One night in 1986 heavy rain pounded the land around Lake Nyos in Cameroon. A local health care worker named Emmanuel Ngu Mbi took shelter in the village of Wum and slept. The next morning he hopped onto his bicycle and began pedaling. He saw an antelope lying dead along the path, and then rats, dogs, other animals. At the next village he was astounded to see dead bodies everywhere.
Overnight a cloud of carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air, escaped from a fault, a volcanic vent that ran under the lake. The carbon dioxide displaced the air, crept along the ground and in all, some 1746 people and all their livestock were asphyxiated. This was what geologists call a limnic eruption.
Mt. Nyiragongo erupted on 22 May and scientists predict a further eruption which could come, as eruptions often do, with earthquakes. Mt. Nyiragongo looms over the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda at 11,385 feet, abutting the Congolese town of Goma and a short distance from the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi. Perhaps 750,000 people live in the area, and around a million more at the other end of the lake, in the DRC’s Bukavu.
Both Goma and Gisenyi share a pretty shoreline along Lake Kivu, a deep lake at the bottom of which lie layers of carbon dioxide and methane. Should any kind of disruption sufficiently disturb these lower layers, say, an underwater landslide brought on by seismic activity caused by Nyiragongo, accumulated, released gases could create clouds of CO2, like at Nyos. Mt. Nyiragongo is perhaps a dozen miles north of Lake Kivu.
Should that happen, limnologist Sally MacIntyre of the University of California, Santa Barbara says, “it would be completely catastrophic.” Whereas the Lake Nyos eruption released about a cubic mile of carbon dioxide, scientists reckon Lake Kivu contains 300 cubic kilometres.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of residents of Goma and Gisenyi are on the move because the military governor of Congo’s North Kivu province, Lt. Gen. Constant Ndima Kongba said Thursday,
“Based on … scientific observations, we cannot currently rule out an eruption on land or under the lake. And this could happen with very little, or no, warning.”
Larger than life writers always have that one extra experience, the one that puts your trip to shame. Lawrence Ferlinghetti did when, having achieved the Russian east coast via the Trans-Siberian railroad, he was ordered clear back across the continent because of paperwork. His calamity leaves most of us with nothing to say about our own, more ordinary trips.
If you want to write about the world, you still have to do the trips. You have to see for yourself what better writers were describing. You have to go, so you see how they say what they say.
Doing trips yourself is a way to stretch a little, to stand in the great explorer’s footsteps. You need to go to a few ends of the earth. Throw rocks in the Straits of Magellan. Stand and consider how odd it is that the nearly Antarctic tip of South America came to be known as Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Imagine being as far from home as Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, sailing to a place no European had ever seen and spotting huge bonfires onshore, where tribes called Yaghan and Ona kept fires constantly stoked for warmth.
The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing. They smeared seal fat over their bodies to fend off the wind and rain and cold. Canoeists adept at navigating the straits’ channels and tributaries, they hunted the sea. Three centuries after Magellan, Charles Darwin wrote of the same people “going about naked and barefoot on the snow.”
The Ona lived across the strait. The books call them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin called them “wretched lords of this wretched land.”
An early European settler described life down there as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms. If I’d written a quote so succinct, I might just put down my pen right now.
At the hemisphere’s other extremity, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, you can stand on the spot where Leif Erickson’s group established a European toehold in North America. You look around, you pull up your parka and you confound yourself wondering how they possibly did it, half a millennium earlier even than Magellan.
Leif’s brother Thorvald led ashore a crew of thirty using Leif’s ship (Leif having stayed back in Greenland upon his father’s death). They found the camp Leif had established the year before and soon after they found the “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit in Greenland. Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.”
One day Thorvald’s men came upon nine skrælings sheltering under upside-down skin boats and killed all but one. The next morning an armada of canoes advanced from the sea, and Thorvald cried: “We will put out the battle-skreen and defend ourselves as well as we can.”
The explorer’s men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: in the legend, he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”
The next time you’re bleeding out, imagine yourself exclaiming “it will prove a mortal wound to me.” The most erudite Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home.
Since few writers are among the world’s great explorers, we look for shortcuts. Here are four:
– Go places that are frightening, places that hold the narrative promise of a horror movie. This is the daily work of war correspondents, but short of that, you can plant yourself somewhere that scares you and tell its story. It was Ryszard Kapusinski’s entire career.
Tim Butcher’s book following Graham Greene through Liberia scared me. So did my own trip to Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinean capital, a city riven, debilitated then and now by crime, despair and pointless violence. Port Moresby is the only capital city in the world not connected to anywhere else in particular by road. Port Moresby swelters alone.
The Germans, Dutch and Australians colonized the coasts of PNG, but they all assumed there was negligible value inland, over the hills, until the 1930s, when a group of Aussies disappeared over the rim and emerged with eyes wide as saucers and incredible stories of cannibalism and fantastic wildlife.
We flew from Port Moresby into the highlands to see about that for ourselves, and that story is told elsewhere on 3QD.
– Visit borders. These can be rich with material, places where central rule frays, or even invites disdain, areas in a cultural stew with neighboring lands, places where multiple traditions and overlapping sets of rules apply.
The Soviets drew borders specifically to splinter ethnic groups’ power. Contemporary China’s Tibetan and Uyghur regions and the rich tribal mix on Yunnan’s southern frontier illustrate the Chinese proverb: shan gao huangdi yuan, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.
– Go places people don’t understand. These offer no prospect of merit in themselves, but at least they haven’t been over-described. A burst of early twentieth century exploration of the Balkans yielded a rich vein of literature from the likes of Rebecca West, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Olivia Manning. The region went quiet under Tito, until there came a full-on invasion of young writers who narrowly missed the Soviet collapse and determined not to miss the Yugoslav one.
Such was the wealth of post-Tito Balkan literature that I came to feel I knew Mostar and its bridge, Srebrenica and its atrocity, and Sarajevo’s airport tunnel before I arrived in Sarajevo in 1997, a few years after the war. This came in strong contrast to a 1993 visit to Albania. Nobody knew anything about Albania. It was Europe’s own little North Korea.
Time blurs our memory of what an isolated, eccentric, apostate state Albania was, a place where “Everything had to be ‘revolutionary,’” our Albanian guides said. “So when we were at school we had to go through what they called the revolutionary triangle. That was learning, literary training and physical labor.”
We asked about the physical labor part.
“Anything. We could go help build a building, we could do farming. Once they were building the martyrs’ cemetery. We had to carry some marble blocks and it was January and February. It was cold on top of the hill. It was terrible.” A rueful chuckle. “Also I have taken part in so many railway construction sites.”
We lingered that night over dinner in downtown Tiranë, told stories, laughed and drank raki, the Balkan brandy distilled from grapes and anise. Our friends knew the Albanian soccer coach at the next table, who’d brought the referee for tomorrow’s game with the Danes. Not a bad idea.
When it came time to leave Albania we turned up at the sea terminal in the decrepit town of Durres, where dozens and dozens of diminutive concrete slab bunkers, installed under the dictator-for-life Enver Hoxha, rose like mushrooms, right down onto the beach.
Guards outside a chain link fence admonished “Watch your things in there.” Nothing indicated what we might do but walk with the flow, dodging Bulgarian heavy trucks that threw muck up from potholes.
I held a brochure from the Adriatica Line. When the top of a ship with the brochure’s color scheme came into view, we stood in a queue. Twenty minutes and no one moved, so we made for uniformed men at a car and truck gate. They spoke Italian and German and we didn’t, but some random Albanian who didn’t speak any of it mediated, the gate wheeled back and we marched proudly forward to a bureaucrat’s table. Here, heads shook. It was not possible. Something about a slip of paper we should have gotten at Tiranë airport.
I like to think that in the end our non-retreat wore ‘em down. We had nowhere to go, we couldn’t even plead our case, so we just stood there. Eventually we got the requisite stamps and a nod to move nearer the ship. Ahead was a final queue up the ramp into the M/v Expresso Grecia.
We shuffled fitfully. The last line of Italian defense examined Albanian papers. By now it was sailing time. An imperious fellow at the top of the ramp declared our papers not in order. We would have to go back to Albania. Adriatica, it seems, kept the passenger manifest in a building we didn’t know about.
I found the building and went inside. A monster thundered at me to march right back out and come around to the window. Where she typed our names on the passenger manifest, glared, and thrust at me two long pink strips of paper. I scowled back, snatched them, and did a gleeful little scamper back to the ship. Finally, as darkness closed around the unlit harbor, we eased away in the direction of the war-racked Dalmatian coast of former Yugoslavia.
– Visit places where few others turn up. If no one has been where you’re going, no one expects what you’ll see. Few travel by cargo ship for example, about which Gregory Jaynes wrote an entertaining book, the whole point of which was that nothing happened. Xavier de Maistre wrote a pandemic-perfect travel journal of sorts, an account of being confined to one room for six weeks titled A Journey Around My Room.
I’m thinking of the time we set out for Asuncion, Paraguay from Argentina, starting at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls, across the River Parana. On the strength of Walter vouching that we’d be back in Argentina today, that didn’t require a border stop.
But really, we were driving straight through a tiny snip of Brazil for Paraguay. Walter warned we might lose our cameras if we took pictures at the Paraguayan border, but just-delivered boxed chicken dinners interested the border police more than we did. It only took about three minutes.
Disappointing, exhausted Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun before us, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling into lumps along the highway, traffic lights out, money changers in leather money belts glowering from the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then stopped again and did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. Gas money.
In Cuidad del Este you long to be in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape, litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.
The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. If you were a young man such a place, with its crisp-pressed, uniformed soldiers, must have had its enticements.
We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane westbound highway which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Pavement good enough to speed.
Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”
To start the new year on a positive note, let’s play a game. It’s called, Imagine It’s Still Anytime in the Last Twenty Years and You Can Go Anywhere You Want. For a bold first move I pick Congo.
Once we refueled in Brazzaville, capital of Republic of Congo (separate country) but so far, the closest we’ve made it to the Democratic Republic of Congo is behind the camera in this photo of Goma, North Kivu province, taken from across Lake Kivu, at the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, Gisenyi, Rwanda (photos).
Now comes word of a new Serena Hotel in Goma, just across the border. Goma hasn’t had much in the way of non-hostel-type accommodation up to now. Most visitors to Goma seem to be aid workers, UN personnel and journalists. Until now. You could pair your Goma visit with a visit to see the gorillas in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, staying at Mikeno Lodge.
Difficult man? Probably. Pretty much nobody says not. But whether or not you’d enjoy his company at your next ice cream social, V. S. Naipaul’s fictional Kisangani in A Bend in the River sticks with you.
Just a little thing that happened five or six years ago in Uganda. A Congolese Border Tale:
Whenever I read a story with news like this: “Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have taken a major border post after clashes with government troops….” I think about a visit to a safari camp in Uganda a few years back, just near the border with Congo. It was small, only ten tents. The proprietor, a stereotypical grizzled white African character I’ll call Dave, said he’d take out three of the tents and only have seven if he had his way but he was only working for the man, just like everybody else.
This place was down along a river, nice location. Oil had been discovered in the ground nearby, but recently enough that not a lot had been done yet; They were still mobilizing to get at it. Just over a ridge was the Congo border.
A four-wheeler drove up and Dave went to see. Came back after a while and told us it was the head of military intelligence for this sector. Said he drops by to buy a beer now and then, but of course the beer’s on the house. The military man makes every visit a “family visit” (Dave sticks quotes up in the air). This time he brought his wife, last time his sister.
I give them some beers, maybe a bite, and we visit a half hour, Dave says. Even though you have to do it, it’s not a bad idea. I mean, it’s calm over there now (thumb in the direction of the DRC), but it only takes them three or four days to cook up a civil war.
Not that this isn’t the safest place you can be, right here. Because it is, he thinks. They’ve got all the oil guys here. They’ve doubled the military presence. Never be the same. Still, it’s good to have a phone number for the head of military intelligence.
Uganda is one of my favorite of the countries Donald Trump characterized rudely. Really a pretty place with nice, easy-going people. There are more photos in the Uganda Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
Reasonably well-read people will know that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after spending time in Congo. Maybe you didn’t know Conrad only made one trip up the river and on returning to Leopoldville, before even leaving the colony, wrote
“Decidedly I regret having come here. I even regret it bitterly….”
Most people will also have the vague knowledge that Congo produced rubber. Maybe you didn’t realize how perfectly nasty that business was.
“You had to go into the rainforest, your feet squelching deep into mud and standing water, hoping not to step on a snake, ears pricked for the rustle of leopards a pounce away. You had to pick out a rubber vine in the vegetable tangle, then shimmy up its stalk to a point soft enough that you could slice it to release the sap. It was faster just to cut a vine in half, but because that killed the vine, the state forbade it. You had to wait for the creamy liquid to drop into your pot, then wait for it to thicken and gum into latex. The easiest way was to smear the sap over your body. Once it dried, you could tear it off your skin (taking your hair or skin with it, if needed) and roll it up into balls. It could take days to fill your basket with enough tough, gray pellets to satisfy the state or company agent.”
Get yourself a copy of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff and you’ll learn much more. Ms. Jasanoff opens and closes the book with some of her travels to research the book, and while those sections are brief I’d have been eager to read a whole book about her own travel.
The Dawn Watch is a fine travelogue/biography and I recommend it heartily.
There is a nice article at TheAtlantic.com today called Mountain Gorillas at Home. My gorilla photography pales before it so I will spare you of anything more than a link, below, but the area around the gorillas is interesting in its own right. Here are a couple of shots of where the Uganda gorillas live (there are also gorillas in Rwanda and Congo). This is a place called the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Strictly speaking, it’s not quite impenetrable. There is this road through it:
Adjoining the forest are heavily farmed, terraced fields. The hills are really steep, as you can see here:
We visited the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, farther down the road (See the Mountain Gorillas Gallery at EarthPhotos.com). Here are a few things I wrote at the time, when CS&W was on Typepad. I guess they ought to still work: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
And while we’re here, apropos to nothing except that I just ran across this photo, and it’s also from Uganda, here is the only galloping hippo I have ever seen:
This photo is from Amboseli, a park in Kenya famous for elephants, that my wife and I got into a groove of visiting a few times a few years ago. This is one of my favorite pictures, two friends greeting one another, querying each other, displaying obvious good will, emotions like humans.
Just now, we’re all up in ourselves here in the United States about the eclipse next Monday. Our country closes up over myopic media-driven obsessions, the eclipse for one thing and this week, for another, Trump/Charlottesville, topped today with a side of possibly Islam-tinged terror in Barcelona (cable channels can never leave ‘possibly Islamic-tinged’ alone). Sometimes it’s hard to hear from our mass media about much anything else in the world beyond our country.
Sad and evil things happen out there. From the African continent this week, where dedicated people are fighting the good fight on behalf of the non-human world, here are two:
Battles for resources, outright wars and jockeying for power never seem to stop in eastern Congo.
Four men were jailed for eight years each in South Africa on Wednesday for attempting to murder a former Rwandan general. The Kagame government in Kigali disavows knowledge of the plot, sort of.
A tweet from Anjan Sundaram (@anjansun) points to this scary story involving a Belgian prince, AK-47 fire, a British-registered company based opposite the Ritz in London’s Mayfair and ongoing efforts to save the Virunga Park – and its small population of mountain gorillas – on Congo’s eastern border.
One tiny personal anecdote from the Congo border, albeit from the much safer Ugandan side.