(This is part four of a series on a visit to Virunga Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to see Africa’s most active volcano, Mt Nyiragongo. We pick up the story just as the lava lake first came into view. Read parts one and two and three).
When Nature gets truly stunning, I tend to put away the camera. I’ve tried to photograph things like the Grand Canyon, but always find myself thinking that a picture could never capture the enormity of being there. Nyiragongo is one of those colossal landscapes. That said, National Geographic comes close to what it was actually like:
The lava lake at the center of the volcano. From National Geographic.
The lake was 700 feet across—one of the largest in the world—with a mesmerizing kaleidoscopic surface. Black plates were cut by jagged cracks of orange, violently shifting and roiling. One moment the crust took the form of a shattered windshield, then it coalesced into a jigsaw puzzle, then a ragged map of the world. The lake roared like a jet plane taking off and emitted a thick white plume of dozens of deadly gases. "The whole periodic table is churning in there," Sims said.
Even from the rim the scientists could feel the heat. The 1800°F lava exploded from the lake in electric orange geysers, several every minute—25 feet high, 50 feet, 100 feet, bursting into evanescent arches of liquid rock morphing from orange to black in midair as they cooled. The lake seemed to breathe, expanding and contracting, rising and falling, its surface level changing several feet in a matter of minutes, spectacular and terrifying at once.
In that article, a scientist climbed down into the volcano to the shore of the lava lake to collect a sample:
As he approached the spatter cone, the lava crunched like eggshells beneath his feet. The rim was 40 feet high, the wall nearly vertical, requiring rock-climbing skills to ascend. He started up, stretching for handholds and foot placements, drenched in sweat inside the suit. When he was ten feet from the top, spotters described to him over the radio the level of the lava, where it was exploding, where it was spilling over. Conditions changed by the minute. He was five feet away. Then three. Suddenly his foot slipped, and he smelled burning rubber. Looking down, he saw his shoe melting out from under him.
But he kept going. He peeked over the top, eye to eye with the boiling lava. This was beyond science. This was personal, the culmination of a lifetime of exploration and adventure and tireless curiosity. Over the radio the emotion in his voice was palpable. "Amazing. Incredible. I'll never see anything like this again."
National Geographic’s original caption: A member of the expedition walks on the caldera's cooled lava floor, turned red by the reflected glow of the lake. "Down here you feel the volcano," says photographer Carsten Peter. "It's a low-frequency rumbling that pulses through your body—like being inside a giant subwoofer."
Throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, we stood at the rim of the volcano, entranced by the ever changing lava. As the wind shifted direction, we would either be treated to breathtaking views or enveloped with skin-tingling noxious gases.
My photo from the rim.
Much of the time at the rim was spent in humbled silence, with the occasional “I’m not even sure what to say here. Can I just say “wow” again?” There were discussions about who was getting too close to the edge and that, yes, some tourists did die recently by falling in.
We were forced off the rim when the view was obscured by smoke or the wind was too cold. I was in the minority when I suggested that building a fire was the last thing we should do (otherwise our instincts would be to want to stay by the fire and not do anything else- True? Please comment!). We cooked our dinner over the campfire and tried to find ways to dry our clothes while staying warm. I shared a bottle of “Safari Cane” (250 proof) with our porters and don’t remember much after that.