We had made the overland journey from Arusha, Tanzania and had taken 3 full days on many african buses to get here. We were now in Rwanda at the border town on lake Kivu and had only a kilometer to go to reach our destination. Goma, a small and troubled town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, famous for its war torn history along with the endangered mountain gorillas and two of the most spectacular volcanoes in africa. The Nyiragongo volcano had erupted a decade ago and had literally buried the town in lava over 3m thick in some areas, as it had flowed straight down the main street and into lake Kivu.

We were close, we had heard a lot about this border crossing and the hospitality of congolese government officials and knew not to count our chickens yet. Months ago I had tried to obtain a visa from the congolese embassy in Zambia and had been refused entry on account of not wearing trousers or the right shoes. When I finally had gotten in dressed appropriately I was completely ignored by the few staff and made to wait, after an hour of watching other people come and go I left. It was clear people like me were not wanted in Africa’s heart of darkness.

The three of us Mathew, Ryan and Myself presented our passports at the Rwandan border post and were stamped out without any problems, Ryan asked one of the officials there if he knew the price of a Congolese visa and he smiled with pity, “It depends on the day” he said, “could be anywhere from $30 to $200”. This just confirmed what we already knew, we were in for some tough negotiations. We packed up our bags and crossed the checkpoint into no man’s land, there was no going back now. As we made our way across no man’s land Ryan started talking to some guys from the UN. Turns out they were locals from Congo and they told us the visa was very cheep only $30 and offered to help by talking to the officials.

We climbed into the UN land-cruiser and drove up to the congolese immigration post where we all got out and went over to the checkpoint. The UN guy that Ryan had been talking with walked up to the office and started speaking french with one of the officials who took our passports and it seemed like everything was going well, “no problems” he said. Minutes later another man came out he was dressed in a white T-shirt with new jeans and sneakers. In contrast to his shabby looking, uniformed colleagues it was easy to tell he was boss. He struck up a conversation with our friend from the UN and we saw the tension between them rising, the word ‘mzungu’ was mentioned several times, they were talking about us. The conversation ended with our friend turning to as and saying with frustration in his eyes “the visa price is $285 it is $35 for the visa and $250 for administration”.

Dam! We had expected this though and so I tried to negotiate even offering $50 each which they could do what they want with, “We don’t need a receipt” I told the boss but he just smiled sadisticaly “no money no visa”. We turned around and went to the car, we had to get our stuff and our friend from the UN needed to go. In parting he told us the shift changes at 6 every night and suggested we wait and try with the new guards. Ryan showed me a message on his phone, African network companies are forever sending stupid messages to us about special offers and that sort of rubbish, this one read “Airtell wishes you a pleasant stay in DR Congo” they were mocking us.

We walked back across no man’s land and found a shady tree to sit under, we just had to wait it out. The waiting wasn’t so bad, this is Africa its what happens here. I even managed to make friends with some of the guards there at the border they were a lot nicer than the government officials. Our friendship started when I noticed a huge female guard staring at me. When I looked at her she didn’t look away, she had hungry eyes and it scared me to think what was going through her mind just then. Awkwardly I held out the packet of biscuits I was munching on offering them to her. She nodded her head vigorously and was up in an instant bounding over towards me, the grin on her face was wide and cheeky. As soon as she reached me she snatched the bag of biscuits and hurried back to her seat looking over her shoulder after the first few steps to call guiltily, “merci” thanks, to me. As soon as I realised what was going on I was up walking after her, I called out “no merci, not merci”. I caught her at her seat as she put 3 biscuits in her mouth and tried to tell her that I had only offered her one biscuit not the whole packet but this was wasted on her all she managed between mouthfuls was “je parle par english” I don’t speak english. I spoke no french so I was at a loss, suddenly she told me “sit” and patted the bench next to her so I sat down and she offered me a biscuit keeping a firm hold on the packet. The whole time this was going on the other guards around her were laughing, she was now sharing my biscuits back with me.

endangered Silverback mountain gorilla in Congo jungle mountains

As I sat there I couldn’t help but thinking seeing the mountain gorillas couldn’t be much different from this fat woman I was sitting next to now, if it weren’t for the volcanoes I wouldn’t need to go to the Congo. As I sat there and the bag of biscuits was steadily depleted the woman turned her attention to me. She started asking me questions in french and then started motioning with her hands, joining two fingers together and placing them over her heart. I had an idea what she was trying to ask, its always one of the first questions your asked by locals in these out there places, but I played dumb. Then another man came over, he could speak a little english and attempted to translate for the girl so I told him I have a wife and many children and I cant afford another one, they all laughed. Our conversation continued to why I was waiting here and when I told him about our problem he suggested I go and have a drink with the boss maybe it would improve his mood.

We had bought along a bottle of finest gin imported from Uganda especially to have a drink with the border officials. This idea came about after Ryan and I had faced all sorts of problems in zimbabwe for “visiting our friends at the border with empty cooler boxes” on new years day a few months ago. I decided to give it a go and went back up to the immigration office, I had the gin sticking out of a small bag and asked if I could come in and sit down. The gesture wasn’t lost on the uniformed officer he got me a chair and sat down with me eagerly and asked what was in the bag. I told him it was gin to celebrate crossing the border and he seemed to get the gist of things, then his mate the boss appeared. The boss sat down and didn’t want anything to do with the gin “you have the money” he asked? I tried to negotiate with him and he just wouldn’t budge, this was definitely strange for an African official, then I found out why. “Your friends at the UN will call me soon” he said “ they will pay for you don’t worry you will see”. Our mate from the UN must have told him that we were with the UN to get us through, only problem is we weren’t. I tried to explain this to they boss and he just laughed “you think I am silly” he asked me “no money no visa!”

Silly was an understatement, right then I though he was the dumbest ape on the planet. It was so frustrating I went back to Matt and Ryan and we decided to wait it out until the guards changed at 6. It was dark and we gave it until 6:30 just to be sure then Matt went over to see what he could come up with. Shortly he was back, the boss must have told the next lot of guards about us because they were sticking to the exact same price as the first lot. $285 dollars is a lot of money especially for a traveler, and even more so in Africa. what really annoyed us all was that it seemed like this price was fairly organised and that people were actually paying it, we had met a guy only months ago in malawi who had payed $285 and it was a disgrace. The people who pay these outrageous prices ruin it for the rest of us and so on principal we decided there was no way we would be handing over money to these guys. There was only one thing for it, go back to Rwanda.

We fronted up at the Rwandan border and with almost no hassles made it through the tin security hut to immigration. I was searched at the hut and had to hand over plastic bags which were illegal in Rwanda, never mind that this plastic bag had made the journey from another border post on the east all the way across Rwanda to its south western border, strapped to the outside of my bag covering an old muddy pair of shoes. Immigration was easy for Mathew, although from South Africa he had British passport and so could enter Rwanda as many times as he liked. For Ryan and Myself it was a different story, we had to apply online for a Rwandan visa online which takes a week to process, we had done this in Tanzania before we entered but we had only received approval for a single entry. It was agreed at the immigration office that we couldn’t just wait in no man’s land for a visa approval and so they decided to let us back into the country but they didn’t want to stamp the passports. The immigration officials wanted us to cross back into Rwanda illegally with no visa and no entry stamp, this was crazy. We couldn’t do this, anyone could ask to see our visa and it wouldn’t be valid, we would be screwed if we got caught in there without a visa. Hours later we finally came to an agreement, the immigration officer would cancel the exit stamp on our visa, he crossed 2 lines through it and wrote “canceled” with the date, this was the best they could come up with he said and so at around 11 that night we crossed back into Rwanda. Our first attempt to get in to the Congo had failed and left us tired hungry and feeling defeated.

One Week Later

A week after our first attempt to cross the border we received our Congolese visa. We had contacted the Virunga nation park and had bought our visa online with them for $50 each. We had waited a week killing time in Rwanda and were now confident we would make it to Goma to start our adventure. With our new visa printouts we showed up at the immigration office. We were warned by the Rwandan officials that we had better not be coming back this time. At the congo border post we were met happily by the uniformed officials and they started the process of putting in our congolese visa. I watched the lady as she was doing mine she put in 4 stamps all over the page and then proceeded to write with a pen all over the stamps and my passport. It was lucky I was watching because I had to stop her as she started to put down female as my gender. She looked up at me then at my passport then she said to me “you look very much like your wife, now where is your passport”. Yes ok i have long hair in my passport but it is clearly not a photo of a girl, what was this woman thinking? I convinced her that it was my passport and she apologised saying I look like a girl this was not her fault. The boys had a good laugh when I told them about this as we walked out through the gate into the Congo but we had made it so I wasn’t too worried.

First stop was the national park office to find out some information about the volcanoes and when we could go to see them. When we walked in the man behind the desk was holding 2 phones, talking on one whilst the other was ringing. He was clearly very busy and had some other people there waiting to speak to him so we waited outside. When we managed to get in and talk to him we were left most of the time just sitting waiting for him to finish his work on the phones or his laptop, Viany was a very busy man. We ended up talking to another guy who had come in to see Viany for the same reasons as us, the volcanoes. He lived and worked here in a clinic run by some NGO and had a week off before he flew home. This guy was friendly and offered to show us around to find somewhere to stay for the night, it was getting late and so we organised to see Viany the next day off we went for our first look at Goma.

Viany’s office was one of the first buildings you see on the main road which runs for about a kilometer from the border into town. Shortly after Viany’s office the road disappears, it is transformed into a black and dirty looking wide gravel road. The gravel along with the hard rock underneath is made of lava from the eruptions of Nyiragongo and is sharp and hard to walk on. The road is completely covered with potholes and full of traffic so hectic that even on the very edge where pedestrians walk there is a good chance of being hit by a motorbike. In Goma there are at least 3 different armies our new friend told us, two factions of the Congolese army as well as the UN peacekeeping force. The UN guys were easy to spot, they rode in brand new jeeps or land-cruisers or huge big troop carriers, all marked with the UN initials and secured by revolving machine guns manned by men in little blue helmets. The Congolese armies patrolled the streets in pick ups with 10 to 15 troops crowded in the back hanging over the edge brandishing AK47‘s. These are common in africa and can be seen on every corner but these guys also had RPG’s and chain-guns draped in ammo, they meant business. The only other cars on the road were driven by NGO’s and charity workers or buy the few rich store owners of the congo, all of whom lived in razor-wire fenced compounds that contain western houses just like the modern world. The local Congolese mostly milled around on foot hundreds of them could be seen out and about on the streets at any time during the day, no one without a car went out at night we later found out. Some used motorbikes to deliver cargos of shop goods or people to anywhere they needed to go, heavier goods were carried on giant scooters made of thick timber, the same design as a child’s scooter but well over 2m long. The main road was chaos a pretty good reflection of life for most people in the Congo.

Our search to find accommodation led us to some shocking hovels. Our Wikitravel guide from 2009 recommended a cheep place with good food and clean rooms so we decided to check it out. We turned down some side streets and walked through one of the UN occupied sections of town, all the buildings were surrounded by meter high rolls of razor wire where the footpath should have been and were guarded by turrets on every corner. In the turrets the little blue helmeted men watched us from behind sandbag bunkers and silently followed us with the barrels of their machine guns as we walked by. We rounded a few more corners and approached a squalid front yard full of small shacks just big enough to fit a person. The yard was pretty much all volcanic mud, black and thick and there were cooking fires out front with ragged looking people squatting around them. We walked in and our friend told is this is the place from your guide lets check it out. He called for someone to come and help us but no one came, I opened the door to one of the rooms, it was the size of a small garden shed and made of sticks. The room was totally bare except for a tattered looking sheet on the dirt floor, I closed the door. Some old lady came out, she was filthy, “we are full come back tomorrow” she said, looking back to the yard I realised she must be telling the truth and thank god for that. Our friend thanked her and asked the price incase we wanted to return later and then we left. Wikitravel was seriously out of date the price had gone up $15 in the last 3 years. We headed back to town and stopped in at a few more places on the way none of which were any better. It was getting late and we needed to find somewhere soon so our friend decided to take us to this place he knew, I don’t know why he didn’t mention this before but anyway off we went.

We showed up at this next place and yelled out for someone inside to open up. Soon the huge solid steel gate rolled open a fraction and we walked inside. The man who opened the door took us to see someone who was in charge to talk about a room. The manager told us we have good clean rooms with a bed and a light and we decided to take it. We followed him to the house and a bench where he told us to sit. Matt was in need of a beer and so the manager sent one of the guys with Matt to show him the small shop that was also on the premises. This place is going to be alright I though to myself. The manager came back minutes later and told us “yes we have 2 rooms available for you but they are not ready yet, they will be ready soon”. Ok we thought no problem and so we sat down to wait. This looked like a pretty good place they even had a TV inside which was crowded with a heap of girls watching some rubbish at the moment but it would probably be free later. Matt came back and we all enjoyed a beer but what was the delay the room should be ready soon, it doesn’t take that long to clean up and make the bed. It was fully dark now and I asked the guy what was taking so long, I told him its fine we don’t mind if its a little messy. “The room is still being used” came his reply. What do you mean being used I asked? Is there a late check out or something? This idiot had a stupid cheeky looking grin on his face now like someone had told him a dirty joke. Well we were in for a rude shock, he started waving his hand around his crotch and thrusting with his hips, what was this guy doing? Then it clicked.

They Jigjig in there he said “big white soldier is making sex for african lady”. “I go check again” and he left. We were in hysterics as we all shotgunned not sleeping in that room. Wen the guy came back we were talking about banging on the door and pretending to be the african ladies wife to get them out but he had good news for us the soldier had just left out the back. “Ok one room is now ready, two of you can come it is a double” he said “would you like me to change the sheets?” I couldn’t believe he had just asked that, this was no longer funny this was getting disgusting. We had no where else to go and it was way too late to be out looking for somewhere now according to our friend from the park office. We would just have to go and see what we had to sleep in. All of us went down to the room and the guy opened the door. Water flowed out the open door way and was dripping from the walls, the room was big and bare except for a bed and a small shower in one corner. They had obviously used a fire hose or something similar to clean this sex den out for us which I think is probably more than a lot of their other guests get. The window had been smashed with a fist sized hole and the curtain was stuck to the broken glass, it hadn’t kept the mosquitos out the air was thick with them. “Both rooms $20” he said. No way I was horrified, the most we had ever payed for a room was $10 after 3 months in africa and nothing had been this bad but we had no other choice. “This room is deluxe it has self contained bathroom” he told us, it is $15, the other room you can have for $10. That was his last offer, apparently that was what he charged per half hour for the services of his rooms. The three of us walked inside and attempted to put all our bags on the small plastic child sized chair that was in the room, we were resigned to spending the night in a brothel.

As we looked around at our new accommodation things started to come together, those girls watching TV were there waiting for customers, there was nothing left to do but laugh in a situation like this. Everything we looked at was something filthy to laugh about. The door had been kicked in so hard that it had taken a huge chunk of the wall out with it and so now there was nothing for the new lock to lock into, you could turn it and see the bolt come out into where the wall should have been. The walls of the room had been painted a sickly off yellow so certain stains didn’t show up as much, this paint job only continued to about chest height on 3 walls. The light switch was just above the bed right in the center for easy access and while we were laughing at that Ryan spotted a huge squirt of a stain nearly half a meter long across the wall just above it and the laughter got worse.
The guy came back and collected our money and informed us that the the second room was now ready, Matt would be staying there. We all went next door, Matts room was much the same as ours. The only difference was that the copper pipe sticking out of the wall which made our room the deluxe with a self contained shower had been swapped for a TV in Matts room. I constantly struggle to understand the logic of some of the people we meet here in africa.

After the worst nights sleep anywhere so far I woke feeling dirty, one night in that room was worse than a week on a bus. We went again to see Viany and told him about our night and we all laughed about it. We organised our trip to the volcano for the next day and went in search of somewhere new to sleep. There was one place in town that we hadn’t tried yet just down the road from Viany’s office, this was because it was the flashest place in town and we were just 3 poor backpackers with no money. After last night though we all agreed, we need a shower at whatever the cost. When we got to the hotel we were shown around by a well spoken man in a suit who seemed genuinely happy to have us there. We ended up getting 50% off on the cheapest room and then the fellow was nice enough to upgrade our room to a much better one because business was slow, he even let us grab an extra mattress from one of the other rooms so we could sleep three of us in the double room more easily. This hotel was awesome they looked after us really well, Ryan was allowed to take food to the kitchen and they would cook it all up for us free of charge, it was great. We made especially good friends with the chef who would bring us all sorts of things to look at from gem stones to books. His name was Peace Armani, Peace was the name given to him by his mother but Armani he had chosen for himself after the brand of his favorite and only shirt. Peace was cool, he was always asking if he could do anything for us and Matt took full advantage of this sending him off to do our shopping and all sorts. One day Ryan and I even gave him money to go buy a couple of chook’s for us and he showed us how to cook them up in his kitchen together.

With our hotel sorted we were in much better spirits and went off to buy supplies for our volcano climb the next day. We were shocked when we got to the supermarkets, everything was at least twice the price of neighboring Rwanda only a few kilometers away. The supermarket food was so expensive only people with a western wage would ever be able to afford it. A packet of cornflakes was $18 US. It seams that all the food here is imported and sold specifically to the UN and charity workers. These people can afford to and do pay ridiculous prices for it and so thats what the crafty middle-eastern shop keepers charge. The poor people who live there can’t cope with these prices and so they live on a very basic diet and thats what we lived on as well. Beans, chapati bread and cassava root was the staple all washed down with water refilled straight from the lake. Africa is full of foreigners trying to help the poor local people but a lot of the time they bring more trouble with them than good. Goma has more foreign aid agencies, charities, NGO’s and peacekeeping troops than any other town I’ve seen in Africa, it also has the worst prostitution, lack of food, water and electricity, and the most dirty hungry little children of anywhere.

Our search for food took us way down the main street and as we got further down, the effects of the last eruption of Nyiragongo became more apparent. There were places where the people were still digging out big chunks of lava that had buried houses and stores, this lava was kept in piles on the side of the road and was used to build new houses on top of the old ones. Some of the houses that were completely buried under 3m of lava were still being lived in, some of the shops were now using their old stores underneath as basements for storage. About an hour down the road we came to the towns church, or what was left of it. This thing was huge, it covered an area of about 4000 square meters and was completely burned. All that remained was a series of stone spires that raised up into the air to make the walls, some of them 30m high. There was one stone column that ran horizontal across the middle of the church, probably a support for the ceiling and it had been graffitied by the local people after the eruptions. Spray-painted on this column were images of angels and demons dancing on the hot fire that flowed down like a river behind them from the mountain. They each had halo’s of fire above their heads and wore expressions of sadness as they danced. It was a picture of hell and had quite literally happened here in this town. This was a godforsaken place.

Nyiragongo volcano, DR Congo Africa

The next day our journey to the top of Nyiragongo started with a motorbike ride to the base of the mountain. Motorbike taxis are always a little bit nerve racking but the drivers are skilled and know what they are doing, these guys however were something else. They rode like a bat out of hell, flying along the dirt roads weaving through the pot holes. It was awesome and after about an hour we reached the starting point for our treck, $5 well spent. We were hiking with a young couple from america and an old couple from france. We were briefed in french for 10 minutes which none of us understood a word of then we proceeded up the track. First we walked through jungle following one of the parks armed guards, he was like a point man and would walk ahead then signal to another guard to bring us up the track. We moved slowly, bit by bit, but we were making progress. The climb was short only 5 hours so we had nothing to worry about. We stopped every hour just for a rest and on the first stop the trouble started.

After a quick snack and just ready to start walking again there was a loud crack like gunfire over head. Seconds later there was another rumble and I felt the first drop of rain on my face, quickly I stopped and got the tent rain fly out of my bag. The others looked over at me as the frenchy’s and the american couple got out their rain jackets. The fly was all we had between us. Ryan and I knew how cold it would be up there at night, we were going to be over 3000m above sea level. It was important that we all stayed dry. As the others moved up the track we all huddled under the rain fly together and got organised then started walking up the trail like a chinese dragon. I was at the front with the fly wrapped around my front and over my head like a cloak, Matt was behind me completely under the fly pulling it down on both sides to cover his arms and ryan was bringing up the rear pulling the fly down behind him to cover his bag. Both Matt and Ryan were completely under the fly and couldn’t see a thing they just followed me. I could barely see myself, the drizzle had turned into driving rain that pounded down on us with the full force of the wind. Slowly we made it up the mountain slipping and staggering but all the time we kept our chinese dragon formation, it was skill.

Eventually the rain subsided and we put away the fly for the last hour. We climbed on up the mountain, it was now steep and there was nothing but shale to keep our footing. it was starting to get cold as well, pretty much freezing and we couldn’t put any warm cloths on because they would get wet. The others were slowing and it was getting a little frustrating, the old french guy had a pair of those stupid trekking poles and I’m sure all they do is slow you down, they’re more of a hinderance than help. It wasn’t long though and we made it to the top, there were some small cabins up there as shelter from the wind and I was straight inside one and out of my wet cloths, into my sleeping bag. After getting warm I decided to go and have a look at the volcano we had come all the way up to see. We were camped only 10m from the rim of this giant crater and we all went up and peered over the edge. It was awesome, for the first time I was actually seeing lava there bubbling away. It was cold, windy and there was smoke and cloud everywhere thick over the crater like a blanket but every now and then you could catch a glimpse of the lava below. As we sat up there we saw that some of the guards had started a fire so we went over to join them.

The fire warmed us up good and soon everyone was there, all the guards and the other 2 couples. We sat around chatting and shared some food and as it got darker we went back to the cabins for some more food and to get ready for bed. I was in my sleeping bag munching away on a piece of bread when I noticed something, it was now pitch black, the sun had well and truly gone down but the sky outside my window glowed orange like hot coals. I went out to investigate and when I got up to the edge of the crater then I really saw lava. The whole crater was visible now well over a kilometer across and dominated by a huge pit of lava oozing up from the earth below. The clouds were gone and when they did blow down into the pit the glow of the lava in the darkness of the night shone right through them. The lake of lava would crust over into solid rock in sections which would then minutes later crack up and sink into down beneath, being consumed by it only to crust and form again. The show was amazing. Lava, like the flames of a campfire or the rolling waves on a beach, is one of these things you can watch for hours. It was mesmerising, I sat up there for hours. In the morning Ryan woke me up early and we went out to watch the lava again in the darkness before dawn. This was definitely worth all the trouble we had gone through to get here.

On the next morning we said goodbye to our friend Matt, he was going back across the border into Rwanda and then to uganda, the plan was to meet up with him there again. Ryan and I were going on another volcano expedition, Nyamoragira. We rolled into Viany’s office and told him all about our last trip and thanked him very much for organising it for us, we had become good friends with Viany now, we had been visiting him a few times every day, he was a good bloke with a huge workload. Ryan and I had been collecting driving licenses in the different african countries we visited, We showed some of them to Viany and he agreed to help us out with our congolese ones. Some of them had been quite hard to come by and had involved delicately forged documents and bribes to police and other government officials. Viany promised us that our congolese ones would be the easiest driving licenses we ever got and would only cost $15 each. He picked up the phone and called the licensing agency in town and told them he had two mzungu friends who wanted their driving licenses. He put the phone down again and told us the price had doubled, probably because he mentioned the word mzungu I thought, but that they would be ready in 2 days, we just had to provide a passport photograph each and leave them with him to be picked up later. Awesome.

We went quickly and got the photos done, bought some more food and hurried back. When we returned to Viany’s office another couple walked in through the door at the same time. A man form england, a CHAV by all accounts, council house and violent. We had heard a lot about the british dregs of society from two scottish girls that traveled with us only weeks ago and now had met one here in the congo. He was with his girlfriend, she was asian and looked to be a perfect match for him. The guy was a nutcase, he came in to the office and started rambling on about a visa. He had experienced the same trouble we had crossing the border but decided to resolve it in a different way. He snuck across the border illegally and was now here without a visa and wanted poor Viany to get him one. What was he thinking? If he got caught he would be kicked out after they had taken every penny from his bank account and given him a good roughing up, he did look like a person with nothing to loose though. Viany managed to convince the man he couldn’t stay here in congo without a visa and so I think he snuck back over, how that turned out for him I don’t know. The fat apes at the border probably knew about him and were there waiting for him to go back. If he made it back over Viany would try to email him a visa in a few days if he managed to get one.

It was still early in the morning, time to go to our next volcano. This time we would be using 2 huge army trucks to get there, they were parked out the front waiting. Ryan and I watched as the other members of our group climbed in the back of the trucks, we were riding up front we decided. This is africa you can do what you want. This drive took us through the main street of town which was long and pretty much the only road for miles that went anywhere. We traveled north-east and as we approached the outskirts of town the shops and dilapidated homes made way for military bases and airfields. This military section on the edge of town went for 10 times as long as the actual town, we really were in a war zone here. Every building was falling apart with bullet holes and big chunks missing everywhere, they were all burnt possibly from the volcano eruption, but that was long ago. The whole place was destroyed.

It seemed that the UN controlled one side of the road while the local militaries controlled the other, their bases were about as different as you could get. The local military bases had the old barbed wire you might see in a world war 2 film and their guard houses were made of sticks cut from the bush. Their offices were old canvas tents nearly falling in on themselves, perfectly camouflaged with their green surrounds, partly because of their original green color and partly because of the dirt. They looked as though they had never been moved. The posts were guarded by shabby looking soldiers with AK’s and all sorts of other weapons, you would think the guards had to provide their own weapons sometimes as they used old hunting rifles and sawn off shotguns whatever they could find. Their uniforms were just as incomplete as their weaponry, often they were missing a jacket or pants. One checkpoint was even guarded by a scarecrow dressed in uniform holding a stick. The UN on the other side of the road was in stark contrast, their entrances were guarded by groups of up to 10 soldiers all well equipped and professional with their blue helmets, but detached standing there with blank expressions staring out past the view in front of them. Every compound had walls of razor wire and steel fences with guard towers evenly spaced along them to break it up. Behind these fences were bases built from sea containers piled up on each other, probably containing little men sitting behind desks on their laptops watching us. Inside some of the larger bases were aircraft hangars for cargo and troop planes as well as helipads for the many helicopters that constantly occupied the skies. Some had rows of armored troop carriers, jeeps and trucks like ours, waiting to be summoned to keep the peace. Even though out of town now, amongst it all was still the squalor and poverty of the local people who lived here. Trying to sell cassava or used cloths on the side of the roads, most of them just walking aimlessly either going or coming, I have no idea where.

We reached our destination after about an hour or two and all piled out of our trucks. there were about 20 of us there to trek out to see the volcano, half were rich business owners with investments in congo and the other half were UN or NGO workers, then there was Ryan and I sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the lot. We were pretty dirty, no hot water in Goma meant showers weren’t taken that often, we had our backpacks and hanging off either side was an old floor rug each to sleep on, I had the tent fly incase of rain strapped to the other side of my bag along with a pair of thongs that were more hole than thong, while Ryan had our old tarpaulin strapped to his other side incase of rain. We had our stubbie shorts and one of the two shirts we each owned meanwhile they all looked like they had come fresh from a mountain designs sale. We all milled around in a circle as we waited for our guards to sort out their weaponry and for the guides to sort porters from the large group of local villagers that encircled us. Porters were given to everyone except Ryan and I, we were on a budget and couldn’t afford them, besides its cheating anyway, and then we set off. We walked in single file down the track and stopped 5 minutes later for the briefing, once again in french.

Congolaise solides sit on the volcano with their AK-47's and a volcanic wasteland behind them

Ryan and I had been on lots of treks to various places that required a guid and i was impressed by rangers of Virunga national park they were very professional. The guards were intelligent and were able to tell us more information and interesting facts about what we were about to see than most guides before them even though they were speaking in their second language, english. The whole exercise was conducted like a military operation with us as the cargo, the guards followed us everywhere but it was always at the right distance and you wouldn’t know they were there unless you looked for them scouts were always sent ahead to check the trail and there was always a pair of guards bringing up the rear. The were well equipped with extra ammunition and a pair of larger heavy calibre machine guns and were about as strong in numbers as the group of foreigners they were taking out into the bush. It wasn’t until we returned that we realised the volatility of the places we were exploring and the guards did well to hide it and to ensure we all felt safe.

The track led us along fairly flat rocky ground through bush that soon became desolate and scorched by fire as we got closer to the volcano. The ground beneath us one again turned to old lava and we could see the ripples where it had dried mid flow like a river instantly frozen in time. The walk was easy only 3 or 4 hours but it did rain and so the rain fly made a second appearance. Just before we got to our camp we came in sight of the Nyamoragira volcano it was drizzling lightly and there in the distance the volcano rose spectacularly from the flat wasteland surrounding it, sending white smoke up high into the air. We saw this from right on the edge of the bush line, less than a minute more of walking and we reached camp, bush behind us and then a black volcanic desert, kilometers wide, stretching out in front of us with Nyamoragira rising proud in its center. Right at that moment it suddenly started to bucket down and all of us quickly ran for shelter, there was an old mess tent with no walls, the only permanent structure there. Our tarpaulin saved the day as we used it to patch a series of leaks right in the middle of the mess tent. The rain set in and we all huddled under the mess tent and got warm.

The guards didn’t seem bothered by the rain a bit, after all it rains like this for a couple of hours usually every day at this time of year. They announced they were going to take those who wanted to see the volcano over for a look now and would stay there for a few hours, those who wanted to stay could do so as well. The UN and NGO workers stuck together and all decided to go and have a look they were wet anyway and so they set off. They were all American / Canadian and close to thirty and stuck together for the rest of the trip. Those who stayed behind were the entrapenure’s, they were from all over the world, investors from belgium, importers from lebanon, and they all seemed to get on as well. Ryan and I stayed, we knew from our last volcano expedition that when it starts to get a little darker thats when it’s the best and besides the rain wouldn’t last too long anyway, it was still only mid afternoon. We sat down and evryone told their stories including ourselves it was great. One of the guys was a lebanese shop owner here and he told us how he is the only lebanese person here and so he grew up without any friends, now he imports sports cars and motorcycles and they are his friends. He is rich. The big belgian businessman was the easiest to get along with he spoke the best english, he has a tourism company in congo and was planing on filming a documentary about the Rwenzori mountains which Ryan and I were planning to climb, but thats another adventure. Soon the rain stopped and it was about an hour before sunrise, Ryan and I set off for Nyamoragira.

We set out across the wasteland towards the volcano, Nyamoragira is a relatively new volcano fueled by a lake of lava that flows along under the surface like an underground stream. When the river’s pressure builds up to breaking point it bursts through the surface and forms a volcano and when the pressure of the lava subsides the volcano crusts over and becomes a dormant pile of rock. We were headed for the most recent dormant volcano only a few hundred meters from the active Nyamoragira, where we would climb up and sit to watch the show. The wasteland we were crossing was made entirely of small marble sized rocks, a huge pit of gravel built up high in dunes like a desert. In some places you could sink up to your shins in the gravel, it was light as anything, sharp, prickly and black like an oil slick. Ryan and I jogged in the twilight before sunset following the footprints where ever we could find them across the dunes and soon we were there.

We climbed up the dormant volcano about half way the whole thing was still gravel just like a massive sand dune. Once we reached the others we sat down with the americans and settled in to watch the show. The ground was warm and all around us clouds were rising from the gravel heated by the lava flowing below, after a few minutes my pants were damp but the warmth was welcome. The volcano was like a big violent bonfire with a bright orange flamey cloud bursting from its mouth. I don’t know if it was fire or gas or smoke but it looked awesome I had never seen anything like it. Even from so far away we could hear it sucking in air to be consumed by the firestorm below. The cloud coming from its top twisted and writhed violently, this was a most powerful force of nature as I could imagine, everywhere around this volcano reeked of destruction even many kilometers away in the scorched bushland. As the sun went down the flames darkened and the mountain of fire took up all my field of vision. We sat and watched for hours gasping when splashes of lava came up above the edge of the rock. Well after sunset the rangers decided it was time to head back and so we walked through the darkness back to camp. The americans all went into one of their tents to eat while the others sat under the mess tent as a 3 course meal was served up for them along with Primus beers, by their guide. Ryan and I joined the rest of the guards around a campfire they had made and enjoyed our boiled eggs, take away beans, and bread. We stared through the flames of the campfire out to the flames of the volcano in the distance as we ate. We were warm, well fed and had just witnessed something amazing, we were content.

We awoke early that morning and together our whole group went back to the same spot to look at the volcano again, it was going just as strong as the night before and with the bright blue of the predawn sky looked as a backdrop looked even better. We all nestled into the warm gravel for warmth it was so comfortable that about half an hour later when I looked over at Ryan next to me he was asleep resting on a water bottle on the hill, as I looked around I realised I was the only one awake and smiled. When the sun rose above the horizon it lit up the whole area and from the top of the volcano I had a perfect view down, on my right the gravel was black and dark, on my left below the hill it was different. The sulfur steaming up from the lava flow beneath had changed the color of the rocks so that there were patterns of red through to yellow stretching away across the plain. The color was rich and reminded me of corals from the ocean, the patterns too were like those left by waves on a beach at low tide. I went down to explore and found the gravel here was hot like an oven and not damp at all, it must have been a lot closer to the heat from underground. This place here in the Congo was as close as you could get to being on another planet. Everything about it was alien, the stuff you only see in movies, its out there you just have to find it.

Later as we were packing up we got talking to the last member of our group, one we hadn’t noticed before. He had followed us at a distance with his own armed guard of 5 park rangers, they had been shadowing our expedition the whole time, I had noticed him once taking photos of us all from the top of the dormant volcano as we sat and watched. We laughed together when he guessed we were australian, this was because while all the other people were rugged up in their mountain gear he had been taking photos of ryan running around in his surf shop singlet, full bogan. Our conversation continued and we found out that these park rangers are so well armed because of the rebels that live in this bushland. Rebels from the Interhamwe, the machete wielding army that was trained to wipe out any trace of their rival tribe in the Rwandan genocide. Over 150 of the park guides were killed last year while on duty patrolling the park thats one every two days even a small number of tourists had been murdered here. Our new friend had been following us on the off chance that we would be attacked and he could photograph it for a story on tourism in the congo. Our rangers were excellent though and had looked after us well, I’m confident that they would have been able to handle any trouble we might have come across.

Congo, a soldier rests on volcanic ash in an african wasteland

Later when we got back to town we were in for some bad news, we had been trying to extend our visas so we could climb the Rwenzori mountains here in Congo, they made up the border between DR Congo and Uganda, the extension price was $150 each. Not going to happen, we would have to change our plans. We decided to travel the next day to Uganda we would have to travel 200 kilometers and were told in no uncertain terms by Viany that this would take all day if we were lucky, “the roads are very bad” he said. While hanging out in Viany’s office we got talking to a guy from Russia who had been living here for a few years now, he was shocked to hear that we weren’t flying. He gave us some advice. “If your going to catch the bus” he said “keep some small bills in your pocket in case you get held up and disguise your bags somehow, don’t worry most of the time they dont shoot” this was great. Get held up by who we asked? And he told us, it could be anybody, rebels from the interhamwe, congolese soldiers, even a group of villagers. Viany confirmed this and gave us a 50 – 50 chance of getting held up but said as long as we gave them some money everything would be fine, its apparently quite normal and everyone knows the drill when it happens. We decided to go out for diner somewhere nice and then went home to our hotel for a good nights sleep before what promised to be a stressful but adventurous day.

The next morning we woke early and went to visit Viany to pick up our licenses. They were ready and waiting for us at his office, we were now officially licensed to drive a motorbike, car and even a bus in the DRC, perhaps they would let us drive today. Viany informed us that they had left some of our details blank for us to fill in as we wished, as we opened them up for a look. They were like a mini passport a good 10 pages long, there was a slip of plastic laminate over the page we had to write on with a paper back like a sticker to pull off and then laminate over our details. I filled mine in, my nationality was now congolese, I kept my original name and date of birth though. We were now set to go, as we said our goodbyes to viany and departed he warned us “don’t show those licenses to anyone they are corrupt documents thats 5 years in jail” of corse we wouldn’t not until we were safely across the border anyway which was only one day away.

We left the office and headed off down the main street to the ‘bus station’ the chef from our hotel was coming with to show us the way, his name was Peace. He took us to the station, there were no busses there though, he explained the roads are too rough for busses you must take a truck. We wandered around attracting a trail of people trying to cary bags and show us the way as usual in african bus stations, they get a commission from the driver. Eventually we found a guy who was going the same way as us and he had his own car an old 4WD. He had come to pick up passengers to make the trip more affordable, we were the first he had found and so we hoped in the car to wait as was the custom to show that we only needed 6 more people before we could leave. Well ryan and I got out our music and sat back for the long wait but after an hour we were still the only two there, we needed a new plan. We decided we would pay a little extra and take a motorbike taxi they would leave straight away and probably be quicker than the car. We got out and walked over to some to ask the price and were immediately swarmed by about 20 of the guys all grabbing and pulling us towards them, this was normal we chose a couple to bargain with and got the price down to $15 each, the car was 10. By now though the guy from the car and all his friends had worked out we weren’t going with them anymore and had come over to start telling the moto guys that we were their passengers and not to take us. Of corse all the people that hover around the bus station all day had now also come over to see what was going on and things started to get out of hand. Ryan and I had hopped on our motorbikes and the drivers were now revving their engines like crazy we were stuck in the middle of a mob well over 100 people and they were starting to loose it. Guys had grabbed the front of the motorcycles now and wouldn’t let us go while others were all yelling at each other, all of this was happening in french and so we didn’t understand a word. Two congolese army guys must have been walking by and decided it was their duty to come and sort out this problem they walked over and were waving their AK’s around pointing them at the people holding onto our bikes, they were pretty scrawny and old though and didn’t seem much of a deterrent.

My heart was beating out of my chest now I could just picture this mob going wild and rampaging through the streets carrying us along with them, and then suddenly Ryan’s motorbike guy made a break for it. I saw ryan take off and gave my driver a good slap in the ribs, Twende! Twende!, Go! Go! I told him and as the army guy kicked aside the man holding the front of our bike he gunned it and we sped past the angry crowd breaking out onto the street. As we made it onto the road a dark SUV flew past, Ryan was only 50m in front and I watched as the SUV swerved wildly towards him it looked like they were going to ram the bike. The driver stuck out his hand waving it up and down as he just missed Ryan and his driver passing them and then braking forcing them to turn into a fuel station on the side of the road. They parked and we pulled up alongside them I got off and walked over to Ryan, we both turned to face the big black man who got out of the SUV. I could see a stream of people running up after us from the bus station, this was real. “I am the chief commissioner of police” he said, his voice was angry, his accent was heavy and he faltered with some of the words, “where are your documents, give them to me”. My first thought went to our licenses, this was a set up, we were screwed. They were just sitting in our bags any search would reveal them easily. I was petrified with fear but I managed somehow to pull myself together. I told him we don’t have any documents and asked if there was a problem? He asked again and I repeated myself, the language barrier was making this real hard, we were at a stand off, he grunted and turned to one of his colleagues speaking in french and I turned to Ryan. Time passed so slowly I knew that we had to sort this out soon and rite here was best for us, the more people that got involved the more difficult it would be so after I built my courage up I went over to ask again, “what is the problem what do you want?” he stared at me and then grabbed a well dressed woman who was standing next to us and started talking to her in french, she then spoke to me. “this man is here to help” she said “he saw you at the bus station in a big argument with some local people what happened there?” relief washed over me. As I caught my breath and took in what she was saying I could feel my heart pumping away, the documents he wanted must have been to see our passports. I told her what had just happened and thanked her very much for her help and when she told the commissioner he grunted and said we could go, I also thanked him very much. We departed as quickly as we could without looking like we had something to hide and as soon as we were out of the station I told my driver to press it. When we were well out of town our drivers pulled over to have a quick chat to each other in french, I looked over at Ryan, that was so close we both agreed.

We were lucky but it felt good to be alive now and to know we had just dodged that bullet. The rest of the motorbike trip I was on edge we flew along at great speed half the time it seemed like our drivers were racing with the moves they pulled overtaking each other. I even got stopped once more in the middle of nowhere by a man claiming to be a customs official who again wanted to see my passport. These people must just try it on with whoever comes their way I didn’t show him my passport and he let us go, I’m sure if I had of given it to him it would have cost me to get it back. The congo has certainly lived up to its reputation for corruption, the stories we heard before coming here now didn’t seem quite so outrageous and unbelievable at all. Our motorbike trip continued and the road worsened. I had to put my sunnies on because the dust was blinding, our drivers rode with nothing. There were times when we were stuck behind big UN trucks that we couldn’t even see because the dust cloud was so thick, we had a few near crashes but about 3 hours after our departure we arrived at a small border town between DRC and Uganda. We got off the bikes and marched over to immigration, we were the dirtiest I can remember in a long time covered in dust our legs, arms and faces were as black as everyone else around us. There were still some nerves as we presented our passports to the imigration officials and they were slow as usual, but as we got our passports back stamped and ready to go we couldn’t stop grinning. We had made it out, our time here was awesome but we were both glad the congo chapter was over.