A Burning Ring of Fire: Climbing Mt. Nyiragongo in the Congo

We took a trip to Mordor and lived to tell the tale. That was at least what our destination looked, smelt and felt like when we were sitting at the crater’s edge, the cold wind tearing at our clothes while lava was bubbling noisily down below.

I’ve been privileged enough to have done, visited and seen many spectacular things in my life. I’ve swum with sharks, climbed the ridgelines of Hawai’i, jumped out of a plane, visited the border between North and South Korea, hung out with owls, and walked the streets of cities as diverse as Bethlehem, Vatican City, Hong Kong, and Kampala. With all of that in mind (and more), this is by far one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring experiences I’ve had.

Perched at the top of the volcano in DRC, with Goma at my back, brilliant stars above and melting rocks below, I felt both exhilarated and meditative at the same time.

But let’s start at the beginning by rewinding to 6 am that morning at the border between Gisenyi in Rwanda and Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ingrid, Ibra and I arrived in our car (more on that road trip later) to meet up with ten like-minded lunatics and a driver. We got our passports stamped, hopped in our cars and entered DRC.

After the mandatory group photo, that is:

We got a sightseeing trip through Goma, the unofficial “NGO capital” of DRC, before heading for the Virungas and our goal for the weekend: Mount Nyiragongo (3,470 m). The volcano is both beautiful and menacing as it looms over Goma. Its last eruption in 2002 claimed 245 lives and left 120,000 people homeless. As we drove through the outskirts of Goma, we passed the remnants of villages that had been more or less decimated by lava, earthquakes, and ash. It was a good reminder that the hike, while quite easy physically, had higher stakes than normal.

After clearing a security checkpoint, we reached the start point of the trail, met the porters, guards, and guides who would accompany us on the trail (the latter two groups being mandatory for most hikes in the region), and got going.

The trail starts out easy through the jungle, gradually sloping upwards. The forest is thick, humid and full of birds and insects. As we came closer to the volcano itself, the altitude gain started picking up, and by the first rest stop, we were all nice and warm again (after a relatively chilly morning). And then the climb started.

As the group split up between the fast and slow walkers, I ended up at the front with these two. We were speed-walking and jogging up the slope, much to the chagrin of the guards and guides who had to keep up with our speed. As Lorna said: “All they kept saying in French was: ‘Est-ce qu’ils sont militaries?'”

Four hours after we set off, we made our final sprint to the peak. We reached the top ten minutes ahead of the rain, snuck a brief glimpse of our destination (the lava!) and had a celebratory shot of whiskey between the three of us. We then changed out of our sweaty clothes as the rain drummed on the metal roofs of the huts that would be our shelter for the next 12 hours.

Eventually, the rain stopped, and we ventured outside again to get a hot cup of coffee-to-go before we climbed the five meters up to the edge of the crater and the smoke and lava that awaited there.

Our view was mostly, as you can see by the photos and video, a gigantic crater filled with smoke. But as the sun set, the lava became increasingly more visible. Consequently, the desire to stay at the top of the crater, despite the cold, was harder to resist. Eventually, the chef’s call for dinner made us all crawl down and into one of the huts for a delicious (and hot!) three-course meal courtesy of our hosts.

Words cannot describe how our surroundings had changed when we came out of the hut again after dinner. The grey, rocky landscape was suddenly bathed in the dark red hues of Mount Doom. Cue all of the Lord of the Rings quotes.

None of the photos I took does the magma justice, so if you want to understand the almost spiritual experience we had at the top of Mt. Nyiragongo, you’ll just have to go and visit it yourself! (Or you can watch this video.) We stayed at the edge for hours, watching rocks melt while shooting stars travelled across the night sky above.

The next morning, we arose at 5 am to watch the sunrise over Goma with Nescafe to keep us warm in the still pervasive winds.

We said goodbye to our huts, to the lava and the wind, and started the climb down as the sun rose slowly in the skies. For anyone wanting to try out this hike: Pack enough clothes, you will be freezing from you reach the top until you are at least halfway down the mountain again.

Happy campers at the bottom of the trail:

We ended the day at the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma with cold Simba and hot pork ribs. I’m already planning my return to Nyiragongo. Twelve hours with “The Smoker”, as she is known, is not nearly enough. But it’ll have to do for now.

Soundtrack: Mafikizolo ft. Uhuru – Khona