Visitors to Nyiragongo’s edge, standing proudly in the Virunga Mountains on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, find a lava lake a few hundred feet beneath them. “It seems to cannibalize itself, as pockets of fire engulf new areas,” writes National Geographic journalist Nina Strochlic. “A thick fog rolls over the crater, leaving only a liquid gurgle like the sound of a waterfall.” As darkness falls, the lava lake turns into a bubbling pit of fire, and a red glow lights up the mist hovering around it. But don’t creep too close. “All of the park rangers told gruesome stories of tourists plummeting to their deaths trying to get a closer glimpse of the mesmerizing lava lake,” one traveller wrote.
There are other times, however, when the volcano seeks out death. Every few decades, Mount Nyiragongo showers the city of Goma in lava.
In 1977, the crater walls fractured and the lava lake drained in under an hour. Flowing down the flanks of the volcano at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour, it was the fastest lava flow ever recorded, overwhelming villages and killing at least 70 people.
In 2002, a 13-kilometre fissure opened on the one side of the volcano. Warnings had been issued and 400,000 people evacuated the city, crossing the border into Rwanda. About 245 people died in the eruption from asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and buildings collapsing due to the lava and earthquakes. Much of the city is still covered by this rubble, and lava has been integrated into everyday life in Goma. It’s built into walls and sold as jewelry—there’s even a United Nations base named after it.
Despite its deadly history and volatile nature, more and more travellers have sought out Mount Nyirangongo in recent years, breathlessly clamouring up its slopes for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to peer into the red glow of its lake of lava.
How to trek to Nyiragongo’s peak
Treks to the summit of Nyiragongo volcano begin at the Kibati patrol post at an altitude of 1870m. Then there’s a 1600m climb to summit at 3,470m. Park rangers, who put their lives on the line protecting the local gorillas, lead all treks and porters (unaffiliated with the park) are available for hire. The time required to reach the summit depends on the average fitness of each group, but it typically takes four to six hours to cover the 6.5km trail. Times are dependent on group speed and agility as the slowest person on the trek sets the pace.
The volcano’s lower forested slopes are home to a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, several species of monkey, the three-horned chameleon, bushbuck and a myriad of bird species.
The serene, tree-lined path quickly turns into a grueling, rock-strewn hike with beautiful views of the valley below. The ground becomes fairly unstable as you walk across loose volcanic rocks. The third section takes you across old lava flows and past steaming volcanic fissures. After entering a high forest to traverse the fourth section, the fifth and final ascent is a steep 300m to the summit.
After hours of hiking up the challenging incline, the small metal A-frame cabins at the edge of the volcano are a welcome sight. The rangers will encourage you to quickly put your bags down in the assigned cabins before making your way to the volcano’s edge.
Hikers battle the strange combination of bitter cold at the top of the mountain, the intense heat from the lava and nausea from the altitude. ‘There, nothing can really prepare you to see the bubbling surface of Mount Nyiragongo’s lava lake,” writes Leah Feiger. ‘The lava consumes itself, twisting and churning in a vaguely macabre dance. It’s beautiful, terrifying, and beyond evocative.’ The most breathtaking spectacle is saved for last, however, when the sun goes down and Nyiragongo begins its nightly glow against a backdrop of stars.
With Nyiragongo near the Rwandan border, a visit to this incredible volcano can tie in wonderfully with gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, a tour of Kigali, meeting a Batwa tribe and a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. If you have more time you can include a visit to Uganda where attractions include Murchison Falls, the Nile River and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.