Beyond the rim, the ground dropped away sheer into a giant bowl 1,650ft deep. At its base sizzled the eight million cubic metres of molten rock we’d trekked all day to see.
The picture sharpened further as the light dwindled. By nightfall, we were peering at the lake in full cry: an 820ft-wide disc of lava latticed with crusty plates that hardened and trembled before imploding under leaping coronas of liquid fire. It was a window into the forces that shape the world — our inanimate planet at its most alive.
It might seem astonishing that a phenomenon as spectacular as the lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo could simmer away in almost complete obscurity. But two decades of war doesn’t do much for a destination’s profile.
Since 1994, when a river of Hutu refugees flooded across the border to escape reprisals over the Rwandan genocide, the Virunga National Park, in the province of Nord-Kivu, has been at the heart Africa’s Great War, the desultory conflict that’s thought to have claimed five million lives and displaced millions more.
The latest upheaval began in July 2012, not long after my own climb up Nyiragongo, when an assault by M23 rebels on the nearby city of Goma led to the park’s indefinite closure. However, in March, following a truce between insurgents and security forces in November, the park has finally reopened to tourists.
This rare piece of good news comes at what seems to be a critical juncture in the battle to save the region from threats both at home and abroad. Last month, a feature-length documentary about the region, entitled Virunga, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to widespread acclaim. In the weeks since, Desmond Tutu, Richard Branson and Warren Buffet have lent their voices to a campaign to halt the oil companies, whose recent explorations of the park the film exposes.
Against a backdrop of such ongoing turbulence, the prospect of visitors returning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo might seem trivial. But its potential as a destination is hard to exaggerate. Covering over 3,000sq miles of cloud forest and savannah, stretching from the conical Virunga volcanoes in the south to the snow-bound Rwenzori Mountains in the north, this is the oldest national park in Africa.
Plundered relentlessly during the war, it has languished on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger for the past 20 years; outnumbered and under-equipped, more than 140 of the park’s rangers have been killed in the line of duty. Tourism provides essential funds to aid their desperate fight to conserve one of the most important cradles of biodiversity on the planet. Many see it as a cornerstone of future stability.
For now, the operation is limited to overnight stays at the Mikeno Lodge and excursions to track that rarest and most feted of Central African inhabitants, the mountain gorilla (permits cost $465/£276, compared to $750£445 in neighbouring Rwanda). Soon, park administrators hope the trail leading up to the crater rim of Mount Nyiragongo, home to the park’s other great marvel, will follow suit.
“We call it the home of evil spirits,” porter Yassin had said to me that night as we stood overlooking the roiling cauldron. As the mist once again starts to lift from the surrounding hillsides, one can only hope that this time, they’ll stay there once and for all.