East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 3: Congo

<< Part 2: Northern Rwanda    -   Back to Index   -    Part 4: Southern Rwanda >>


Recent history of Congo

To continue the story from the Rwanda introduction: when the Tutsi rebels of the RPF took Rwanda in 1994 and ended the genocide, two million Hutu fled into Eastern Congo for fear of revenge killings. Among them were the Interahamwe militia who were responsible for the genocide. In 1996 forces from the RPF and Uganda chased them into Congo, setting off the First Congo War which cost some 200,000 lives.

During the war the Rwandese (i.e. the RPF) supported the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila, who overthrew the Mobutu regime in 1998. Later that year Kabila fell out with his allies however, so now they supported other rebels against Kabila to overthrow him. Thus began the Second Congo War, which would last until 2003, involve 7 African countries and kill over 5 million people.

Eastern Congo and Goma

In Eastern Congo the violence actually continues to this day, especially in the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu which lie by lake Kivu opposite Rwanda. The situation is incredibly complicated, but in short you still have the Interahamwe hiding in Eastern Congo, the Congolese army that is unwilling and uncapable of driving them out, and the rebel army of general Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi who does take on the Interahamwe and is therefore supported by Rwanda. To complicate matters more there are also various private militia called the Mai-Mai. All these groups, including the Congolese army, commit atrocities against the population, often using rape and mutilation of women as a weapon.

All these events have led to massive flows of refugees to Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province and the biggest city in Eastern Congo. In 2002, to add insult to injury, 40% of the town of Goma was whiped away when the nearby volcano Nyiragongo erupted and sent a stream of lava into Lake Kivu right through the town center. Casualties were low though because the lava stream was slow and people had time to evacuate.
Goma and the Nyiragongo in 2002

Visiting Eastern Congo

With all the atrocities going on there, Eastern Congo is probably the last place on earth anyone would want to visit. However, the city of Goma and the area around it, which is populated by hundreds of thousands of refugees, is actually quite safe because it is being protected by an army of UN soldiers.

There are two reasons why some tourists visit this unlikely destination. One is to visit the gorillas in the national park of the Virungas, north of Goma. Permits are a bit cheaper and less hard to get here than in Rwanda, for obvious reasons. The other is to climb the Nyiragongo and watch its crater, which is one of only a handful places in the world where you can see active lava. As I said before the gorillas didn't interest us, but when we found out about the Nyiragongo and its lava lake we immediately decided we had to see it and changed our plan to fit it in.

For me there were two more reasons to visit: the political situation I just described, but most of all the fact that half of my family including my parents have lived in Congo. I've grown up with stories about this country and with lots of Congolese objects in my home; we ate Congolese food regularly and I learned some words of the Congolese language Lingala, which my grandparents could speak. So the prospect of even a brief visit to this country was very appealing to me.

Sunday August 19th (day 4): Goma

Gisenyi to Goma

When we woke up in Gisenyi (Rwanda) that morning, the first thing we saw when we went outside the guesthouse was the Nyiragongo looming over town from across the border, an impressive sight.
The Nyiragongo as seen from Gisenyi
We'd arranged our trip by emailing Goma Tour, one of two agencies that organise trips to Nyiragongo and to the gorillas in Virungas, and at 8am we were picked up at the guesthouse with a jeep by a slick young guy named Kennedy (his actual first name). Gisenyi and Goma are adjacent cities, so the border crossing was only a short ride.
Between the border posts of Gisenyi (Rwanda) and Goma (Congo)
There was a long line of locals queueing at the Congolese border post, but when the officials saw two white guys they immediately beckoned us to come inside and fill in the papers to get a Congolese visa. Now we were considering taking a boat from Goma to Bukavu (on the southern tip of Lake Kivu) later on and cross back into Rwanda from there, but it turned out our Congolese visa was only valid for the North Kivu province. Since Bukavu is in South Kivu we'd just have to go back to Gisenyi and travel south from there.

Congo was the 34th country I've been to, and I was 34 years old at this time, so on this day I finally achieved my long-time goal of visiting 1 country per year during my life. Now I just have to keep it up, but considering that I had only been to 15 countries on my 30th birthday, I'm doing well.


Goma begins right past the border crossing. Kennedy first brought us to the agency where we could leave all the stuff we wouldn't need during the climb, and then we drove around Goma to buy food and see the city. It's a shabby but very lively place.
This roundabout marks the center of Goma and is where the Belgians used to live, according to Kennedy
This is a typical street in Goma
This is a nicer part of Goma
As I told in the introduction, 40% of Goma was destroyed when the Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and sent lava flowing through the town center into lake Kivu. As a result a big part of the city is still covered with black soil. Some neighbourhoods have been cleared and look empty, while in others the buildings were left standing but their ground floors are still buried in the lava and will probably remain so. No problem, their first floor just functions as the ground floor now.
Black soil where the lava passed through Goma
In this building, like in many others, the ground floor is buried in lava but the floor above is still in use
Me in front of the agency in Goma

Goma to Nyiragongo

From Goma a long dirtroad leads to the base of the Nyiragongo, which is some 20km away. On the outskirts of the town we passed the headquarters of the UDPS, the opposition party of Etienne Tshisekedi. They have a schoolboard outside on which they write news updates (in French) which passers-by can read - interesting method of spreading news. We stopped to read the latest ourselves.
News update at the UDPS HQ
Here's what the board was saying that day; it's a good reflection of what's on people's minds in Goma:

Response of Nkunda to the declaration of the ministry of defense
  • According to Nkunda on radio RFI, the cease-fire is to be respected but the government has to respect the Kigali agreements. He himself will remain in his current territory.
  • The fighters of the Bravo brigade pulled back into the mountains of the Rutshuru territory according to certain sources. Juslain Du Pont of the RFI confirms that the abandoned territory has been occupied by the Interahamwe, while the government in Kinshasa remains silents.
  • According to Murigande, the Rwandese minister of foreign affairs, the behaviour of the Congolese government is irresponsible because it has tolerated the presence of armed groups on its territory who are killing and raping women.
  • After the death of security adviser Samba Kaputo, it was now the turn of Naweje, judicial adviser of Josep Kabila. He died in South Africa. Let's not forget that Zaidingina is also in a hospital in South Africa and much weakened.
Stay well, UDPS shall win.

Once outside Goma we were driving through the endless refugee camps. Some people live in wooden cabins, others in huts made of banana leaves. In many places there were still remnants of the lava that flowed along this route in 2002.
Driving out of Goma
Nyiragongo ahead
Lava by the road
Huts of banana leaves
Wooden cabins
The Nyiragongo was now completely covered in clouds
More wooden cabins
More wooden cabins
All along the road we saw boys and men transporting things up and down the road on ingenious self-constructed wooden bikes that they pushed uphill and rode downhill.
Boy pushing a self-made wooden bike

August 19th-20th (days 4 and 5): Nyiragongo

Kennedy dropped us off at the base of the Nyiragongo around 11am. On the picture below you can see him standing next to an old sign that has the colours of the Belgian flag and says "National Albert Park" (the colonial name of the Virungas national park, after the Belgian king Albert) in French and Flemish. The sign is full of bullet holes; these were made by Interahamwe members (who hated Belgians) in 1994 when they came running from Rwanda through this area.
Kennedy and the signs at the base of the Nyiragongo
We hired two porters (who cost 12$ each for a day) and were also joined by a ranger with a machinegun - you're not allowed to go into the Virungas national park without one. I've read how the park's rangers have valiantly protected the wildlife against the various militia who've operated in the region in recent years, even when they went without pay for long periods, so I was very sympathetic to this guy. We got a little lecture about the national park and the volcano by some park official - it's great how serious these guys take their work even in these circumstances - and then our little expedition of five was off.

The Nyiragongo is 3670m high and I think we started out at about 2800m. At first we were climbing through thick rainforest and though it was cloudy I wore sunglasses just to keep the insects out of my eyes. We met seven other tourists who were coming down (in two separate groups); they told us it had been a great experience up there. We didn't know it yet then, but we were the only people going up the volcano that day.
Starting the climb with our two porters leading the way through the rainforest
Behind me is the ranger with his AK-47

Listen to the sound of the forest in this movie...

After half an hour or so we came out of the forest and I first thought we were above the tree line now, but we were just walking across parts that had been razed down by the lava in 2002.
Out of the forest
Climbing on lava, with behind us a view on the landscape around the volcano.
Much to my shame I started having a hard time keeping up with Danny and the younger porter, who were walking ahead. It could be the height since we were above 3000m now, but it was more likely just the lousy shape I'm in.
Waiting for the slow guy
There he is
We passed a crack in the volcano from which fumes were escaping, but it didn't look very spectacular. Ahead of us the forest started again, and we were also getting near the bottom of the cloud that was covering the top of the volcano.
Fumes escaping
More forest and a cloud coming up
By 2pm we were walking among trees again, and as we climbed into the cloud the forest got a beautiful spooky atmosphere.
Into the forest
Cloud ahead
Spooky forest - this is one of the best pics of this trip
In the forest I soon lost sight of all the others. Danny and the younger porter were now racing each other ahead of me, while the other porter and the ranger were lagging behind. For about an hour I was climbing all by myself and enjoying the forest. When it started raining I made myself a raincoat from a thrashbag I had in my backpack.

At the top of the forest there was a metal cabin where we all caught up with each other and rested, and from there it was just another 150m or so to the top. During this last part of the climb the cloud cleared somewhat and we got to see fragments of the surrounding landscape, which included lake Kivu nearby. It's unfortunate that it never cleared up completely, I think the view would have been stunning.
Danny and the young porter going up the last part of the slope
Looking down on the inactive secondary crater of the Nyiragongo. At the bottom of the picture you can see me trying to keep up
When we got near the top of the volcano the cloud came back and I lost sight of the two guys ahead of me again. I just continued in the general direction where I last saw them, until I saw Danny waiting for me ahead. It wasn't until I'd joined him that I realised we had arrived on the crater rim. It was around 4pm now and the climb had taken just five hours. Excitedly I took my first look into the crater and was completely awed, not just by the sight of the crater and the lava lake but also by the continuous noise the lava was making.
Just 10m to go
View into the crater of the Nyiragongo
The lava lake in the crater
I estimate the crater is about 150m deep, and the lava lake about 75m wide. Now about a month before our trip the Nyiragongo's crater briefly made world news when a girl from Hong Kong fell to her death here, from the very spot we were at. In fact, she had come here with the same agency; Kennedy and the rangers told us all about her. She had refused to take any equipment though it's freezing hard up here, and when she arrived at the crater rim she started climbing down in it to get closer to the lava.

The movie below pans across the crater and shows how steep the crater walls are. This girl must have been totally crazy to attempt to climb down here without equipment. It took a team of 18 UN soldiers several days to get her body out again.

The lava in the crater below us was continuously moving and causing cracks of fire to appear and disappear across the surface of the lake, while on its far side wave after wave of burning lava was being thrown up into the air - which caused the impressive noise. It was an amazing sight, but we knew the best was yet to come. This would only get better as darkness came, which is why like most visitors we were going to spend the night here. The porters set up two tents, started a fire and began making a meal, while we kept enjoying the view.
Our camp on the ledge at the crater rim - we just had to walk 5m from here to look into the crater. On the left I'm using the last bit of sun to dry my shirt, which was soaking with sweat after the exhausting climb.
As the sky got darker, the burning lava got clearer
When night fell the cloud was still hanging over the volcano, and a lot of smoke was coming from the crater itself, so most of the time we couldn't see the lava at all. However, every now and then things cleared up for a few minutes and then we got a perfectly clear view. This was truly one of the most amazing sights I've ever seen or ever will see. Luckily we were the only people there that night, so we had the whole volcano to ourselves. It was freezing hard up there so our hands were shaking hard, but I used my mini-tripod to keep the camera stable and made some great pictures and movies.
Here I am sitting on the edge of the crater, making pictures and movies of the lava below
The lava lake of the Nyiragongo at night, no zoom
The lava lake of the Nyiragongo at night
The lava lake of the Nyiragongo at night

The first movie shows the whole lava lake, the second focuses on the far side where fresh lava was spewing up. Listen to the sound as well, the experience isn't complete without it!

So, here we were on a Sunday evening in August, sitting on top of a volcano in the freaking Congo. I just had to marvel about how cool this week's schedule looked in hindsight:
  • Monday: went to work in Belgium, boring
  • Tuesday: went to work in Belgium, boring
  • Wednesday: flew to Uganda!
  • Thursday: went rafting on the Nile!
  • Friday: drove to Rwanda!
  • Saturday: visited Kigali!
  • Sunday: climbed a volcano in Congo!
It's good to know when you're two days into an ordinary working week that you can still raft the Nile and climb a volcano in Congo that very same week. If only all weeks were like that!

Anyway, the cold got harder and harder to bear, so when the clouds hid the lava from sight yet again we retired to our tent. Danny turned on his mobile and amazingly we had mobile telephony reception up here. I tried to send an SMS home to my parents, who've lived in Congo for years and didn't know I was going there yet. Unfortunately the battery of the mobile died just then.

Now I had taken all the warm clothes of our Nepal trek and could bear the cold, but Danny had decided to travel light and really suffered this night. I didn't get any sleep either but enjoyed listening to the volcano and taking some pictures of my miserable friend :)
Inside the tent on top of the Nyiragongo
When we got out of the tent at 6:30 we saw nothing because we were inside a cloud.
6:30am on the Nyiragongo
The ranger's machinegun (a Kalashnikov). Apparently it needs duct tape to keep it together.
There was no chance of seeing the crater, the lava or the landscape again, so we soon started on the descent.
Starting the descent from the Nyiragongo
The younger porter was the quickest again
At 8am we got below the damn cloud
Now I was wearing cheap shoes, and I hadn't cut my toenails recently, so during the descent the nails on my two big toes were always pushing against the front of my shoes and soon hurt like hell. When I checked my toes later those nails were almost black, and they were still like that when I got home three weeks later. When Lotte saw it she said "they're gonna fall off". I bet her they wouldn't, but in late November, three months after the descent, the one on my right big toe did come off. I have a gruesome picture of it but I'll save you that :) Both those toenails still look terrible so that's my souvenir from the Nyiragongo.

Anyway back to the descent. When we were near the end, we suddenly heard voices on our right. The ranger got his machinegun from his shoulder, told the porters and us to hide behind some bushes, and went to check it out. While we waited for him we had a smoke and speculated about who those people could be. There were high voices so we were sure they weren't a bunch of rebels or something like that; as it turned out they were refugees chopping wood, which is illegal since it's a nature reserve.
Hiding behind a bush while the ranger was chasing the voices
We were back at the base of the volcano at 10am, and Kennedy picked us up at 10:30 and drove us back to Goma.

Lake Kivu

During the ride back to Goma I had an interesting discussion about the situation in Congo with Kennedy. When I asked where the UN soldiers were camping out, he offered to drive by their camps on the way to the border. As it turns out, the UN camps are on the shore of lake Kivu, so instead of the UN army protecting Goma from the rebel armies, it seems to be Goma that is protecting the UN army, because the lake shore is the one side of Goma that is safe. To our surprise we also saw nice big houses and villas here, with several new ones being constructed. Seems like some people are still prospering amidst all the misery.
The 'road' to the lake, and new villas being constructed there
The shore of lake Kivu in Goma
Two UN soldiers relaxing by the lake. Behind them you can see a UN camp.

Back at the border crossing the Congolese officials were less friendly this time, making a big deal of getting our backpacks out of the jeep and letting us carry them to a little building to be checked. Once inside though one official just touched one of the backpacks with one hand and then decided it was too much work to really check them :)

On the Rwandan side of the border we had to pay 60$ for a Rwandan visa for the second time in three days, as they had refused to give us a multiple-entry visa when we entered the first time. We knew this was coming but acted dumb and pretended to think that we could still use our previous visa, but no luck - once again Rwandan bureaucracy proved to be efficient and free of corruption.

A short ride later we were back in Gisenyi. We'd only been in Congo for about 27 hours, but it had been a mighty interesting adventure. We spent the rest of that day in Gisenyi, swimming in lake Kivu and relaxing, but I already talked about that at the end of part 2.

<< Part 2: Northern Rwanda    -   Back to Index   -    Part 4: Southern Rwanda >>


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