Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Window into the Center of the Earth!

Greetings Everyone,
We're in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) exploring Virunga National Park. In addition to tracking Mountain Gorillas, the park's other big feature is a climb up Nyiragongo Volcano. Volcanoes have long intrigued us and we've climbed many but this one has a special surprise on top. Our tour began from Mikeno Lodge where we were given a backpack into which we put our things for a night at the top of the mountain: sleeping bag, warm clothes and water. The next morning we were driven to the Kibati Patrol Post at 6525-feet, the start of our hike. To reach the summit at 11,382-feet we'd have to climb 4860 vertical feet, a fact that many tourists ignore. We assembled at the base to fill out paperwork, get a porter each to carry our backpacks and to wait for the other climbers coming from Goma.

Trailhead at Kibati Patrol Post

We were a big group of 13 and along with our porters, guides, armed escorts and cooks we were quite an entourage. Our multinational team was composed of tourists from China, Botswana, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, England and the US. We got a late start around 10:45 and climbed gradually through the forest to our first break spot. 

First Break

Everyone was doing OK but we had to keep together as one group and go at the pace of the slowest member. We were fit having just trekked in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco but it was clear from the outset that others weren't as well prepared. We climbed more steeply through thinning vegetation toward our second break point. A troop of L'Hoest Monkeys crossed our path. We were in the front so got a view but most in our group never saw them. Just past our second rest stop we paused to check out a deep fissure.  Our guide explained that it was through this crack that lava escaped and started flowing down the mountain toward the city of Goma.  On January 17, 2002 the eruption was triggered by tectonic spreading of the Kivu rift causing the ground to fracture and allow lava to flow from ground fissures such as this one out of the crater lava lake at the top. The eruption lasted for one day, destroyed 15% of Goma and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Today vegetation covers most of fissure.  

2002 Fissure

Higher up on the volcano we could see Shaheru Crater which collected the lava during the 2002 eruption and gave the 400,000 people evacuated time to flee into neighboring Rwanda saving many lives.

Shaheru Crater

Nyiragongo has been identified by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior as one of 16 decade volcanoes. A decade volcano is worthy of particular study in light of their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas.


The climb became much steeper as we entered into a new zone of vegetation characterized by heather, heath, giant lobelia and groundsel. We encountered similar vegetation in the Ruwenzori Mountains to the north when we trekked there in 2003. 

Heather, Heath, Giant Lobelia and Groundsel

We reached our third and final break point at an unused shelter before beginning the steep climb to the volcano's rim. We were among the first to arrive and peered over the lip to an awe-inspiring view of the steaming lava lake about 2000-feet below!

On the Crater Rim

The main summit crater of Nyiragongo is a steep-sided pit with terraces marking the former locations of lava lakes.  Almost a mile wide, the summit crater is famous for the frequent presence of active lava lakes. In February 2016 activity intensified and a new vent opened at the base of the near-vertical crater wall outside the active lava lake on the right side as seen in the photo below.

Crater View

We settled into a tiny shelter just below the rim where we'd spent the night.

Crater Rim Shelters

Nyiragongo's fiery display comes alive after dark when you can see fountains of lava and lake crust being spewed into the air. It was hard to tell the height of these "mini-eruptions" but we guessed hundreds of feet. 

After dinner prepared by our camp cook we donned all of our layers and sat on the rim to enjoy the show. Nyiragongo's lavas are made of an alkali-rich type of volcanic rock whose unusual chemical composition makes the lava very fluid. In fact on January 10, 1977, the crater walls fractured and the lava lake drained in less than an hour. The lava flowed down the flanks of the volcano at speeds of up to 40 mi/hr, the fastest lava flow recorded to date! Tonight, the fluidity of the lava sure made for an impressive display with the ever-changing patterns on the surface of the lake.

Fiery Lava Lake View

Fortunately we brought a pair of binoculars and could really see the violent activity of the lava fountains.

Closeup View of Lava Fountains

It was as if we were peering into the fiery center of the Earth!

Peering into the Fiery Center of the Earth

Nyiragongo Volcano is associated with the Albertine rift, the western arm of the East African Rift Valley. Here the Earth's crust is weakened by tectonic movements that are gradually splitting the Somali Plate away from the rest of the African continent!  Someday a big chunk of East Africa will split away from the continent and become another island like Madagascar to the south.

Albertine Rift (Wikipedia)

We sat in awe until the constant cold winds forced us into our shelter for the night. Early the next morning the lava lake was covered in clouds of steam and we would not get another glimpse of it's immense power. The sun rose over nearby Mount Mikeno creating another awesome scene.

Sunrise Over Mount Mikeno

Around 6:30 it was time to start our long descent. I didn't mind the climb the day before but going down is so much harder on the knees and you're fighting gravity all the way. We proceeded cautiously on the upper slopes to avoid slipping on loose scree and falling.

Steep Descent on Scree

We stopped for a break halfway down for a last look at the summit of Nyiragongo and its steam plume.

Last View of the Steam Plume

We made it down without incident arriving at the patrol post around 11:00. The next group coming in passed us on our way down. We thanked our porters and guides and drove to Goma for lunch. After lunch it was time to leave the DRC and we crossed the border into Rwanda. I'm not sorry about leaving the Congo, the country faces a lot of challenges and it will be some time before tourists feel completely comfortable here. I am happy though that things were stable enough to venture into Virunga National Park to see the largest lava lake in the world!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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