Saturday, November 19, 2011

The fires of creation

We're in Kigali, Rwanda at the moment, getting ready to start flying back to the US tonight. You may have seen images of Mt Nyamulagira erupting near Goma on Lake Kivu in eastern DR Congo, where we've been working. Although the eruption posed no threat to the city or to the gorillas in the nearby national park, it did inspire us to go see a very rare volcanic phenomenon.

Mt Nyiragongo is the tallest volcano near Goma and dominates the northern skyline. Its crater has the distinction of containing one of the world's very few lava lakes. So, a few days ago we set off with an expedition of 8 other volcano tourists, a guide, three armed park rangers, and a crew of porters, to ascend to the rim of the crater, over 11,000 feet high.

The trail winds through dense jungle, over profusions of jumbled volcanic rock, through areas mostly denuded and still recovering from the eruption nine years ago, and various other ecosystems.

At each stopping point, we were higher and higher: above nearby small volcanic cones, faraway major volcanoes, and finally above the propeller planes coming in to land at Goma's airfield. It was a demanding climb; one of the other hikers developed altitude sickness, and by the last scramble up 45-degree rock fields above the vegetation line, it was all I could do to keep hauling myself up step by step.

But arriving at the summit made it all worth it. Standing on the rim of the caldera, you can look down into a seething lake of magma almost a kilometer across and over 500 meters (1600 feet) below the rim. It's a truly profound experience, seeing the forces that have shaped the surface of the earth since before there was life on this planet.


From our vantage point a couple of kilometers away, the lake generates a sound almost like a heavy surf. The surface of the lake is a pattern of darker, slightly cooler plates that are constantly changing shape and occasionally subsumed into hundred-foot-high lava plumes. Overhead, the glow from the lake turns the column of smoke and steam orange.

We spent the night at the summit in little shelters and awoke to a brilliant sunrise over another nearby volcano. The climb down was also challenging, but it's hard to imagine a more moving sight as the goal of a two-day trek.

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At November 21, 2011 at 7:45 AM , Blogger Sonja said...

Just, wow!


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