Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Volcano
Volcanoes, Wildlife & Adventure
 

Standing at 3,470m above sea level staring at the world’s largest lava lake makes you feel quite insignificant. It was cold at 4 a.m. and the precipice we were standing on kept us present, but the lava lake itself was mesmerizing We could feel the heat, generated in the depths of the Earth, the deep orange-red lava expressing itself vehemently, sometimes as explosive fountains and sometimes a moving kaliedescope of constantly shifting black plates. Occasionally the crater would fill with smoke and steam and all you could sense was the sound of the incredible deep rumble of the cauldron.

Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

Standing at the top of Nyiragongo was one of the highlights of a sixteen-day safari that included two mountain summits and a combination of wildlife experiences. We began the safari by summiting Mt Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain (4568m asl). Climbing through the rich forest, through the heath and moorland vegetation zone, and finally onto the alpine desert gave us opportunities to enjoy a variety of beautiful birds including tacazze sunbirds, bar-tailed trogons, and silvery-cheeked hornbills.

A view of the ash cone in the right bottom corner and Little Meru.

An enchanted forest full of birds.

Incredible natural patterns.

The inner walls of the crater. Mt. Meru was once 5200m high, until the crater collapsed like Mt. St. Helens, in an explosion that was 10 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens.

Next up was Tarangire National Park. Tarangire is a classic African savannah complete with red soil, gigantic baobabs, and wildlife concentrations around water. We camped in the thick of it, close enough to a water-hole that we could hear elephants drinking, the water gurgling as it poured down their throats. We could smell the buffalo when they came down to drink, and when the lions roared we instinctively held our breath. Tarangire is also special because a tiny extension of the Somali Maasai Biome brings specialties like lesser kudu, fringe-eared oryx, and gerenuk.

The small fascinating stuff on a walk.

A  lion track.

Our next destination was the Democratic Republic of Congo. To get there, we had to fly to Rwanda, stay a night in Kigali, and then drive three hours to the Gisenyi-Goma border crossing. The process hasn’t changed much since 2011 (read about it here), but by lunchtime we had arrived at Mikeno Lodge. Mikeno was our base for the next couple days, and the morning after arrival we drove up to Bukima Tented Camp to trek for gorillas.

A playful gorilla.

A sniffer dog used to catch poachers.

As you know, I place a lot of emphasis on experiences when I design safaris, often more than the level of luxury or comfort. For this reason, visiting Congo is exciting because that is what it is about. Mikeno Lodge and the new Bukima Tented Camp are very comfortable, but more importantly they are well situated for the experience. Gorillas are known to wander through the camp, and recently a group of chimpanzee moved into the forest around the lodge. Strolling around the lodge you can see beautiful colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, l’hoest’s monkeys if you’re lucky, and, if you get up early and head of with the trackers, chimp viewing.

The operational headquarters of the national park are also next to the lodge so you can get insight into conservation including a visit to the gorilla orphanage or the tracker-dog kennel.

The gorilla trekking rules in Congo are also slightly different to Rwanda and Uganda. A mask is essential to prevent transfer of disease from us to the gorillas, and the number of visitors allowed to a group is smaller. The authorities are also flexible and should you wish, you could actually trek to see two gorilla families in one day.

After completing our two gorilla treks, we returned to Mikeno Lodge to prepare for our Nyiragongo ascent.

The ICCN, who places the safety of tourists paramount, had only opened the volcano to visitors a few days before. We would have been the first visitors up the volcano had a small group of UN peacekeepers based in Goma not jumped at the chance a couple days before us. Like Mt. Meru, the climb takes you through rainforest and a heath and moorland zone. It is beautiful, but also steep. At least half of the climb is on the very uneven exposed surface of the lava flow of 2002.

Incredible plants.

The lava lake at 4 a.m. Nyiragongo.

The lava lake at 5 p.m. Nyiragongo.

We returned to Kigali exhilarated by the climb and tired from the lack of sleep. The next morning, we headed to Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria for a night. We should have included two nights on this beautiful island, but I wanted to spend a good three days in northern Serengeti rounding off the safari.

Elephants in Serengeti.

I had hoped to catch the tail end of the wildebeest migration as they headed south, but their early exodus had also drawn with it the multitude of camps and tourist vehicles leaving us virtually alone. As usual, the wildlife viewing was incredible: the cats including a mother cheetah with her four cubs who we watched hunt an oribi for dinner, lions and lion cubs, and to put the icing on the cake, a black rhino strolling across the plains as we spent our last morning before the return flight to Arusha. 

Cheetah cubs enjoying an Oribi. Serengeti National Park.

Organize a multi-country safari including a trip to Congo through www.inspired-journeys.com

 
Congo III: Volcanoes
 

The new volcano from 350m. Photo by Gian Schachenmann

The day before we boarded the Rwandair flight to Kigali en route to Congo, I received a link from a friend equally passionate about adventure to a youtube clip from Cai Tjeenk Willink (the Director of Tourism). It was breaking news: sometime in the evening, on the 6th of November, a loud bang was heard marking the beginning of a new eruption. We’d planned to climb Nyarigonga, the famous active volcano that in 2002 had sent a river of lava out of a fissure on the southern side, down Goma’s main street and covering a third of the airport runway. The volcano itself, at 3,468m, has a crater just over a km in diameter, and in the middle sits the world’s largest lava lake. Our plan was to sleep in the cabanas on the rim to enjoy the night view of the glowing molten rock. 

Driving around the south-east of Nyarigonga, we couldn’t wait to see the new eruption. As we glimpsed the first ash and lava spraying into the sky, we excitedly stopped the driver and dragged pelicases and tripods onto the bank of the road to get photos. Little did we know that we’d have fantastic views from the lodge at Rumangabo and the gorilla camp at Bukima. Upon arrival at Mikeno Lodge, we immediately wanted to know if we could walk in to see the new volcano. The delegation of heavily armed rangers had not returned yet from their safety assessment of the area, so Sarah was hesitant to commit.

The volcano from Bukima ranger post. by Gian Schachenmann

That evening from the crest of the hill, we watched the earthen firework display light up the sky, and we slept to the sound of the repetitive explosions nearly 15 kilometers away.

Three days later, escorted by 12 rangers, we set off as the first visitors to see the eruption. The path was narrow and overgrown and footing precarious as we picked our way over the lava flows from an eruption that had occurred in 1977. I couldn’t help but notice the prime example of succession; lichens covered the 34 year old rock and in the cracks, moss and ferns had started to grow. Other than that, there were a few pioneer shrubs and small trees that were establishing themselves where enough organic matter had accumulated.

Glowing lava. by Gian Schachenmann

Fountains of lava. By Gian Schachenmann

As we neared the volcano, the explosions became louder and our footfalls began to crunch gravel spread by the eruption. The camp was basic, having been carried in the day before when the volcanologist and head warden had walked into the site.  We dropped our backpacks and hurried closer. 300-400m was close enough and we could feel the warmth on our faces. We sat mostly in silence, mesmerized by the sound and sight of the liquid rock building a new mountain. Already in the few days since we’d first sat on the hill watching, a cone had formed. As darkness approached, the explosions became louder and we were showered with light stones. The ambient light faded, and the light from the volcano intensified. We retreated to camp and slept with our tents open, listening and watching as the fountains of lava lit up the sky.

 
Congo I: Journey to Congo
 

There are a few experiences on safari that rate themselves as extra special above others. There’s something about walking through the bush where you become vulnerable, or sitting in the midst of elephants with their intimate social interactions. I highly rate sitting on a hill with a 360 degree view with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest gnu-ing around you, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for that 1 hour with a gorilla family.

The 300kg Silverback crosses his arms and stares at you, then scratches his head, while a youngster looks at you and then does a summersault before looking back at you as if he wants to know that you’re still watching, or if you’re going to play.

The Virunga Volcanoes

I knew our trip to see Congo’s gorillas was going to be a real adventure when we crossed the border at Goma. We spoke to the immigration official in Swahili, handing him our passports and photocopies of our visa approval through the window with Expats written over the top. I don’t want to dwell on the pessimistic perspectives of Congo written up in most articles, but the stories of officials confiscating passports and then demanding bribes or “recovery fees” did pass through my mind. He reached to a drawer in his desk and pulled out a cardboard folder with a hand-written piece of paper with a list of names, nationalities, and passport numbers. Our names were all spelled correctly, but the nationalities were jumbled not to mention the passport numbers. It didn’t seem to matter and he nonchalantly ticked our names off and corrected the nationalities. Our passports were passed to another official along with some mutterings in French, while we waited for the $50, 14-day visa, recently negotiated by the conservation body for tourists.

We stopped at the ICCN office to pick up our permits before driving north to the park headquarters and newly built Mikeno Lodge. The excitement was hard to contain. In stark contrast to Rwanda where the roads that tourists see are all paved and clean, and the experience offered a highly polished and organized system that you’d expect in Switzerland, Congo was the opposite.

Like any other town?

Goma itself is a town occupied by the UN- mostly Uruguayan, Indian and South African troops who live in fortified compounds with watchtowers and drive around in jeeps and helicopters spending approximately $3million per day. Congolese soldiers walk around heavily armed with Kalashnikovs, RPD’s and rocket launchers, while pickups with music systems and flags blast political slogans and music, campaigning for the up-coming elections.

Blood hounds being trained to help rangers.

As we drove through the countryside we were astonished at the number of children running out to give thumbs-up and ask for pens and biscuits. As in Rwanda, the volcanic soils are intensively farmed and appear very productive, just less orderly. We remarked how few were the small kiosks selling basic necessities like soap. It is obviously a hard life and everywhere we looked, the scene cried out with a story. As we drove into the headquarters on the edge of the forest, one could not help notice the old grand administrative buildings that spoke of a different era.

Yet despite the evidence of deterioration, the result of decades of turmoil, there is an atmosphere of hope and positive change. 

(photos by Gian Schachenmann)

Beautiful rooms at Mikeno Lodge.

A wonderful breakfast before gorilla day.... stay tuned!