I was startled to see it perched at the lip of the volcano's rocky summit: a small cross marking the spot where one visitor tragically slipped from the crater's edge and plummeted to her death.
Below, the mesmerizing lava lake that drew her here several years ago — an awe-inspiring vision of hell — still gushes bright orange fountains of magma like a bleeding wound in the earth.
Looming ominously over the eastern Congo city of Goma, Mount Nyiragongo is the ultimate symbol of death in a town it has repeatedly overrun.
But for all the danger, it's also a symbol of rebirth and resilience, not just for residents who've defiantly built homes atop its hardened volcanic flows, but for a nation still struggling to emerge from years of conflict. In March, the volcano itself became one milestone on that long path: with help from the military, park rangers cleared Rwandan militias from its slopes and reopened the summit for the first time in a year and a half.
Authorities are hoping volcano tourism will provide vital new revenue, and help project a positive new image for a region renowned for violence. Last month, 69 visitors — mainly Goma-based foreign aid workers — paid $200 each to climb the summit, according to park spokeswoman Samantha Newport.
Catastrophe and strife
Blessed with stunning natural diversity, Virunga National Park became the first wildlife park in Africa when it was established in 1925. It boasts a second active volcano called Nyamuragira, a third of the world's last mountain gorillas, hippos at Lake Edward, elephant herds trundling across golden meadows, even glacial mountain peaks.
As a journalist covering Africa, I have traveled here often over the last decade — usually to cover what the media is criticized for covering too much: bad news.
Eastern Congo, to be sure, has seen its share.
Over the past 15 years alone, it's survived apocalyptic catastrophes — hunger, disease, poverty, plane crashes, fighting, foreign occupation. I once looked out from my hotel balcony in Goma at dawn to see insurgents swarming a hilltop downtown, setting army tents ablaze as machine-gun and rocket fire rang out.
The park has similarly suffered — 95 percent of its hippos, for example, have been wiped out.
Trekking to Nyiragongo's summit never seemed prudent, or even possible.
The volcano's lush slopes have become ideal hideouts for poachers and brutal armed groups, like the Rwandan militias who fled here with millions of refugees after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Today, they are still terrorizing civilians, and chopping forests to profit from a lucrative and illegal multimillion dollar charcoal trade.
‘A God-given miracle’
When I heard tourists were actually climbing the summit a few years ago, I was shocked — and wanted to go. But by 2008, the park had closed anew, this time because a Congolese rebel group had battled its way to Goma's outskirts.
Now, clinging to the crater's frigid, 11,384-foot-high rim one recent moonlit night after an arduous, five-hour hike over solidified lava flows, it was my turn to gaze into the abyss.
I was speechless.
"It's a miracle," said our park ranger-guide, gazing into the smoky cone below. "A God-given miracle."
I had to agree.
Sprawling across the floor of the volcano's steaming cone, the lava lake resembles a colossal pie crust, its blackened surface riddled with fiery red zigzagging fissures where magma is blazing through. Its power is evident in the nonstop roar accompanying it, a soundtrack akin to the perpetual rumble of a gargantuan waterfall.
The lake surface is in constant motion, shifting slowly, splitting, sinking, consuming itself, spewing lava in prodigious gurgling fountains — a real-life Hades that's hard to turn away from.
No guard rails
Not far from where I lay hugging the rim, in high wind, the cross planted for the Chinese tourist who died in 2007 was eerily silhouetted against the crater's rugged walls, which flickered faintly red from the boiling lake below.
There are no guard rails at the summit. The cross is a warning not to get too close.
The tourist reportedly climbed onto a small outcropping just under the rim to take a picture despite park guards urging her not to. She lost her balance and plummeted onto another ledge 200 yards (meters) below.
Her body was retrieved by U.N. peacekeepers.
"One slip," I thought, backing safely away from the edge before gaining the courage to stand up.
It's hard to be here and not ponder, for a moment, your own mortality.
Nyiragongo straddles a giant fault line where the earth's crust is literally breaking apart. When eruptions occur, the lava lake typically drains, sending magma pouring through a network of fissures, some of which run underneath Goma.
The provincial capital of 600,000, to state the obvious, is doomed.
Which is why it's hard, at least for a visitor, to understand why people live near active volcanoes at all.
Especially this one.
Nyiragongo's lava is notoriously fluid: it can move at speeds up to 60 miles per hour downhill, with little warning.
And yet Goma, just nine miles to the south, is growing.
The last eruption in 2002 sent fiery ribbons streaming though downtown, killing nearly 150 people and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.
Residents not only rebuilt in the aftermath, but dramatically expanded — new shops, new homes, a hotel called Lavastone, a disco called Magma. Some have brazenly built houses atop the last hardened flows — the land is cheaper — using the lava rocks themselves as walls, fences and foundations.
Gregoire Bizige, a 46-year-old father of eight, waited years for one two-meter flow to stop steaming. When it finally did, he cleared the rock away and swiftly pitched a house upon it.
The devastation, ironically, also gave him precious work in a world where unemployment is rampant. Bizige and his family make a living breaking the lava field apart, selling the stones to passing construction crews.
It's enough, he said, to feed his kids and send them to school.
But not enough to move his family away.
"We thank God every day for today," Bizige told me, trying to explain the city's muted acceptance of the volcano it must live with. "Because tomorrow, we know it will erupt again."