R.Roscoe, M.Rietze, M. Fulle, T.Pfeiffer, N.Fischer
Nyamuragira volcano is famous for its relatively frequent fissure erupions, often accompanied by lava fountaining and extensive lava flows. It has long been a dream of most volcano photographers to witness such an eruption, yet security problems have made access impossible in recent years. The 2011/12 eruption came at a time when rapid improvements in park security had taken place. Due to its location, first visitors were soon able to access the site and post images online, which were noted with interest. However, lava fountaining usually does not last for long and most of us were waiting for the underwater volcano at El Hierro to emerge from the sea at the time, something that may still prove to be a spectacle in the future. By January, everyone was getting a bit fed up putting everything on hold for El Hierro, and it was then that further impressive images of Nyamuragira became available. Rapidly, a group of volcano photographers was assembled (thanks to the organization by Tom Pfeiffer of Volcano Discovery who has lots of experience of leading tours in the Congo) in an attempt to reach the eruption site before the activity diminished again.
After flying to Kigali (Ruanda), the group travelled to Goma (DRC) by road and then drove north to meet the rangers, porters, and other support staff needed for the about 2.5 hour walk to the camp proximal to the volcano.
After a rather brisk walk along the rough path to the camp, a rather disappointingly active cinder cone came into view, with no lava fountain to be seen. Given the low level of activity, the camp seemed rather far away. The initial consensus was that the whole situation was one in a long line of volcanophilic frustrations (well known to anyone who has tried to catch many eruptions). However, as the light improved in the evening, small pulses of activity throwing clusters of volcanic bombs above the level of the rim, and sometimes over it, could be observed and as light levels fell further an incredible intense glow illuminated the gas cloud above the crater.
From our elevated position we could also see over the extensive flow field north of the active cone, with one surface flow in particular evidently extending for many kilometers. Access to the flow was clearly not possible due to both the distance over rough recent flows and the intense heat emitted thereby which made any photos of the flows entirely unsharp. Near the base of the erupting cone the flow was channelled and we were asked not to approach the erupting cone anyway for safety reasons.
Things were looking a little more positive, yet it was clear that the initial viewing positions were photographically somewhat limiting. After extensive discussions with our rangers and with the park authorities (by radio / phone) and taking into account the extensive practical experience of the group, it was made possible to approach and eventually ascend, probably for the first time, the primary crater complex of the eruption, which was no longer active. This provided a suitable view of the erupting cone complex from a safe distance. Extensive fumarolic deposits coated parts of the primary cone complex, yet gas levels did not force the use of gas masks which we of course had ready (knowing also that Nyamuragira is possibly the most prolific producer of Sulphur dioxide worldwide).
Spirits were defiinitely raised again by this time and in the evenings back at the camp one discussed how the activity should be classified, i.e. were we still observing something that could be considered as a form of lava fountaining ? This could not be conclusively decided by the end of the trip. After 3 nights at the camp, the group set back on the trail through the forest, starting on the rather long travel back by road and eventually plane.
Given that parts of the Virunga National Park are now apparently safe, this was unlikely to be the last visit to the region by many of the photographers on this visit, including Martin and myself (Richard). The rapid establishment of touristic access to the present eruption is a tribute to the effective work of the park authorities, and as long as restrictions are respected and nobody comes to harm, it is likely that such access can continue and be developed for this and future eruptions. When Nyamuragira is no longer active, there is the lava lake at Nyiragongo that can be visited and the page authors had a wonderful Gorilla trek in the park last year. Such treks are far less overrun and thus generally far more rewarding than those in neighbouring Ruanda. To this, chimpanzee treking has just been added. Goma is a good base for such visits and provides several good hotels along the lake side.