I was met at Kigali airport in Rwanda by the french-speaking owner of my B&B, who grinned enthusiastically despite the late pickup time. With my newly learnt spanish vocabulary now infiltrating my french conversation, I jumbled together enough sentences to have a good opening conversation about Rwanda. Driving through the streets at midnight, all I could make out in the dim fluorescent streetlight was some extremely clean streets.
The night was pleasantly cool, and everything was quiet. After the day’s travel, it wasn’t long before I was sleeping deeply. The next day, the sun bloomed to reveal the city. Layers of rising hills were mounted by buildings, but much of the space was left to wild forest. Trees of every variety were left to grow even in the most heavily developed sections of the city. All the streets were indeed very clean; apparently a large proportion of Rwanda’s working population take part in monthly “cleaning days” to ensure the city remains spotless.
Wherever I wandered, it was generally quiet throughout the day, and the occasional civilians were generally outnumbered by the beeping moto-taxis with their distinctive dark green helmets. Government buildings are common in the centre, with various impressive but slightly meaningless names regarding change and policy. Of course everything was sufficiently spaced to enable room for plants and grass. Despite the large quantities of concrete that make up the city, this must have been one of the greenest capitals I have ever seen.
But life was about to get greener. Kigali was just a stopover for me, and after two days I headed to the bus station to board a bus towards to border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. A tightly packed local bus took me from the capital to Gisenyi, Rwanda’s border town. Without much knowledge of the location of the border, I asked a woman next me on the bus for directions. My new guide, Florence, not only paid for my moto-taxi (despite my protests), but also walked me to the entrance of the border to make sure I didn’t put a foot wrong. It was comforting to experience such kindness when moving into the unknown.
Passing through the border was easy enough, and I was now in the city of Goma. But upon reaching the other side, the calm and clean streets of Rwanda was suddenly a distant memory. A throng of currency sellers, taxis and tourist guides were upon me. After several minutes of eager conversation, the crowd became aware I was of no use, and I managed to find a quiet spot to sit on my backpack and wait for Toby to arrive.
Toby, who I had last seen in Thailand 13 months ago, had obtained a job in the Virunga National Park, and had offered me the opportunity to visit. Through the chaos of the street, a Land Rover came into view, and Toby jumped out. After greeting my old friend, I clambered into the vehicle to find he was accompanied by three armed guards and his driver. It was a good introduction of the security-oriented times to come.
The Land Rover clunked into action and we were on our way. Much of Goma is a stripped city; a volcanic eruption in 2012 had levelled half of the housing, and the dark twisted rock which had been spewed from the volcano was piled high on every street. Some of the rebuilt houses were made using the volcanic waste, most others with wood and tin.
Once out of Goma, brief stretches of Tarmac is always met with long stretches of rugged and potholed road. The roadside was almost always lined with run-down houses and small businesses, and queues of locals wander in every direction. Children in worn clothes smiled and waved at every opportunity, which we would return from our ride. In every direction outside the settlements, green extended as far as you could see. The flat would be interrupted by small steep hills and ridges, before finally reaching one of the many immense volcanos that towered above the landscape.
Behemoth cement lorries rolled by at a snail’s pace, creaking over every bump and dent in the dirt road. Overloaded trucks with bulging loads swayed from side, along with the twenty passengers sitting precariously on top. Every 500m, there was a slumped vehicle with a huge deflated tyre discarded on the side of the road next to several deflated passengers. It seemed almost an expectation to breakdown along the way. It would sometimes take days to reach your destination if your damage was severe enough to require new parts from Goma.
UN trucks with small platoons flashed past; each UN soldier equipped with their distinctive light blue cap. Then came the fast-paced pickup trucks filled with bouncing policemen in dark blue uniforms. Various other military bodies could be occasionally seen, and a mixture of local solders with various khaki outfits were dotted in camps along the roadside.
The story of Virunga is too rich to summarise here. The National Park, home to some of the world’s few remaining Gorilla families, was at the heart of civil war fighting in recent decades, with private companies anxious to claim the land’s bountiful resources as their own. Park rangers are given the dangerous task of protecting the 7000 square kilometres of land from the inside, as well as deterring any threat from the outside too. Whereas Goma is a safe place to wander and experience Congolese life, once in the park you cannot move around without security personnel following your footsteps.
We arrived at the park’s main headquarters Rumangabo, where we were put up in a luxurious lodge for the night. In an instant we were far from the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods that surrounded us. The spacious main room had room for a comfy seating and a fireplace that is lit on a nightly basis, where Toby and I caught up before heading to the bar.
I had been instructed to bring with me some goods in exchange for some adventures organised in the National Park. It one of the most nerve racking supermarket runs I had ever done in a particularly shifty area of Johannesburg, I had picked up three packets of tea, some Biltong, cheese and chocolate. The first adventure we would embark upon was climbing to the summit of Virunga’s most destructive and infamous volcano, Nyiragongo.
The next morning, we travelled to the base of the climb, where several eager hikers, guides and porters were waiting for us. Starting the climb at 1900m, the air was already cool, despite some jungle humidity joining us. With the volcano being generally symmetrical, the climb was mostly a direct route upwards, with the gradient gradually increasing in steepness as we approached the rim.
At times the path was mud and tree root, at others we were following solidified lava flow or treacherous volcanic gravel. The trees started dense and tall, and slowly fell away as we moved further up. Small butterflies fluttered, birds sat camouflaged in the undergrowth, and a viper was once spotted lying sleepily next to the path.
The wide summit of the volcano sat in near-permanent cloud throughout the day, and by mid-afternoon we reached the bottom of this cloud roof. The temperature now dropped and the air was moist, but at this altitude the bush had fallen away to reveal the dense black rock, sculpted through eruption over the years. Only tufts of bright moss draped around the rock had made this part of the volcano its home.
By 5pm, we reached the rim, where an almost vertical wall of jagged rock falls away several hundred metres towards the lower layers of the volcano. Bubbling away in the centre was the world’s largest lava lake. It was a breathless sight, and we all stood around watching the spectacle. The dark crusted top was an ever changing layer of lava, slowly eating itself and then jettisoning molten rock in small explosions. Occasionally clouds or huge plumes of gas would conceal the surface, leaving a wall of orange glow ahead. Looking down from the rim’s edge was as addictive as staring at fire.
Before long it was sunset, and the soft mist that enveloped us turned to darkness. Now the lava lake below could really be seen. It spat fire and belched gas. Occasionally the clouds cleared to reveal a few bright stars above, and the lights of Goma in the distance. Toby had fortunately brought with him a few refreshing beers to drink at the summit; exported from a Manchester brewery, enjoyed on top of a volcano in the Congo.