A hike to the centre of the Earth
Rumour has it that Mount Nyiragongo, home to the largest lava lake in the world, is said to attract only a small number of ballsy travellers who are looking for an extraordinary, out of this world adventure. It’s not an all-inclusive, everyday charter destination, so I suppose it does help to be a little nuts to attempt a hike to the summit.
Which is precisely why I was there, in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, getting ready to set out to explore the fascinating natural wonder of the world. I was embarking on a (relatively) safe and almost spiritual adventure to what some refer to as the ‘gates of hell’, and was sure I would be creating memories that would stay with me for a lifetime.
Gearing up for an adventure of a lifetime
The experience of a lifetime was about to begin, but the welcome sign didn’t feel all that inviting. I checked my backpack for the 87th time and took a moment to reflect: I was about to climb one of the world’s most beautiful and active volcanoes. Chills went down my spine. Had I completely lost my mind?
Once I had met up with the group I was hiking with I started to relax. Everyone seemed pretty cool. I had a chat with a few Russians not looking the least concerned – like we were about to go for a Sunday stroll in the park – and I soon realised that thankfully I wasn’t the oldest guy in this kamikaze crew. But then I had a closer look at their gear: very expensive-looking wind jackets, barometer watches and all sorts of high-tech survival gear. I looked down at my old crumbling boots. Was I ready for this?
I looked up at the volcano, but the clouds hid it. Maybe that was a good thing. Seeing its glowing, Mordor-like peak before the hike might give me second thoughts. I handed my permit to a member of staff in the office and found myself chatting with three other guys from the group, some seasoned Americans working with humanitarian aid in other parts of Africa. In other words, not your regular charter tourists.
There were about 12 of us in the group. We were coming from all parts of the world, and we were all driven here by that same lust for adventure. Our guide started to explain the rules: “Stay together. Drink a lot of water. Walk slowly. All fine”. Until now, everything sounded just like the information I had got on other, regular hikes. But what about the military guy with the Kalashnikov next to him? What was he doing here? I decided not to over-analyse it. I had already left my brain at the hotel.
From this point, there was no turning back.
And off we go!
The first segment was a warm-up stage: just a 45-minute trek over reasonably flat ground in the jungle. But the hike started at 2,000 metres, which my body found hard to acclimatise to. We made our way through dense rainforest resembling scenes from Jurassic Park. This seemed like the perfect time to chat to the people in the group, to find out where we were all from and what the hell had brought us to the Democratic Republic of Congo to climb an active volcano. Everyone looked as fresh as spring roses and smiled for the camera – but that was all about change.
After only about an hour, it was time for the first break. It didn’t feel necessary. My worries had been replaced with a false sense of bravery. I was eager to push on. I hadn’t come halfway around the world for a picnic, and I was ready for adventure! Not tea and cookies.
But when I sat down, I collected my foolish thoughts. “Don’t get cocky,” I told myself. That’s always a beginner’s mistake when attempting to climb a mountain. I started chatting with a couple from the Netherlands. Looking at their thin Converse sneakers and blue jeans, I knew that if worse came to worst, I probably wouldn’t be the first to go down.
We packed down our lunch packs and continued. We left the rainforest behind, and suddenly the lush landscape was replaced by rocks and boulders. Back in 2002, Nyiragongo had erupted from its flank, sending a two-metre high wave of lava down into the city of Goma. We were now walking on that same ground where it had all begun.
After another two hours, it was time for our second lunch break. We were halfway there. We got some more bananas, peanuts and baked cookies, and enjoyed the breathtaking views. Everyone was in a good mood, chatting and taking pictures. But then I turned around. Dark clouds came rolling in over the volcano. The rain was on its way, and I knew there was not going to be a warm, 5-star hotel waiting for us at the top.
Reenergised with fresh coffee, we pushed on. But the second segment was a real slog – it was the longest part of the hike, far steeper than the stages we’d encountered before.
We were gaining altitude rapidly now, taking huge steps continually upwards with little time for rest. Some of the guys who had initially hiked up the trail like Olympian gold medallists now looked like a bunch of panting seniors in need of their walkers. I kept looking up at the big, black clouds building up. You didn’t need to be a meteorologist to understand we were heading towards trouble.
I was starting to push myself hard now, and even though I was exhausted, the views just got better and better, and I made several stops to enjoy the stunning valley below. I almost had to pinch my arm – I was getting closer and closer to one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and it wasn’t a dream. The overwhelming sense of adventure overtook the pain in my legs. But just as I got my positive energy back, I felt a raindrop hit my head.
Rain. Just what we needed after four hours of fighting the elements. In a few minutes, the sky opened up. My feet were swimming in my soaking wet boots, and each step made a loud, slurping sound. I looked around but could hardly see the guys in front of me. The rain even got through my ‘waterproof’ poncho. Nobody said a single word as we continued with the remaining 60-minute hike to the summit. I knew I could make it – not even the volcano having a full eruption was going to stop me now.
As the skies cleared up, our good spirits returned, but now we could feel the altitude. Breathless at 3,350 metres high, an unbelievably steep climb was stretching in front of us to the top. There wasn’t much of a path to follow any longer, just a side of a volcano to scale, choosing whichever route that made the most sense; none of them any easier than the other. Up we climbed, some of us on our hands and knees, all of us taking it slow and steady, the smell of sulphur now beginning to penetrate our nostrils.
Just before reaching the top, we stopped at a small cabin to change clothes and get ready for the final walk to the summit. Our aching bodies were steaming in the cool air, and we shared the last of the baked cookies. I couldn’t forgive myself for not having followed the packing advice: Don’t forget to bring a second pair of dry shoes. Luckily, I found two plastic bags and wrapped them around my feet. Desperate times call for drastic measures.
The last part was all about determination and focus. I didn’t care about having the world’s best view behind me. And I completely ignored the fact that I was almost at the top of a volcano that only a decade ago had destroyed a whole village and put over 400,000 people on the run. The only thing I was thinking about was how to put the next foot in front of the other.
But with only about thirty metres left to the rim, my head was getting even more messed up – I could hear the ocean. Seconds later, I realised it wasn’t waves. It was the sound of the fierce, rolling lava.
Reaching the summit
There are some things you never forget. Like your wedding day (for better or worse) or when your team won that big championship. For me, seeing Nyiragongo’s crater lake was one of those moments. It was like watching an IMAX movie. I’d spent so much time planning for the adventure that now that I was finally here, it didn’t feel real. I was so in awe that I had to keep blinking to prove to myself this wasn’t a dream. I sat down on a nearby rock, inhaling the fumes, watching the sunset, and thinking to myself that this would be something I’d still remember on my 90th birthday.
“General Nyiragongo,” my guide said and smiled. “Because when he comes, everyone runs.”
But when looking down at the lava lake, I didn’t feel any fear. Just pure, bubbling joy. I started to think about what my friends were doing. Most of them were probably at work right now or stuck in traffic. Here I was, in the middle of the planet staring down into the ‘gates of hell’. It was like time had stood still here. Like we had been transported to this wonderfully weird place in time machines, back to a prehistoric era when dinosaurs roamed the planet and the continents were still taking shape. I glanced around a few times to make sure there wasn’t a T-Rex sneaking up behind my back.
Remember when you were a little kid? When playing in the sandbox was a great adventure, and everything you saw or did was a great, first-time wonder? That’s how we all felt up there. There is no better feeling than a new, overwhelming experience. As we get older, hardly anything ever surprises us. Been there, done that. But when seeing Nyiragongo with your own eyes, you turn into a little kid in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The only difference is the chocolate is 900° Celsius hot lava, and the factory is a 3,470 metre-high volcano.
Watch the video below for a taste of what you can expect…
Living on the edge
As we sat and drank hot cups of coffee together, we discussed whether you’d feel any pain if you were to fall into the sea of lava or whether you’d be obliterated in an instant.
We spoke about how this was one of the coolest things we’d ever seen and shared stories of other amazing places we’d travelled to around the world. Everyone agreed that few experiences matched up to this one.
We sat there enjoying the view as it changed every minute, and as the evening turned to night, we found the lava got so bright you were tempted to wear your shades. Funnily enough, the volcano suddenly reminded me of one giant barbecue fire – the only things we were missing were some sticks and hot dogs. As the winds calmed down, you could feel the comforting heat from the fiery turmoil. I looked around, and everyone looked like they were meditating. I think everyone would have agreed that this was one of the best coffee breaks in their lives.
Getting a closer look, the lava almost seemed to cannibalise itself as pockets of fire engulfed new areas. It looked like what one could imagine the entrance to hell to be like or a graphic, abstract painting with its distinct orange patterns. After a warm dinner of rice and beef stew, we sat at the crater’s edge and passed around bottles of the local beer.
Part of me considered sitting up on the rim for the night, shivering while watching the lava crash like ocean waves against the crater’s walls. Part of me knew I’d regret not making the most of my time in such a special place, but I also knew that I had a long climb back down the following morning, and I needed to get some rest.
A thick mist gave the next morning an illusion of calm. The descent was much tougher than I had imagined. The four-hour hike was punctuated by yelps and the sound of sliding rocks. The first section was the toughest of the day. It was the steepest part of the hike and consisted of loose lava rocks that fell away as soon as you attempted to transfer any weight to them.
Taking deep breaths, I hovered a tentative foot down, windmilling my arms in wide circles as I tested every rock with my toes. There was little way of knowing which ones would tumble away until it was too late and you were tumbling down with them.
When finally reaching back to the base camp, it all felt like one big dream. And it sure was. One big dream that finally had come true.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Björn Persson is a photographer and travel writer who’s been to over 20 African countries. His favourite destination is Kenya, but the Nyiragongo hike was one of his most memorable adventures. Besides being an avid traveller, Björn also has a degree in wildlife conservation and uses his photos as a weapon against poaching. Later this year, he will release his new wildlife photography book, The Real Owners of the Planet. A big part of the profit will go to wildlife conservation.
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