There is a place like hell on Earth – crater of Mount Nyiragongo. This is very unusual place with the world’s largest lava lake, a dangerous, ever changing place.

Legends of Nyiragongo

This unusual volcano is a hero of diverse local beliefs. Some legends tell about weird beasts and ghosts living in the crater. Others tell about a mythic fight between two powerful spirits – Nyiragongo and Ryang’ombe, eternal enemies. Ryang’ombe lives in Muhavura volcano. Nyiragongo lived in Mount Mikeno. Ryang’ombe cut Mount Mikeno into two pieces and harassed Nyiragongo to the present-day Nyiragongo volcano, cut off the peak of the volcano and threw Nyiragongo in it. Then he piled hot stones over Nyiragongo and left him there.

Since then the better behaved (or – more evolved) spirits reside in the abode of Ryang’ombe, while the evil and more profane spirits live in Nyiragongo.

The evilish glow of the lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo
The evilish glow of the lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo / Cai Tjeenk Willink, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Crater with world’s largest lava lake

Mount Nyiragongo is a giant stratovolcano. Most of the mountain is covered with tropical forest but closer to its summit instead of a forest come shrubs and then – alpine meadows. And then to the eyes of a visitor opens a grand view into the giant crater.

The crater of Nyiragongo is some 1.2 – 1.3 km wide and very deep. It has two lava benches – two floors. The upper bench is at the height of some 3,175 m, some 300 m below the summit. The lower step is at the height of approximately 2,975 m, some 500 m below the summit. This lower step contains a rare natural phenomenon – nearly permanent lava lake.

This lake is constantly changing. At some moments it rises, flooding the lower bench and then also the upper bench. Such floods of molten stone happened in January 1977, when the lake rose to the level of some 3,250 m – then this hellish lake was some 600 m deep!

Mount Nyiragongo, crater and lava lake
Mount Nyiragongo, crater and lava lake / Nina R, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This lava lake is fascinating – it seems to be alive, in a constant movement. Unusual natural phenomena have been observed here. Thus in 1982 (after the lava lake poured out from the crack on surrounding lands), the lake started to renovate itself… by mighty fountains of lava! This was the most spectacular process with two 5 – 10 m tall lava fountains at the bottom of the crater which soon increased to a huge, 150 m wide and up to 50 m high dome-fountain.

Another phenomenon started around 2010: the lava lake rose above the crater floor but did not expand on the floor of the crater. The lake created a rim of hardened lava and rose above the floor of the crater as a unique bowl. Streams of glowing lava were flowing over this rim, providing unique, unforgettable sight.

The lava lake has been here almost constantly since 1948 when the legendary vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff descended in the crater and proved its existence. But we can be sure that it is considerably older because local people noticed the hellish glow of the lake in night skies well before this. And the lake continues to exist also in 2019.

Lava lake in Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo
Lava lake in Mount Nyiragongo / Cai Tjeenk Willink, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The black heart of Africa?

Since the start of observations in 1882, the volcano had at least 34 eruptions. Sometimes these eruptions have continued for years, thus current eruption started in 2002 and lasts up to now (2019).

Mount Nyiragongo definitely is not a common volcano and it is extremely dangerous in several ways.

The worst danger has been the lava of this volcano. This is highly unusual, alkali-rich lava, consisting of melilite nephelinite. And this is treacherous, deadly lava. On the steep slopes of Nyiragongo, it may flow with a terrible speed: up to 60 km per hour (some sources state even 100 km/h)!

And Mount Nyiragongo loves to let it flow… Thus, in January 1977, when the lava lake reached its fantastic depth of 600 m, the rim of crater fractured and fearsome flood started. The whole lake gushed out in some 30 minutes, covering forests, villages and after 20 minutes reaching Goma city. Then it killed at least 70 people.

Goma city and Mount Nyiragongo
Goma city and Mount Nyiragongo / MONUSCO Photos, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2002 even more spectacular and destructive eruption took place – side of the volcano cracked again and 13 km (!) long fissure opened. The earth opened up to the outskirts of Goma city near Lake Kivu and lava gushed out from the fissure. Op to 1 km wide and 2 m thick stream of molten stone flew through Goma city, covering some 15% of the city. The stream of lava covered part of the runway of Goma airport and poured in Lake Kivu.

Around 245 people died and some 120,000 people became homeless. After the eruption followed many earthquakes and destroyed many buildings in the area.

Another danger of Mount Nyiragongo is mazuku – seeps of carbon dioxide. Such gas seeps appear unnoticed and from time to time suffocate people, especially in rooms and calm places where the wind does not disperse the gas. Mazuku cannot be seen or smelled. Somewhat less dangerous are the acid rains around the volcano which cause loss of vegetation.

As if the fury of nature is not enough, around Mount Nyiragongo for decades continue, possibly, the most horrifying wars of our times. From time to time the area is closed for tourism – even military guards cannot warrant the safety of guests. Meanwhile millions of people around the volcano live in extreme poverty. It seems the evil spirits of Nyiragongo are governing here indeed.

Child in Rwanda looks towards Mount Nyiragongo in Congo DR, with Lake Kivu below.
Child in Rwanda looks towards Mount Nyiragongo in Congo DR, with Lake Kivu below. / MONUSCO Photos, Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Nyiragongo, Smithsonian Institution, Global Volcanism Program. Accessed on March 16, 2019
Mount Nyiragongo on the map
Travelers' Map is loading...
If you see this after your page is loaded completely, leafletJS files are missing.
Location, GPS coordinates: 1.5221 S 29.2495 E
Categories: Volcanoes, Lakes and streams
Values: Geology, Visual
Rating: 4 out of 10 stars
Where is located? Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Kivu, Virunga Mountains
Alternate names: Niragongo, Ninagongo, Niragonwe, Graf Gotzen Crater
Meaning of name: Mother of Gongo (according to local beliefs Gongo is powerful spirit)
UNESCO World Heritage status: Part of "Virunga National Park", 1979, No.63
Height: 3,470 m

Landmarks of Democratic Republic of the Congo

Inga Falls, Congo DR
Inga Falls / Alaindg, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
The Democratic Republic of the Congo belongs to least explored and most promising countries of the world regarding exciting landmarks. Last decades have been unfortunate in the history of this enormous country as it has gone through a series of devastating wars and anarchy periods scaring away the foreign explorers. Major part of the country is covered with impenetrable, very diverse equatorial jungle and crossed by large rivers. Jungle covers mountain ranges, base of volcanoes, surrounds barren inselbergs and precipices with countless high waterfalls.


Mount Cleveland, Aleut Islands
Mount Cleveland / NOAA Photo Library, / CC BY 2.0

This category includes the most unusual and interesting volcanoes of the world.

Over the last 10,000 years in some 1,500 places around the Earth through the crust of the planet has been emitted lava, ash, and gases from the mantle of Earth. Each of these places could be considered to be an active volcano. Every year some 50 – 70 volcanoes are erupting, at any moment there are some 20 – 30 eruptions on-going.

Recommended books

Nyiragongo: The Forbidden Volcano

Volcanoes: Global Perspectives

Volcanoes are essential elements in the delicate global balance of elemental forces that govern both the dynamic evolution of the Earth and the nature of Life itself. Without volcanic activity, life as we know it would not exist on our planet. Although beautiful to behold, volcanoes are also potentially destructive, and understanding their nature is critical to prevent major loss of life in the future.

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