The beauty of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is defined by the sheer magnitude of the Western Breach, the green misty valleys of Barranco, the most massive glaciers left in Africa, and the gaping Ash Pit in the heart of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing it to gaze at these natural wonders. However, the irony is that easily over 90% of those do climb Kilimanjaro, do not see these sights. They are smitten with a climber’s disease which ranks altitude above beauty when selecting a mountain to climb, and choosing a route up it. It is quite an unfortunate mistake.
While the conditions on Erta Ale are brutal, the show is spectacular. It feels like the lake is alive, changing its moods without warning. Sometimes it flows all in one direction, down into a hole at one edge. Then a fissure in the metallic black crust will slowly pry itself open, exposing a shape like a radioactive snake. This is the time to wait and watch until hot molten, the color of the sun, leaps through the chasm like a ballerina on center stage.
Arriving at Dallol drenched in sweat, it feels like we have found nature’s toxic waste dump. The landscape is oozing neon celeste, rust, canary and emerald. Our guide requests everyone to stay behind him because of the odd acid pool or release of deadly gases. However, he wanders off, and immediately everyone is off on their own like a bunch of drunken scientists on Mars, poking things and taking selfies with sulfuric acid.
Gnats swarm around us so thickly that swatting in front of our face feels like running a hand through a bucket of rice. We have to turn-off our headlamps to keep them away, but that leaves a gnawing feeling in our stomachs as it means we cannot see approaching crocodile eyes on the water. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 crocodiles in Lake Turkana, and Central Island National Park is their breeding ground.
It is hard to keep-up with them, as the trail climbs over a kilometer up in just over four kilometers of hiking, and it is so muddy it feels like climbing up a wall of melting chocolate ice cream. After an hour or so of scratching upwards while slipping downwards, we are sweating in the jungle humidity, being pelted with rain, and I begin to think the ranger may have had a point.
Five days before we were scheduled to climb Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, a new vent opened in the crater spewing lava into the air, and creating a cascade of lava “a firefall” into the lava lake in the crater. Upon arriving at the Virunga National Park headquarters in Goma, the park staff assure us they have rushed volcanologists up the mountain, and while the United Nations has put all their staff on evacuation alert, Nyiragongo was safe to climb.
The show is spectacular. The volcano mostly smokes, but then a couple times a minute it spews lava in a fiery shower, like a whale spout, and then occasionally it bellows quite deeply and launches car sized molten boulders far into the sky above our heads.
The guide picks you up one hour before midnight. He does not need to know where you are staying because the small village of Pura Besakih has only one guest house. The guide speaks broken English, and patiently waits for your final preparations before departure. With a smile, he sets off. Immediately, you are struggling to keep up in the pitch black. He ventures off the rural roads into the fields, “So the dogs won’t attack us,” he explains. This is first time you are glad you have hired a guide.