As the sun begins to set, the plume of acidic mist and smoke dissipates. It reveals cracks and fissures in the cauldron of red, boiling lava that is the Nyiragongo volcano. The smoke and fumes persist throughout the day, but when night descends and ambient light disappears, Mount Nyiragongo offers a different sight. It’s a spine-tingling feeling to be standing on the edge of this volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Central Africa. This war-torn country has only in the last few years started permitting visitors like me to hike into the Virunga Mountains to visit volatile Nyiragongo, believed to hold the world’s largest lava lake.
The bubbling lava is not only at the centre of the volcano, it also emerges on occasion from fissures in the sides of the mountain. For the moment, though, Nyiragongo seems content to smoulder and bristle within its bounds. Scientists in Goma, the nearest city, monitor the volcano 24/7 for changes in heat or seismic activity. The city’s population of one million people live under the constant threat, but are determined not to let a sudden eruption catch them by surprise.
Nyiragongo is considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, both because of the unpredictability of volcanic activity, and the threat from militia activity. It is nevertheless stunning enough to make me brave the odds to come here, trek up the mountain, and camp on its ridge overnight.