Nyiragongo Volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo: A night on fire mountain

It's 6am in Goma, near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most mornings you can see a red glow in the sky from nearby Mount Nyiragongo, one of Africa's most active volcanoes and the largest lava lake in the world.

But with a thick haze in the air, as well as one inside my head, I can't see it.

Instead I'm purging my hotel breakfast – not the most auspicious start for a climb through one of the most dangerous areas in the world.

Around Goma, banditry is rife and rebel groups are always lurking nearby. That's not all you need to worry about. At any moment, enough gas could bubble out of adjacent Lake Kivu to kill millions of people (if you don't die from the methane explosion you'll certainly asphyxiate from the carbon dioxide). And the lake lies exactly where Mount Nyrigongo is most likely to erupt.

But I'm more worried about making sure I eat breakfast again – it's not an easy hike. Maybe I'll just blame the malaria tablets (though the infamous Congolese night life may shoulder some of the blame).

I grab my pack and go.

Bob Marley's One Love pipes out of the Nissan Patrol's ageing speakers as Goma bumps by. The city was nearly wiped out in a 2002 eruption and the rebuilt city is neither pretty nor safe. UN tanks continuously roll past solidified lava flows as heavily armed peacekeepers lean nonchalantly in their watchtowers.

But I feel safe in the hands of my driver, David Nenwa.

For two hours yesterday we were stopped by a group of police, all drunk, for some imagined traffic violation. The tense stand-off only ended when David called in the back-up of six mercenaries all wielding comically large guns.

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Suddenly the infraction wasn't so severe and we were waived through.

For the climb up Nyiragongo I'm joined by three other travellers: Andreas Kieling (Germany's equivalent of Steve Irwin), his partner, and a Colombian researcher. On top of this is our extensive support crew. It seems excessive for an overnight hike, but I'll soon learn to appreciate them all.

We each have our own porter. I ostensibly take one to help support the local community but I'm secretly very appreciative. There are two guides, two extra porters, and of course the ubiquitous guards carrying AK-47s and several spare magazines each. They say it's to protect against elephants, although I'm led to believe the most likely threats would arrive on two legs.

The Colombian researcher tells me a group of five Tanzanian tourists were kidnapped just three weeks ago from the very road we drove in on.

"It's OK, they were about half an hour further along, so it's a different area," she says.

Good.

Living in Goma forces you to reconsider your definition of safety. Italian volcanologist Dario Tedesco, who has studied the volcano since 1995 with an ever dwindling supply of funds, witnessed the capture of Goma by the M23 rebels back in 2012. In August 2013, his house was hit by two rockets.

"The house was destroyed, but that's something that might happen in Goma," Tedesco said.

"They were not looking for me or for my roommates, they were looking for someone else next to us. By chance there were long, big trees that were hit by the missiles and they changed their trajectory.

"Except for that, I feel security has been always good for us. I mean nothing really to worry about."

It wasn't exactly comforting – little wonder the Australian government advises against travelling here.

Nyiragongo rises spectacularly above the jungle – it's the real Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness vision of Africa.

"It's one of the most exciting volcanoes in the world," Tedesco says. "There are probably thousands of researchers who would like to come, but they're scared to come, so they don't. We are very few. We know very little about this volcano."

It feels like one of the final frontiers, a chance to experience something truly unique.

Our hike starts at about 2000 metres altitude. The summit is 3470 metres.

No worries, I'm young and fit and I don't even have to carry my bag. "Too easy", I think, mistakenly.

We start in the cover of the jungle. It's warm but not oppressively so. I've heard horror stories of Erta Ale, an Ethiopian volcano in the Danakil Depression, literally the hottest place in the world. So I'm feeling quite happy.

I'm talking to the German Steve Irwin about the time he was almost crushed by an Anaconda and the time he was sailing down the Irrawaddy Delta when bodies started floating towards them. He's the real deal.

The going gets a bit tougher and really kicks in when we emerge from the tree cover. We follow the steep flow of volcanic rock for hours, watching the vegetation thin out as we spot more and more steam vents.

It's easy to lose your footing on the loose stones and the altitude subtly starts to make its presence known. My breathing becomes much shallower and our pace slows. There are four much-appreciated stops along the way where we munch on whatever food we could find in Goma. For me it's a couple of sausages, a hunk of locally made cheese that's actually quite good, and bananas. Always bananas.

We pass one of the vents, a deep gash torn in the side of the mountain, where lava erupted out of in the 2002 disaster after heavy seismic activity.

Less than a week before, I was shaken awake at 3am in Kigali by a force 5.6 earthquake. Is it going to erupt now? Probably not, but I've got good reason to worry.

"[Seismic] activity is what triggers, most often, the activity of the volcano," Tedesco said.

"The truth is also that with earthquakes you don't see what is going on immediately. But you will in the months after. So the activity might change very fast sometimes, sometimes very slowly."

I'm pushing myself really hard now. It just seems to get steeper and the air just gets thinner. I look behind to see one of the porters, like Atlas himself, balancing God-knows how much on his head and he's just wearing sandals. He smiles.

I'm pouring sweat and I'm panting like a dog. "He does it every day, he's used to it", I justify to myself.

The final push turns into a blur. When I reach the crater rim and peer inside the void, everything else disappears from my mind. It's like plunging into Bass Strait in winter. My periphery vision disappears and I focus solely on the profound sight in front of me.

Right there, just hundreds of metres beneath me, is a liquid conduit to the centre of the earth. I feel prehistoric looking at it.

A perfect circle in the two kilometre-wide crater is filled, almost to the brim, with a geological casserole. Bright orange lava bubbles to the top, melting the blackened crust which gets sucked back in as the new layer starts to harden like a never-ending creme brulee. I've never seen anything like this, truly.

At the crater rim, night is falling and it all becomes even more enchanting.

As the ambient light fades the lava shines ever more brightly. The lights of Goma and the vastness of Lake Kivu are behind me, the Virunga mountain range towers next to me and the wind whips all around me. Then the cold hits. At this altitude the chill sets in quickly. Overnight it could drop below freezing.

This is without a doubt one of the most astounding natural sites I've ever seen. But it's a site that has bought great tragedy and likely will again.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced following the 2002 eruption and Tedesco says it's only a matter of time before it happens again. It's a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen and yet the volcanologists there find it so hard to secure funding.

Looters destroyed their monitoring stations and they have only one seismic detector left. If the people of Goma are to rebuild properly, they need to do so without fear. And that takes more funding, part of which can come from tourism.

"We always make the same mistakes on this planet," Tedesco said.

"Investing in prevention is much easier than working on the response to a natural disaster.

"And investing in this field, it doesn't mean only that you will not spend too much when the natural disaster strikes, it means also that you will create a very interesting scientific community there that might evolve independently.

"And this is what is important really."

TRIP NOTES

TOURING THERE

Nyiragongo is best accessed from Rwanda. Many Rwandan travel agencies can organise permits, visas, transport, guides and accommodation.

Alternatively arrangements can be made directly with the Virunga National Park authority through visitvirunga.org.

This author travelled from Kigali with Umubano Tours umubanotours.com +250 782 175 174.

GETTING THERE

Qatar Airways flies from Australia to Rwanda's capital Kigali via Doha. Several hours overland transport including a border crossing is taken from there.

Alternatively the Kenyan-based Tropic Air offer luxury helicopter options.

STAYING THERE

Tours to Nyiragongo include accommodation, though bring a warm sleeping bag for the crater cabins.

Ihusi Hotel is generally considered one of the better hotel options in Goma with prices from about $US70. ihusi-hotel.net.

SAFETY

The Australian federal government advises people "reconsider their need to travel" to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have a "Do not travel" warning for the eastern and north-eastern regions (including Goma and Virunga National Park) due to the unpredictable security situation, ongoing armed conflict in the east of the country and the very high level of crime. See smartraveller.gov.au for details

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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