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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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: