OFF TO TACKLE THE NYIRAGONGO VOLCANO

August 15-16, 2017

Today is the day that I had trained for…sort of…or as best one can when you are a flatlander living at sea level! A trek to the top of a volcano with a 6000’ accent in 5-8 hours is going to be quite a heavy lift…BUT then this is the largest live and active volcano in the world and well worth the try.

The last night at Mikeno Lodge, we met Sam, a 20 year old American who had spent the last 5 weeks volunteering for an Optometrist in Ghana. While Claire, Noel, Sam & I were eating, one of the Lodge Managers came out wearing what would be our packs for the volcano…We each rented one that would include a Thermal Sleeping bag with a fleece liner, a fleece sweater and thermal jacket along with a rain poncho, a boxed lunch for the incline and we were all provided with a cook for our dinner and breakfast. In addition to what was provided, we each added dry clothes for when we arrive at the top and basic toiletries, a head lamp and a hat and gloves. The pack looked huge but none of us were too concerned since each had planned on hiring a porter to carry it. Besides being good for our backs, it truly helps the locals …It is another way tourism is helping keep the villagers employed.

In the morning, we all met for breakfast and enjoyed visits from a few Blue Monkeys, who seemed far more sociable than they had been…Maybe because they saw us as more familiar faces…or knew we were doomed so figured they would grace us with their presence as a goodbye (-:…Most likely they saw us as easy patsies for some food…Since we all were working with Inspired Journey’s, we took off together in the truck and headed down to the foot of Nyiragongo Volcano…On the way, we once again got to enjoy more of Congo’s “African Massage” roads…Making trekking up the volcano a reprieve for my back!

One of the things we all noticed was a little more UN presence in the area…I don’t know if anything was happening or if it was normal for the troops to be concentrated in the villages…as well as helicopters flying.

To the happiness of my back, we finally arrived. First stop for me, as usual, was the toilet…And as most of you, who have followed my blogs can attest, I tend to find the various international bathrooms intriguing…Here, I will use the term bathroom lightly…both Noel and Claire pre-warned me that the lovely pissoir, a French term used for a hole in the ground with 2 foot holders on either side, was without a door…joy joy…but to be honest my bladder is NOT shy…so as they say “when in Rome…” (-:

A little background on this Volcano might explain the uniqueness of the trek. The Nyiragongo Volcano last eruption was in 2002…and it was a big one…The volcano erupted on the south flank below the top…It started spewing at about 9100’ and came down to reach Goma…over 400,000 people evacuated into Rwanda but still 147 people were killed. The live and active Lava Lake is said to be one of the largest in the world. And the Trek is supposed to be one of the more challenging of Volcano treks…I have done a few but this one has me jittery.

Once we singed all the necessary documents, like who to notify in case of emergency…usually I don’t pay much attention to that but this time I lingered on that a bit!…After we left our luggage in a locked room, we were introduced to the men who would be our porters…and I decided to rent a walking stick, which would become the best rental I did in quite a while. All the other trekkers looked very fit and we all made introductions with trepidation about our collective journeys up this monster. There were 3 women and 1 man from Spain, 2 men from Hong Kong, 1 woman from South Korea, 1 man from Russia, Claire & Noel from England, Sam from Nevada and me…I sized up the group and knew right away that I was the oldest one there…uh oh!

Ever since I met Claire and Noel, I kept saying how I hoped there was someone older than me so I wouldn’t be the one holding up the group…since the group only moves as fast as the slowest member… Claire was consistently optimistic, telling me it wouldn’t be that hard and not to worry…or not that steep…or not that cold…Her optimism gave me hope that I might survive it….might…(-:

The time had come and after a quick briefing about our trek, we hit the trail…The beginning is all rain forest and quite reasonable…almost so reasonable that I got lolled into the thougtht that this wouldn’t be so bad…At our first rest stop, I remembered my sister, Becky’s advice, “never let a bathroom opportunity go unused”…Claire braved it first…and reported back that not only was it another 3 walled toilet but that it had some permanent residents: BEES! So that was fun…

The 2nd leg of our trek bore a steeper path and the volcanic rocks appeared as part of the path. It was hard but not undoable…I was still hiking from the front of the pack and not suffering too much…Every once in while I would stop to take photos and 2 of the women from Spain and I decided that we would use “time to take a photo” as our way of saying, “we need a break”. This seemed cute and funny at the time…but later became my emergency call of “PHOTO” that I NEEDED to rest.

By the time we reached the 2nd stop, I could see this hike was going to be getting harder…The first 2 legs were about 40-50 minutes between stops…the leg between the 2nd and 3rd would be 1 hour and 10 minutes…but it would feel like hours and hours…The one thing that truly kept me focused was the terrain…as we went higher, it got lusher and it was quite beautiful…I didn’t expect that…I thought it would have gotten more desolate…It turns out that this volcano erupted lower than its top so the upper middle kept it’s rain forest look…The Ranger said he would show us where the volcano had erupted…and that it was only a 6 minute walk…Well his 6 minutes felt…well, a lot more than 6 minutes…When we finally got there I was so happy to stop for a bit. It didn’t dawn on me that we were standing where this thing erupted and we were on some kind of peninsula created by the lava off the trail…I asked what would happen if it erupted while we were hiking and he said we would head UP! That would be the safest place…Seriously UP?! …everything pointed up and at this point I would have paid the 600.00 to be carried…A few days earlier a very heavy Russian paid 600.00 to have porters carry him up the volcano…I thought that was insanity at the time I was told of that story, I was now considering it!

Sam could see that I was beginning to struggle so he offered to carry my day pack…He had offered several times before but this time I relented and let my pride go…He was so sweet and seemed concerned…Every once in awhile I would catch him looking back to be sure I was still alive! His mother should be proud that she raised such a nice young man. By the time we reached the 3rd Stop, I was seriously questioning whether I would make it up…between the 2nd stop and 3rd, I must have had to take a “photo” rest 2 dozen times…although to be honest, some were real “I have to get this picture because it’s so pretty”…but most were all about breathing…I had fallen behind, along with one of the men from Hong Kong…Alex, the Russian would cheer me on by telling me I was doing well but to walk slower and with small steps…Maria, the one woman from Spain who spoke no English, would reach her hand out to me and offer any assistance I needed…Noel, every once in awhile would hang back behind me pretending he wanted to be in the back…Claire would always have a smile and kind word when I would finally reach the group waiting for me…when I apologized to them for having to wait for me, the 2 other women from Spain would say they appreciated the rest and the “photo” break! (-: …Lee form South Korea, who had just done Kilimanjaro was there with great advice and cheerfulness as was Guillermo from Spain and the other guy from Hong Kong who just did Everest Base Camp…The group was amazing…and none made me feel badly for struggling…The steepness was difficult but the altitude and steepness together were what was really kicking my butt. The 3rd stop was where we were given our lunch…and I had zero appetite…I ate a banana and drank some juice and lots of water but that was it…I was more interested in not moving up…And then, our Ranger, Julien, said those words I had dreaded…the ones he had said at each stop, “4 minutes and we leave”…Yikes…I knew this was the steepest…Julien, the Ranger, could see my struggle…so suddenly, he grabbed my hand and said we would go together…and we headed up ahead of the group…no 4 more minutes for me…We would get a slight head start…He led me as far as I could make it then we would rest…after about the 5th time of me asking to stop, we would start and then trek up about 20-30 feet and he would say, ”stop?” and I would respond “YES, Please”…After about the 10th stop, I looked back and expected to see an aggravated group…but for the first time it really seemed we were all struggling…except Sam, who I am sure is half mountain goat, as Noel earlier tagged him.

That last ½ hour was truly the hardest, physically, but this time, I knew I would get to the top…I no longer was questioning whether I would make it…I could see the shelters in the distance and that old saying kept repeating in my head until I finally said it out loud…and the Ranger started to repeat it as a joke, “So close…yet so far away” …Then as if magic the Ranger says “So close…and here!”  And Voila, we had arrived…sort of…We were at the first shelter but we had to walk up a steep path and even steeper stairs to get to the top. Once there, Julien says “I am going to give you the shelter closest to the top”. I was so appreciative of that UNTIL I saw where the bathroom shelter was…on the other side at the very bottom of the camp…After one visit on the steep and rocky terrain down, I knew I would be finding a place near my shelter when needed…Otherwise I would have become vulture food since I was sure I would trip or slip in the middle of the night. By the way, it took us just over 5 hours to make this climb…and that is with me slowing the group down…Not bad…That made me happy since I figured it would probably take me 8 hours…

The fog was thick when we arrived and that was our biggest disappointment but we wasted little time with that…We all piled onto the edge and looked down into its abyss…a deep abyss it was…By the way, this was no tourist site with railings and steps for safety…we were on a live volcano with zero security…I kept noting how I was amazed that no one had fallen or tripped in…or that no one had slipped or broken anything just trying to go to the bathroom shelter…or practically just walk anywhere…Balance and sure footedness are imperative on this steep monster…It was very rocky with sharped edged stones…very steep…and the wet fog made everything very slippery.

As we stood there with our cameras fixated on the lava, you could see the lava explosions and the flows were quite clear with the naked eye…Unfortunately, my camera never was able to capture the amazing Lava flow the way I could see it with my eyes. The sound was that of a raging ocean…it was incredible…In the end, it didn’t matter that there was fog…because I had made it up…I had not quit…My body let me have this…and that was what was the most important to me at that moment.

As the sun went down, we all started playing with the light and making silhouette pictures of ourselves at the edge of the volcano with the red glow of the volcano behind us…They are my favorite pictures.

The night got very cold and windy and we all huddled around the small fire at the dinner camp site…I played “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on my iphone and was surprised by those who knew that song…I thought it was truly appropriate…and then, I had to play “Happy” because I truly was…then it was more pictures…and I headed to bed because I was exhausted…and cold

I got up several times throughout the night to check out if the fog had lifted but it was there to stay…

The next morning I was dreading the decent since I had heard the decent is far harder on people because of the straight down pressure on the knees…Before I could ponder my fate too much, the Ranger grabbed my hand and said “we go”…I didn’t hesitate…we just started down…and to my surprise I managed to go down that first part(the terrible last part up) OK…As a matter of fact, the whole decent was oddly OK for me…

Since I was in the front, Lee & I got to chat a bit more on the decent and I am amazed at her travels and volunteer work she is doing in Kigali…Each of these trekkers had such unique and interesting stories. This is one of my favorite parts of traveling…I get to meet such incredible people…I may never see them again but the time I spent seems precious to my life.  I also got to talk more with one of the guys from Hong Kong…He was loaded down with some amazing Camera Gear…when I asked if he was a professional photographer, he responded, “I am a professional Amateur”! Haha

Alex, the Russian, and I had an in depth political discussion at the top of the volcano…I know that you probably thought I kept the conversation going with politics BUT actually Alex kept it going…it was really enlightening…He is no fan of Putin or Trump but I could tell his politics lie on the Conservative side and had very different views on immigration etc…But he is most concerned that we have become so unstable with Trump that we can no longer help to keep Putin in check…He then regaled me on all the places in Russia and Ukraine that I have to visit. He mentioned that I had to do the Gold Circle in Russia…and visit Kiev in Ukraine…He is traveling for 2 years…

Claire and Noel are constant International travelers who seem to love the adventure of Africa…They have been to so many countries and Claire likes to focus on travel that involves animals…I am trying to convince her that a trip to Florida(in the Winter) might prove to be an interesting trip to see Manatees etc.

Once we got to the last stop, the Ranger, gave a speech telling us how well we had done and the fact that no one had to turn around or be carried was quite a feat…Little did they all realize how close I came to both! Seems these options are used frequently…I am certainly happy I didn’t join the others who left or got carried… He also added we made good time and should be very happy…I made it out in the first wave and felt like crying tears of joy as the others came out and high fived me…I had survived…and that was a feat in and of itself!!!

It was time to say goodbye to all…We had exchanged emails while up on the volcano and will swap pictures and promised to keep in touch…Saying goodbye to Claire and Noel was especially sad because we had spent so much time together the last week. What a great couple they are and how lucky I was to get to share this experience with them. Sam and I and Alex, it seems, would be traveling to the border together and our goodbyes would be delayed a bit.

The Nyiragongo Volcano kicked my butt but I made it with a lot of help from some wonderful new friends along the way. As they say “It Takes a Village”…and that was surely the case for me…and what a wonderful village of people I got to enjoy and make memories with…

 

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