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Travel

On the Edge of an Exploding Volcano

Visiting the Congo's crazy, blackened, smoking hellscape right after the election.
December 5, 2011, 12:00am

I had the privilege of being the first tourist who crossed into the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Uganda after its most recent elections. This is the country affectionately known as the rape capital of the world, and has basically been torn apart by horrifically brutal violence for decades now. But I was not there to write about “tragic Africa.”

In Virunga National Park in the country’s northeast, there is a volcano called Nyamulagira. It is one of the most active in the world, and right now that shit is exploding. In early November Nyamulagira started spewing lava 200 meters into the air, and it hasn’t stopped since. The resulting tourist boom is a lifesaver for Virunga, which was occupied by warlords in 2006 and nearly went bankrupt as a result. Tourism dollars are divided among the government, the park, and local schools and medical centers. This is literally the lifeblood of Virunga, and since the lava isn’t threatening any people or mountain gorillas, the eruption has been a really good thing for the tourism industry.

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But, as I soon discovered, getting into the Congo was the biggest pain in the ass ever.

I’m Canadian, and my first attempt at getting to the DRC was by flying from Nairobi into Kigali in Rwanda, then crossing the border at Goma. To my surprise, on arrival in Rwanda I was informed that Canadians definitely can not buy visas at the border (Americans and Brits don’t even need visas, which is hideously unfair.) I could have sworn I saw other tourists get the same visa lecture and still make it in, but airport officials searched my bag, found my press pass, and deported my ass immediately. Take note: President Paul Kagame is running a god damn police state over there, and apparently doesn’t like Canadians, and definitely doesn’t like reporters. I am not a fan of Rwanda now, either, so the feeling is mutual.

Attempt number two involved taking a 20-hour bus trip across Uganda. When I stopped in Jinja for a night, my camera and cigarettes got lifted by some bastard who I hope gets hit by a bus, meaning I had to buy a shitty little point-and-shoot from a sketchy back alley thief in capital city Kampala. After that I spent 16 hours in a bus that wasn’t moving at all, because the mountain roads were too muddy. So much fun!

So I made it to Kisoro near the Bunagana border point, where I waited anxiously for my eccentric guide Daniel to show up for a briefing. He failed to do so, and sent a text instead saying to meet him at the border the next morning, since he couldn’t cross on election day. At this point I gave up all hope.

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But then miracles happened. Daniel was waiting at the border the next morning. Though I’d forgotten my yellow fever vaccination card, I dropped some French on the immigration officials (go Canada!) and they let me in. The Congo: Post-Election.

I was expecting pockets of unrest and anxiety and pick-up trucks full of psychotic guerilla soldiers and women fleeing and screaming all over the place, but honestly, it seemed like a pretty relaxed scene. On the surface things looked fine. People are super poor in the DRC, and the roads are a special kind of torture when riding in a transport truck (potholes are so bad that driving there is referred to as “African free massage”) but everyone was friendly and calm and helped push us out of the mud whenever we got stuck.

There were soldiers stationed every couple miles to keep an eye on things, and I had a team of six armed guards walk me out to the volcano, which seemed excessive, but all in all it did not seem particularly dangerous. Whatever violence is coming to the Congo will likely happen after the election results are officially announced.

And then the hike in. Walking to this volcano was like a journey into Mordor. Only worse. We were surrounded by thick forest and the path was made entirely of jagged, loose lava rocks and I was exhausted and sweaty and almost wiped out every five minutes. Eventually the path just ended and we were hopping through fields of mossy, jagged, loose lava rocks. You know how, when you’re super drunk and putting all of your effort into just walking straight, and your ankles keep wobbling and collapsing and it is so, so annoying? That was this hike.

Case in point: The trek out there takes three hours. Total distance covered is three kilometers. As I cursed my complete lack of physical fitness and severe chain-smoking habit, I heard the first rumble. I thought it was a thunderstorm. Not so.

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“That’s the volcano. Big explosion,” Daniel told me.

He was right. This was not some feeble little mountain sputtering and smoking all pathetically. It sounded like the whole place was blowing up, and giant fountains of lava were spewing up into the air, painting the whole side of the mountain red. Getting closer to the volcano was like walking on an alien planet—some sort of crazy, blackened, smoking hellscape littered with dead insects and animals, cut apart by rivers of lava.

One cool thing about getting in right after the election is that no other tourists were there, so it was just me and a bunch of armed guards running around taking pictures. No one else was at the campground. Just us and the volcano. So we frolicked around the rivers of lava and slid down hillsides and choked on ash. And then, as I grinned stupidly in front of the volcano, I heard a thud. A giant lava rock had dropped out of the sky and landed three feet away from me.

“Now we go,” said Daniel. Yup. So we bailed, rescued a falcon who’d had its wing broken by volcano debris, and ate the “dinner” that was included in my tour: a tin of sardines and a package of biscuits.

Things are probably going to get bad in the Congo again soon. After so many years of war and violence, a lot of major media outlets are writing the country off as a failed state. This will damage tourism again. Virunga National Park receives 80 per cent of its funding from the European Union, and that is going to expire in 2012, and the whole Eurozone crisis means the funding might not get renewed. Park rangers, guides, and the communications director at the park are desperate for tourists to keep coming in, and their future is really uncertain.

I spoke with LuAnne Cadd, communications director at Virunga. The eruption has been great for business, and the DRC is trying to recover and build a good reputation—Cadd just hopes people don’t get spooked by all those damn travel advisories.

“Travelers who come here are not looking for a sanitized version of Africa. They want adventure, and they want something authentic, and we want them to know that it’s not as dangerous as the rest of the world might think,” she said.

Agreed. Now here’s hoping everyone doesn’t erupt when the election results come in.