Unpredictable, explosive and filled with molten rock bubbling away at 1,000 degrees C. Volcanoes are pretty terrifying at the best of times, but the people of the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo live under constant threat of one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Mount Nyiragongo. So imagine what it’s like to lead an expedition of scientists deep into the very heart of it!
Ahead of the BBC Two two-part documentary Expedition Volcano (Sun 26, 9pm), former Royal Marine and expedition leader Aldo Kane tells us about the mission to predict eruptions, living under the shadow of a volcano, and how to survive inside the crater of one of the most inhospitable places on the planet:
How did you come about exploring Mount Nyiragongo?
I had been out there on a previous trip in 2010, saw the volcano and started to mention the idea about going back to the BBC. We came up with the idea of returning with the scientists who had been studying it for years to try and find out if there was some way of getting an early warning system about when it will next erupt. It took quite a long time to get there. Planning to take 10-15 people inside an active volcano is probably pushing the edge of what any broadcaster would expect on the safety envelope – it’s quite an ambitious project by all accounts.
What is it about Nyiragongo that makes it such a unique volcano?
It’s quite a few things. What makes it unique is that inside it has one of only five or six lava lakes on Earth, and this is the biggest. Also, the lava itself is so pure that the scientists believe it is coming from a place which is very, very far down. It has very few other minerals and crystals in it so it’s incredibly fast flowing, up to about 60km/h – you couldn’t outrun it. What makes it so dangerous is its location, only 12km from Goma, a city with a population of a million people. Because it’s an effusive volcano, lava leaks out from rifts in the side of the mountain, and the last time it did that it killed about 200 people.
Can you describe what it’s like to stand next to the lava lake in an active volcano?
It’s a privileged place that I got to, probably only two or three other people on the planet have ever been there. There have definitely been more people in space than have been down into that crater, and for obvious reasons. When you are standing next to hundreds of metres of bubbling magma you feel so insignificant and small. It’s just otherworldly. It literally feels like you’ve been picked up and put into Mordor or somewhere from Lord of the Rings, it’s that bizarre. There are gases in your face where you can smell all the different chemicals, you can taste it. You can feel it underneath you, the old lava runs cracking and your feet falling through the first couple of inches. The whole place really isn’t conducive to supporting human life.
Barring the obvious eruption, what dangers can you expect when you’re down there?
Two of the biggest dangers are rock fall and gas. There were four of us inside the volcano for around about three weeks, which is a huge amount of time to be exposed to the elements and although it’s in the Congo it’s up high, about 3,500m, so it’s incredibly cold at night. It’s also usually wet – in fact we got caught out in freak hail and snow storms inside the volcano, which is just so bizarre to think – and that leads to rock falls. In the time that we were there this was probably the thing that would have killed someone. We’re talking about blocks the size of televisions and fridges that are regularly coming down when you’re lying in your tent at night in the bottom of the crater. You can hear hundreds of tonnes of rock that are just being shaken loose by the volcano and tumbling down towards you, and you just have to lie there in your tent with your gas mask on and just basically hope that none of those rocks or lava bombs get to where you actually are.
The other big danger, the real, silent killer is gas, including carbon dioxide. CO2 is heavier than air and it sits down about the level of your knees, so you’re particularly at risk when you’re sleeping at night because you’re down at the level. We would sleep with gas monitors on, which have a loud, audible beep if you start running out of air. That, apart from the fact you’re living inside one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes, is one of the more objective dangers.
The third big danger is potentially running out of food and water while you’re down there. Everything that we had inside the crater, four tonnes-worth of kit, was carried individually by hand, by me and my team down to the bottom level. We had 10-12 people living inside the crater for at least a week, needing four litres of water a day, weighing four kilos per person – we took down nearly half a tonne of water alone. When I said it not being conducive to human life, it is literally one of the most hostile environments that I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve been deep in caves and in war zones. It really is man versus nature down there!
How do you prepare scientists for such a psychological experience?
As expedition leader it is my responsibility to make sure that everyone and everything, including hundreds and thousands of pounds-worth of camera kit, goes down into the volcano and then comes back out. It’s a task that’s almost too big to think about, but you’re covering ten bases every five seconds making sure everyone and everything is ok. The good thing though is that the scientists are actually used to that environment – it’s kind of where they work. They go into these places and risk their lives to get the science results that they need. Thankfully the volcanologists, geologists and scientists were all fairly good at rope skills and used to camping out.
What actually becomes a problem is when you then introduce a film crew and kit. Filming topside it takes maybe 10 minutes to change a battery and do a few bits and bobs. In the volcano, I had to carry a full generator on my back down the crater, because without that at the start it’s probably a four-hour round trip to charge a battery.
The biggest issue for us was keeping the film crew safe. When it comes to filming that’s all they think about, they’re not thinking about walking off the edge as they film their feet walking off the edge – they’re pretty stuck down the lens at that point. Usually it comes down to briefing people and you don’t have any problem getting anyone’s attention at the top of Nyiragongo because it looks so intimidating, so scary and so full-on that you pretty much have everyone standing and waiting to find out how they are going to get into the volcano safely. It’s quite a unique experience.
During the show, climbing ropes get cut and rocks heat up to the point of boiling water – how aware are you of the fact everything could change in an instant and how do you keep yourself alert?
It’s one of those situations that’s difficult to describe. To put it into context on any other job you could say “be careful guys, don’t slip and fall, you might break an ankle; that’s fine we can get you out of here in an hour”. If you were to slip and break an ankle inside the volcano, there is no helicopter rescue out of there, there is no long line rescue, there is no other way other than me putting you on my back and dragging you out of there. Rescues out of there would probably be a day, two days maybe, so it brings everything into perspective. For example, using a knife to open your ration bag. What I was trying to instil in them is think twice, three times about doing something, because if you do cut your finger by accident and you need to be evacuated out of the volcano, it’s not a quick process.
Because you have this huge bubbling cauldron of magma hardwired into the centre of the Earth almost, you’re reminded every time you turn your head this is not a place conducive for living. That is always in the back of your mind and makes you remindful of just how remote you are and just how far away help is. My team had been in the crater for nearly two weeks by the time the film crew arrived and by this point we were probably starting to become slightly complacent to the hundreds of tonnes of rock fall coming down at night or the lava bombs landing that little bit closer. You think “that’s ok, last night they didn’t come this far so they won’t come this far this time.” It was good to get the crew out and get a new perspective of just how terrifying it is down there.
Being inside the volcano must be both terrifying and magnificent, but did you get a feeling from the locals what it was like to live under the volcano and how the work you were doing would affect them?
Goma is a really interesting place. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the poorest places on Earth and has been torn apart by civil wars and rebel fighting for at least the last 20 years. It has been one of the most lawless places, and all of this is the perfect petri dish for civil unrest. That can happen during a natural disaster, like when lava flows through the city when Nyiragongo erupts. It displaces hundreds, if not thousands of people, it kills people and it also affects all of the water tables. What knocks on from that, like after any natural disaster, are viruses spreading, illness, cholera.
When you’re in Goma at night you can see the top of the volcano glowing and every single wall in the city is built from lava from previous eruptions. Most of the houses are built with stone from a previous eruption and they are now building homes on top of the lava from the last eruption in 2002. Pretty much everything that these people do is affected by the volcano. It affects the fluorine in the water table, which comes out of the plume and enters the water system and their teeth are really badly damaged from it.
The fertility of the land around them is immense because of the volcano, and then on the other side where the wind is blowing the gases it’s a pretty rancid acrid place to live. I think the people who live in Goma live in constant fear of it erupting, but it also has a lot more daily effects on them.
Can you see the positive impact of the work the scientists are making on them?
Yes, very definitely. We were there making a programme following the scientists, but what we did specifically in that three weeks isn’t going to make a huge difference, it was more pulling together the right scientists, collecting the data. What will make an impact is the ongoing work that Benoit Smets (the volcanologist working on Nyiragongo’s lava flow) and his team are doing inside Nyiragongo – the constant yearly visits to collect and regather real-time data from the gas plume, the movement of the specific layers of the strata down there – all of this information that they are pulling in is giving them a much clearer position of where the volcano is and its cycles. They are working towards the point when they can best predict when a future eruption will be. We filmed a snapshot into the great work they are doing there, and it is showing results.
Going into the heart of a volcano must be one of the most extraordinary experiences. Do you have a newfound respect for the planet?
Yeah, so I guess having done various different things, like rowing across the Atlantic or climbing and exploring caves in the lost lands of Venezuela, I do get to see quite a lot of amazing natural history, climates and geography, but to be thrown inside one of the deadliest volcanos on the planet, it does give you that completely different perspective on life. How fragile our life is and also how powerful and strong the natural world is. To be able to see a continually bubbling lava lake, it just beggars belief in a way. It’s just very hard to get your head around it in any sort of plausible way.
Is there anywhere that you wouldn’t go?
I’ve spent three months filming with narcos and drug traffickers in South America and I remember thinking to myself I would pay any money to be back inside the volcano – that’s a weird situation.
Expedition Volcano is on BBC Two on 26 November at 9pm