Nyiragongo volcano, Congo
One of Africa's (and the world's) most active volcanoes, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo
, and one of only a very small handful that features a (near) permanent lava lake in its crater. In fact this is currently the most active lava lake in the world – and it's surely one of the greatest shows on Earth put up by Mother Earth herself … although many would say it's more like staring into the mouth of hell (cf. Darvaza
The present lake has formed within the concentric terrace remnants of larger previous lava lakes, which drained in the eruptions of 1977 and 2002, respectively. The present lake is some 250 m in diameter and lies ca. 550 m below the crater rim. The depth of the lake varies, and is believed to have been as much as 600 metres at times, though currently it is certainly less than that.
The crust forming on the surface is thin and constantly breaking and shifting, which makes for a zig-zagging pattern of orange in between the black. Exploding bubbles of lava frequently throw material about, sometimes as high as onto a ledge above (though never high enough to endanger people watching the lake from the crater rim). Gas vents from the bubbles – which at the same time keeps the show going. Thanks to prevailing easterly winds, though, the viewing point on the crater rim is often unobstructed. It's obviously most spectacular at night when the red-hot lava glows the brightest. The glow of the crater can even be seen in the surrounding area from many miles away.
Apart from being an infernal spectacle of the very highest order, Nyiragongo has also earned its classification as a dark site in the natural disaster department: its eruptions have affected the nearby town of Goma
, killing dozens if not hundreds of people and leaving tens of thousands homeless after lava flows engulfed part of the town's residential areas.
It is in fact possible to climb the volcano right up to the crater rim, camp overnight on a ledge just below, and view the glowing crater lake from there all night long. Several operators offer such hikes with various durations of the stay by the crater rim – some just stay up there for a few hours before heading back the same day, but the real thing is to stay at least one night.
Since the security situation in the Congo
is volatile (to say the least), these tours are offered from Rwanda
– and require guides and security guards along the way. By no means should such a tour be undertaken independently.
"Volcano Discovery" offers several trips a year; these include three days on Nyiragongo with options to combine this with gorilla trekking in the Virungas National Park. The Rwandan operator Amahoro Tours, based in Ruhengeri/Musanze, near the Rwandan Parc National des Volcans (PNV), also offers combinations of gorilla trekking (in the PNV) with shorter excursions to Goma
Prices obviously vary according to the length of the trip and how much is included. For a ca. 7-day full-on trip expect to pay around 3000 USD per person (plus international flights to/from Kigali
); shorter excursions will naturally cut less of a hole into one's budget. But cheap it is not – unless you dare organizing things on the spot (which at least used to be possible for the intrepid).
The hike up to the crater rim also requires a decent degree of fitness (the upper part of crater slopes are quite steep for a stratovolcano, though not so steep as to require mountaineering gear) and takes 5-6 hours each way, most of it through the jungle, until you get to the rocky upper parts of the crater. Overnight on the volcano is in simple tents without facilities. It's kind of an expedition rather than a walk in the park, for sure, but doable for anyone with average mobility and stamina.
The organized tours have only recently resumed – and may at any time be called off again, should the situation in war-torn and militia-tormented Congo
worsen. It's advisable to monitor the developments in this part of the world closely when planning, and before setting off on such a trip.
The volcano itself is well monitored by volcanologists, and upcoming eruptions are allegedly predictable with a fair amount of accuracy. So the health and safety risks when climbing the volcano, at times when this is allowed, should be minimal compared to the man-made instability in the surrounding region …