Nestled within central Africa’s heart is a captivating sight reminiscent of scenes from fantasy novels: the Nyiragongo volcano. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), this volcanic marvel boasts a lava lake reaching blistering temperatures over 1000°C, resembling a fiery pot within the devil’s kitchen. As the world’s largest enduring lava lake, its depths could easily fill 2,500 Olympic-sized pools.
Constantly erupting since 2002, Nyiragongo is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Its continuous eruptions force bubbling lava to surface, creating a soundscape similar to cascading waterfalls, further animated by intense explosions hurling molten rock skyward. “It is a powerful reminder of Earth’s living essence,” remarks volcanologist Benoît Smets.
The true essence of this fiery abyss is unveiled during nightfall. Hidden occasionally by vapor clouds, on clearer nights, the glowing lava pool paints the sky in vibrant shades of orange, revealing the beauty of its churning depths. Not far from the Rwandan border, the volcano’s silhouette looms over Goma, merely 18km away. To the city’s residents, this behemoth is both a source of awe and trepidation.
Ruth Umurungi, Nyiragongo’s premier female guide, articulates the city’s complex relationship with the volcano. While the volcano’s potential to wreak havoc remains an unsettling reality, it also bestows economic advantages by drawing tourists, scientists, and media. This dual character of Nyiragongo is reflected in the local legends, where some consider it a dwelling for restless spirits, while others view it as a pathway for lost souls.
The stories aren’t Nyiragongo’s only treasure. Within its vicinity lies Virunga National Park, a biodiverse sanctuary and the dwelling of a significant chunk of the global mountain gorilla population. The park also houses eight volcanoes, two of which are active, originating from the powerful tectonic activities of the East African Rift.
Lava lakes like Nyiragongo’s are unique. Volcanologist Kenneth Sims explains the rarity, emphasizing the need for specific geological conditions. His daring descents into Nyiragongo’s depths have given him firsthand experience of its might and allure. “Its vastness and vibrancy are hypnotically entrancing,” he muses.
Reaching Nyiragongo’s peak, standing at 3,470m, requires an 8km hike commencing from Rwanda, culminating in DR Congo. The challenging ascent is rewarded with basic huts for an overnight stay, allowing adventurers to witness the lava lake’s nighttime splendor. Yet, the trek isn’t without perils, as the region’s instability necessitates a guarded expedition.
Despite its bewitching beauty, Nyiragongo has unleashed its fury twice in the past 50 years. The 1977 and 2002 eruptions caused significant devastation in nearby villages and Goma city, leading to the tragic loss of numerous lives. Consequently, the urgency to monitor the volcano’s activities has intensified, given Goma’s growing populace. Smets gravely notes, “Predicting the next eruption remains elusive.”
Yet, the allure of Nyiragongo remains undiminished. Volcano guide, Roger Kabale Taziviwe, who has scaled Nyiragongo over a hundred times, recommends the rainy season as the optimal viewing time. “The sensation of watching the molten lava, especially under the moonlit sky, transcends the ambient cold,” he reflects.
Nyiragongo, with its untamed power and ethereal beauty, remains a testament to Earth’s living heart and the delicate balance between nature’s creations and its wrath.