Duke of Ed Winning Guest Blog
Student Flights recently held a competition in conjunction with The Duke of Edinburgh's Award program allowing participants to write a guest blog for the Student Flights online travel mag. Congratulations to Aditya Khanna - this was the winning entry.
It was bright and early on a November morning in the most drab lakeside destination of all time: Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.
The four of us piled into a truck bound for the behemoth Virunga National Park. For weeks, Mt. Nyamuragira, one of the most active volcanoes in Africa, had been spewing 400-meter high towers of lava. We needed to see it.
It was a bone-jarring 90 minute ride from Goma to the trailhead through rolling green fields which slowly descended into thicker jungle. Thatched-roof villages, mud-brick huts, and tiny trading posts dotted the scenery along the way. When we arrived, no less than four smiling men in military camouflage were there to cheerfully greet us, well-worn AK47s dangling from their shoulders. Better to have the guns on our side, I thought.
It was just 5 days before DRC's second democratic elections in history, I didn't have any press accreditation, and I'd heard plenty of stories of broken cameras, so I was a little shy with my trigger. I did see this woman bringing a day's harvest to a nearby market, which must have been several kilometers away. Most of the transportation here, especially on the roads heading into the park, is dismal. If there's a passing truck, everyone will hurl themselves onto the top until no room is left. Unfortunately, they also frequently topple over.
In the jungle, we rhythmically trekked to a procession of sounds, clawing and crawling our way vegetation: the squeaking of my porters' bath sandals as he miraculously hauled himself up the wet volcanic rock, smoothed over by decades of rainfall; the tap-tap of AK47s bumping up against our armed rangers' canteens. From the moment we set off, the skies closed in and a steady stream of water pounded us the entire way to the top. And I forgot to bring anything even resembling rain gear. Yeah, I know, stupid. Rainy season. Congo. Rainforest.
When we finally pried our way out of the thick vegetation, we stumbled out into a charred landscape of volcanic rock. Billowing mushroom clouds of grey smoke percolated into the sky. We were no more than a few kilometers from the base, I've never considered myself a Tolkien nerd, but seriously, 'the depths of Mordor' was the first thing that came to mind.
As we moved closer and closer to the volcano, what I remember most is the intense feeling--almost as if striking you from within your core--of explosive booms, cracks, pops and hisses as the volcano churned the molten lava and thrust enormous chunks of rock over the brim of the crater. It was as if we were standing next to the world's largest natural boiler room, witnessing the earth's crust split open to unleash the ferocity lying just beneath the surface.
We perched ourselves no more than a football field away from the base. Safe? Not safe? I didn't really care. I was already in a dangerous place at a dangerous time, and this volcano at least gave me a somewhat rational reason for being there. Despite endless 'travel advisories,' mainly from the US government, tourism in Virunga National Park has actually been rapidly growing since conflict around Goma calmed down around 2008, when the park had zero visitors. But it's been nearly doubling every year since, and they expect numbers to hit over 3,800 this year.
Aside from the formidable sounds and occasional spurt of lava far above the crater, my first impression of Mt. Nyamuragira wasn't as impressive as I'd hoped. The images I'd seen a few days earlier of lava shooting into the sky had given me high expectations, and the fact that this was billed as the volcano's 'largest eruption of the century' made me think the volcano had tempered the week since. The rangers casually hung out and watched; nothing new to them really, they had been taking tourists for weeks. They had probably seen that epic fountain. I was slightly jealous.
Occasionally we would feel the cooled down pieces of molten rock falling from sky. Excellent, but I wanted to see more, get closer. I was scheming a plan to explore on my own late at night, until I heard the tale of two tourists from a few weeks ago. They snuck out from the pitched tents, just a few hundred meters away, to get closer to the volcano. Apparently, they got too close. One of their shoes began melting into the rock, and the other had to run back to the camp to fetch a second pair. Oops.
But, when the sun went down, it was an entirely different setting. The volcano lit up the sky. The smoke was clearing, and the volcano seemed to be getting a bit more active in its explosions. Several vents (fissures, where the earth cracks open and releases heat and lava) had opened up, so lava was shooting out of at least four places from the vantage point we had.
Luckily, the volcano posed no threat to nearby villages; the lava simply flowed into the depths of park. Back in 2002, when neighboring Mt Nyiragongo erupted, it unleashed a vicious stream of lava that destroyed nearly a sixth of villages and forced over 400,000 people to flee the city. This time they were lucky, but next time--these things are unpredictable and stared at the dazzling array of natural fireworks sliding down the mountain.
While staring at the volcano from back at our modest little campsite, we ate the odd assortment of provisions we were able to scavenge from the markets. Between the four of us, there were two fat rolls of cheese, peanut butter, canned sardines, bananas, glucose biscuits, cheese croissants, an avocado, some chocolate, and little more. The 'Supermarkets' here leave much to be desired, and can be insanely overpriced for anything imported, which pretty much everything.
We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning to see what could only be produced by a combination of a sunrise and a volcano. Here, a Uganda-based Dutch tourist I was with understandably grabbed some pictures of the scenery.
For me, the most remarkable view came when I happened to look straight up at the sky. Enormous mushroom cloud formations billowed into the sky, slowly dissipating into the sunrise. I spent the next twenty minutes lying on my back mesmerized by the patterns in the sky. Perhaps you can understand why. The entire landscape, with volcanoes jutting out into the sky, continued to hold me in awe. Eastern DRC holds some of the most naturally beautiful and pristine landscapes in east Africa, places that remain unexplored, unmarketed, unsold. Bleeding international headlines continue to keep people away, luring the more adventurous souls searching for "no one but me" experiences," yet at the same time, tourism could do such a great deal for the region, perhaps even bring further stability.
By Aditya Khanna
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