TO HELL AND BACK
JOURNEY TO MOUNT NYIRAGONGO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Mount Doom is not a fairy tale nor is it the creation of Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop, it is real and I have seen it with my very own eyes. And no, it is not here in The Land of the Long White Cloud but I guess you could say it is in Middle Earth – slap bang in the dark, mysterious heart of Africa. It was a terrifying sight to behold, yet awe inspiring and a thing of unspeakable beauty.
From my viewpoint on the top of the mountain, I peered into a massive dark pit, well over 1km in diameter and more than 300m deep. The near vertical sides of the crater terminated in a flat expanse of dark grey rock and dirt at the bottom, in the middle of which was a smaller hole that contained a churning, steaming lake of hot lava, perhaps 100m across. It looked like an enormous bloodshot eye as thin veins of bright lava appeared through the cracks of partially solidified material that floated on top. The huge cloud of thick smoke billowing up from it glowed red, illuminating the crater walls as dusk turned to night. The lava made an unearthly boiling sound and minieruptions occurred as it forced its way through the cracks in the floating, black debris. I could feel the heat from the lava lake radiating onto my exposed skin and the smell of sulphur was stinging my nostrils. It was like staring into the gates of hell. The locals don’t call this place Mount Doom, to them it is known as Mount Nyiragongo.
Mount Nyiragongo (3470m above sea level) is one of Africa’s most active and dangerous volcanoes. Situated in the east of the immense country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), close to the Rwandan border, it is a hotspot in more ways than one. Geologically, it lies straight in the path of the East African Rift, a massive fault line on the African plate that also created Lake Tanganyika, the longest and second largest freshwater lake in the world. It is one of eight volcanoes of the Virunga chain of mountains that is clustered around the intersection of the borders between the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. Politically speaking, the area surrounding Mount Nyiragongo is one of the most volatile and dangerous regions on the planet.
The summit of Nyiragongo lies 15 km north of the city of Goma. The recent history of Goma is a turbulent and tragic one. It was a breeding ground for two major wars between 1996 and 2003 that can be directly traced to the consequences of the Rwandan genocide. Millions of people lost their lives as government forces and rebel groups from several African states fought each other for control of the mineral rich Congo. As much as a thousand people continue to die in the DRC every day from easily preventable and treatable diseases and malnutrition, the tragic aftermath of war - the biggest since World War II. Currently, there is a large United Nations peacekeeping force in Goma to help stabilize the region. It is to the UN that I first turned when I made up my mind that I just had to climb that volcano.
I have always wanted to see the mysterious substance of lava and finally I had my chance. I suppose it is a bit like the excitement of touching snow or seeing the ocean for the first time as a child. I found myself in the tiny central African country of Burundi, there to visit my sister from Wellington who had taken up a post at World Vision in the capital, Bujumbura. It wasn’t long before somebody told me about Mount Nyiragongo, only 200km north of Bujumbura as the crow flies. The mountain had been closed to tourists for some time as it was not deemed safe and my only option was to try and accompany a UN peacekeeping patrol up the mountain as a journalist. I packed my bags and headed for Goma by bus, via Rwanda.
I got accredited as a photojournalist at the UN mission in Goma but 3 days before we were to leave for Nyiragongo, the UN called me to say that it was no longer possible to accompany them as they discovered that they don’t really have the mandate to take members of the public up the mountain. My heart sank and I thought my dream was over but then I heard from a local that the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute had recently reopened the mountain for tourists and I rushed to their office in central Goma almost immediately to investigate. One hundred US dollars later and with my permit firmly clutched in my hot little hand, I jumped on a motorcycle taxi to the local market to buy food for the 2-day trip.
Before leaving for the mountain, I stopped by at the volcanic observatory in Goma and had a word with French volcanologist Jacques Durieux. He has been studying the volcano for decades and I quickly learned why he was so obsessed with it.
Jacques told me that Mount Nyiragongo is “a very special volcano with a particular type of lava”. Like Ngauruhoe in the central North Island, Nyiragongo is a steep-sided, active stratovolcano but that is not what makes it special. Nyiragongo is one of only three volcanoes in the world that contains a permanent lava lake in its crater. The other ones are Mount Erebus in Antarctica and Erta Ale in Ethiopia. Not only that, the lava in Nyiragongo is very poor in silica and thus extremely fluid and fast flowing. Lava that erupts from the mountain can race down the steep slopes of the mountain at speeds in excess of 100 km/hr which is what makes it so dangerous and unique in the world of volcanoes. It was a drizzly Friday morning as I, two guides and a porter set off from the small village of Kibati on the eastern flank of Nyiragongo. The 3470m summit was hidden in the cloud and it was cause for concern: cloud equals no view of the lava lake, the very thing that I came to see. Both of my guides were armed with AK-47 machine guns – just in case we cross paths with a stray rebel or poacher. Our starting altitude was just below 2000m and the first 45 minutes involves walking through an overgrown track in the dense rainforest of the Virunga National Park to the foot of the volcano. Every few minutes, Christophe, the lead guide would point out the favourite plants that the peaceful and majestic mountain gorilla like to eat. Today, there are no gorillas left on the mountain but they can still be found elsewhere on other volcanoes in the park. My trousers were well and truly soaked as we emerged from the damp rainforest and onto a river of solidified lava, a result of a previous eruption.
Mount Nyiragongo has erupted dozens of times over the last century, the most recent being the 2002 eruption that spewed lava from a fissure in its flank that created a path of destruction through Goma city. Some estimates put the death toll at 150 with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes as the lava buried perhaps 4500 buildings in its wake. Had there not been an advance warning of an imminent eruption, the scale of the disaster would have been much bigger.
The rain became heavier soon after we started climbing the lava slope but we continued to make good progress. We entered a zone of ghostly, black skeletons of burnt trees – another reminder of the awesome power of this deadly volcano. At about 2500m in altitude, we reached the relatively flat area above Shaheru, a volcanic cone on the southern flank of Nyiragongo that was filled by lava from the 2002 eruption. A steaming eruptive fissure, basically a big crack in the wall of the volcano, can be seen on the side of the mountain not far from there. We re-entered the rainforest at 2800m and the track became muddy and very steep. The vegetation had changed from the lush, dense forest at the base of the mountain to one of smaller trees and shrubs, including many Erica trees that reminded me a lot of Manuka back home. After emerging from the forest once again, it was only a short tramp to our camp for the night, perhaps 250m below the summit in altitude.
The camp consisted of two shabby iron huts that were used by tourists in the 1970s. They have since been vandalized and partly destroyed by rebels frequenting the mountain and they offered little protection against the wind and rain. I pitched my tent in one of the shelters and waited. Waited and prayed for the rain to stop and the sky to clear. For 3 hours I sat there shivering in my wet clothes and I was already starting to make plans to return to the mountain in more favourable conditions. But then all of a sudden it stopped raining and the mist drifted away from the summit. It was an hour before dusk and I grabbed my torch, camera and tripod and headed straight for the crater rim with Christophe. After 20 minutes of scrambling up the rocky, scoria-strewn slope, we arrived at the edge of the abyss. There was no warning, no levelling off of the terrain, just a knife-edged ridge that signalled the end of this world and the beginning of the next. For a Chinese tourist, she did in fact enter the next world in July 2007 from the very spot I was standing. She attempted to climb down onto a small ledge inside the crater a few metres down to get a better view but slipped and fell for more than 100m onto another ledge. She survived the fall but tragically succumbed hours later before a rescue party could reach her.
I was seduced by the constantly changing patterns on the lava lake, the low rumbling noise echoing off the crater walls and the smell of toxic fumes that wafted my way. I have never seen anything quite like it and I stood there transfixed for several minutes before reaching for my camera and with shaky hands mounted the thing on a tripod and fired off exposure after exposure. Day turns into night very quickly near the equator and as it did so, the volcano underwent a metamorphosis like that of a beautiful but evil butterfly emerging from its cocoon. The play of light from the bright lava on the shifting cloud of smoke rising from it produced a spectacular show of yellows and reds. The mountain was like a living, breathing being. Every second was different from the one before as the “veins” of lava grew and shrunk, disappeared and reappeared in a different spot. It was almost like some invisible heart was pumping life into this strange creature from below. I could have stayed there the whole night and probably would have, had it not been for Christophe. He was cold, hungry and anxious that the rain and mist might return. He finally persuaded me to return and so after two amazing hours on the crater rim, we made a slow descent back to camp by torchlight, careful not to trip over a rock or slip on the loose scoria.
I was sad to leave the crater behind but it proved to be the right decision as it started to bucket down not long after reaching the relative safety of the camp. To my horror I discovered that my three companions did not bring any food with them. I parted with my can of baked beans, a bag of peanuts and some bread and I settled for a greasy can of Dubai made corned beef for myself. When the rain finally abated it was morning and time to head back down the mountain.
Back at the village of Kibati, I saw a convoy of UN vehicles pull up and two dozen peacekeeping soldiers from India and Jordan disembarked and started making preparations for their weekly “patrol” up Mount Nyiragongo. The illegal cutting down of native trees in the national park for the manufacture of charcoal is a major problem and the UN help the Congolese authorities to crack down on the perpetrators. But that was only an excuse for getting to the top of Mount Doom, to peer into its mysterious depths and come under its intoxicating spell. And who can blame them?
LAVA FROM THE 2002 ERUPTION DESTROYED MANY BUILDINGS IN GOMA AND KILLED DOZENS OF PEOPLE.