There are three rangers. Each of them wear a simple, army green uniform. The canvas of the pants are tucked into tall rubber boots. Each carries a battered AK47 over his shoulder. Extra magazines filled with ammunition peek out of a vest. More pockets bulge heavily with hidden lumps. Each has folded the soft round brim of his hat differently. An asymmetrical fold and rakish tilt bring Robin Hood to mind. Another sports the round, curled edge of a bowler. The last wears both sides rolled, cowboy style. They explain in French that we must hike in a tight line. One ranger will lead, one will stay in the middle and the last will follow the group. They tell us to expect rain on the hike and a cold night. They tell us again that we must stay together. There can be no gaps in the line.
Most of the tourists queue behind the first ranger and the Congolese porters fall into a line behind the second. Matt and I wait with the last ranger, he nods somberly at us. We follow the line of people into the jungle. The air is so humid it feels thick with the weight of water and bird calls. The jungle is a lush green, hungrily reaching out for the path at every turn. I am already soaked with sweat after a couple hours and the rain begins to fall. Francoise steps out of line and waits for us, passing me the tarp/rain poncho. As I pull it on over my raincoat I can already feel it getting heavier with the drizzle. I notice the grocery bag of sleeping bags in his hand is also soaking up the rain. Great.
We march relentlessly for the first few hours with no breaks or slowing of the pace. The rangers keep the group close, shushing the porters and urging the tourists along. Finally, nearly halfway to the top we stop. The rain pauses for breath as tourists and porters alike, collapse around the clearing.
One of the rangers pauses on top of a rock to survey the valley. Someone grabs their camera and creeps over to the base of the rock. The ranger doesn’t smile or seem to notice until he strikes a pose, showing off his profile against the moment of blue sky. He adjusts his hat and holds his gun, shifts his feet, posing again and again as everyone with a camera or a phone crowds around the base of the rock snapping photos. He waits until everyone has taken their photos before climbing down. He is grinning for the first time all day.
“Hello.” An older man with a thick Russian accent sits on the log next to me, mopping his damp forehead with a turquoise cloth.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“This is very tough! How did you guys train for this?”
“Umm… We hike a lot.” Matt and I exchange glances. We haven’t trained for anything this entire trip and we definitely didn’t start for this.
“That’s exactly what my doctor recommended! I’ve been travelling and hiking mountains every day for the last four months. I will go to every active volcano in the world. I have been to 65 countries now.”
“What other volcanoes have you visited?”
“Have you been to Antarctica? I spent $50,000 last year to see the volcano on Antarctica.”
“Oh, cool.” I stand up and shuffle back towards the path.
“We flew in on a plane.” He half shouts as I smile and nod over my shoulder.
“Oh my god, how much further do we have to go?” Matt hisses at me.
“I don’t know!” I whisper as we splash back towards our ranger.
As the group begins trickling out of the clearing the rangers have visibly relaxed. The porters laugh and jostle each other. The tourists are the only ones who seem crankier and more tired than at the beginning of the trek. We begin scrambling up over rocks as we continue upwards. Suddenly a boom rolls out over the jungle and the line flinches and grinds to a halt. That was definitely not the boom of thunder. I look down the side of the mountain where a grey cloud rises from the slope, stretching tentacles of smoke over the trees. Echoes raise the flesh on the back of my neck.
“Whoa, what was that?” I ask the ranger behind me.
“Do not worry about zees.”
“What? I mean I’m a little worried.”
“Eet is nothing to worry about. Eet is below us.” He smiles easily and uses the AK47 he now has in both hands to motion to the front. The line of people has begun crawling forward again. I watch the porters and the ranger carefully but none of them seem overly concerned. I catch Matt’s eye as we continue up the mountain and shrug, he gives me a dark look. I can’t stop glancing back at where we’ve come. To say I am feeling deeply nervous would be an understatement.
The rain starts up again, heavier this time, as we hike further into the jungle. My little tarp is totally soaked. I can feel water rolling down my back and squishing out of my boots with every step. The path has become a muddy stream.
The vegetation has begun to thin and the temperature is appreciably cool. I watch the line spread out and dissolve into little clumps of people. The ranger gives me a full-fledged smile and points over my shoulder and up a seemingly vertical rise.
“There eez where we go! Almost!” He pumps his fist in the air encouragingly and we start climbing, our boots sinking into the shifting gravel.
I look up the steep, scree covered slope between us and the top, trying to see where he’s pointed. A small platform pokes out of the side of the mountain. A few planks of wood support a rickety wooden structure. I’m not sure what else is up there, there’s no way we can all be heading for that little deathtrap. Maybe it’s a storage unit? I decide to take his statement on good faith.
There is a soft peep peep as a man passes us. He carries a damp and slightly bedraggled chicken tucked up under each arm.
“What’s he doing with those chickens? Errr… Poulet?” I ask the ranger, pointing to the birds.
“Very good! Pour… dinner.” He replies, smiling.
“Oh… oh…. Oh okay.” I look down at my boots and squish my feet around in them, feeling immensely sorry for the chickens.
This last section is the worst with every step sinking and sliding back down. The ranger leaves us to it as the group has totally broken apart now. We try to switch back our way up the mountain, searching out a solid path and avoiding the mini avalanches caused by others’ footsteps. My legs burn and protest the unstable climb. I follow a slim Congolese man carrying a bright orange backpack. I focus on his feet as they shift and slip in the scree as we shuffle forward. They are clad in a pair of tassled loafers, he is not wearing socks. I notice a hole where the leather meets the sole along his big toe. He pauses and turns to look down the mountain. I stop and look out, you can see Goma from here. He pulls an old-fashioned handkerchief from the chest pocket of his black suit jacket and runs it over a deeply lined face. A white, button-up shirt is tucked into baggy black slacks. One of those thin, bright yellow plastic ponchos pokes out of another pocket. He replaces a worn felt hat on his head. He is dressed as though he were going out to a fancy dinner fifty years ago or perhaps leading the Titans into battle. I wonder if poverty’s name is Zeus here. We continue up the mountain, making slow progress.
Finally we reach the two short lines of beige, fiberglass, A-frame huts perched delicately on the side of the volcano. Above them I can see clouds of smoke rising from the rim of the crater.
Francoise appears by my elbow and flashes us the thumbs up before shaking our hands.
“Umm… Donde voy?” I try.
Francoise motions for us to stay put and disappears. When he comes back he is following a young man, not much taller than me with a gorgeous smile. Francoise points over his shoulder at us and says something in French.
“I am Augustine!” He announces and holds out his hand. Augustine is deep brown with closely cut hair forming swirls across his head. He wears an 80’s windbreaker and jeans.
“Hi, I’m Bryci.” I shake his hand, smiling back.
“I can answer any of your questions? I speak a little bit of English.” He says this almost shyly, as if expecting to be criticized. He points out the rickety structure I’d spotted earlier. “That is the bathroom and these are the shelters.”
“Oh excellent! Where do we stay?”
“You can choose any shelter!” Matt and I wander down the line uncertainly. Augustine passes us and opens the door to one of the little huts. He peeks inside, it is unoccupied.
“Here you are! Please come find me if you need anything!” Francoise places our grocery bags on the floor and I shrug off the daypack.
“Thanks Augustine! Merci Francoise.”
Matt spreads the sleeping bags out on the thin black mats sitting on the floor. They’re really wet.
“Shall we go check out the volcano?” I ask as cheerfully as I can. I’ve felt the temperature dropping for the last couple hours and now that we’ve stopped moving I’m feeling downright cold.
“Yeah let’s go!” Matt tries to match my false enthusiasm and we trudge up the last 30 feet of the 5,000 we’ve ascended today.
I’m thankful my head is hanging as the slope abruptly disappears and we are standing on a knife’s edge of volcanic rock. A thin crust of black rock is all that separates us from the sheer vertical drop of the crater. The volcano breathes heat on my face and grumbles vibrate through my chest. I can barely make out a red glow when the wind picks up at my back. Like a stage curtain being slowly lifted, it pushes a thick, white, sulfurous cloud to the other side of the volcano. Inch by inch the lava lake is revealed. It’s black with wide, shifting, rivers of red and orange and gold moving across the surface. The lava bubbles and bursts, spewing liquid fire into the air. I reach out with my hands to feel the warmth, rising up from nearly 800 feet below me. The lava seems restless and angry, boiling and shifting and bubbling. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. I watch one particular corner form a huge bubble that bursts and reforms again and again. I feel the heat and smell the sulphur and watch the thick, viscous fire swear and threaten. I stand there, trying to absorb it but it’s too big for me to wrap my mind around. I am in awe of her. And just like that Nyiragongo has become a she, an angry, all-powerful she. I understand now why so many cultures before me worshipped volcanos as gods.
As the evening comes on, I begin shivering and we return to our little hut. I dance around, shaking and trying to get into my dry spare shirt and borrowed sweatshirt. They are dry but still feel cold and clammy against my damp skin. My hair is still completely soaked as I pull the beanie on over it. It’s a whole new kind of cold for me, this wet cold that makes my bones feel cold and clumsy. My body aches with it. Matt touches my face worriedly.
The sleeping bags are so wet. We stuff the driest one inside the other and both squirm in, trying to warm them and each other up. My shivers die away but I just seem to get colder. It feels like we’re just getting colder, the wet leaching all our heat. I crawl out and try to do jumping jacks as Matt opens up the food sack. We break chunks of cheese off and eat it in between bites of soggy bread smeared with the avocado. We finish up a couple slices each and I begin shaking again.
A knock on the door booms through the hut and I open the door to find Augustine. He is standing in front of several Russians who have collected on the bench in front of our hut, sipping tea.
“Hello my friends! Are you enjoying the volcano?”
“Yes! It’s amazing!” I reply, tucking my arms into my armpits and jumping up and down.
“Do you need to cook anything?” He asks frowning a little and looking around me.
“No, we already ate.” I step aside and he peeks in as Matt tucks the bread back into the grocery sack.
“What did you eat?” His frown has deepened and he sounds suspicious.
“Cheese and avocado sandwiches.”
“You didn’t cook them?”
“You are cold?” Augustine steps into the hut as it begins to rain again, his voice rich with disapproval.
“Oh I’m okay.”
“Your lips are turning blue!”
I press my lips together.
“Come with me and sit by the fire.” I notice several of the Russians have reformed around the fire pit outside our door, huddled in their raincoats. I do not want to go back into the rain, fire or not.
“Oh I think we’re okay.” I hesitate.
Matt looks at me, “C’mon let’s go sit by the fire.”
Augustine gives me a frown so deep it might be endless. He slowly bends over, picks up the wettest corner of the sleeping bag and looks up at me while he gives it an exasperated squeeze. Drops of water fall to the floor. I am inexplicably embarrassed.
“The rain, you know.” I shrug.
“Come with me.” Augustine commands, throwing it over his arm and carefully holding it away from him as if it might be diseased. He marches into the rain.
“Umm… okay.” Matt and I follow him out of the hut, carefully closing and locking the door behind us.
Augustine takes us to a slightly larger wooden hut with a sheet instead of door. A concrete block sits in the middle of the dirt floor with a little bonfire on it, burning merrily under an iron rack. Smoke fills the peak of the roof and trickles out above the sheet. Francoise sits with five other porters on wooden benches framing the fire. All of them look up simultaneously and Augustine waves at them. They scootch over on the little wooden bench for us. Matt and I sit down, feeling like I might be in for a scolding from the principal.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Sure!” Matt pipes up before I can defer.
“If it’s not any trouble.”
“Not at all my friends!” Augustine hangs the sleeping bags on a clothesline that runs along the roof. The rain drums heavily on the roof as he places another log on the fire. The pile of firewood looks familiar, I realize I watched one of the porters with the Russians’ group carried it up the volcano in front of me. Several languages murmur in the hut and I notice the back wall has a window in it covered by a curtain. Dirty plates are being passed from the Russians to the man next to me. He leans through the window and someone passes him a teapot. He gives it a shake and then pours tea into two mugs which have also appeared.
A few more mugs come through and someone adds water to the teapot, carefully swishing around the old teabags. I wrap my hands around the cup and lean into the fire. I can feel myself warming up as hot shivers slowly crawl up my body. A half-eaten box of cookies comes through the window next and Augustine snags it quickly, holding it out to me.
“Thank you.” I grab two.
“You’re welcome my friend.” He shooes away the hands of the porters, “The rest are for the rangers!”
Augustine disappears and I offer the other cookie to the porter.
“Oh that’s okay.” He says and they all laugh heartily. “Do you speak French?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Aaah it is okay. French is my language!” “Swahili is my language!” “French is my language!”
Their voices raise up in a chorus as they each declare their language.
“Did you know the results of the match?” One man asks and the talk quickly turns to soccer.
“They do not play with heart!” One yells.
“You have spoken! It is my turn to speak!” The men try to hold the conversation in English for our sake but it is too heated and these half-familiar words cannot contain their passion. The conversation lapses into heated French and back into broken English. One of the men chuckles and translates both for us and for those who don’t speak English. More people have joined us in the hut. They laugh and joke with one another about nicknames and families.
“I am to be a newspaper writer.” A young man with a long pink scar slicing down his dark cheek exclaims.
“How will you do that? Climbing the volcano every day?”
“He is going to end up with a wife and seven children.”
“I will not have children. I will not have a family.” The young man yells out angrily.
“Oh he thinks he will write but what is he doing?”
The conversation dissolves into good-natured shouting and suddenly Augustine throws back the sheet. “What are you doing in here?!” He yells into the hut and everyone falls silent. I lean back so I am not visible behind the men on either side of me.
“Can I talk now?” The rather offended future newspaper reporter asks and the hut dissolves into laughter. He says something in French and the conversation resumes happily, if more quietly. I am very glad to be smushed on the bench and surrounded by warmth.
Several hours later the translators have retired and the conversation is almost pure French. I am falling asleep in my seat but I’m so comfortable I don’t want to move. I reach out and test a corner of the sleeping bag, the clouds of smoke seem to have dried it out.
We stumble back to the hut, warm and dry.
“I think he saved our lives. I’m going to name my first born child Augustine.” I mumble as I lay down on the thin mat.
“I like that.” Matt mutters but I fall asleep before he finishes.
It seems like moments later I wake up, disoriented and having to pee. I am so tired I can barely crawl out of the sleeping bag, I shake Matt awake.
“Hey… hey.. HEY!” Matt jerks to his feet still in the sleeping bag.
“What?! What?! What’s going on?”
“I have to pee.”
“Oh my god, what? I thought the volcano was erupting.”
“Can you come with me? I’m scared.”
The thick sulfurous cloud has gathered itself around the huts and the red light of the lava fills it, reflecting in it, making the entire night glow an eerie neon red. It seems alive, twisting into eerie shapes and creatures around our feet. It stinks and burns our throats but the most unsettling part is the way it glows, like the cloud is lit from within. Like we’re walking through light but it’s a brutal kind of beautiful, it’s hellish. We stumble along the narrow path that hugs the huts, sending rocks tumbling down the steep slope with every step.
Augustine had pointed out the knotted rope hanging down the scree slope earlier and I almost trip on it. I tug gently on the wobbly looking stake it’s anchored to as I straddle the rope, holding on with both hands. I begin to walk backwards off the edge. My legs are feeling the hike from the day before and I am so tired I begin to weave, taking several steps left and then right, staggering drunkenly down the slope. I bump into the side of the bathroom and step onto the ledge, releasing the rope. It’s darker down here but out of the cloud of gas, even the ripe air around the outhouse smells sweet. I creep along the small wooden platform, suspended above the side of the volcano and trip. I reach for the open door and my fingers barely find purchase as my momentum carries it shut, sending my legs flying out from under me and over the cliff. The door slams closed and I smash into the side of the deathtrap, crushing my fingers and collapsing on the front of the platform.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Matt yells.
“CAN I PEE IN PEACE?!” I yell back into his face as he pulls me to my feet. I slam into the bathroom. Where it is fully dark and put my foot through the hole in the floor. I blindly catch myself on a shelf and slam into the wall.
“What was that?! Are you okay?” Matt asks pulling open the door.
“GODDAMNIT! I’M TRYING TO PEE! LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Matt sighs heavily and I can hear him muttering under his breath. Now wide awake I realize what the hole in the floor really is, saying a little prayer of thanks for the shelf.
I manage my business and creep back onto the platform to wait for Matt. We begin the climb up out of the bathroom, pulling ourselves along the rope. Matt walks closely behind me this time. A rock tumbles out from underneath my foot and I fall. I lose my grip on the rope and begin to slide down the mountain, taking Matt’s feet out from under him. He lands on top of me, managing to hang on to the rope and pin us to the steep slope.
“Ouch Matt get off!” I grab the rope and manage to stand up, my skin burning. “You gave me road rash!”
“Are you serious? I just saved your life.”
“You smashed me.”
“Okay well…” He pauses to draw a breath but just shakes his head, “I’m sorry, c’mon lets go to bed.”
“Why’d you forget the headlamp?” I ask sulkily.
The next morning Augustine wakes us up with two cups of the Russians’ coffee and two of their muffins.
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, it is fine! But perhaps you should enjoy it in your hut.” He winks at me.
“Thank you Augustine, I don’t know what we would have done without you last night! I think we might have frozen to death!”
“Aaah it is no problem.”
When we finally stumble into the clearing several hours later and I’ve apologized to Matt and given Augustine and Francoise a fat tip, Baraka bounces up to us.
“Aaaahhh see! I told you, you could not die in one day!” Baraka’s rich beautiful laughter pops against my skin and I smile up at him.
“We didn’t die!”1