It had been a dream of mine, a fantasy, since I first heard a whisper that there was a volcano in the heart of Africa, which you could climb and look down into it’s molten belly. This story and so many others of the Democratic Republic of Congo ignited a spark within me. Maybe the fact that DRC is so mysteriously wild and its secrets so closely guarded that I feel so drawn in by it.
9 years before; that whisper had stirred a longing within me and here I am now at the trailhead. Nyiragongo. The name spells excitement, mystery, adventure and danger. As hard to pronounce as it apparently is to climb.
For the last few months we have been communicating with some courageous modern day explorers from the UK who had asked TIA-adventures to take them to Nyiragongo. I have backed out numerous times, my knees have been known to trouble me since I was a gymnast. Back then dressed in a leotard, approaching the vault, or tumbling through a floor piece I remember a tubi grip giving me confidence and support. I don’t want to damage my knees, my yoga is too precious for me to be injured. Added to this; cold air temperature, freezing winds, icy nights and it is the rain season….I had almost talked myself out of going. But bigger then my fear of cold or of injury was my fear of missing out. So on deciding I was going to do it I started a training regime.
Pete had me walking laps in the garden, up and down hills, feet slipping in the mud, under the equatorial sun. Claiming my “body needed to get used to what it was going to be doing.” My hamstrings squeaked an objection, my heart pounded in my chest, yoga seemed like a walk in the park. I started “squactober” beginning with 50 squats a day and working up to 250. Dog walking, P90X3 all became my friends. I loved moving my body in ways different to yoga, sweating through Piyo, laughing through chinups and spending time with friends exercising was a wonderful way to connect and catch up.
We left for the volcano as prepared as we were going to be.
Crossing 2 International Borders was exciting. Border towns are all mostly the same, vehicles stuck in the mud, confusion, money changers whom you never quite know if they are trying to assist you, rip you off or mug you. I found myself on edge, looking around me, queues of people, noone quite sure which line to be in. Then I spotted the musician in his 40s. Dressed in a crisp white suit and silver sequined fudora. His face was as dark as a starless night time sky, the lines carved into it told a thousand stories of which I could not begin to imagine or hope to hear, his eyes had a sparkle, a sense of mischief and as he caught me starring inquisitively at him his face lit up, a white, wide smile spreading from ear to ear, like a glacier along a mountain ridge. We had arrived in The Congo.
Goma is special, apart from having possibly the worst political mess in the world and being surrounded by some of the most unpleasant armed groups you could imagine, it sits on the banks of a lake filled with poisonous gas, capable of killing every living thing in the vicinity if triggered to bubble to the surface. A lake in Cameroon, 2000 times smaller, filled with the same methane, was triggered by a landslide and wiped out the entire neighborhood. Goma has landslides but that is nothing to worry about compared to the volcano. Goma is built on the slopes of Niyarongo, in 2002, She spilled into the city, leaving 120 000 people homeless but thankfully did not turn the lake over. – Hendri Coetzee
We collected our rangers, bought bags of charcoal, enlisted the help or porters and began to climb. The first hour was pleasant; I found myself chanting “om gan ganapataye namaha.” The sacred chant of Ganesh used for safe jouneys and protection. This became my mantra for the climb. Through the forest we strolled, forest soon gave way to shree. Not my favourite type of surface to walk on but the rain that started to pelt my face gave me something else to think about. It briefly crossed my mind that I would need to come down through the shree tomorrow…but that was tomorrows problem. We stopped a number of times on the way up, our avocados, spelt bread and olives making a welcome source of energy. Along with my trademark trail mix. The rain got harder then stopped, then started, then stopped this continued for the next 4 hours. As thunder rumbled and threatened above us there was a murmur that “the mountain god was unhappy.” I secretly prayed he was not too unhappy!!!
The rain though was a welcome relief. Sweating from exertion you were wet anyway. Scree gave way to path carved by lava 13 years before. Walking on lava cooled and frozen in time. In places it resembled melting chocolate. This was a breeze to walk on and as I happily strolled up the volcano I gave thanks to my incredible body for allowing me to do what it does. I gave thanks for being in a position financially to be able to follow my dreams, I gave thanks for my upbringing which encouraged me to travel and leave behind the safety of a predictable life and I gave thanks to my husband for his never ending encouragement and belief. We were almost there.
As we approached the 5th hour of the almost vertical ascent we stopped at the final rest point. Some of the group was feeling nauseous, others finding it hard to breathe. Reduced oxygen made the simple act of breathing a challenge. Looking up the clouds had parted and the summit was in sight. 180 degrees behind us was DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, a valley of extinct volcanoes covered in grassy woodlands. Clouds hovered and mysteriously floated by. A playground for fairies.
On given the go ahead to continue, we all powered our way to the top, each carving our own path. There were many ways to choose. All the routes were exposed, large rocks slipped from beneath your feet, tumbling down the volcano. The word sorry was heard as a mini rock slide began above someone’s head…..Slowly, slowly, we wanted to all arrive safely. Getting to the rim, I had summited on an overhang, as I looked into the heart of the earth some 400m below, my stomach leaped into my throat and the word “wow” escaped my lips. The view was crystal clear, the rain we had experienced on the way up subsided, we were looking down into the molten heart of Africa. Watching the lava cool and form a crust, then break through from every weak spot was mesmerizing. Patterns shifted, lava spewed into the air, the wind blew. This is what being alive feels like. Every part of my body, mind and spirit was alive with sensation, vibration and awareness. Mother nature could not have provided a more perfect amphitheater, the view was spectacular. The night time performance mesmerizing. I had underestimated how potent the power of this place might be. I sat until clouds came in and coldness engulfed me. Snuggling into my sleeping bag with no volcano to look at I was suddenly aware of the sound of the lava churning and crashing like an ocean beneath me. Awe struck I closed my eyes and settled into sleep.