While looking north in search of a sign of the Nyiragongo volcano on my first afternoon in rainy Goma, I suddenly see its lower slopes. Then, the clouds lift surprisingly quickly, and the full shape of the conical volcano with its flat top shows its menacing face. I feel admiration and awe for this mighty monster, knowing that within two days, I will hopefully be on that top myself. Suddenly, that seems like a daunting challenge. When the day of the ascent comes, I wake up to a sunny morning. Driving to Kibati on the back of a motorbike, which is right at the limits of Virunga National Park, and where the hike starts, is like zooming in on the Nyiragongo: I can see always more details of trees and rocks. Once at the staging post of the climb, the volcano looks even more impressive and rises steeply above me. I am early, sit in the sun while waiting for the other visitors, trying to soak up warmth before going up to the cold. Two girls from Norway turn up late: they have been held for hours at the border post which had taken me only a couple of minutes to pass. Together with a Canadian guy who has worked here for 6 months and who wants to see the top before he leaves in a couple of days, we make sure to put sun lotion on our skin, and after a short briefing, we are on our way at 11.15. We are at just under 2000m altitude, and the rim of the volcano is almost 1500m above us.
There are regular breaks, and although I would have preferred to hike up at once, taking the breaks, having a chat and getting to know the others a little better, turns out to be a nice and relaxing way to climb the volcano. After the easy first stretch, the thick vegetation gradually thins out, and the sights get better and better. Ahead of us, the flat rim of the volcano seems always more daunting, and the cabins that we will be sleeping in that night, far above us. The vegetation continues to change, there are flowers, there are birds, and there are always more signs of volcanic activity. Part of the trail are volcanic stones, so light they often roll away under our feet. There are strange lava formations, and trees that have been toppled over by the unforgiving lava stream. While the volcano periodically spews out its deadly lava, at the same time, it gives incredibly fertile land, which is the main reason why people continue to live on its slopes. We pass a small camp of rangers; while for a long time, the volcano was off-limits for visitors because of rebel activity, this is now under control. The only reason our two guards carry weapons, is for protection against animals here - while we are told there are antelopes, chimpanzees, baboons, and other animals around, we never see a sign of them. We pass a lower crater-shaped hill, and an opening in the earth from which the lava escaped during the last eruption in 2002. The cloud above the crater has a brownish glow: gases from the inner earth going up into the sky. The closer we get to the top, the steeper the trail becomes, and the more amazing the trees we walk under. The last part of the climb is steep and rocky, with gaps in the rocks: you have to thread carefully.
Once we have taken our cabins, which turn out to be better than I had expected, we are of course dying to finally have a look at what we came for. We get a little tour of the observation points on the rim, just above our cabins. Looking over the rim, we see an enormous crater (walking around it takes at least 6 hours according to the guide), and an inner crater from which gases are sent high into the sky. There are frequent orange balls of fire, and we hope that the visibility will stay like it during the evening. Looking back down, we see Goma sprawling at the feet of this huge monster, the northern part of Lake Kivu, some small islands in the lake, and more dramatic mountains on the Rwandan side. After having something to eat, darkness has fallen over us, and when we walk up to the rim again, the cloud above it is orange. When we look down again, it seems like we are looking straight into hell. Huge flames flare up high into the sky, the lava lake - the largest in the world - is in constant motion. It seems it opens, sending lines of fire into the sky, closing again. It is difficult to understand what exactly we are seeing below us. Sometimes, smoke blocks the view, but when it is clear, the bright orange lines of the lava, contrasting with the black spaces in between, looks like works of art. Signed: Mother Nature. It is an on-going show, spectacular, unique, raw, brutal - and we look at it in fascination. One of the guides tells us that Italian researchers actually lived close to the lower crater for 9 days - which seems completely unhealthy. The cold is not too bad, and we have good enough clothes to last for a long enough while to thoroughly enjoy the Nyiragongo show. The amazing thing: when we look backwards, we see the bright lights of Goma below, and above us, a bright sky overloaded with stars. After a night in the cabin, we go up to the rim again, to watch light fill the crater. Even though the sun rises behind clouds, this is a proper farewell of a mighty volcano.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Nyiragongo Volcano (Democratic Republic Congo). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Nyiragongo Volcano.
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