On the 14th of July my friend A, (who I met in Kigali at the start of trip) and me dared to hike one of the one of the most active volcanoes – The Nyiragongo to see the world’s largest lava lake. Read on to find out more…
“ Beautiful and brooding, locals in Goma fear and respect the power of Nyiragongo Volcano. Having destroyed half the city in 2002, the volcano certainly deserves its reputation. Those who do undertake the five-hour climb are rewarded with views into the earth’s smouldering heart and the world’s largest lava lake from the crater’s rim. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, watching the fiery glow of the lava light up the night sky is a wickedly surreal, if slightly unnerving, experience.”
– Lonely planet.
When I read this I had goosebumps. But nothing I read had prepared me mentally, emotionally, spiritually or physically to experience the sheer magnificence of this beautiful beast called the Nyiragongo.
The previous day A and me went to the local super market and stocked up on food for the trek – peanut butter, bread, eggs, nut bars, chips, couscous. We rented sleeping bags and got our hiking permit. We were super excited! I was bit nervous as I had heard that it was a difficult hike, just how difficult we were about to find out!
The next morning we woke up early, packed our backpacks and left for base camp. This was in Virunga National park, we were happily driving through the park when all of a sudden I saw something behind the clouds in the distance. It was the Nyrigongo! Now apparently, this mountain is very easily visible from Goma but the previous week that I had been here, thanks to the dry season dust and clouds in the air I hadn’t caught a glimpse of this beauty yet. But now, there she was, emerging from behind the clouds like a mighty whale. My jaw dropped and I felt a shiver run down my spine! We were going to climb this!? A wave of nervousness, fascination and excitement washed over me and I suddenly felt super awake!
Soon we were at base camp. Thankfully there were only two more hikers with us (there could have been 12 more). A and me were quite curious about them and based on the information we had at hand we tried to guess who they would be. We concluded that they would be tourists (not working in DRC, as it was a Friday), from the U.S or around and mid 30’s. We were not far off; our fellow hikers were a very sweet, super interesting young couple from Canada, who were on a trip around the world, making a stop over in DRC to climb the volcano! This was going to be fun! So along with the 4 of us, there were 2 porters – J and P and 2 guards – Y and Pt. with big guns and machetes. (Apparently the mountain is also known, from time to time to house rebels, bandits and others that we would not want to run into.) After a short security briefing – (stay in the group, do not do this if you are pregnant, there will be 5 short breaks before reaching the top)and a picture, we’re off!
The first hour and a half is quite an easy walk through a closed forest, we are all happily talking, telling each other ‘our stories’, enjoying the sights and smells and soon it is the first break. We sit down, have a bit of water oblivious of the next steps… the mountain seems close enough now. The second part is a bit more difficult, soon we are walking on black gravel and the small rocks. We are informed that this is lava from the past volcano in 2002. There are big holes in the ground at some places, we’re told that those used to be trees that were now burned away. We’re climbing altitude fast, I’m starting to pant and puff and soon it is already time for break number 2. This time we find ourselves in an open space with small lava rocks scattered around. I am happily lying on a bench examining a rock when suddenly a few large drops of water come tumbling out of the sky.
But it doesn’t seem cause for worry yet so we stay put. I realize that I don’t have a raincoat, no one told me I had to get one and moreover its dry season, its not supposed to rain, is it? Big mistake!
We continue the hike and first it starts drizzling, – I love the rain so I’m getting happy! Then its raining a little harder – I’m still mesmerized – beautiful mountain, forest all around, we are warm from the hike and the rains are cool. Doesn’t seem so bad. But soon enough, the shower turns into pouring, torrential rain and suddenly it’s not so pleasant anymore. We are hiking up the mountain, there are a lot of bushes but not so many trees to take cover under, and soon we are all completely drenched so we continue anyway. Water is flowing in small streams all around us, we’re getting tired, the hike is getting more difficult, the rocks are getting bigger and the summit doesn’t seem anywhere close by. One of guards first gives me a climbing stick to help me and upon seeing that it’s not working, he gives me his hand, making it a little easier to climb. About an hour later, its still pouring and we come to pause number 3. It’s starting to get cold and we’re all tired – we sit down, have something to eat and drink and hope that the rain will go away. After 20 minutes the rain doesn’t seem to have reduced but we’re getting cold, so we decide to keep moving. This part is super difficult, I’m exhausted, my bones hurt from the cold and my sweater is heavy, but taking it off means getting more cold! But we have to keep going, the guard grabs my hand and I let myself be dragged on for a bit, pushing my limits, fighting the cold and all the pain. I keep looking at the top of the mountain, breathing and reminding myself that’s what its about.
*You can do this. Come on Srush* is playing on repeat in my head. After what seems like forever we come to a small hut, this is pause number 4. We run inside, its super cold and damp and we’re all standing shivering and panting. The guides try to cheer us up by singing and dancing and encourage us to move to keep the cold away but my feet are numb and I cant move!
After 15 minutes they say, okay lets do this, the last part. Pause 5 is at the top! And the best part is we can already see the tents on the summit. Small, white tents seducing us from the distance. But the rocks between us and the tents look so huge, steep and monstrous. There is a strong smell of sulphur in the air and the high altitude means its colder. Look at the tents, almost there, 45 minutes! I am almost dead. I am so tired, I cannot walk. Cold and wet. Pushing my limits I make small steps to the top. Soon the guides realize that I don’t look good, my lips are blue and my skin is white! They exchange a few worried glances and one of the porters runs to the top. He drops off the bags and runs back down. I am instructed to get on his back, I do as told and soon he is making his way up still slowly but faster than I could have done myself. My fellow hikers, who are actual hikers and marathon runners are at the top already, exhausted but cheering me on. In all this chaos on the guides thinks it would be a good idea to take a picture that I can show my friends! I am like – seriously!!?? But too weak to protest I agree. Funnily enough even in that condition I smile for the camera!
Once at the summit, all of us try to get out of our wet clothes, but tada! The bags are drenched are so are our clothes! I have one warm shawl that has managed to stay dry in the middle of my bag. I wrap myself in it and roll up into a ball inside my tent, shivering like a leaf in the wind. My friends seem better off than me (they had rain jackets, at least they were not completely soaked) run around to get some charcoal and make a fire. After what seems like a very long time, someone gives me a pant and a shirt and in a few minutes I am sitting by a small but warm fire. I can finally think again – an hour and a few cups of soup later, I feel like myself again.
Having regained some energy I climb up to the edge of the crater to see the reason I put myself through all this – the lava lake and all is see is a few spots of orange in a cloud of white smelly sulphur! It still looks pretty but I’m like – You gotta be kidding me. This is what I almost died for? (I do have a flair for drama) We’re reassured by the guards that it will get better in the dark and we come back and have seat by the fire waiting for it to get darker.
An hour later, the sky is orange and only gets brighter as the sun is setting. We climb up the rock and lo and behold, there it is! The world’s largest lava lake, bubbling and boiling – glorious and beautiful. The cold makes us run back to our little fire and we’re told that around 20h it’s going to be at its best. So we wait. At the right time, we gather some blankets and climb the rock once again and oh the magnificence. Gasps and screams and words of praise escape our lips. There it is in all it’s splendor. I sit on a small bench put there for precisely this moment and stare mesmerized by the orange lake of fire in front of me. I can’t take my eyes off. Its pitch dark everywhere else except for this bright orange lake gurgling and growling in a gigantic hole in the ground. There’s something almost sacred about it. It’s like looking at the stars and realizing how small you are, only a million times more intense. This goddess in the ground seems so mighty, so majestic and so alive. One can’t help but bow down in reverence. I stay up there for a long time till I feel the shivers coming back on…. With one more look to last me a lifetime, I rush back to the tent.
Despite the loud wind and yet another downpour of rain, I pass out and don’t wake up until 6 am the next morning.
It is cold and grey when we wake up and the lava lake is covered in a white cloud once again, almost as if the previous night had been a dream. We pack our stuff and head down again. A few hours downhill it seems like it is going to rain again and I have no plans of getting wet again (I already had a terrible cough that made my lungs hurt) so I grab a porters hand and started running down the mountain, I almost twist my ankle a few times, but I don’t care. I just want to be down. We run non stop for an hour at some points I feel like I am flying – shouting from exhilaration and exhaustion! Finally we get to the point where we started and I could cry! Whoooooo… my body just gives away and I lie there in the grass feeling completely spent, proud and accomplished. So dead and yet so alive. I’m in love with the Nyiragongo!
Hiking the most active volcano in the world was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life, but it was also the most worth it .