Lakes of hot lava are one of the most spectacular forms of volcanic activity, but only very few are active in the world at any given time. Possibly the world’s most impressive lava lake is Nyiragongo, a stratovolcano located in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Nyiragongo is around 19 kilometers from Goma in the Virunga Mountains, which are associated with the Great Rift Valley, and is reputedly the most active volcano in the world. It is located close to the DRC’s border with Rwanda, which is just west of the border.
The main crater of Nyiragongo Volcano is around two kilometers wide and contains a lava lake. There are currently two distinct cooled lava benches within the crater walls. One of the lava benches is at around 10,400 feet altitude, while the lower one is at approximately 9,800 feet. While the depth of the lava lake has varied, its maximum elevation was recorded at 10,700 feet just prior to its January 1977 eruption.
In recent years Nyiragongo has been one of the most voluminous lava lakes. Hakuna Matata Tours is one company to which visitors can go to get details and information when planning to hike Nyiragongo volcano for themselves.
Nyiragongo Volcano and Nyamuragira are responsible for 40 per cent of Africa’s historical volcanic eruptions, giving an idea of its history of itnense activity and the kind of damage it has done in the past. (Apart from anyhting else, lava flows from Nyiragongo in 2002 spread across parts of Goma Airport’s runway, destroying some of its surface and at least two commercial aircraft have recently crashed at the airport because they misjudged the available length of its runway.)
Following a major eruption in 1977, lava lakes began to reform in the crater and eruptions occurred in 1982-1983 and in 1994. Another major eruption took place on January 17, 2002, after a great deal of seismic and fumarolic activity had taken place. Lava reached the outskirts of Goma town and streamed from three spatter cones. More than 400,000 people were evacuated from the city and across the Rwandan border.
As a result of the volcano, around 45 people died from asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and buildings collapsed. Around 15 per cent of the Goma and 45,000 buildings were destroyed and around 120,000 people were left homeless by the lava and earthquakes. It has been considered as the most destructive effusive eruption in modern history. The eruptions temporarily drained the lava lake in the summit crater while volcanic gases suffocated the heather forests on the upper slopes. Now the forest is recovering, and the wildlife is beginning to return.
However, vulcanologists are still keeping a close eye on Nyiragongo Volcano today, because it erupted again six months after the start of the 2002 eruption. Activity is ongoing, but it is currently confined to the crater. Another lava lake has begun to form around 250 meters below the level of the 1994 lava lake. While the Congo government’s goal is to keep the city and the people safe from any devastating eruptions again, it is a terrific tourist destination, offering excellent opportunities to see a live volcano.
The hike up to and down from Nyiragongo is strenuous and takes about 4 hours to 5 hours in often-hot conditions. However, the path is relatively easy and not excessively steep and there are a lot of rare birds and small mammals along the trail.
The tour starts at 8:00 a.m. A guide from Hakuna Matata Tours meets hikers at their hotel either in Goma/Congo or Gisenyi/Rwanda and there is a transfer at the supermarket, where hikers can shop for packed food for lunch and dinner.
At 9:00 a.m. the transfer departs from Goma town to Kibati village, where the climb starts and where hikers are briefed by their guide. At 11:00 a.m. the climb starts and hikers arrive at the top late in the afternoon at around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. Visitors can admire the lava lake all evening and overnight, with accommodation in tents on the rim of the giant crater high above the violently active lava lake.
Next day after breakfast at 7:00 a.m., the tour heads back down and arrives in Kibati village at around 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. There, hikers meet their driver and transfer to Goma or Gisenyi at 12.00 p.m.
Hikers should bring walking boots, a day backpack, light dressing, waterproof clothing, sunglasses, and warm clothes for the upper region of the volcano where hikers will spend the night and walking poles for hiking.
Permits to hike Nyiragongo Volcano cost $200. Hikers can hire camping equipment, book permits and arrange transportation to Nyiragongo through the tour company Hakuna Matata tours. For more information or to book, visit www.hakunamatatatours.com.