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nyiragongo: the manifestation of the bleeding volcano

February 13, 2012

The idea of vacationing alone has always struck me as something like a grandiose version of taking oneself out to eat at a nice restaurant. It is perhaps lonesome at first glance, but also somewhat brave and delightfully unconventional. So when visa complications arose and my traveling partner had to back out of a trip to climb a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I decided to give it a try. Climbing what is, by some estimates, the most active volcano in the world in war torn country of whose language I speak none of sounded like a swell idea.

Nyiragongo is an 11,384 ft. stratovolcano located just north of the city of Goma. Goma is a town of which I know little, save passing mention in dire news reports from the region. In navigating from my hotel in Rwanda, through Goma and to the base of the volcano I relied fully a guide from the tour company through whom I had booked. The adventure began on a drizzly morning with a surprisingly flawless pass through the border. My guide and I emerged victorious, passports stamped and visas in hand only to find no driver on the other side to meet us.  A flurry of phone calls later and we learned that the road to the border was blocked, as there was a “manifestation” in town.

“Oh, like a political demonstration?”I asked. Embassies had warned of the potential for political unrest leading up to this month’s presidential elections.

“No, not a demonstration. A manifestation.” My guide asserted.

I don’t know what a “manifestation” entails, but I do know there are situations that arise when traveling where less knowledge is better; times when you’re in too deep and it is best to simply trust those in whose hands you are placed. This was one of them and I decided not to investigate further. Before long our driver reached us and after zig-zagging through a few back roads we were leaving the city behind us, “manifestation” and all. On the outskirts of Goma the rains began to gather speed, windshield wipers flying frantically to clear our view. My guide asked if I had brought raingear. When I claimed that the jacket I was then wearing was my raingear, it was clear that was not quite what he had in mind. “But what about rain pants?” I shook my head. He giggled nervously and turned back to his seat. A few moments later an umbrella appeared from out of his briefcase. “Maybe you could use this?” The idea of trekking up the side of a mountain Mary Poppins style sounded ridiculous, but if this man who made his living climbing this rock seemed to think I required this addition, I was in no position to protest. I was beginning to get the feeling that perhaps I had not prepared well.

Upon reaching the basecamp, we met up with the other climbers I was to join. Our group consisted of two French speaking Congolese park rangers, my English speaking self, and half a dozen Austrians with limited French and very limited English. As I cannot say a word of German, I began mentally scrambling to tally what few French terms I know. The list was not long. I can say hello and thank you, and name a handful foods and beverages. I am aware that one can tack on a “bo-coo” sound to the end of “merci,” which I assume gives your “thank you” a little extra kick. I once lived down the street from a bakery called “Le Petit Chat.” The translation I inferred from the kitten motif prominent throughout the décor. I rearranged the combinations of my narrow vocabulary in my head like a set of magnetic refrigerator poetry. My French haiku would be something along the lines of,

Hello small cat,

Baguette? Champagne? Crème Brulee?

Thank you very much.

More difficult than composing verse was imagining a scenario on the climb where this little ditty might come in handy. Confidence in my ability to communicate further crumbled when I was introduced to my porter, a man of slighter build than I with green galoshes and a purple windbreaker tied in a turban as a rain hat.

“French?” he inquired, extending his hand in my direction.

I shook my head apologetically. “English?”

He shook his. “Somewhere,” he stated, patting his chest.

Maybe I’d been spending too much time with the Mennonites, but I took this to be a gesture of cross-cultural goodwill. In one word this man seemed to say, “Perhaps you don’t speak my language and I don’t speak yours, but ‘somewhere’ in the middle we’ll meet, and together we will climb this mountain.”

“Yes, somewhere!” I smiled, spreading my palms to the common air between us.

“No, no,” my guide intervened, “His name is Somewhere.”

For the man I was to trust with transporting my sleeping bag, my water, my meager goods responsible for keeping me alive on the rim of molten lava, a name like, “Somewhere,” didn’t exactly inspire confidence. “Where is my pack?” I’d wonder throughout the climb, peering back through the jungle, searching for a glimpse of my purple turbaned friend. “Somewhere,” I’d think, answering my own question.

Unlike me, the Austrians had not hired porters. Also unlike me, they were outfitted from head to toe in gear appropriate to endure a hurricane. This left me feeling simultaneously under and over equipped, like showing up to a cocktail party anticipating a potluck. The industrial strength rain gear of the Prepared Austrians was tucked at the ankles into calf high hiking boots and each carried a pair of poles as if we were about to embark on a cross-country skiing trip through Central Africa.  I was wearing yoga pants and running shoes that had seen better days. They noticed.

Their leader approached me,“You coming with us?”

“Yes, I am.”

“In those shoes?” He looked me up and down, eyes resting on the hole next to my big toe; sock peeking through, and uttered the only full sentence that escaped him for the entirety of the trip.“You know you could have saved the $24 you spent on a porter, carried your own stuff and bought some decent shoes.”

This is categorically unhelpful advice. At the trailhead, payments made and gear donned, I would much prefer the offertory of a silly umbrella and a nervous laugh. This gift was not necessary for the Prepared Austrians, as they had each brought along water resistant ponchos individually designed for their packs. Elastic bands cinched around their loads, ensuring not a drop of moisture would meet their precious possessions. As I watched them assemble their outfits I thought of my food supply. It consisted primarily of three days worth of contraband from my hotel’s continental breakfast. This was supplemented by a jar of peanut butter I had picked up en route, whose suspicious coloring suggested the emphasis was on the butter, not the peanut. As the rain beat harder, I pictured my carefully smuggled croissants dissolving into a doughy mess just inside my pack.

The comments of the Unhelpful Austrian coupled with my apparent lack of forethought led my brain down a rabbit hole of possible mishaps. I hadn’t packed a tent as the park’s website boasted newly constructed cabins at the summit. Construction had indeed been completed…hadn’t it? It was then that I remembered I had also neglected to pack a pair of spare glasses; the thin disks of silicone resting on my eyeballs the only thing between me and legal blindness. An image loomed in my imagination. There I am, drenched as a dog in the rain, huddled in my wet sleeping bag atop the rough lava. Exposed to the elements, shivering and blind, I lap pitifully at a jar of peanut flavored lard.

My guide waved goodbye, the park rangers hoisted their Kalashnikovs onto their backs and we set out on what I was now quite convinced was a very stupid idea.  The climb began in a rainforest; muddy path and overhanging vines. It wasn’t long before I picked up a few language skills to help me survive. Not words, per se, but the meanings they carried. I learned that if a single syllable was ferried down the line in shouts I should look down for a trail of army ants crossing the path. This was a warning I was particularly careful to heed as at this point the necessitation of stripping naked and beating flesh eating insects from my body just might have been the last straw. Thankfully an hour and a half later all emerged from the forest clothed and uneaten. By this time the heavens had ceased their downpour; only lingering fog now obscuring the peak ahead of us.

Prior to climbing Nyiragongo I did minimal research on the volcano. I read enough to know what to bring and if an eruption was eminent, but for the most part I didn’t want to spoil the surprise of what I was to learn during the hike. In end, what with the language barrier, I think I know less about what exactly is going on atop that rock post climb than I did before I started. After the rainforest, we reached a plateau with several small towers of steam whirling up from holes in the ground. These I knew, thanks to Wikipedia, were fissure vents. Upon spotting the fissures, our park ranger in front pointed and made a statement in French that included the word, “problème.” The man ahead of me then turned and calmly announced, “The volcano is bleeding.” This was another manifestation I determined was best to leave alone.

We continued on for a few hours, the path getting steeper and rockier as we went until we reached the final resting point before the summit. Here the Unhelpful Austrian ducked to the side of the trail, panting heavily and reshuffling his pack on his shoulders. I smirked and skipped ahead to the front of the group thinking, “You know, you could have saved $24 on less fancy shoes and paid someone to carry your stuff.” While I had been preparing this retort since the trailhead, the altitude was beginning to catch up with me and I didn’t have the breath to spare.

The last stretch was a steep scramble, each climber finding their own switchback up to the summit. One by one, we reached the top, stepped to the edge of the crater and peered down.

Awe is the same in every language. The crater transfixed us all evening, and as darkness set, she came into her glory.

All perched on the rim until one by one the surprisingly cold night chased us to our beds. Along for the climb was a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a short but substantial read, appropriate for the evening. For where better to contemplate life than on the edge of fiery death? Tucked away in our cabins, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of flowing lava: rolling like the waves of the ocean. This, after an international assembly was summoned in one cabin for the passing round of a bottle of whiskey in makeshift water bottle shot glasses. Those Austrians sure do know how to pack.

The next morning we awoke at dawn, sprung from our bunks and scrambled back to the rim to watch the show. Our heads whipped back and forth between the rings of fire below and above us, undecided as to which was more impressive. As the sun slipped above the horizon, I noticed a peculiarly shaped cloud bulging opposite the crater that had not been there the evening before. Prepared Austrians and park rangers were pointing at the cloud and discussing so I wandered over to join. Noting my curiosity, one of the rangers gestured to the cloud and declared, “Volcano.” I smiled and nodded.

The climb down took around four hours. We descended from the summit with the lights of Goma twinkling through the morning mist below us. The rains of the day before were replaced by a humid heat that grew as the morning wore on. We broke through the rainforest and back to the base camp sweaty and triumphant to find the next climbing group was there waiting for us. A pack of bright eyed American college students eager to conquer the challenge ahead rushed to greet us,

“Did you see the eruption??”

“The what?”

As it turned out, while we slumbered on the rim, the neighboring volcano, Nyamuragira, a 20 km distance away, had erupted, spewing lava in its path. I recalled the explanation of the mysterious cloud by our park ranger that morning, “Volcano.” He was right.

To anyone who asks, I would recommend the climb a million times over. There is perhaps nothing else on earth quite like watching a violent lava lake boil before your eyes. If you do go, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring along some legitimate raingear, decent hiking boots, or at least a change of socks. But if, like me, you are young and naïve, careless and cheap, fear not. For the rainclouds will have mercy, Somewhere will carry your load, and the Prepared Austrians will share their whiskey to warm your bones.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 9:50 pm

    Wowwww¡¡really incredible I´m sure you´re gone remember this for your entire life. If you want someday to look at Pacaya is not as big as this one, but it impressed. Lava scare me is flows like water and leave nothing on it´s way.
    Thank you for send the family all your comments. I really enjoy to know your through them.
    Love, Tía Clarisa

  2. Kirsten Navis permalink
    February 14, 2012 12:43 pm

    Hi Elizabeth! This is a wonderful read, it could definitely be a part of a collection of travel stories… I hope you’re doing well.

    xoxo

  3. February 14, 2012 12:56 pm

    Brilliant!

  4. thebeankielbon permalink
    February 14, 2012 5:46 pm

    Moreno you are outrageous/inspire me to be more adventurous. I’m glad to have friends as insane and cool as you 🙂

  5. February 14, 2012 6:06 pm

    Great travelogue, Liz! And the solo-vacationing-thing is taking hold (you picked a slightly more ambitious destination): “Single in the Caribbean” http://nyti.ms/zCs1H7

  6. Libby permalink
    February 16, 2012 1:28 am

    You have an amazing way of telling stories. Such fun to read! Thanks for sharing, friend 🙂

  7. Sarah permalink
    February 16, 2012 8:30 am

    Incredible post….I’m jealous of your adventure 🙂 don’t ever stop writing please!

  8. February 16, 2012 11:30 am

    Magnificent! Thank God for Austrians with whiskey (even if also with unhelpful asinine comments) and neighbouring volcanoes that erupt (as opposed to the one your snoozed upon)

  9. Sarah L. permalink
    March 7, 2012 8:07 pm

    That was absolutely amazing, Elizabeth. What a great story and memory to have.

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