When you get your first glimpse of the glowing Mount Nyiragongo lava lake, the rain, the hail, the cold, the sweat, the altitude, the jet lag, the expense, and the throbbing pain in your knee all suddenly seem worth it.
It’s a view like no other on Earth. With somewhere between 3 and 5 million cubic meters of lava running about 600 meters deep, Nyiragongo contains the biggest lava lake in the world, and it happens to be the one that allows you to stand the closest.Our guide, Daniel, picked us up in Gisenyi, Rwanda and escorted us over the border into Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He repeatedly encouraged us throughout our journey to return home and tell others that the DRC is safe for tourists, but the poster warning us about Ebola risks at the border station wasn’t terribly reassuring.Nor was Daniel’s heartbreaking tale of how Nyiragongo’s 2002 eruption cost his family—and tens of thousands of others in the city of Goma—their home. As we drove through town, Daniel pointed out houses and walls and buildings constructed with lava rocks that were expelled during the 2002 eruption. The scale of Nyiragongo’s destruction was ironically underscored by the massive amount of construction for which it provided material.Nyiragongo has eruptions every few years, and its steepness along with the high alkaline content of the lava means that a lava flow can travel at up to 60 miles per hour. Of course outrunning the lava would be a secondary concern to simply being swallowed by an exploding mountainside. And it’s difficult to predict how imminent an eruption might be, since scientists haven’t been able to properly study the volcano due to years of political conflict in the region.
We glimpsed a relic of those political conflicts when we arrived at the starting point to our hike: a sign for National Albert Park riddled with rusty bullet holes. Our guides confirmed that the holes were in fact the work of one of the many militia groups that have laid siege to various parts of the Congo over the past 20 years. The park is now known as Virunga, so I suppose it’s possible that the militia was just trying to shoot the old name off the sign to prevent confusion?We set off with Daniel, a porter, a cook, and two rangers with AK-47s, in the unlikely event we might run into rebels or poachers (seriously, though, it’s safe).
The hike started off easily enough, with a defined trail through some lush overgrowth. But after a while the trail became a bed of loose lava rocks, which played hell with our footing and wore on our soles. The altitude increased from about 6500 feet to 11,382 feet at the summit over the course of only a 5 mile trail, so it got really steep really quick, and the thin air took its toll. The lava rocks eventually gave way to dirt again, but with steeper and less-secure footholds. The ligaments on the side of my knee began to ache well after the halfway point, so one of our porters had to practically drag me up the last quarter of the mountain. Rain showers were intermittent, and once we hit the homestretch we were even pelted with a little hail. The hike is usually supposed to take between 3 and 4 hours. It took us a little over 5.
But when we peered over the edge and saw this boiling Jacuzzi of deadly tomato sauce below us, we remembered why we decided to make the climb in the first place.Photos, as usual, don’t do the scene justice. You can capture the dramatic colors and the heavy steam and the orange sprays of lava as they burst through the cooled surface. But there’s a motion to it, and a sound. It’s like staring at the ocean after a storm: violent and yet soothing. A new crack forms, molten rock springs up, a new plume of steam, and then another, and another over there…the waves churn and spew… Everyone who writes about Nyiragongo calls it “mesmerizing,” so I wanted desperately to avoid using the same word. But it’s the only one that truly fits.
The second word that comes to mind would be “cold.” The temperature dropped significantly with our new altitude and the setting sun. We huddled in a makeshift kitchen hut for warmth as our cook prepared soup, pasta, and the toughest chicken I’ve ever eaten in my life. We would be spending the night in one of a dozen or so cabins that have been built at the summit. They’re small and simple, with metal walls and roofs, and two all-weather cushions and two rubber pillows in each. We rented sleeping bags for $10 apiece, but we were wishing we’d rented heavy coats and long underwear as well.
After dark, we returned to the crater’s edge to once again hypnotize ourselves with the undulating lava lake, its fierce reds and oranges slicing through the darkness. We stayed until the cold got the better of us and then did our best to not die of hypothermia while attempting to sleep.We woke up just before dawn, hoping to catch one last glimpse of the lava lake before our descent, but the morning fog had completely obscured the view. Still, we considered ourselves lucky: Daniel told us about a German ambassador that had visited the crater for three days straight, and a heavy fog prevented him from seeing it at all the whole time.
Breakfast was eggs and tea and an orange, and soon we were on our way back down. We briefly considered the option of paying $1500 to have a helicopter take us to the bottom, rather than punish my knee even further, but we chose the cheap and painful route, which took about 6 hours with extensive help from our very patient porter.
If you’re planning a trip to Nyiragongo, be sure to physically prepare for a serious hike. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. Be sure to pack for potentially freezing temperatures at the summit, and for a night spent in a non-insulated metal box. There is what some might call a “bathroom” at the top, but it’s quite a ways downhill from the cabins, and after dark it’s a treacherous climb. The climbing permit is as steep as the mountain itself, as is the visa fee to cross into the Congo, and you should be aware that if you plan to cross back into Rwanda afterwards there is an additional $30 fee, even if you have a multiple entry Rwanda or East African visa. It’s a pain in the ass in every possible way. But when you get to the top…well, you’ll see.
Our trip marked Daniel’s 85th climb to the summit. He’s 66 years old and he was ahead of me the whole time, with a smile that never left his face. He reminded us again as we parted ways to tell people back in the States that it’s safe to travel to the Congo.
We may have been sore, exhausted, and frozen, but we survived. You will, too. Visit Nyiragongo, and be mesmerized.