As you guys know Katie, the other Pea, is currently on a trip of a lifetime around Africa. She’s still has several weeks out on the road but sent me her latest fitness adventure to share with you all. Are you ready for this? Katie & her husband Marc are climbing active volcanoes! In the Congo!!! You don’t want to miss this!
The Congo is one of those places that raises eyebrows. We’ve met loads of other travelers in our journey so far, even for the most seasoned, the Congo seems allusive and dangerous. Although the vast country wasn’t in our original itinerary when we left the Mother City over two months ago, it’s quickly become the highlight of our journey.
The process wasn’t easy, however. We ran into major road blocks with our visas. We could get one at embassies in Uganda or Rwanda, but they were $130 a piece, and we’d heard that they weren’t honoring them at the border anyway. Our budget doesn’t allow us the luxury of taking the chance. So, we drove through the hills of Rwanda and showed up at the DRC border in Goma. As my husband got his passport stamped out of Rwanda and walked the 100 feet to the Congo border post, I was hoping this wasn’t a horrible idea. He came back with good and bad news, they’d let us in for $285 a piece, we could only stay in one province and we’d have seven days.
“It’s $285 each, and no negotiations”, the border agent told him.
Apparently, we’d met the only honest border agent the country. If that had been our only option, we may have taken it.
But, we had plan B. Earlier in the week we confirmed rumors that we could wait seven days and get a visa through a DRC national park if we either trekked gorillas or climbed an active volcano. We met another couple in Rwanda and when they heard about the national park visas, they said they’d climb the Nyiragongo Volcano in Parc National des Virunga with us. And at $50 each, the visas were a bargain (especially compared to $285)! We still only had a week in-country, but with the countries second Presidential election looming, and the threat of civil war eminent, we’d need to leave by then anyway.
Through our friends, we found a Congolese tour guide, he met us at our hotel and we made the necessary arrangements, filling out visa forms and using the dingy internet cafe in Gisenyi to send them. For the national park permit, porters, camping, etc, it was $150 per person.
When got to the Rwandan border, the four of us all looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew we were all thinking the same thing. What have we gotten ourselves into? But, we stamped our passports and ventured into the unknown.
We paid our tour guide the visa fees for the four of us, and watched as he slipped a portion to the border agent and pocked the rest. When the border agent asked my husbands profession, he said “web developer” and got a blank stare. After a few other variations, finally someone said “internet”. And the border agent finally looked at him with recognition.
This became the moment that my husband stole Al Gore’s credit for creating the internet. At least in the Congo.
Driving through Goma was surreal. A country that, even through war, has managed to hold onto it’s faith, is deserted on Sundays.
Everyone is at church, the driver told us.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at Parc National des Virunga. We got to the national park at about 10 and started the two-day hike an hour later.The first day was difficult for us. Neither my husband or I have done any form of real exercise since before we left on our trip. Our diet, consisting of a lot of chips, samosas, and cokes, food you can get in almost every African village, wasn’t helping the cause. It’s not that the incline is all that difficult, it’s that the volcano erupted in 2002, and much of terrain is lava rock, so it’s uneven and difficult to walk on.
About halfway up it started to rain, thankfully we had one rain coat and a friendly fellow hiker let us borrow a poncho. The rain was actually refreshing and it slowed the pace a little bit, which was a welcomed change. But, it also made it cold. At the top of the volcano it gets to about 4 degrees celsius at night. I was thankful for the sleeping bags and change of clothes.
The view at the top was remarkable. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The park only started allowing hikers last year, so there haven’t been many people up the volcano. Our guide made us a fire, and we cooked food we brought with us. As we slept about 5 yards from the edge of the crater, in a small cabin, I kept waking up and looking out the window to see the red glow from the erupting fire below.
We woke to cold and fog. Which made the already difficult descent, more treacherous. It only took about 3 hours, but the lava rock made it tricky. Also, we weren’t planning on hiking on this trip, so I just had running shoes which didn’t provide much stability. But, in the end, it was all worth it.
As we finished, the others that had hiked with us all went back to Rwanda. They’d just come for volcano. For the four of us, however, the hike was just a way into the allusive land. Our Congolese adventure was just beginning.
If you’re interested in hiking the Nyiragongo Volcano in Parc National des Virunga, here’s some practical information:
People hiking with us had also done Kilimanjaro and said this was more difficult. But, I think some of that was the pace, we hiked quickly. And many people that do Kilimanjaro go slow to avoid altitude sickness (there are a bunch of different routes that vary in intensity).
Our friends that came with us said it was easy. But, he’s done a lot of Everest and she’s done Mount Meru in Kenya (definitely more technically difficult than “Kili”). So, overall, I’d say it’s moderately difficult. If you’re relatively fit, you’d be fine.
There were a couple of guides with us, ours taught English to Congolese businessmen, so he was wonderful. After the hike we went into Goma to meet up with the people we stayed with the rest of the week, and he waited with us until they arrived. However, the other guide didn’t speak much English. So, unless you know French, it’s best to specify that you want an English speaking guide.
I can get you in touch with the guy that arranged our trip (he saved us about $300 between the 4 of us), and we paid about half of what everyone else. And he arranged all of our transport to and from the border post. Some of the people that were hiking had arranged it through the national park, and there was some confusion about their ride back to town.
What’s the deal with travel warnings anyway?
We take travel warnings seriously, and we wouldn’t have gone to the DRC without the contacts we had. We weren’t ever alone in Goma and there is a huge UN presence in the city of nearly 1 million. There was actually a UN sniper right over the gate of the house where we stayed in Goma (we could see him from our bedroom window…)–our friend wasn’t kidding when he said the UN were his neighbors. Crazy, huh?!
If you’re interested in learning more about the hike, send me an email.
Have you ever climbed a volcano? What’s your favorite hike?