in the DR CONGO
Climbing the most dangerous volcano on Earth, to the Mouth of Hell at 3.470m,
> Hiking atop Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo in rainy November <
What were the thoughts that whirled through our heads over several years as we talked about climbing volcanoes in Congo?
Some of the impressions for sure were: Central Africa; it cannot get wilder; deep and dark rain forests; active and smoking volcanoes; war zone and unrest.
Being hooked on wild treks and peaks on the African continent, we had one outstanding climbing target in mind: The Nyiragongo Volcano which is located in a remote corner of the large and inaccessible country known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Nyiragongo has to be one the natural wonders on Earth, and here’s what makes it so unique: A relatively unknown but spectacular volcanic mountain system lies in one of the remotest parts of Central Africa - The Virunga volcanic field which includes 8 volcanoes that rise like pearls on a string from the dark jungles of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The two youngest volcanoes, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, are placed in DR Congo and are among the most beautiful and active volcanoes in the world, representing together 40% of total volcanic activity on the African continent.
All the Virunga volcanoes are beautiful and deserve a climb, however the 3.470 meter high Nyiragongo volcano truly stands out. It is a perfect cone stratovolcano with a large and permanent lava lake boiling inside its huge summit crater. First time we heard about it our immediate response was: “A lake of lava?"... "Can this be true, what is this really?”. Such lava lakes, straight out of a bizarre sci-fi movie, do really exist. They arise and forego through geological history, and lava lakes can easily disappear as a result of volcanic activity. Such lakes therefore represent short-lived opportunities for seeing boiling lava and eruptions at near hold. Currently there are only a few active lava lakes around the world including Ambryn (Vanuatu), Erta Ale (Ethiopia), and Erebus (Antarctica). Nyiragongo in the DR Congo is by far the largest and most fierce. And it rests on top of a steep stratovolcano coming out of the jungles of Central Africa; it’s as exotic and special as it can be.
The Nyiragongo lava lake is not partly molten but fluid and extremely active. With a width of 700m and a depth of 600m the lake is huge. A district feature of this particular volcano is the "old lava" that comes directly from the innermost core of our planet (in contrast to other volcanoes which has “younger” lava). In effect, the Nyiragongo lava is extremely fluid and fast moving, and the lake is therefore notorious for producing lateral lava eruptions that move fast and provoke large sounds that echo inside the deep crater. We were fortunate to spend a night on top of Nyiragongo and stare for hours into the lava play from the lake, completely hypnotized by the heat from the lake and the strange lava sounds and changing patterns and reddish colors of the lava lake. This experience was otherworldly and almost inexplicable to describe. Knowing that the lava comes from a vent which leads to the inner core of the Earth, and thus represents the complete natural history and origin of our planet billions of years ago, added an additional philosophical dimension; we were literally staring into a time machine and the birth of planet Earth.
The climb of Nyiragongo was tougher than expected and the round-trip from the Congo border to the mountain top took a few days. Getting to the foot of the mountain was adventurous and wild in itself and DR Congo was not a safe place to be in. Eastern Congo is a longstanding war and conflict zone. We therefore strongly recommend to engage with a tour company that can arrange everything. Luckily we met a local guy inside Congo that took us around the Goma area for some days, enabling us to visit local markets and going out in the evening. We can witness that in this area of Congo, next to the volcano, the locals party like there is no tomorrow - and if Nyiragongo erupts, as it has done many times in the past century, this might indeed be the fatal outcome.
After climbing the volcano we traveled down the Lake Kivu area and crossed back into Rwanda. This part of Africa is a phenomenal place and Nyiragongo is perhaps the wildest volcanic climb on our globe. It’s one of the few mountains, together with the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, which we simply have to experience one more time.
Topographic map of the amazing 8 volcanic Virungas. Courtesy of Geo-Risk in Central Africa .be
After arriving in the DR Congo, crossing the border at 7 AM from Rwanda, we bought food for the Nyiragongo trek at the local market in Goma city. Later in the morning we were picked up by folks from the Virunga National Park who took us by 4x4 to the foot of the mountain.
Goma was built on volcanic stone after the 2002 eruption. Volcanic stone left from the disaster is used to build roads and roundabouts, and is cheaper than brick or cement. Otherwise all wreckage is salvaged to re-build the city.
We were guarded by soldiers in the Virunga National Park. First excuse for a need for protection (which is mandatory) was wild animals, but we had read up on it and could understand that it's due to local militias and frequent kidnappings in the war-thorn area of East Congo.
We drive 1 hour North of Goma where the trail to the summit starts. The climb takes 5-8 hours dependent on stamina and level of fitness
We had around 10 carriers to bring gear and food for the summit
The crater rim can be seen in the distance. One lady, the blond girl sitting in the picture, was a French volcanologist that joined the trip
And view to the small shelters which we slept in
Karisimbi Volcano in Rwanda can be seen in the background
The main volcanic edifice is composed by a 1.3 km-wide central crater