Journey to Mount Nyiragongo

January 20, 2017

Everyone knows Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, the famous African mountain which is summited by thousands of tourists every year. But do you know Mount Nyiragongo in Democratic Republic of Congo? I didn't. But I recently walked up its steep slopes and slept a night at the top. And now I'll never forget it. For sheer visual impact, getting up close to this active volcano has surpassed any other experience I've had in Africa.
Virunga Nyiragongo - copyright Scott Ramsay-20

This is what Nyiragongo is all about. Mesmerising. The lava flows from the edge of the lake, towards the centre, where it flames up, spouting magma twenty metres high into the air. It's hard to think of a more hostile place on Earth, besides the coldest oceans.

The trek to the top of Mount Nyiragongo begins in paradise. Africa’s most dangerous volcano is surrounded by the greatest diversity of terrestrial life on the continent.

The walking started out easy. A path led us gently higher through rainforests decorated with hibiscus flowers. Somnolent sunlight broke through the treetops and choirs of acrobatic sunbirds flew sorties between us.

It’s hard to imagine a more fecund landscape than the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift. At its core is Virunga National Park, the poster boy for Earth’s natural wonders.

Within a radius of 100km were mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, hippos, 700 bird and 100 reptile species, at least 2 000 types of plants – and thousands of insect species, many of them unknown to science.

The landscapes range in altitude from 600 metres to over 5 000m. There are the Rwenzori mountains and snowfields in the north of the park, savannas and swamps in the central Rwindi plains, and the Virunga volcanoes in the south, near the city of Goma that lies next to Lake Kivu.

There are eight volcanoes all within 60km of each other, at the junction of DRC, Rwanda and Burundi. Together, they are known as the Virunga Mountains.

There are eight volcanoes all within 60km of each other, at the junction of DRC, Rwanda and Burundi. Together, they are known as the Virunga Mountains.

Biologist George Schaller noted that the name “virunga” comes from the Kinyarwanda word “kirunga”, meaning “high isolated mountains that reach the clouds”. It’s an apt description for this part of the photogenic Albertine Rift, and certainly fits the six dormant volcanoes (Karisimbi, Mikeno, Muhabura, Visoke, Sabyinyo and Gahinga).

But when it comes to Mounts Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, maybe the other local name – “mufumbiro” – is more fitting, and certainly less euphemistic: “the mountains which cook”.

At 3 470m above sea level, Nyiragongo is not the tallest (Karisimbi is at 4 507m). Neither is it the prettiest (Mount Mikeno is probably the most photogenic).

But Nyiragongo is definitely the meanest of them all. Since 1882 it has erupted at least 34 times. (The other active volcano Nyamuragira – just 15km to the northwest – can be volatile too: since 1894, records show that it has erupted at least 16 times.)

Both these volcanoes could have inspired Tolkien’s Mordor in Lord of the Rings. At their centres are lava lakes several hundred metres wide which spit and spew boiling rock, at temperatures of over 1 000°C. It’s worth remembering, when you’re at the top and staring into the fiery abyss, that fresh water boils at 100°C.

We had begun our trek at Kibati ranger post, near Nyiragongo’s base, just 20km north of the city of Goma. Our group of trekkers were from the USA, France, South Africa and Serbia. Four armed rangers led the way, and a host of porters trailed behind.

The further we walked, the steeper the path. Huffing and puffing, we slowly left the emerald embrace of the forests below.

Goodbye paradise. I began to wonder why we were walking up to Earth’s very own version of geological hell.

Goodbye paradise. I began to wonder why we were walking up to Earth’s very own version of geological hell.

Nyiragongo’s lava is the most viscous in the world (or is that vicious?). Because it contains so little silica, the lava is highly fluid, compared to volcanoes in, for example, Hawaii. There the lava flows at a pedestrian speed. Here, in DRC, where everything seems to be more dangerous, the molten rock can flow down the slopes at up to 100km/h.

In 1977, a small herd of elephants were trapped by lava and engulfed. Their charred bones were subsequently discovered in the rocks by volcanologists.

The last time Nyiragongo erupted was in 2002, when a 13km fissure opened in its steep southern flank. In cosmic time 2002 is just a moment ago, considering the Earth is roughly 5 billion years old.

The lava split the city of Goma in half with a river of molten rock that was up to 1km wide.

The local people in villages barely had time to get out the way. Several hundred died. The lava split the city of Goma in half with a river of molten rock that was up to 1km wide. Buildings and homes were destroyed. The airport’s runway melted. Four hundred thousand people evacuated to Gisenyi across the border in Rwanda.

Geologists were concerned that the lava, which flowed into Lake Kivu, would trigger a mass release of methane and carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, threatening several million people who lived around the large waterbody. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

But still, even though we knew all this about Nyiragongo and its malevolent ways, we trekked higher. The forest thinned out, and the ground became increasingly rocky, covered in old lava stones that had solidified after the last eruption. Tall lobelia trees stood alone here and there.

After four hours there were no plants left on the steep, exposed slopes. The abundant life below was gone, and we were surrounded by a stark, brutal landscape.

I stopped to catch my breath and looked upwards to the crater rim. A massive cloud of smoke from the crater billowed out above us, mixed with passing clouds. Several small huts perched pathetically on the crater rim.

“There are lots of mad tourists who want to sleep there,” he chuckled in broken English.

“That’s where we’re spending the night,” said Fabrice Kalushali, the lead ranger. “There are lots of mad tourists who want to sleep there,” he chuckled in broken English.

It costs US$300 to trek to the top of Nyiragongo, and I wondered what locals thought of foreigners willing to spend that sort of money on a trek to the top of a mountain that vomits out molten rock and destroys hundreds of homes and families every few decades. As it happens, US$300 is also the country’s GDP per capita, what the average person can expect to earn in a year. It’s the lowest in Africa, along with neighbouring Burundi.

After six hours, after climbing from 1 900m we arrived near the top at 3 470m, two hours before sunset. I sat down for a rest and turned to look at the view below.

We were on a throne of sorts, with a kingdom below. Mist had come in from the east. Lake Kivu in the south was bathed in painterly old-gold light. Beside it the gritty, ravaged city of Goma looked peaceful and inviting, a pleasant mirage of the colonial Belgian holiday town it once was.

Across the valley to the west were the dormant volcanoes of Mounts Mikeno, Visoke and Karisimbi. Mountain gorillas roam their slopes, but not Nyiragongo’s. There isn’t enough forest these days. Beyond were the hills of Rwanda. To the north, Uganda.

From above, it’s hard to imagine this dreamy landscape has been the epicenter of ongoing civil war for the past 20 years.

From above, it’s hard to imagine this dreamy landscape has been the epicenter of ongoing civil war for the past 20 years. Since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 the local people of Goma and the region have endured one violent event after another, some political, some geological. Several million people have died within close proximity of these volcanoes.

Still today, between three and five thousand armed militiamen and women roam Virunga and its surroundings, controlling the charcoal and fishing industries. Park director Emmanuel de Merode and his 600-odd rangers, along with Congolese army troops, have stabilised the southern sector of Virunga. In the past 10 years, more than 160 rangers have died doing their job.

Although relatively peaceful for now, things can flare up quickly, which is why tourists to the park are always accompanied by armed guards. Conservation is war, goes a saying at Virunga.

If things are volatile above ground, then below the surface it’s plainly explosive. This part of Africa is slowly being pulled apart, literally, by tectonic forces.

Continental drift is tugging the eastern Somali plate away from the rest of Africa at the inexorable rate of 6mm per year. One day, in a few million years, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania will sail off into the Indian Ocean as a very large island.

The Virunga volcanoes are the most obvious sign of the incomprehensible forces at work. And while most are dormant, Nyiragongo reminds us that continental drift is alive and kicking.

I continued up to the edge of the volcano’s rim, and looked down into the crater. Nyiragongo is unlike anything else I have seen. It’s a frightening force of nature, but utterly fascinating.

I continued up to the edge of the volcano’s rim, and looked down into the crater. Nyiragongo is unlike anything else I have seen. It’s a frightening force of nature, but utterly fascinating.

Nyiragongo means “Mother of Gongo”, a particularly important spirit to the Bahunde tribe, who believe that ghosts of the dead wander the depths of the mountain and stir the fires below. Staring into the crater, I could see why this belief is prevalent among the locals.

The rim itself is more than a kilometre wide. The cliffs at the crater’s edge drop off perpendicularly 300m, down to a broad plain of rock, then drop again 200m to another broad level. Then in the centre there’s the lake, which is about 600m wide.

Volcanologists tell us that the lava lake sits at the top of a magma pipe that extends 16km down into the earth. When you look into the burning centre, you’re gazing into the beginnings of the Earth. This is how everything started, before there were oceans, continents, dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, gorillas and humans.

The boiling rock on the lake’s surface cools in contact with the air, forming a black crust, which gets pulled by convection across the surface in large chunks. When these chunks meet each other, they churn in on each other, and send flames into the sky the size of three-storey buildings.

We were sitting at 3 400m, so as it got darker the temperature plummeted, even though we were just south of the equator and sitting a few hundred metres above the biggest barbeque in the world. The sun was gone, but Nyiragongo seemed to relish the prospect of darkness. The lava burned brighter.

Fabrice called us away from our evening entertainment. Porters had prepared a warm dinner in a tiny make-shift kitchen between the small huts. The wind picked up and we huddled in the lee of a shelter, wondering how it came to be that were eating fresh vegetable soup and chapattis with melted butter while perched on the edge of Africa’s most capricious volcano.

After dinner most of the trekkers couldn’t resist going back up to the crater’s rim. Now the lava lake was showing off, big time.

In complete darkness the molten magma is a luminous orange-red, a hypnotic hallucination that is very real indeed. Chances are most of the trekkers would never see anything like it again.

In complete darkness the molten magma is a luminous orange-red, a hypnotic hallucination that is very real indeed. Chances are most of the trekkers would never see anything like it again.

Fabrice came up to us, warning us to keep well back from the edge. There are no fences. And the rocks are loose. He told us a story of how someone had fallen into the crater below – and screamed for hours as they awaited rescue, before dying. Point taken.

Eventually the cold and tiredness of the day sent me into my small hut, where I lay awake in a warm sleeping bag listening to the growls of Nyiragongo, a constant roar from the throat of the Earth.

Travel Advice

The two-day, one-night trek to the top of Nyiragongo starts at 10am in the morning from Kibati ranger post, 15km north of Goma. The route is 7km from bottom to top, but takes between five and six hours, because of the rocky terrain and the climb in altitude from 1 900m to 3 470m. The trek down the next morning begins around 7am, and hikers can expect to be back at Kibati by 10am. Hikers should be reasonably fit and strong to enjoy it. Permit fees cost US$300. Trekkers can arrange packed meals and gear rental for an additional charge. Bottled water is included in the permit fee.

All treks are led by armed rangers. Porters are available for hire at Kibati, at a recommended rate of US$30 per porter per day. Hikers are responsible for all their own gear, but backpacks are available to rent. A warm sleeping bag, cold-weather gear and a change of clothes is important. Huts are basic A-frame, prefabricated structures, sleeping two people, with mattresses. There are two basic long-drop toilets below the huts. A camera with a wide-angle and 200mm lenses is ideal.

This article was originally published by Safarious.

Before you check out the photos below, here’s a basic one-minute video I filmed with my 500mm Canon F4 lens. It’ll give you an idea of what Nyiragongo is all about.

Virunga Nyiragongo - copyright Scott Ramsay

The starting point for the trek up to the top of Nyiragongo is about 14kms north of Goma.

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A geological map of the region, predominantly showing the two active volcanoes - Nyiragongo (the light blue) and Nyamulagira (pinkish and purple).

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Our armed ranger for the trip - Fabrice Kalushali. As a tourist to Virunga, you don't go anywhere without an armed ranger alongside you.

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Our group of hikers gets briefed by a ranger on what to expect. There are porters available to hire to carry your gear, for about US$20 per day.

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Heading off into the forest. At first, the flat terrain makes for easy walking. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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The forest soon clears away, as you gain altitude, to reveal expansive views south towards Rwanda and Goma. In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted from a side fissure on it's southern flanks, and the lava flowed at about 60km/h down the hill, reaching Goma 18kms to the south. In this photo you can see the lava path through the forest.

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An example of how the lava engulged the trunk of a tree, which subsequently burned away to leave a hole.

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The hike to the top of Nyiragongo is just 7kms but it takes five to six hours, because you start out at 1 990 metres, and climb 1 500 metres to the top, which is 3 470 metres.

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The first views of the huts at the top of the crater become visible. From this point on, you still have another hour to walk. And those plumes of clouds is sulphur gas, mixing and cooling with the atmosphere.

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We arrived at about 4pm at the top of the crater, and this was the view that greeted us. The crater is about 1,2kms wide, and about 700 metres deep.

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Everything about Nyiragongo is breathtaking and intimidating. This is just a small part of the eastern edge of the middle crater. Note the plume of gas exiting from the mini mountain. It's very hard to judge the scale of the landscape...a person would be really tiny in this photo.

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The huts at the summit of Nyiragongo, as seen from the edge of the crater, looking south towards Goma and Lake Kivu. When these huts were built, apparently every single bit of construction material was carried up by rangers and porters!

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Although the crater is located on the equator, and temperatures at Goma are warm and sultry, there was a very cold wind blowing at the top. Be sure to take warm clothing, and a change of dry clothing after your walk up, when you're bound to sweat a lot!

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Lake Kivu to the south of Nyiragongo, at sunset. The volcano's proximity to the lake is a potentially huge threat to the local people. The unstable geology and high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane could result in the lake "exploding", literally, causing massive eruptions of both gases, which could asphyxiate anyone living within a few kilometres of the lake. There's a real chance, too, of the gaseous explosions causing tsunamis.

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As the sun started going down, the lava's bright colours started to reveal themselves.

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The most important men on the trip. The cooks! The food was hearty and more than enough. The porters carried up all the food and cooking utensils...

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My friends Carishma and Gael, enjoying a hot cup of tea with their dinner.

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There's a constant low-decibel roar from the erupting lava in the lake never goes away, and it's not exactly a comforting sound!

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The colours were spectacular just after sunset...when the gas and clouds turned blue and the lava lake glowed.

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It's like watching the beginning of the creation of the Earth...on one hand, you know you're privileged to see such a sight, but on the other hand, you do feel quite a bit out of your depth. These are primal, godly, universal-sized forces at work...and it's no place for Homo sapiens, really.

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Up close to the lava. This photo taken with a 500mm lens, and cropped in to reveal the detail.

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Gael and I stayed up late into the night, to check out the lava lake. We also ate some chocolate. I think it would make a great Cadbury's advertisement.

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We couldn't feel the heat from the lava lake below us, but apparently when there is no wind, it's possible to warm your hands on the hot air rising over the crater rim.

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Early morning on top of Nyiragongo. The wind had dropped, and the sky had cleared of clouds.

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Gael and I got up early in the morning to have one last look at the crater...and interestingly, my photos from the morning were clearer, because of less gass and cloud in the air. Perhaps it had something to do with the drop in wind or the cooler temperatures.

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I took way too many photos, but I know I probably won't get up Nyiragongo again soon...

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Gael seemed more mesmerised than me with the lava lake. I put that down to his fiery Celtic roots.

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Clouds in the valley below, early morning. This view is looking across into Rwanda. This region of Africa is achingly photogenic and seems so peaceful at first glance. Then you have to remind yourself that it's been at the centre of one of the biggest losses of human life in the past century.

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The sun rises, and a new day begins. For 5 billion years, the Earth's been moving and shaking its foundations...Nyiragongo is living evidence of that.

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Even though Nyiragongo erupted through a fissure in its southern flanks in 2002, life has bounced back spectacularly. It's kind of reassuring!

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From the cauldron of the lava lake, bubbling up from the centre of the the lower slopes of the mountain, home to one of the most biodiverse and beautiful landcapes on Earth. I've never experienced such an intense contrast in Africa. The walk down takes only about two hours, but in that time, you're travelling five billion years...from the creation of the Earth to present day. Makes one appreciate how fragile and delicate our planet is, and how far life has come. It's an ineffable privilege to be here, right now, on this wonderful little Planet.

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