On Christmas Day, I trekked for six hours to reach the top of an active volcano. I don't really 'do' Christmas, so my annual evasion strategy began a few months ago. I'd long intended to cross Rwanda and Uganda off my global bucket list, and on hearing this a friend suggested I set aside a couple of days to visit Virunga National Park. This is known for its gorillas, but I chose its Nyiragongo trek. I checked and there was one departing on 25 December. I later learned that a former leader of Zaire had once forbidden Christmas as inauthentically Congolese.
As usual, I was apprehensive about the border. The National Park authorities hadn't been able to send me a confirmed visa but said it would be fine, my name would be on 'a list'. I spent the three-hour drive from Kigali wondering if this list would actually exist, and mercifully it did. In fact, the crossing between Rwanda and Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was one of the easiest I've experienced, certainly in Africa. My name was indeed on a list, and Virunga officials guided me through the formalities. I then spent Christmas Eve in a half-built hotel close to the border, following the first of several Ebola temperature checks.
My first (and only) reminder it was Christmas came when an official at the foot of the volcano trail wished me a 'buon Noel'. Close by was a metal sign with the park's old name of 'Albert' punctuated with bullet holes and another listing eruption dates (the last in 2002). We then organised our backpacks – I opted to carry my own, others hired porters – and set off. The rest of the group was a standard mix of Europeans, Antipodeans and North Americans. We got on well – it turns out the sort of people who want to climb a volcano on Christmas Day are of like mind.
Often I find great sights anticlimactic, but Mount Nyiragongo didn't disappoint. The last hour or so of the trek, which involved navigating slippery volcanic rock in a rain shower, had nearly finished me off, but my first glimpse of the seething, fiery mass in a distant crater immediately neutralised my fatigue. Indeed, we found it difficult to take our eyes off it, though this was made easier by occasional thick mist. We took a break for what I suppose was Christmas dinner, prepared by our chef Honore. The volcano was especially mesmerising at night, its yellows and oranges even more intense. And then we slept, in metal huts onto which more rain clattered for much of the night. It was surprisingly cold at the top.
I had emailed my mother the evening before, to wish her and my father a happy Christmas and, more importantly from her point of view, reassure them of my safety. Of the volcano she stated rhetorically: 'I assume it isn't active'. She had also been appalled to hear that my trip was to begin in Kigali, the capital city of neighbouring Rwanda. This she associated with the genocide of a quarter century earlier, though that was a long time ago. Today, Kigali is a sleepy, clean city with good infrastructure, fine restaurants and artisan coffee bars.
It is also an extraordinarily dull place, not to mention weirdly expensive (a tube of toothpaste left me £6 lighter). I'd set aside two days, assuming they would be easily filled. But after doing an afternoon circuit of the main sights – mainly related to Rwanda's tumultuously recent history – I was at a loose end. Still, I got to see the wreckage of a former Rwandan president's plane, which crashed near his home in 1994 and was swiftly used as a pretext for an extraordinary bout of violence against the country's Tutsi minority. The Hotel des Mille Collines ('land of a thousand hills'), where I stayed for a few nights, noted its role as 'a light of hope in the darkness for a terrified crowd of up to 2,000 people who were saved by the hotel opening its doors' during the genocide. History aside, the hotel was comfortable, little occupied and in need of an upgrade.
I filled an afternoon by going to see the latest Star Wars
movie in dodgy 3D at the local (perhaps only) multiplex – just me and a restless French couple. En route I'd noticed some colourful old low-rise buildings being demolished to make way for anodyne steel-and-glass structures like that surrounding my cinema. I made no judgement on this. Kigali – and Rwanda – is impatient to develop, of which an inevitable side effect will be its growing resemblance to every other urban environment on the planet. The best cities, however, are palimpsests of old and new; all that remains of colonial Kigali is Kandt House, built by a German administrator in 1907. It had been 'restored' and thus looked as if it were finished last week.
I've often been struck by how quickly countries bounce back from unpleasant episodes in their histories. I remember noticing this in Cambodia's vibrant Phnom Phen, but the same was true of Kigali and Kampala, my next stop, a chaotic yet organised city full of African modernist architecture, emblematic of the high hopes which accompanied its independence from the UK in October 1962. The capital of Uganda, however, appeared to have few colonial hang-ups. I stayed with a diplomat friend on Prince Charles Drive, not far from Philip and Elizabeth Roads. The latter had reigned briefly as Queen of Uganda between 1962-63.
At the wonderful, faded Uganda Museum (designed by the German modernist Ernst May), we discovered a life-size metal statue of King George V lying face down behind some of Idi Amin's battered old Cadillacs, almost as if the museum curators weren't sure what to do with it. Uganda, in a peculiarly British conceit, was a 'Protectorate' rather than a full colony, which meant the imperial authorities governed indirectly via local royalty. The most important was the King of Buganda, whose Mengu Palace and accompanying parliament owed much to his brief Scottish exile in the early 1950s.
The Bugandan legislature sits atop a hill at the end of a long avenue. This had already reminded me of Belfast's Stormont before my guide confirmed that King 'Freddie' had seen the plans and been much impressed. For good measure, he christened the avenue leading from his palace to parliament the 'Royal Mile'. A photograph inside the tourism office commemorated a visit of 'Queen Mother Elizabeth' half a century before. Everywhere were evocations of Uganda's colonial backstory: the modernist parliament building included a replica of the British House of Commons Chamber, while shillings – swept away by decimalisation in the early 1970s – live on in Uganda, as do Belgian Francs in Rwanda and the DRC.
I ended my Christmas escape with a day and night in the former French colony of Djibouti, a country as old as I am having achieved independence in 1977. I'd love to report that Djibouti City is so good they named it twice, but while its European Quarter wasn't without charm, it was largely a neglected, dusty place full of bored-looking citizens doubtless unenthused by the vapid political slogans I saw around the city. I left for London on New Year's Eve, already planning my next Christmas evasion strategy.
Photo at top also by David Torrance