Few things rattle residents of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For decades they’ve lived with wars and rebellions spilling out from their jungles—all while keeping a wary eye on the mountain with a halo of smoke looming over the region.
“We call him General Nyiragongo,” says a local tour guide on a recent night in Goma, the provincial capital. “Because when he comes, everyone runs.” Here one of the world’s most volatile volcanoes poses an existential threat. Every few decades, Mount Nyiragongo showers the city in lava.
In the last few years, Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, began offering treks to Nyiragongo’s lava lake, the world’s largest. On a cool morning in May, I set off with nine other visitors, two rangers, and a team of porters to summit the 11,382-foot mountain and see it for myself.
We’re more than halfway there—nearly 7,200 feet—when the ranger stops at a deep crevasse cutting into the mountain. In 2002, a stream of lava burst from the side of the volcano, swept through where we now stand, and coated Goma in a layer of volcanic rock. Much of the city is still covered by this rubble, and lava has been integrated into everyday life in Goma. It’s built into walls and sold as jewelry—there’s even a United Nations base named for it.
After five hours, we reach the last resting point before the final stretch: a 45-minute scramble up the near-vertical rock face. We’re high above the clouds and fog drifts in front of us. Jackets are pulled out and eyes are cast wearily skyward.
I reach the top, exhausted. A dozen metal A-frame cabins cling to the mountainside, and after dropping my bags in one of them, I join the group gathered at the volcano’s edge. Mount Nyiragongo’s lava lake bubbles a few hundred feet beneath me. It seems to cannibalize itself, as pockets of fire engulf new areas. A thick fog rolls over the crater, leaving only a liquid gurgle like the sound of a waterfall.
In one of the huts, the chef is stirring pots of rice and beef stew over a fire and blasting American music videos from his phone. After dinner we sit on the single bench at the volcano’s edge and pass around oversize bottles of local Simba beer. In the darkness, the lava lake turns into a veiny pit of fire, and the mist hovering around it glows red.
Sitting at the edge of Mount Nyiragongo, a group of Kenya-based travel agents say they plan to add the trek to their tour dockets. They seem confident that even luxury travelers will be lured by the adventures offered in Virunga. One agent already has plans to fly in visitors via helicopter.
But life, like the bubbling volcano, is unpredictable in eastern Congo. We discuss rumors that a new rebellion brewing in the country’s center is part of a government plot to create chaos and stay in power. President Joseph Kabila postponed elections last year, and many fear he has no intention of relinquishing power. Even the world’s largest and most expensive UN peacekeeping mission may not be able to prevent another civil war.
A thick mist gives the next morning an illusion of calm. The four-hour descent is punctuated by yelps and the sound of sliding rocks. Mount Nyiragongo doesn’t make it easy to leave—or to live.
The volcano may be a threat, but it’s also one of the few things providing for the Congolese in this long-forgotten conflict. “He’s a good neighbor,” a local journalist explains in Goma. “He keeps our weather cool, he makes stones for us to build with, he brings people and money to our country.”
How to Take This Trip
Outfitters: For U.S. $100 you can rent a backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag, blanket, fleece jacket, and overcoat. Make sure to bring extra socks.
Food and Drink: A simple lunch and dinner are provided the first day, and breakfast is served the next morning. Bring extra snacks and powdered Gatorade to stay hydrated.
Where to Stay: Spend the night before or after at the well-appointed Mikeno Lodge bungalows at Virunga headquarters. For a taste of Goma, Lac Kivu Lodge offers a beautiful lakeside restaurant and high-quality service.
On August 1, 2017, Virunga will be opening a new tented camp, located closer to the volcano trek starting point. The new site will offer views of Mount Nyiragongo and neighboring volcano Nyamuligera.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.