Finally the day that we would climb the mighty mount Nyiragongo arrived. I love the gorillas, but the reason we came here was primarily to see the largest active lava lake in the world. Mount Nyiragongo peaks at 3470m and the lava lake is located about 500 meters lower, at the bottom 2km wide crater. It has erupted at least 34 times since 1882, with the most hazardous being in 1977 and 2002. In 1977, the walls of the crater fractures and the lava lake drained in less than one hour, flowing down the slopes at speeds of up to 60 km/h – the fastest recorded ever – killing at least 70 people in the villages closer to the volcano (see more here).
We left Goma and in the same direction like the day before. The sun was shining, give me hopes for good views on the top. After about one hour we reached the park’s entrance.
This time our group consisted of nine people. Dario, a Congolese and his friend from Belgium, Michael, the American pthat joined us in the mountain gorilla visit, two French, a girl from Hamburg, a San Franciscan and ourselves. We were by far the older people in the group, a bit worrying about whether we could keep up with the pace of the others.
The trek is rather hard. Starting at about 2000m, it takes about 5-6 hours to climb to the summit at 3470 meters among dense vegetation, loose gravel and sharp lava rocks. Although we traveled light, only the essentials for the night over and my camera gear, the situation called for a porter.
Our Porter’s name was Jada, father of three that does this to improve to his regular income, as there aren’t any jobs nowadays in Goma. It costs $24 per porter, but they only receive half of it. This is $12 for climbing the volcano, staying overnight and descending back with with up to 15kg on their back. Jada was very polite and extremely thankful for the $20 tip and the bag of candies for his kids. But I cannot stop thinking what people in this part of the world have to do to raise their family. He kept asking questions about how much our trekking gear cost and was very impressed with the price of our North Face pants – we said they cost $50, but they really cost about $90 – since his rain trousers cost $3,50 and his boots about a dollar more.
The climb was divided into 5 segments. The first part takes about 45 minutes along a narrow trail with dense vegetation. The climb is very smooth, on soft soil, good warm-up for what’s coming up later. After the first stop, we continued for one hour on loose volcanic gravel, along the lava path of the 2002 explosion. Climbing this part was a lot more challenging, as the slope was steeper and the volcanic rock was slippery.
About half an hour into the third segment, we entered the high altitude rain forest area. The slope got even steeper, it was more like climbing stairs rather than trekking. It did not help that it started raining heavily. We had a long half hour break to catch our breath, refill our fluids and have a bite to eat. Fortunately the rain stopped but not for long. Just ten minutes away from the third station there was a crack where the wall of the crater opened in 2002 and the lava flowed down the slopes. The fissure is still smoking, a reminiscent of what happened 15 years ago.
From there to the fourth station it was a long 90 minutes walk on ever steeper slopes – now approaching 30% – that we managed to complete with a short five minute stop. On two occasions I seriously thought about quitting.
By the time we arrived at the fourth rest area, a small wooden cabin, the rain had started pouring again heavily and we we were sweating from the intense effort of climbing. We rested for fifteen minutes in the cabin, with water dripping from innumerous cracks on the ceiling. At least we could see our final destination, a mere 300 meters away. The most difficult 300 meters that I have ever walked or climbed. It was mostly rock, slippery black rock at 45% slope. It took 40 minutes under the pouring rain to make it, with every step requiring great effort to avoid falling down the slope.
We finally arrived at the cabins, that sit on on two levels, on three meter wide platforms about ten meters from the edge of the rim. The cabins are really basic. An alpha shaped tin enclosure, 2×2 m, containing only two thin mattresses wrapped in plastic. Of course there is no private toilet, the only option being a separate cabin with a big hole in the center, located about 15 m below the lower cabins. And the only way to get there and back up, was by holding to a rope that was installed for that purpose along the slippery slope.
I caught my breath and rushed the final ten meters to the top only to get dissapointed. Due to the heavy clouds I could not see a thing. There was still daylight, so even the glow from the lava was invisible. I climbed back down praying to the gods of Nyiragongo that I did not come all this way for nothing.
I went back to the cabin as there was not much to see. We were soaking wet with sweat and the temperature was three degrees above zero. Efie was clearly suffering hypothermia and could not stop shivering in her sleeping bag. I removed my clothes and entered the other sleeping bag, thinking how stupid I was not to take a second t-shirt with me. After half an hour drying, I put back on the wet t-shirt and jacket and climbed again to the top.
This time the clouds had cleared and the mouth of hell was there in all its glory. I was sitting there, staring at the spectacle, completely numb. The feeling that I was watching the inners of the earth was overwhelming. The crater is about 2km wide and 500 meters deep. There are three balconies – platforms – that have formed and can be used by scientists to climb down to the base of the lake, using ropes. The lake itself is circular, about 100 meters wide. The molten magma forms plates that move slowly as new magma comes from underneath and erupts in light bursts, like boiling soup in a pot.
What was also amazing, was the witnessing of the the birth of a new volcanic cone about 200 meters away from the lava lake at the edge of the crater. It was about 30 meters high, rising from the crater plateau and fuming intensively. The visibility window lasted for about 30 minutes and then the clouds came back and blocked our view.
Thirty minutes later the weather cleared again and this time the spectacle was even more impressive as the night had fallen and red lava was the only visible light source. Dario had done the climb 24 times before so he was well prepared. He set up a fire right on the edge of the rim, deployed a couple of foldable chairs and sat to enjoy the show.
After half an hour of taking pictures and enjoying the views, we went back down for dinner. Our cook, Desire had already prepared some soup, with meat, chickpeas and potatoes. The hot soup soup was more than welcome as the temperature must have fallen already to zero degrees. I placed our t-shitrs over the cooking fire while discussing with Desire and his lieutenant about the situation in Congo. What he said is what we heard time and again since we came here: “si la tête est malade…” (if the head is sick). People have lost faith to the political elite and the state itself, so it is really hard for them to see af future. DRC is a failed state.
We had our last chance to see the most spectacular view on earth after dinner. It only lasted for 15 minutes since it started raining again heavily heavily and the clouds settled it again, this time for good. But I was dry and I enjoyed every moment of it. The night was a bit difficult in the sleeping bags. I could hardly get any sleep with part of the reason being the roaring noises of the volcano underneath. It is a very strange low sound, like a big animal roaring, accompanied by very low frequency vibrations. The other reason was that I could not decide whether I should pipi. Finally, I gave in, got out off the sleeping bag and under the pouring rain I unloaded next to the cabin. That did it and I managed to get three or four hours of sleep.
We set out at 6:30, to climb back down. The first 300 on were once more extremely difficult, slow and dangerous, but after this part it got easier. The problem with descending steep slopes is not with you breath but mainly with the strain on the knees and hips. After about 4 hours we were back to the base, extremely happy but awfully tired. Would I do it if I knew how difficult it was? Absolutely.
Next: The Lowland Gorillas.