles present-day Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a land of mountains, great apes, forests and volcanoes. Here’s a snapshot from a road-trip my partner Amy and I undertook in November 2017 – westwards from our home in Kampala, Uganda to Goma in DRC to climb mount Nyiragongo in Virunga National Park, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Firstly, a long introduction…
13, 176, 700, 1063. These numbers represent the harsh costs and benefits of conservation in Virunga National Park in DRC, Africa’s oldest and most-biodiverse national park. 13 Virunga rangers were killed in an ambush by militia in April 2020, adding to the death toll of 176 rangers killed whilst protecting the park. Virunga’s dense forests provide cover and resources for various rebel groups, largely legacies from the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s – making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to work in nature conservation. Nevertheless, 700 local people are employed as rangers in Virunga, benefiting from employment, training and a reliable salary in a region of economic hardship and limited opportunities.
Many of these rangers protect a significant portion of the 1063 remaining Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) – found only in the greater Virunga region and nowhere else on planet Earth. Whilst these numbers may appear low – 1063 represents the typical attendance at a fifth tier football match in England – the trend is upwards from a low of around 250 individuals in the 1980s, thanks to conservation efforts underpinned by finance from international donors and lucrative eco-tourism initiatives.
Virunga is teeming with life. As well as mountain gorillas and 21 other species of ape, 7800 square kilometre Virunga national park is home to over 700 species of birds, 200 mammals, 109 reptiles and 78 amphibians. Its mountains and forests determine the weather in this part of the continent, its rivers sustain life for hundreds of miles, and its trees sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide, making it pivotal in the fight against climate change. Virunga’s influence stretches far beyond the national park boundary – protecting its ecosystem and the services it provides is paramount.
Natural resources – both blessing and curse:
Yet the abundance of natural resources has attracted competing interests – with international oil companies, developers, paramilitary rebels, indigenous peoples, and impoverished local people all vying with conservationists for access. Well aware that successful conservation must go hand in hand with improving the lives of local people, the national park aims to drive sustainable development in this temperamental and uncertain region, led by an innovative hydroelectric power initiative, community development schemes, and job creation (thousands of people depend on the park for their livelihoods). This approach is having some success, with eco-tourism reportedly generating over $2 million per year for the park itself – although as the attack in April 2020 shows, the threats are real and the gains remain hard earned and fragile.
This region of DRC is a place of extremes; of life and death; of beauty and awe and wonder; of culture and dance and music; of such immense natural wealth and resources, yet ravaged by armed conflict, poor governance and poverty. For a geographer-photographer like me, it’s fascinating.
Yet I don’t want to dwell on the negatives. There’s been too much of that, and by now I know better. Whilst there are notable challenges, I love this region for the positivity, vibrancy and diversity of its people and cultures, not to mention the astounding nature. Living in Ethiopia and Uganda for a while enabled me to easily explore this part of the world. Prior to 2017 I had been blessed to have seen the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, climb Kilimanjaro, raft the Zambesi, explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, photograph endangered Ethiopian wolves, share home-brew beer with priests, witness mountain gorillas and chimpanzees up close, and have my rib-cage rattled by the roar of a lion. But I had never peered into the lave lake of an active volcano. A visit to Virunga made this dream possible!
Hiking Mt Nyiragongo:
Ascending 3470m Mt Nyiragongo thus became the focus of our Virunga mini-adventure. We organised permits and logistics through Visit Virunga, who provided clear guidance and essential visa letters for DRC. Staying in relaxed Gisenyi on the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu, we walked across the DRC border and, after some too-and-froing with the border officials in my woeful schoolboy French, we emerged into bustling Goma to be collected in a national park Land Rover.
The trailhead at Kibati Ranger Post is a short drive from downtown Goma, down a modern asphalt road lined with wooden shacks, colourful street vendors, smoking charcoal ovens, dilapidated former UN vehicles and, most memorably, Goma’s famous wooden bikes or chukudus that are used to transport everything from bananas to bricks.
Trekking today were four tourists in total – my partner Amy and I were joined by two UN pilots on their day off. We were ably assisted by a guide (Elysée), cook (William), several porters (Sabo, Bisimwa), and an armed park ranger (Filemon) “just in case”. We were happy to be in such a small group, enabling us to get to know our crew, and learn about the mountain.
Nyiragongo is a classic cone-shaped stratovolcano. This means that whilst the hike is only around 7km to the summit, it also means it is steep – gaining 1600m in those 7km (about 5 hours). As a keen photographer I decided to lug up a rucksack full of camera gear, much to the disappointment of my ageing back. I particularly wanted to get close up images of Nyiragongo’s lava lake, which sits a few hundred metres below the rim of the volcano’s 1.2 km crater, and thus required a heavy telephoto lens and tripod to keep things steady after sundown. Comfort vs creativity.
Did I mention it is an active volcano?
This is an active volcano. In 1977 – the year of my birth – a major lava flow from Nyiragongo destroyed all in its path, killing a few hundred people. The volcano last erupted properly in 2002, its fluid lava spewed through vents in the flanks of the mountain at 100km/h and headed towards Goma town and Lake Kivu, forcing 200,000 people to flee for their lives. Our guide pointed out the offending vents as we ascended. Volcanologists are unable to accurately predict when Nyiragongo will next erupt, forcing us to reflect on what would happen if today was the day. At least I always favoured being cremated!
On this cloudy and humid day, the hike was fairly sticky as we ascended first through forested lower slopes and then into more open Afro-Alpine vegetation brimming with fragrant herbs and flowers, and striking mountain lobelias. We kept our eyes peeled for monkeys, chimps and bush bucks in the lower forests, seeing their trails and hearing their calls but unfortunately not the animals themselves. No doubt they saw us though.
Onwards and upwards we slowly plodded, after four sweaty hours reaching a shelter some 300m below the summit. Here we refuelled before the final push up the steep rocky slope to the summit – the crater rim. As we ascended the cloud descended, and so did the temperature. Reaching the windswept summit, we peered over the mouth of the crater for our first glimpse of the lava lake, partially obscured in the late afternoon cloud and blanketed in swirling, noxious gases (notably sulphur dioxide). Gusts of warm wind periodically brought the heat, smell and toxins of the volcano to us, as we stared on intently from the cliff edge above.
After dark – when the magic happens:
Under cover of darkness the lava lake took on a new personality – glowing flame-orange and red-hot against the ink of the African sky, fire illuminating the crater walls as the plumes of smoke danced skywards. Mesmerised, we sat for hours looking on in awe and photographing. The surface of the lava lake, all blackened crust interlaced with red rivulets of boiling molten rock, was particularly hypnotic – rhythmically ebbing and flowing like the swell of an ocean. It wasn’t just the visual dimension that was enchanting, the volcano is an aural feast too – cracking, hissing, creaking, exploding. And obviously you can feel the heat that stems from the magma bubbling away at over 900 degrees Celsius only a few hundred metres away. Totally tectonic.
It reminded me of my last encounter with an active volcano, when I visited Kilauea in Hawaii as a naïve and adventurous youth 20 years ago. Alone, I decided to hike over the old, jagged, hardened-black lava flows to find where the new molten lava would be flowing – an exciting dream for a recent geography graduate. Further I walked, grazing my flesh on the razor sharp new rock, and gradually feeling hotter and hotter as I got closer to my goal. It got so hot that the rubber soles of my shoes started to melt, and I thought “I hope I am close to the lava as it might be dangerous to go further”. Looking down I noticed that the blackened rock beneath my feet seemed to be moving slowly, as if a piece of detritus flowing in a ponderous river. ‘Holy Moly’ I thought (likely in more colourful language), realising that I might actually be stood on a crust of cooled, hardened rock atop the boiling lava flow. Retracing my steps, I headed home exhilarated, and vowed not to tell my mother of the experience.
Back on Nyiragongo and more risk averse these days, I stayed up after my companions had gone to bed in order to have the volcano all to myself. I witnessed a thunder storm brewing over Lake Kivu, and was rewarded with lighting illuminating the skies over Goma town – flickering artificial lights juxtaposed against the starry Congolese night sky and the potency of the volcano.
I live for these moments in nature, feeling vulnerable and insignificant amidst such raw and uncontrollable power and beauty. This is my spirituality. Despite the inherent risks of sitting atop an active volcano in a volatile region I never felt in danger; the mountain spirits were kind that day.
We slept soundly in the A-frame huts clinging on precariously at the summit, wrapped up in warm sleeping bags, beside the smouldering crater.
Next day, we descend back down the mountain whence we came, grateful to our guide, rangers and porters for getting us there and back safely and in comfort. Although only a one night stand, I was thrilled to have shared a night with Nyiragongo, and pleased my tourist dollars have contributed towards the conservation and development of this amazing place. My only regret was that we didn’t have time or resources to delve deeper into Virunga, and see its other natural wonders (most notably mountain gorillas that can be visited at a fraction of the cost of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda). With its improved tourist infrastructure in recent years, Virunga is definitely a place I’d like to return to – hopefully in more peaceful and prosperous times, and with better French.
Watch the excellent documentary about Virunga – https://virungamovie.com/.
Visit Virunga – https://visitvirunga.org/
Donate to support rangers, conservation and sustainable development in Virunga National Park – https://virunga.org/donate.