Camping on the rim of Nyiragongo, above the worlds largest lava lake. Mt Nyiragongo in the DRC – Democratic Republic of the Congo
November 2, 2014 – November 3, 2014
Day 222 of our travels finds us hiking through the jungle of the Virunga National Park in eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). What could possibly bring us to enter the Congo? An area which has been contested and fought over by various rebel groups and the DRC military for years, and witness to a massive refugee exodus and an area with a large UN peace keeping presence? The chance to climb Mt. Nyiragongo in the Virunga National Park, and camp on the rim overnight and watch the lava bubble and light up the sky in the world’s current largest lava lake!
The volcano has been closed for years due to the deadly violence the area has seen and was closed every time we checked into it while in Tanzania, but as luck would have it, while we were in Rwanda, the closest neighboring country to the Virunga National Park, and Mt. Nyiragongo, the park opened up to visitors!
We applied for our visas and hoped they would clear before anymore violence erupted and closed down the park again. We heard that in the last two years the park was open for one week before closing again due an ‘incident’. Our luck held out and we were cleared to enter the DRC and the park was still open!
Applying for a visa to enter the DRC is easier now than it ever has been before, from what I understand of the former process it was very complicated and largely corrupt with most of the money going into various bureaucratic pockets and taking a long time to get approved, if you got approved. The process has been streamlined now and can be done online, and should be done online as it still takes up to seven business days to complete and you don’t want to wait that long at the border. You must purchase your national park permits at the same time that you apply for a visa, both can be done on their website visitvirunga.com – Costs are US $255.00 per person for a climbing permit, and US $105 per person for an entry visa.
After our brief stay in Uganda we once again made our way to Rwanda and to the border town of Gisenyi, a town filled with luxury lake side hotels and rich vacationers from all over the world, a sharp contrast to the poverty and violence just across the border in Goma, DCR. We would only be in the Congo for one night and if everything went as planned it would be on the rim of an active volcano, Mt Nyiragongo. We left our valuables and heavy items that would be of little use on top of a volcano with our hotel in Rwanda and made our way to the border on a moto taxi.
We had contacted a tour operator in Goma, DRC who would be picking us up at the border and then driving us the national park, and the trailhead, and picking us up the next day to drive us straight back to the border. We used Kasitu Ecotours, they were the cheapest of the tour operators we contacted at US$50. Prices ranged from $50-200 for the simple pick up and 45 minute drive, with the various agencies we contacted, and since all we needed was a ride we elected to go with the cheapest that had decent reviews.
There are two borders in Gisenyi/Goma, so if someone is picking you up on the other side, make sure you agree on which one to meet them. The two borders are the ‘Grande’ and ‘Petite’ border crossings, we used the ‘Grande’ which was right along the water and just 2km from our hotel in Rwanda.
We arrived at the border early, around 7:30 AM, as we did not know how long it would take to get through DRC immigration. Leaving Rwanda is pretty straight forward but upon entering the DRC, we ran into our first hangup. We had Yellow Fever cards, showing proof that we had the vaccination against Yellow Fever, but our cards did not show that we had our vaccinations against Typhus, Meningitis, Hepatitis A, B, etc. (All vaccinations we had, but lacked proof) These are not required to enter the Congo, but the immigration agent was demanding them. After a few confused moments we figured out the true source of the problem and 500 Congolese Francs later (about US $0.55 cents) the fictitious requirements ceased to be a problem and we entered the DRC. Altogether the time at the border was around 45 minutes.
Our ride was waiting for us just across the border and our hosts were a great help in walking us through the DRC entry procedures. From here we went on a 45 minute ride through Goma to the national park and start of our hike. Much of Goma is covered in the remains of a lava flow from a lava flow in 2002 , many of the streets are still covered in lava rock and much of it has been incorporated into the new buildings, as a large portion of the cities buildings burned down.
We also passed several UN bases, walled, covered in barbed wire and dotted with watch towers manned by soldiers. The road from Goma to the national park is also heavy patrolled by both the UN and Congolese military, with both military and UN white painted troop carriers and armored vehicles a common sight.
Once at the trail head our tour operator dropped us off and we met up with five other foreigners who would be making the trip up with us, two girls from the Netherlands, a couple, one from Belgium the other from the USA, who lived and worked in the area, and another man from the USA who was also in the area for work. Everyone seemed excited to be one of the first groups to hike the volcano in years, the park had only been open for about two weeks when we arrived. We also met our two guides for the hike up the volcano. Our guides were park rangers armed with an AK47’s. We met at 10:15 AM for our 15 minute safety and security briefing and then began our hike.
Visitors hiking to the summit have the option of hiring a cook and/or porters to carry their bags up the mountain, being on a budget we elected to carry our own bags and some food for the night up the mountain.
The hike up the volcano is moderate to strenuous with 4,857 feet of elevation gain over a short distance (around 5km). Rising from the trailhead to the summit of 11,382 feet, the hike is supposed to take between 5-6 hours. You should be in decent shape but you don’t have to be an amazing hiker to do it, our group was relatively fit and the hike up only took 4.5 hours.
Dodging lightning on the side of a volcano
Our trek began pretty straight forward, hiking through the jungle over mostly level ground, where we were told there is a chance for monkey sightings, we didn’t see any monkeys but our hike up was exciting nonetheless. At one exciting point on the trail we had to run over a 40 foot section, shimmering with a million swarming ants, and spent the next ten minutes swatting at both real and imagined ants in our pants.
Shortly thereafter the storm arrived, we could hear the ominous sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning and the dark angry clouds which promised buckets of rain, and they delivered. We were soon completely soaked as heavy cold rain poured down on us so that we could hardly seem more than a few yards ahead at times and the lightning flashed and boomed with no delay in between less than 100 meters from us as we hiked up the mostly exposed volcano. As quickly as the storm arrived it left us, with soaking clothes and boots that squished with water. We were about half way up and spent the next couple hours hiking in soaking wet clothes. Luckily it was warm out and walking in wet clothes tends to have the side effect of drying them. As we neared the summit with our tiny shelters in sight a second storm struck, once again making our damp clothes completely see through soaked and once again filling our shoes like puddles. This time the rain was mixed with hail and was quite cold. Lightning also flashed around us as we ran for the tiny shelters wishing we had been just ten minutes earlier to avoid the rain and lightning bolts which flashed and crashed into the mountain top around us. The flashes coming at the same time as the loudest thundering booms I have ever heard. Once in the tiny shelters we sat in the cold, with soaking wet clothes and contemplated the wisdom of hiding from a lightning storm in steel framed buildings, exposed, on the very top of an active volcano. Once again the storm left quickly and we changed into some dry clothes we had wrapped in plastic in our bags, and emerged to check out the volcano and the view.
The view from the top of Nyiragongo – 11,382 feet
The world’s largest lava lake
The tiny shelters are perched right on the rim of the volcano and just a short walk from a truly amazing view. Nyiragongo’s crater is about 1.2 kilometers across and the world’s current largest lava lake is bubbling away just below. The volcano is surprisingly loud and the smoke clouds smell strongly of sulfur. Clouds blocked our view most of the time, so it is advisable to go during the least cloudy/rainy season if possible.
The nighttime viewing of the caldera and lava lake is the main attraction and the reason the trips are overnight to the crater rim. The lava below lights up the inside of the crater and night sky above, it is possible to see a bright red glow from the volcano in the clouds above from surrounding cities. We woke up around midnight to sit on the rim and watch the lava.
We left camp around 6:30am the next morning after enjoying a sunrise from the rim. It was about a 4.5 hour hike down and luckily did not rain significantly. Our ride was waiting for us at the bottom and took us back to the border where we re-entered Rwanda. While the Congo may not be on the top of everyone’s travel plans, climbing Nyiragongo and camping on the rim has been one of the best and most memorable experiences for us on this trip so far!
The region is enjoying a period of relative calm and a return to peace, with the refugee camps now sitting empty as most refugees have returned home. While things were quiet when we passed through, you should be vigilant and check and re-check travel warnings and news reports if you are thinking about the trip.
Our next stop Istanbul, Turkey!