Death of a Toenail …

After breakfast it was time to leave the boiling lava lake of Mt Nyirigongo and head down hill.

As always walking steeply down hill is easy on the lungs but hard on the legs and also the feet. Long before reaching the park headquarter it was evident that toenails would be lost . As we reached the car park we passed a group about to make their ascent, a gaiters and glove brigade … must have been gorilla trekking.

Back through Goma with its busy noisy streets and wooden bicycles (Chukudu), used for transport of whatever goods can be balanced on them) …

Chukudu, Goma

Our driver suggested that we only take photos from the moving vehicle (and only when it was likely to keep moving).

White vehicles with UN in big black letters were prominent among the traffic.

We had East Africa multi-entry visas which you would expect granted multiple entries into the three country East Africa bloc, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. It does not. It allows a single entry into the bloc, you can then wander from member to member until it expires. Visit DRC and you must buy a new visa $30.

And then you can emerge from the border post into the relative safety of Rwanda, perhaps casting a nervous look at Lake Kivu straight in front of you.

So what about all that gas. There isn’t a top on the bottle. Why doesn’t it just bubble out all the time. Well some of it does but it’s complicated …

There is a pressure gradient in the lake, well of course there is, every diver knows that. In sea water that amounts to one atmosphere every ten metres. Lake Kivu is fresh, well the surface waters are, they are recharged by surface run off. The deep springs, of volcanic origin, are saline. Saline waters are heavier, the fresh sits on top producing a stable stratification.

Gasses are more soluble at high pressure and low temperature so carbon dioxide, of volcanic origin, injected into the cold deep waters is quite happy to stay there. Bacteria convert some of it to methane, also derived from the breakdown of organic debris and a little hydrogen sulphide is also produced. The upper and lower waters aren’t mixing so the gasses just accumulate until the lower levels are saturated or an earthquake, landslide or volcanic eruption stir the waters enough to bring saturated water to a depth where the gas will no longer remain in solution. The water bubbles as though it were boiling bringing about more mixing and a catastrophic outgassing, a limnic eruption.

What if you pumped gas laden water up a pipe to the surface, extracted the methane as fuel to generate electricity, vented the carbon dioxide, returning the waste water to the lake? Great idea, but the waste water is salty and the lake has a delicate ecosystem and an important fishery. Not only are they at risk, if you bring enough salt into the upper layer the stable stratification will break down and the day will come that the limnic eruption happens anyway.

Solution, return the waste water to the deep zone.

The KivuWatt power station is doing exactly that. Here’s a link to an excellent article on the process <MIT Technology Review>. It was written in 2015, the power station has been commissioned since then and is currently producing electricity. It’s rated to produce about 26 megawatts. If all goes to plan the system should be able to provide 100 megawatts of capacity in perpetuity. It is agreed that the gas  will be shared equally with the DRC, although they haven’t as yet built a power station to make use of it.

The only alternative fuel for thermal power stations in Rwanda is imported diesel. Although, even that is cheaper than electricity in <South Australia>.

The <Paradis Malahide> is right on the lake shore. The accommodation is nice, the ambience is very nice, the service is even nicer, the gardens are lovely. If pulling the top off a beer reminds you of a limnic eruption drinking the contents helps to dispel the resulting anxiety.

We took breakfast the next morning on a little point jutting out into the lake. A Spotted-necked Otter swam past. Kites, cormorants and herons put in an appearance. A White-browed Robin-Chat approached boldly …

and the fishing boats returned from their night’s work.

At that moment all was right with the world, and it remained so until I had to get up and walk.

Nyiragongo …

To say that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a troubled history is an understatement.

It is a vast country with immense natural resources. It could be wealthy but internal division made worse by instability in neighbouring countries has led to a civil war that has cost the lives, directly or indirectly, of about 6 million people.

The warning signs are obvious, the word Democratic is on the label and if that doesn’t tell you there’s a problem the presence of a UN Peace Keeping Force surely does. And whilst that tells you there’s a problem the UN presence gives no reassurance, their track record is abysmal.

You’d have to be nuts to visit.

Since I’m nuts, why not visit Virunga National Park where 150 Park Rangers have been killed by insurgents in the past decade <National Geographic>. Five more would be killed in combat shortly after I left <defenceWeb>.

And let’s throw in the ascent of an 11,000 ft volcano sometimes called <The most dangerous volcano in the world>. Why so dangerous? Because of the active lava lake, the height of the mountain and the fact that the lava is much less viscous than lava elsewhere. In the 1977 eruption the lava traveled at speeds of up to 60 km/h (40 mi/h) the fastest lava flow ever recorded. Typically lava flows at about walking pace.

In 2002 …

A 13 km fissure opened in the south flank of the volcano, spreading in a few hours from 2800 m to 1550 m elevation and reaching the outskirts of the city of Goma, the provincial capital on the northern shore of Lake Kivu. Lava streamed from three spatter cones at the end of the fissure and flowed in a stream 200 to 1000 m wide and up to 2 m deep through Goma.        <Wikipedia>

About 15% of Goma, a city of about 1 million people, was destroyed and has since been rebuilt (about 12 feet higher than previously).

The group assembled at the Virunga National Park office at the foot of the mountain where some old shell cases had been cutely recycled.

Nous vous souhaitons une agréable  ascension

There would be twelve tourists, about ten porters and two well armed rangers to reduce the risk that our “agréable  ascension” would be to heaven.

Five hours later I was counting 50 steps before allowing myself ten deep breaths. Then fifty more steps. Our accommodation was in sight …

The last few steps were accompanied by a miracle. It was repeated every time a new person arrived. The haggard face of an exhausted mountaineer (we’d earned the title, I’m sure) would turn to wonder, their eyes would light up and an expletive would tumble from their lips.

You could warm your hands on it.

Let’s pull back on the focal length for a wide-angle view into the crater …

The hot spots played across the surface, geysers of hot lava occasionally spewed into the air, the smoke became denser or lighter. If you’ve ever lost yourself in contemplation of a fire it was a fraction of the experience that Nyirongongo’s crucible has to offer.

We dragged ourselves away for our evening meal. It was cooked in pots that had been carried up, on charcoal that had been carried up and eaten off plates etc. And tomorrow everything would be carried down again. The huts and mattresses on the floor was all that stays on the mountain.

After dark it was back to the crater rim to shoot a time lapse …

It was a cold night but the sleeping huts were not as well ventilated as the kitchen hut.

The morning brought some mist

and a beautiful sunrise over Mt Karisimbi …