“Do you not have volcanoes like this in England?” A straightforward enough question from my guide, whose home – Ibirunga – is literally translated as “mountains on fire”, but I shake my head slowly. 3,400 metres high, on the summit of Nyiragongo – Africa’s most active volcano, standing on the edge of the world’s largest lava lake, I am in awe.
Virunga – as it is known to outsiders – is the oldest park in Africa. Found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is home to half of all biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been barely explored due to a violent and troubled past. But ceasefires and pioneering conservation initiatives mean there is now a chance to explore the region – home to primates and volcanoes.
Earlier that day, I left Goma, through a spectacular landscape of rolling green hills, where maize and banana plantations abound. The richness of the volcanic soil and the sheer number of people living here, mean every inch of countryside is given over to growing food. It is a sad irony that this region, which is so fertile and full of life, lies within a country associated with so much destruction.
The farther from town we travel, the more relaxed the atmosphere. Women’s colourful pagne wraps (known as kikois and kangas elsewhere) stand in stark contrast to the lush, green vegetation. They stop and wave as I pass, children playing at their feet. It is an idyllic scene and one that is hard to reconcile with the images of the DRC I am used to, but the UN bases and decaying anti-aircraft guns I pass are a stark reminder of the fragile peace that exists.
Arriving at Nyiragongo Headquarters, later that same morning, we are welcomed by the head ranger, who asks for our official permits and passports before we sign in. We are then given a backpack filled with brand new equipment, courtesy of the park. There are excellent quality sleeping bags, a whole outfit of merino-wool layers, waterproofs and down jackets – all so good that I leave my own gear behind.
After a briefing in French, we are about to begin our ascent, but – almost falling down the path – come two fellow travellers. Returning from a night on the summit, they look in bad shape. Seeing our worried looks, they turn to us in passing and say simply: “It’s tough.” Before collapsing into the back of a waiting 4WD, and promptly falling asleep.
Undeterred, our small group head out, following the path through the lower levels of the park, over a challenging terrain of loose, volcanic rock. The scenery changes from high forests, mountain meadows and gnarled trees, through to Afro-alpine vegetation, dotted with yellow and pink flowers.
After a number of stops, to take on water and eat our (delicious) packed lunch, we reach our last resting point before the final 200-metre ascent. Looking back out across the valley is spectacular, a prehistoric land of forest and river, dotted with villages. Goma is being swallowed up by the vegetation that surrounds it, with Lake Kivu glowing orange in the afternoon sun.
The final push is tough, a steep hike across solid rock, devoid of any vegetation, providing little shade or comfort and hard under our aching feet. With the summit in sight and steam billowing from the top, we find reserves of strength and race up to the lip of the caldera. Breathing hard, we peer over the edge.
We can hear the lava, like a distant storm, but can see nothing. Thick cloud and steam obscure the view. As the wind blows, we catch a tantalising glimpse of the glow, but the clouds are rolling in for the night, the sun setting and the temperature beginning to drop.
Feeling somewhat deflated, suddenly hungry and tired, we retreat to our mountain huts, where a hot tea sates our thirst and a pot of stew boiling over a small coal fire makes our stomachs rumble. After dinner itself, we huddle around the fire for warmth. Head torches are adjusted, hats and gloves pulled out and the mists began to clear.
Hoping for a better viewing, we scramble over the path, the moon casting shadows on the jagged rocks, and tentatively walk to the edge. The sight is dizzying. We look down into a two-kilometre-wide crater. Hundreds of metres below is a 300-metre-wide sea of glowing lava.
The surface of the lake is a kaleidoscope of black plates. Boiling and rolling, they split into jagged cracks of orange, liquid rock crashing against the caldera walls, sending bright orange geysers shooting into the air. It is mesmerising. For almost two hours, we watch the ever-changing lake, the glow reflecting on the volcano walls. Finally, we retreat to our huts for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.