When we travel, even though we’re going in search of something different, our minds always reach for the familiar. It’s that feeling when you’re in a new city, and every block has one face that seems like an old friend or family member. Similarly, as we put one foot in front of another on a steep path, suddenly the vegetation, birdsongs, and scents all remind us of our home trails in the Hudson Valley or on the North Shore of Lake Superior. But then you look up and the ranger in front of you is carrying a vintage AK-47 and the chatter of your group isn’t the New Yawk accent or Midwestern vowel overdrive you expect, but rather a patchwork of French, Swahili, Afrikaans, and English.
No, Toto, we are not in Manhattan climbing Mt. Soho (Jessica’s fond name for the cement mound in REI where one tests out prospective boots). Rather we are in the far eastern reaches of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), just north of the million-person city of Goma, where on this morning we crossed the border from Rwanda. There’s no question that we were nervous about traveling to the DRC. Though Jessica’s network of tour operator friends had assured us that we would be safe, neither of us had ever entered a territory actively contested by militias at odds with the government.
Walking into the border post, we didn’t know what to expect. Our concerns quickly eased somewhat, first by the unexpectedly modern border building—which we learned later had been opened only two weeks prior and had been built with $9 million provided by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation—then by the appearance of Victor, our impeccably dressed handler from Virunga National Park. This comfort was short-lived, however, when Jess was asked her profession by the customs official. We had decided in advance that our response would be “editor,” which Victor translated as jornaliste. The stern woman looked as though we had just spat on her paper ledger book. She disappeared with Jessica’s passport, leaving us in agonized suspense. When she came back, we erupted into a chorus of “Editor! Editor! No jornaliste!” Lord only knows what made her back down, but our stamps were quickly forthcoming.
The tension built as we waited for the rest of our nine person group to be processed. As Jessica headed to the yellow fever station to get her temperature checked with a little plastic gun that shot a laser into her mouth, 40 soccer players from the DRC heading to Rwanda for a game wandered into the center. When Jessica passed her health inspection, she turned around, and to her surprise, the footballers had mobbed Patrick. In fact, it would appear that all white people clad in hopelessly dorky camping gear are Instagram fodder, as the soccer players engaged in a group selfie frenzy. Let’s just say it gave the atmosphere in the border post new levity.
With our names and passport numbers written down in the log-book, we were volcano-bound. We hopped into three Land Rovers bearing the Virunga National Park logo and sped through Goma, which, to be frank, looked like what we imagine the aftermath of a war zone looks like. With no stop lights, traffic signals, or street signs, it was a quick trip with only one stop at the Virunga Rangers’ barracks. There we picked up four armed rangers who would provide security for us on route to Mt. Nyiragongo. It is sobering to sit next to a 20-something who risks his or her life daily to protect a national park and the four million people who call its borders home. Definitely not your usual walk in a national park.
It was clear that Virunga is one of the few respected authorities in the region as its rigs were given right of way at every pass. It wasn’t long before we pulled into the trailhead where a group of porters, a new crop of rangers, and our cook, Laurent, awaited our arrival. Jean Louis, the head ranger for our climb, addressed us as a group. He explained that we would hike together, and slowly, to ensure both that the three armed rangers climbing with us could offer better protection in the unlikely occurrence of trouble with either animals or humans and to maximize our chances for a successful climb since we had 5,000 feet to gain over the afternoon.
We could write for pages about the hike, but we’ll be brief here. It began on a soft dirt trail that turned toward crushed, fist-sized volcanic rocks, and then to solid volcanic flow that looked like petrified wood. It was strenuous but far from hard, and when we turned to look at the valleys below us the views were powerful. There was beauty in Rwanda’s Lake Kivu stretching to the distance, and the DRC’s Mt. Mikeno and Rwanda’s Mt. Karisimbi anchoring the other side of the valley, but there was also the human story of the valley below, which was filled with refugees recently enough that trees had yet to recover from the firewood harvesting of those times.
Our training seems to have paid off so far, in that we looked up to see the huts stacked on the volcano’s rim before we even realized we were almost done. We all ditched our gear upon arrival and scrambled the final few feet to our first summit and a view to the crater and lake of lava below . . . which was obscured by clouds. We headed to our huts to organize our gear and hide from the rain that had just rolled in. Dressed in our warmest rain resistant gear we trudged to the summit again only to hear Jacques, our cinematographer, grumble in his South African accent: “Where’ve you two lovebirds been? Almost missed the show!”
Words will never be able to describe what it’s like to watch liquid rock bubble, burn, and explode into flame in front of you like a boiling pot of water, but it is simultaneously entrancing and deeply frightening. You can’t look away but you also can’t help but acknowledge that this pot of lava wants to go somewhere. And you’re sitting on top of the cage that’s holding it in. Statistically speaking, we knew we were safe. But statistics are little comfort when you’re face to face with geology really badly wanting to do its thing. After staring into the pit, we retreated to the cook shed where Laurent had made chicken and rice on a simple bed of charcoal. Honestly, Patrick can bare make rice on a stovetop and here Laurent was killing it at 10,000 feet. The food was good, the mountain seemed sated, and we headed to a night of sleep with a plan to wake up in time for the sunrise.
As alarm clocks go, having someone knocking on your wall at 5:15 am yelling, “Guys, guys, you need to get up, the volcano is erupting!!!” is not the worst way to attain immediate wakefulness. It turns out that what Patrick had explained away as thunder during the night had really been the mountain clearing its throat before beginning to toss gouts of lava across the floor of the crater. As we raced to pull our gear together we realized we weren’t being called to evacuate, we were being called to come and have a look. “WERE THESE PEOPLE INSANE?” thought Jess. And, “THIS IS SO COOL,” thought Patrick.
Sure enough, a lava cone to the right of the lake had broken open during the night and was in the process of cracking open explosion by explosion. Flashes of light and strings of molten lava were followed by deep booming explosions like cannon fire you could feel in your feet. The photographers on the trip were running every type of timelapse and video and filtering equipment possible while the rest of us were thinking of different ways to ask: Was this really safe? Jessica comforted herself with one of Laurent’s omelets between periods of wondering aloud why we weren’t, in fact, descending the exploding mountain quite yet, and Patrick figured, if you’re going to die, you might as well enjoy it, and continued to watch the explosions do their thing. Finally, Jean-Louis, with a life to get back to down below, announced it was time to go and we began our descent.
Everyone talks about going up the mountain, but so little attention is given to the descent. Friends: When you are carrying even just 20 pounds on your back and you are looking downhill at a moonscape of volcanic rock that would do you like a cheese grater if you were to tumble, well, that descent feels a little bit harder than the way up did. But we persisted, with Jessica learning that our teammate Sibusiso—one of just 50 humans in the history of forever to have accomplished the Explorer’s Grand Slam (seriously, look him up)—is as great a climbing teacher as he is a climber himself, and Patrick learning the international language of exasperated looks from the porters. Though our languages are not the same, our shared facial expressions when the group stops to take another photo of a chameleon helped us to laugh together.
We emerged from the woods laughing and congratulating one another, already mythologizing our first trip to thin air. But as we dropped our bags and began to pull our cash together to appropriately tip out the porters, another truck pulled in bearing the insignia of the DRC special forces. Three men jumped out, each with a new and more impressive weapon, the last being a bazooka, which struck everyone as somewhat over the top to address a gang of peaceful hikers.
We simply looked at each other, wondering what in the hell the arrival of more guns with different uniforms could mean. We put away our cameras, avoided eye contact, and went about the business of loading our bags. When it became clear that no one would be violating any number of real or concocted rules, they left as abruptly as they came. But as we rolled up the valley toward Kibumba Lodge, experiencing our first African massage (drivers’ lingo for the unique re-shuffling of one’s innards experienced when driving along the Congo’s bomb-scarred and rain-tortured roads), it was hard to ignore how this little moment of uncertainty for us reflected the everyday for most Congolese. Where would the military show up, or not, today?
Driving away from Mt. Nyiragongo, past the lush farms that ring Virunga National park, each with small, chubby children running towards our trucks with screams of bonjour, waving or giving us a thumbs up, it was easy for us to look at one another and say: That was amazing, beautiful, and powerful. But what is it going to become? Virunga has an ambitious plan for their future, one we’ll write about in another place soon, but it seems to be balanced on a knife’s edge as it moves forward. We both agreed that this place and the people in it deserve better, but we couldn’t say where the future was more clear: In the lush valley visible from our perch at Kibumba Lodge? Or in the confusing mess of Goma?