Nyiragongo Africa's Most Dangerous Volcano

When Nyiragongo calls...

— testi e foto di Francesco Pandolfo - Kailas Viaggi e Trekking / september 2017

It was February 29, 2016 and I was sitting in front of my laptop in a day like many others when there comes an e-mail from a friend in Goma: “Nyiragongo volcano is erupting.”

Goma is a city in eastern Congo Democratic Republic, geographically located at the border with Ruanda, along Lake Kivu, one of the biggest lakes of the African Rift Valley, not far from Africa’s most dangerous volcano: Nyiragongo. Inside its 300-meters diameter crater hides the biggest persistent lava lake in the entire world. This volcano is located in the protected area of the Virunga Natural Park, which is famous for hosting the mountain gorillas, a protected animal species, but, unfortunately, also for having been a battle field during civil war in Congo and for still being home to rebel troops and poachers. This giant has already threatened the inhabitants of Goma twice in the last 50 years: in 1977 and in 2002, when the lava came out of a lateral eruptive fissure on the border of the volcano, literally passed through the city and in the end flowed into the Kivu lake.

However, the new eruption is deeply different from the others: it generated from a fracture inside the crater, at the lower level, where a new lava spring created a 30-meters scoria cone with lava rivers flowing through the whole terrace and in the end pouring into the lava lake. A trip to the Virunga Park was already on schedule, the Nyiragongo eruption has simply been an excuse to move up our departure.

Our way up to the volcano
Our way towards the volcano starts from a little village named Kibati, at the borders of the rainforest, where we meet a long and colorful troop of porters who will help us with our luggage and gears and, singing, will guide us to the path, into the forest’s shadows. Arm guards are constantly escorting us, dictating rhythm and pauses during the ascent. Once out of the forest, the path follows the 2002 lava flows, becoming less and less easy. We walk on rounded blocks of rocks, sliding too many times. We see the eruptive vents from which the lava came out: deep crevices full of fern and moss that are still lazily smoking water vapor. From the top, these crevices will look like a huge wound on the side of the mountain. We keep walking, going up through lava flows of different ages. Although these rocks are extremely young, they’ve already been invaded by shrubs. “What’s the altitude?”, “3200 meters”, “Trees, orchids… Is it normal?”. Behind our backs green and boundless planes dominate the view, reaching and going beyond Lake Kivu. The ascent towards the peak of the volcano becomes more and more steep. But it’s worth it: once we are on top, at 3470 meters, the extraordinary sight of the lava lake appears in front of us. “It’s scary…”. The crater’s diameter at its highest rim is 1,5 km. The internal rock faces of the volcano descend for almost 400 meters until they reach the terrace that hosts the lava lake.

It is a mixture of emotions. The majesty and strength of the lava lake leaves us speechless and the new eruptive activity makes this place even more unique. Words, or photography, cannot express the overwhelming sensation of those moments, when you and what you’re looking at share a sense of intimacy. What you see, 400 meters below, is Mother Nature’s design, the project of our planet Earth. And it’s shouting out loud. The sounds, the noises of the rolling boil of lava. Constantly, indiscriminately, every day, every night, under the rain, under the blinding sun.

The park gives us the permission to spend the night there, in the rim, in little huts that have been renovated and now are very cozy and comfortable. The light leaves room to the shadows, and it happens very quickly on the equator: it's 6.30pm and it's already dark. The lava is so incandescent that the entire border of the crater is enlightened. What you could not see at the light of day, is now illuminated by the light of night. The smoke column rising up from the volcano becomes reddish, and in clear skies nights it is perfectly visible from Goma, reminding the inhabitants of the dangerous neighbor they have.

Inside the crater
A few days after having guided the group I have the opportunity of going back on the volcano, this time with a scientific expedition organized by a group of Italian universities together with the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO). Our goal is to descend inside the crater in order to collect rock and gas samples, which would be useful for the study and the monitoring of the volcano.

Climbing down the crater is all but easy. The terrain is unstable and we frequently need the help of a rope. But the effort is worth the result: the moment we step onto the third rim is magic, only a few meters separate us from the lava lake and the violent lava rivers coming out of the new eruptive vent. We step on warm newborn rock: it crumbles under our boots, like if we were walking on glass shards, but it’s rock, newborn rock.
Since many years the Nyiragongo monitoring project has been of great importance for the GVO. The study of the volcano’s activities and the monitoring of the evolution of its lavas lead the observatory to a better understanding of the signals, thus enabling faster warnings to the citizens of Goma in case of upcoming dangerous eruptions.

The most dangerous place on Earth? A hell of lava? A time bomb? Maybe… However, for anyone who’s seen and heard this volcano, it will always be remembered as an enchanting nature’s wonder. As the enchantment of a child listening to a fairy tale.

Kailas viaggi e trekking organizes trips and trekkings all around the world,
guided by professional guides, graduated in geology, archaeology
and natural science.