“I hate this posting!” shouted one of the guards when we slogged through the first part of the climb, dense and wet bush, “I wanted to get a posting at the gorillas, where you don´t have to work as hard as this. Oh, no, I end up at the worst posting for a Congolese park ranger – climbing the volcano Nyiragongo with some slow tourists!”
When Jeff translated this quote from Swahili to English I fully understood the guards opinion. I found the going rough as well. For once in a long time I felt upset with Pamela´s fantastic cooking. It had made me put on an enormous 7 kgs of fat in just 6 months! And I asked myself:
“I won´t make it to the top with all these cameras and I will look like a fool in Jeff’s eyes if I can´t make it!”
Jeff Willner was a revelation in many ways. He used to be a missionary kid here in Congo and spoke fluent Swahili. He was also one of the kindest, most generous and intelligent people I have met in a long time. This was my first job as a explorer-in-residence at Kensington Tours, the bravest and most interesting of tour operators in the world right now. Six months after the end of the instability in the region, Jeff himself, the owner, moves in, in person, to Congo to see if he can help the country by bringing in tourism. He said he saw himself as an armchair explorer nowadays, but is a well known explorer in his own right, after having done a great Expedition by Landrover together with three ladies. And he pushed on like he was possessed!
“We have to get up and down in one day, Mikael!” he shouted as the extraordinarily occupied owner he was, “I don´t have more time!”
We had been waiting for three days to get the permission to climb this very active volcano which had its last devastating eruption 2002. Nothing is easy in Congo, but everything is possible. If you have the right contacts. Like Kennedy at Hakuna Matata Tours. We wanted to climb the volcano to see if it should be a must on any itinerary for a tourist in this the most fantastic of places on earth. Congo is no doubt one of the most interesting countries on earth right now. Believe me. For somebody like me who have been there, done that, there´s nothing like it. In comparison, I think only Yemen can rival. And Nyarigongo is a very beautiful and still active volcano with big pools of lava at the bottom of its caldera. That is, if one makes it to the top….
The first part, from the very basic ranger station, up to a small plateau, takes the walker through dense and muddy rain forest. It is so dense, so it is easy to understand that since the war 1996-97, tourism has been all but gone. One gets this great feeling of being one of the first to travel through this area!
After about two hours of slippery, wet and arduous climbing we reached a small plateau offering spectacular views over Lake Kivu and Bukavu.
“Two hours to go to the top!” whispered our guide Roger, “Mikael, do you need help to carry your rucksack?”
“Maybe you should let them help you,Mikael?” Jeff added.
I said no of course and raced on up through, by the meter, steeper climb. Volcanic stone is really sharp and kills any shoe quickly. But worst was the heat and humidity. Whilst trashing through the forest, humidity and weight made me sweat profusely, but now, once out in the open, I missed the cooler forest. The sun just baked on and we were beginning to feel the altitude.
“I have headaches”, Jeff said, which gave me some joy to see he was suffering as well, “Doing this in one day is too much!”
There´s no doubt, that to be able to fully enjoy the great scenery and variety of ecological zones one passes through on the climb up to the 3,470 m (11,385 ft) top, two days is the optimal. The last two hours brought us through some great scenery and landscapes, dominated by gigantic lobelias and senecio plants. Once we reached the top, clouds moved in after a heavy rain, and we could finally look down into the enormous crater. Suddenly, the clouds dispersed and we could see three gigantic lava pools fuming with orange heat! It is an extra ordinary experience to see this!
After having a great lunch just below the crater, Jeff shot off down the volcano like a rocket! He wanted to get down as fast as possible so that he could enjoy a Cuban cigar and a Green Label whiskey at the hotel pool. It only took us two hours to make it all the way down! Six hours up and two down. Even the moaning park rangers liked that!
The climb is demanding, but well worth the effort. It should definitely be part of any itinerary in East Africa!
And link though to my website to see this little film with the new Congolese superstar to be? Innocent Balude!
Written by Explorer Mikael Strandberg.
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