Monday, 24 November 2008

Getting in a lather over lava. Vishoke volcano

November 21-22nd

We’re up early on Friday, but with the benefit of hindsight not early enough, and as the day goes through our timetable slips further and further behind. I don’t realise this while its happening, but sitting here and writing about it a couple of days later I realise that we must have risen nearly an hour later than when I came with Geert, and by the time we actually started to climb the mountain we must have been a full two hours later. (This is why we didn’t all make it to the top. It’s not that we were incapable, just that we would have run out of daylight on the descent. That’s not permissible).

But there’s a silver lining to our tardiness. The weather is clear and fine; the sky is blue, and the views of the volcanoes are just so marvellous I wish I could fix it for ever in my mind. (None of my photos do it justice. The scale of the landscape is just so big; the colours so varied and fresh; the crispness of the air and quietness all round us just makes this place special.

Sabyini, the oldest and most eroded mountain, looms dark green just in front of Kinigi lodge. (Sabyinyo means “teeth” and is an apt name for a peak that resembles the gapped teeth of an old man). To the right, Gahinga and Muhabura are bright green against a pale blue sky studded with pink-tinged clouds. Wisps of cloud trail from Muhabura’s summit – at 14000 feet it is a very serious mountain, and it’s not until you get right up close to I that you realise just how steep it is.

To our left loom Vishoke – today’s climb for us – green all the way to the summit, flat topped, and very much the classic image of a volcano from a child’s drawing book. To its left Karisimbi towers above everything else. On the top is a patch of white, quite distinct from the thin clouds its trailing. At first we think the white might be a patch of frost or even snow reflecting the early sunlight, but it could equally be a structure of some sort. I don’t remember seeing it when I came with Geert in March. Perhaps it is some sort of military observation post to enable the Rwandan army to keep tabs on what’s happening down below in the Congo.

Behind Karisimbi and Vishoke we can see the summit of Mikeno, one of the three big Congolese volcanoes. Nyiragongo and Muxxxxxxxxx, the two very active volcanoes, are hidden behind Karisimbi. But we can see six of the eight peaks all lined up in front of us, all perfectly clear all the way to their summits. That’s a rare sight on any day and after all the traumas of the past few days it just feels so good to be out in the field and getting back to some mountaineering and some practical geology!

We have to report in to the ORTPN (Rwandan National Park Service) headquarters, and I have to but my permit to climb. I’m cheap this time because I have my resident’s green card as proof that I live here. Then after an intolerable wait we pile into Walt’s wagon, with Patience our guide, and set off along the bumpy track to the base of the volcano.

We set off through the potato fields, and already we are crossing lava flow after lava flow, and different textures and types of lava. Further out, the lava is porphyritic, with white, circular crystals of something inside the charcoal grey groundmass. (Why didn’t I pay more attention in my mineralogy classes forty years ago?); further up to the volcano you leave the porphyries and the lava become vesicular, with gas holes up to a centimetre across. All of this is so obvious and easy to explain, but for these children it’s the first time they’ve seen it for real. They’re so smart and can remember every definition and technical word, and you can hear the clicks as they match up what they’re seeing to what they’ve read.

We’ve almost crossed all the fields of pyrethrum flowers before it occurs to me that none of these children – nor the other two adults – understand what they are and how they’re used, so that makes another short photo stop and explanation.

Eventually we cross the stone wall which marks the boundary between cultivated land and the National Park. This wall is quite something. It’s made of drystone lava blocks, is about six to eight feet high, and stretches for miles and miles round the base of the volcanoes. It has been an enormous undertaking to build. It is relatively recent, because the original national park started by the Belgians was unfenced, and covered a much smaller area than the present set-up. After Dian Fossey’s murder, when world attention forced the Rwandan Government to get tough on poachers, the area of the park was extended by several hundred metres down the mountainside, and many families lost their homes and lands to the park. The reason for the wall is not so much to keep people out, but to keep animals (especially the dangerous buffalo and all-important gorillas) inside the park boundary. But every now and again they breach the wall, and people wake up in the mornings to find gorillas feasting on their potato plants or buffalo eating their precious cow grass!

Nobody lives within the park; it is the domain of the animals. Not just gorillas, but buffalo, hyenas, leopards, antelope, porcupines, and even elephants if the poachers and guerrillas to our West have left us any. We have three Rwandan soldiers to escort us. They’re not so much to protect us against armed rebels from across the border, but to keep us from harm from wild animals. If we are threatened with a buffalo, their orders are to shoot in the air to scare it away and only to shoot the animal itself as a last resort. In the afternoon we do come very close to some buffalo, and one of our guards is really nervous for our safety. (His name is Grégoire and he proudly shows us his identity card – in Roman and Arabic script – from his service with the Rwandan army in Darfur).

The going is extremely muddy underfoot; much wetter than it was last March. We’re being taken up the mountain a different way, presumably to minimise wear and tear on any one path. We squelch through deep mud, and have bruising encounters with giant stinging nettles. These are quite lethal, but fortunately there is a local equivalent of dock leaves to hand. If you pick the top leaves off giant lobelias they exude copious amounts of milky sap which quickly neutralises the irritation from nettle stings. At one point we have to crawl through a natural tunnel underneath a mass of fallen trees; I keep banging my head against roots above me and I’m glad I’m wearing a hat. At least it reduces the number of creepy-crawlies that fall down my neck….

As happened in March, we come across a giant earthworm which requires lots of photos. There’s plenty of buffalo dung on the path, and much of it very fresh. There are hoof prints of antelope, buffalo, and porcupine (three clawmarks clearly visible), but no fresh gorilla poo. Here and there are patches of delicate pink orchids, and even tinier blue ones looking just like vetch back home. Giant hydrangea trees loom above us, and lobelias twelve feet tall are dotted all around.

Eventually we reach the junction where the path to Dian Fossey’s grave splits from the Vishoke trail. From here on, after a short rest and drink of water, the going is steeper. After another hour we realise that we’re going to run out of time to make it to the summit. Patience says we must turn back at one o’clock. If we all stay together as a group there’s no way we’ll get there. Our two boys and Katie and Bethany are bursting to go on ahead, so we arrange that Patience, one soldier and one porter will go with them and make a dash for the top; the three adults and Cassandra will carry on until 1pm and try to find a good viewpoint on the trail so that we can take pictures. (One of the problems with the Vishoke climb is that you are so surrounded by tall vegetation that you get very little sense of altitude until you’re almost at the summit. All you get on the way up is glimpses in one direction; never a real panorama.

We plod on. I’m disappointed that I certainly won’t reach the summit, but then I’ve already done it once and my feet are hurting already. At the appointed time we make our descent, right down to the park boundary wall, and wait for a bit to give the others time to descend. On the way we pass a gorilla’s sleeping nest, complete with liberal amounts of dung. It’s not a fresh nest because the poo is very dried up and old (oh dear, how sad is this – I’m becoming a connoisseur of gorilla shit!).

We’re in radio contact with the children via their army escort, and we learn that all of them have reached the summit. That’s tremendous; they come back to us absolutely bursting with pride – it’s the highlight of their time in Rwanda so far! Later on we learn that on reaching the top, the four set off round the crater rim and made sure they actually entered the Congolese side before Patience realised what they were up to and summoned them back quickly. This gives Kersti and I a couple of seconds of queasy tummies – how would we explain that we had lost four fifths of our party, them having been arrested for entering the Congo illegally…..

But for the kids themselves it just made things even better. First they are driven to the border of Uganda and peer into the Ugandan night; less than twenty hours later they’ve actually entered Congolese territory. For Katie, whose dad is one of the security bosses at the US embassy, it’s an especial bit of daring defiance!

They’ve taken lots of photos of the crater because (unusually) there is no cloud inside it and the views are sharp. We decide that we are going to make a website all about the volcanoes and link it to the official KICS school website – this will be a nice technical challenge for them and consolidate all their geology. It also makes it less of an indulgence for Kersti and I to have had our expenses paid for the privilege of taking only five students!

We take lots of pictures of ropy lava, and I manage to find some lovely hexagonal mineral crystals in some of the lava blocks being used as field boundaries. I think they are tourmaline, but my mineralogy is so old and rusty I’m half guessing. It could just as well be hornblende or something much more ordinary. Also, there are some blocks of lava where you can see a clear gradation in the size of gas vesicles from tiny pinprick holes near the outer edge to over a centimetre across in the centre of the sample. All good geology for everyone! And yes, I know I’m a saddo to get enthused over the distribution of holes in a rock. But there you go….. The lava is trachyte (similar to basalt), and if you know what you’re looking for and look hard enough you can see just about every feature you need to make children understand how volcanoes work. In particular, everyone who comes here sees the six or eight main named volcanoes and they think that’s all there is. But we know better. By the end of the day my students can recognise literally dozens of little vents and fumaroles on the sides of the main volcanoes; many half eroded away, but plain as a pikestaff when you’ve “got your eye in”. The geology of these volcanoes is complicated and fascinating; I’ve done as much reading up in advance as I can and it’s paying off. I know, too, that I’ve got five children who are looking at rocks in a different way as a result of today!

Back at the car we rattle off down the track back to Kinigi. The afternoon storm is brewing up; we’re all constantly taking pictures as the patterns of cloud and shade creep across the volcanoes – you could take the same shot ten times in a day and every time the shot would look different, and every time it would be just as interesting.

Finally the storm breaks and thunder crashes round the peaks. We see lots of lightning, but the rain is all on the Ugandan side of the mountains. While I’m taking photos I meet a couple of Ugandan teenage girls who are also staying in Kinigi; they beg me to take their pictures, and so I do, with a promise that I’ll email the prints to them.

Our original plan is to have a geology “summing up” lesson after we’ve showered and before we eat, but we’re all too tired. There’s only one working shower, so it takes us about 90 minutes to all get scrubbed! The Kinigi staff whisk our filthy boots away to clean them – they come back good as new, except that somewhere coming down the lava blocks Kersti has lost half of the entire sole of one of hers!

Once more, by the time we’ve finished eating we’re all knackered, and just fall into our beds. One good thing about Kinigi is that we’re high up and don’t need either mosquito nets or sprays of deet.

Best thing about today – the views; being on the mountain; the views; not being stuck in Gitarama; the views!

Worst thing about today – my feet are aching…………….

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