The Ruwenzori Mountains follow along the Rift Valley. I was traveling south from Butembo (after 5 1/2 months hitch-hiking across Africa from Tangier). Along this valley there are a number of active volcanoes. The largest and most active of these volcanoes is Mt. Nyiragongo, a stratovolcano. It rises 3470 meters (11,385 ft) into the clouds. It is just south of the Equator and just north of Lake Kivu, near the border of Congo and Rwanda. I wanted to see it.
Mountains in the Ruwenzori are snowcapped, even though they are virtually on the equator. But not Nyiragongo. There is too much heat at the top near the caldera. Nyiragongo and nearby Nyamuragira are responsible for 40% of Africa‘s historical volcanic eruptions.
In this region, the most common form of transportation was by foot; the most common resting state was the squat; and the most common expression was the smile.
I walked up to the entrance to Nyiragongo Park to a simple one-story hut. Inside was a makeshift reception desk with several chairs to the side. There was a smiling ranger by the desk and a couple of guides seated in two of the chairs. I expect I was their strangest visitor in a while. The ranger told me that I must hire a guide, so I paid my entrance fee including my guide ($4 or $5).
I told them in a friendly way that I did not want or need a guide. Nevertheless, one of the guides was assigned to me. I smiled and nodded at him and then walked outside.
I found the path up the mountain and started walking steadily up the path. It was like starting my education or a new career or any long project. At the beginning the path seems easy and clear; you have no idea about the mountain lying ahead of you. Sometimes we have a guide with us; sometimes we do not.
After a few hundred meters, there was no longer a clear path. I just continued pushing as straight ahead as I could, through the thick forest and undergrowth.
After a further few hundred meters more of persevering, I could clearly see the way ahead and started to run.
I am not sure now why I decided to run, except that it felt like the right thing to do. I had been refreshed by my stay in Butembo and I felt that it would be a great to run up the mountain alone. The mountain was calling me to experience its peak and the active caldera by myself. Like life, it is up to you to strive for the summits. It is your victory, or your loss.
As I ran further up the mountain, the terrain changed into scrub and I passed the timberline. It was invigorating. Soon I was racing rather than running up the mountain. The jungle heat was behind me as I rose along the little path into cooler, thinner air.
I had the sense of gliding, and almost flying, jumping across small ravines as I ran in a more or less straight line up the side of Nyiragongo. I was in excellent shape from all my walking on my journey over the past months, so it came easily to me. The last few kilometers were all volcanic lava flows as I slowed down and reached the ragged summit.
It is a wondrous thing to reach for the top and arrive. I was panting in the cool, intense sulfur smelling air when I stopped to look around.
The summit was surreal, otherworldly, with rumbling, periodic tremors and smoke. Clouds of smoke and mist rose and wafted around me as I very carefully picked my way around the rugged, ragged summit. As I walked around the crater, about a mile around, I carefully peeked out between the breaks in the crust and rocks to peer across and down into the caldera itself at the lava lake below.
Behind me was a sea of jungle leading down to Lake Kivu. Below me an abyss that could have inspired the stories of Hell. Is this what it is all about? Getting to the top and seeing the abyss for the first time?
After circling the entire summit, I paused and rested at the point directly in line with the path that came up from the Park Hut far below. It was deathly quiet. Peaceful.
After about 20 minutes, my assigned guide walked up, smiling broadly. He looked amazed seeing me resting after racing up the mountain. Crazy foreigners!
We spent 20-30 minutes quietly contemplating the serenity of the summit.
He told me that I was the first visitor ever to run up the mountain – without a guide. I told him I had spent the last 5 months hiking and hitch-hiking from Tangier across Africa. This was my latest conquest.
We walked down the mountain together. Then I bid him good-bye at the guide hut. He was still smiling and shaking his head.
The National Geographic had a team at the mountain soon after I was there (July, 1972) and produced a documentary which screened in February, 1973. There was a major eruption in January, 1977, when the lava lake emptied and flowed down the slopes at 40 miles per hour (60 kph), burying villages and killing dozens in its path. An even more explosive eruption in 2002 reached and buried parts of the nearby city of Goma on Lake Kivu.