Volcanoes and Trouble

The river channel that leads from the Rwenzori Mountains to Lake Albert.

Last Friday, I flew with Jon on a flight that he says is his absolute favorite in the air, and worst nightmare on the ground.

The flight goes from Bunia to the farthest point south that MAF flies in the region – Bukavu on the south side of Lake Kivu – then back up to Goma on the north side of Lake Kivu and home to Bunia. We flew past the Rwenzori Mountains – or “Mountains of the Moon,” a name adopted by early explorers – over a national park, past several active volcanoes, and over two large lakes. All in just 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, it was a very smoky, hazy day due to “the burning season,” as Jon calls it, where Africans burn their fields and the whole continent goes up in smoke. Still, I was able to see enough to know that this truly was one of the most beautiful flights I’ve been on.

Jon flies past the 17,000 foot Rwenzori Mountains, the "Mountains of the Moon", on the way to Bukavu.

Jon climbed up to 12,500 feet. The highest point of the Rwenzori Mountains is approximately 17,000 feet. If you fly a straight line from Bunia to Bukavu, you would fly directly over the mountain, or rather, directly into the mountain. So Jon changed the route slightly to fly just to the west of it. As we got above the clouds, the smoke cleared and the clouds opened enough for us to see the beautiful jagged peaks of the Mountains of the Moon.

A herd of elephants look almost ghost-like among the green trees in the national park.

From 12,500 feet, Jon descended to a low level as we searched the landscape of the national park for wild life. Jon spotted animals as if he was 50 feet off the ground, while I only saw the larger herds of buffalo and elephant. One elephant group appeared almost like white ghosts among the green trees.

The active Nyiragongo volcano, over 11,000 feet high, looms off to our left, appearing suddenly out of the thick haze. You can see the light reddish color in the smoke from the boiling caldron inside the volcano.

Again we climbed back up to 12,500, a good 1000 feet above the height of the main volcano, Nyiragongo, that we were heading for. I scanned the horizon in all directions but it was complete haze. Jon tapped me and pointed off to his left. We were right next to the volcano: slightly above it, very close, shockingly dramatic. It’s the quintessential volcano – almost cartoon-like perfection – with steep sloping sides up to a razor-sharp rim 2 km wide, then dropping down to a deep, smoking, bubbling crater with red hot lava shooting 10 meters into the air at the center. I let out a gasp and endless exclamations when I first saw the volcano.

Circling around the rim of the volcano, we could see the lava lake deep inside.

We circled around, turning so I could see it close up from my side. I’ve seen many volcanoes from the ground, and even climbed to the rim of a few active ones, but this giant is seriously spectacular. According to Jon, a Chinese tourist fell to her death from the rim, something that looked entirely possible from above, even though a trek to the rim is a popular tourist attraction (check out this blog post with a travelers details about the trek – I would like to try it: http://www.awanderingsole.com/archives/heart-of-darkness-trekking-the-nyiragongo-volcano).

Lava flows through the streets of Goma in 2002.

It was this volcano that erupted in 2002, sending rivers of lava flowing 2 meters thick down the streets of Goma 20 km away, while some people stood on balconies watching it go by like a parade – a rather odd sight. Most of the town was evacuated, 4500 buildings destroyed, and 120,000 people left homeless. Wikipedia states that, “…nowhere else in the world does such a steep-sided stratovolcano contain a lake of such fluid lava.” Jon says the whole landscape is dotted with volcanoes but it wasn’t clear enough to see. I did spot on the ground what looked like little baby versions of the big one, only not active and they were covered in green vegetation.

Can you find the shadow of Jon's plane in this photo?

You can see the near perfection of the volcano from a distance as Jon backs off for a turn to place the view on my right.

We flew past Goma to Bukavu on the south side of Lake Kivu where a huge UN camp lines the runway. The officials at this airport are notorious for trying to squeeze as much money out of pilots and passengers as they can to stuff in their own pockets. This day, we had no trouble at all, which pleased Jon greatly, but there was still one more stop, Goma, whose reputation was just as foul. And it was here that the trouble surfaced. I wore a blouse that I had refashioned in the style of pilot’s shirt. Jon said that today I was “crew” and I should do whatever work I could, so while he took care of business inside, I watched as an airport crew filled each wing with gas, making sure it was the right amount and paid the bill. We had a full load that included some small children sitting on laps, so I buckled everyone in, including the children, and showed them where to find the barf bags (learning a new useful Swahili word in the process – tapika). I was quite pleased with myself that I was not just pretending to look busy, but actually was busy. At the same time though, Jon also said to keep a “low profile.” It’s a bit hard to do both.

The city of Goma lies on the north shore of Lake Kivu. The Kivu area is where much of the violence took place in recent years. In 2002, the nearby volcano erupted sending a lava flow through the streets of the city, covering a third of the airport runway which is still unusable.

When Jon finished his business inside, two “officials” came out to the plane and walked up to him. Before they could say a word, Jon said to them, “I know exactly what you are going to do. You are going to look around the plane to find something ‘wrong’ that you can charge me money for to put in your own pockets, because you just want to take my money.” They feigned shock and that, “How could you accuse us of that!” attitude, and then proceeded to do exactly that. After searching everything around the plane and checking all paperwork, finding nothing out of order, their eyes landed on me. They wanted me to produce a pilot’s license, to which Jon said that I was not here as a pilot, just as crew. They said he must pay $150 because I didn’t have the license, or they would report me to Kinshasa and throw me in jail…but…if Jon paid them $100, then they wouldn’t report me. After nearly 30 minutes of haggling, Jon paid them far less than that. When I said later that I shouldn’t have worn the shirt, or he should have challenged their bluff, he said that they wanted money and they would find something to “charge” him for, and if you don’t give them money, they can ground the plane. If you ask for a receipt, they just laugh.

After we were on our way and Jon relayed the haggling to me (which I had stayed out of), he said that this sort of thing can ruin an entire day, “but we won’t let it.” And we continued on home, through the smoke and haze, with almost no visibility of volcanoes, lakes, or mountains this time.

For a description of the volcano from the rim by Todd Pitman of the Associated Press in April of this year:  http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/042510/nat_622369070.shtml

Now, clinging to the crater’s frigid, 11,384-foot-high rim one recent moonlit night after an arduous, five-hour hike over solidified lava flows, it was my turn to gaze into the abyss.

I was speechless.

“It’s a miracle,” said our park ranger-guide, gazing into the smoky cone below. “A God-given miracle.”

I had to agree.

Sprawling across the floor of the volcano’s steaming cone, the lava lake resembles a colossal pie crust, its blackened surface riddled with fiery red zigzagging fissures where magma is blazing through. Its power is evident in the nonstop roar accompanying it, a soundtrack akin to the perpetual rumble of a gargantuan waterfall.

The lake surface is in constant motion, shifting slowly, splitting, sinking, consuming itself, spewing lava in prodigious gurgling fountains – a real-life Hades that’s hard to turn away from.

Not far from where I lay hugging the rim, in high wind, the cross planted for the Chinese tourist who died in 2007 was eerily silhouetted against the crater’s rugged walls, which flickered faintly red from the boiling lake below.

There are no guard rails at the summit. The cross is a warning not to get too close.

The tourist reportedly climbed onto a small outcropping just under the rim to take a picture despite park guards urging her not to. She lost her balance and plummeted onto another ledge 200 yards below.

Her body was retrieved by U.N. peacekeepers.

“One slip,” I thought, backing safely away from the edge before gaining the courage to stand up.

It’s hard to be here and not ponder, for a moment, your own mortality.

Nyiragongo straddles a giant fault line where the earth’s crust is literally breaking apart. When eruptions occur, the lava lake typically drains, sending magma pouring through a network of fissures, some of which run underneath Goma.

The provincial capital of 600,000, to state the obvious, is doomed.

From the BBC News, January 19, 2002:

A boy walks by lava on the Goma runway.

Lava flows down a Goma city street.

Large parts of Goma were buried under the lava.


  1. Jane England 1 September 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    wow Lu, what an incredible journey. I trekked the Rwenzori’s but it took 8 days of HARD trekking through bog, at one point I laid down and prayed for a helicopter to come and lift me out. I never thought I would make it! It was so beautiful – and here you fly over in less than 2 hours! I love the volcano shots, what an privelege to view it from this angle and see the lake inside. x

    • lcadd 1 September 2010 at 11:20 pm #

      I thought I knew all your stories, but I didn’t know you climbed the Rwenzori’s! I was keen to try it until I read a detailed, day-by-day description of it. That scared me away forever, and you know I’m not shy about trekking. No bogs for me, thank you very much. I’m very impressed to know you did that!

      • Jane England 7 September 2010 at 4:11 am #

        seriously Lu I made that climb without ANy equipment – these were the days before I knew anything about fleece jumpers, walking trousers, i didn’t even have proper boots (I think I work those desert boots you could buy in the African “Bata” stores. I only had a thin summer sleeping bag. I have no idea how I did it, seems totally crazy now. I was freezing cold, wet the whole time. But I did it. It was a journey on so many levels, a rite of passage. Ever since I have been obsessed with having the “right” equipment! But then I was younger and more “flexible” (stupid?!)

  2. denise klitsie 1 September 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    Luanne the photos are amazing. Your writing also captivates me. You just keep getting better at it. I love reading about the things you are seeing and doing. Always interesting.
    Keep it up. Miss you.

    • lcadd 1 September 2010 at 11:21 pm #

      Thanks for the encouragement Denise! It inspires me to keep at it. I miss you too!

  3. Terri (Hardeman) Turner 5 September 2010 at 8:32 am #

    What amazing pictures!

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  1. By Volcanoes and Trouble « Nick Hardcastle on 1 September 2010 at 5:36 pm

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