“My daughter has run mad! You do realize that mountain can explode while you’re at the top” wailed my mother on the phone, i believe she must have been pacing about the kitchen as she normally does in search of a good signal with hope of talking some sense into me, “…and come to think of it, the Congo has ALWAYS been red-flagged for visit, you should know this, Spe!” My mind was made up. I had envisioned sitting by the lava lake for years and now that it was all falling into place, I wasn’t going to let that pass. Needless to say she hang up after several hours of failed attempts to talk me out of it. “It’ll be fine ma, trust me, I will be safe.” I reassured after the last hang up tone; so she didn’t hear that. Too bad.
The Congo for me is arguably the most daring place I have had the guts to visit, and whilst I endeavored to immerse myself in the moment and enjoy the time I had, I still found the tour to be a tough one. Right from the time I stepped on to the Goma soil. The boarder crossing was a pain, seriously, somebody needs to tell those guys at the boarder to chill. I wasn’t there for the gold. I had all my documentation in check, Visa form, Yellow Fever Certificate and money. Yes. You need cash at the boarder to be able to get out of unnecessary delays.
We arrived via Gisenyi-Rwanda, with 2 other tourists I had met earlier during my Rwanda trip and decided to move together. Getting out of Gisenyi was easy before crossing to the Goma side, and that’s where the annoying dance started. Our Congolese guide, Neville, from the Virunga Park office was waiting across to receive us. He collected our passports and $100 for my visa before leading us to the immigration office where we stood in line for several minutes. Our hike was supposed to start at 10am, it was fast approaching 9.30am and we were still waiting at the boarder. One of my friends had a Yellow Fever card. He’d taken the yellow fever shot for life back in the UK, but he was denied a visa unless he took another shot of the yellow fever vaccine. Isn’t that insane? We collectively refused, but to no avail, until we agreed to pay $50 but not take the shot. We were going to climb a mountain, for Crissakes, how on earth would they insist on a yellow fever shot? Fast forward, we were eventually released and given our stamps to carry on.
“Welcome to the Congo!” Finally! We were breathless with excitement as we merged in for a group hug for making it to The Congo – legally. Our drive through Goma was nice, though it’s visible how different these two cities are: Goma and Gisenyi — very unalike. Our Guide Neville suggested we change our money to Congolese Francs – BIG MISTAKE that was. No body uses the Congolese Francs. Everywhere you go, you’ll be charged in USD, and if you insist on paying with the Francs, the exchange rate is usually ridiculous. We often were rewarded with sights of young boys and men ferrying merchandise on wooden bicycles. That was beautiful to see.
We got to Kibati Patrol point at about 10.15am, it was a 30 minutes’ drive from the boarder to base of the mountain. We were just in time, but soon it turned into a rush hour as we joined other walkers for the briefing. We hired hiking gears, (yes, for people like me who always leave home with hardly all the stuff I need, this was a great idea.) I paid $100 for the hiking gear that basically included a sleeping bag, food and some warm clothes. I also hired another porter to carry my personal bag that had more warm clothing for another $24. And an extra $5 for a walking stick – my greatest ally on the hike. I then ran and visited the toilets to ease myself. I tell you; that was one hell of a toilet; I have no idea what the guy who built it was thinking, but that’s a story for another time.
Jean Loui, our guide for the hike, summoned us for a quick brief. All I recall was him saying the summit was cold, and I didn’t believe it, just like the doubting Thomas, we were headed to the Lava Lake, and that’s supposed to be boiling hot, you see the logic? I only paid for the hiking gear because it’s better to be safe than sorry. I was wrong — so wrong.
Now the walk starts at the base which is at an altitude of 1994 meters above sea level, and the summit is at 3,470 meters above sea level. The distance itself is 8 KM long, and the estimated hiking time is anywhere between 5 and 8 hours, although some hikers cover it in less hours, the rest of us who never take physical fitness seriously were aiming for 10 hours! The altitude changes very, very quickly, and the air gets thinner real fast. It’s probably the steepest climb you’ll ever feel and the peak is amillion times colder than the bottom. The 4 stops along the way should allay my fears.
The first segment: it took 45 minutes to get to the first stop, on a relatively flat surface. There wasn’t really much to see at this point. I moved at my own pace, with my ally, the walking stick. It didn’t seem to have a use but I trusted the guy who sold it to me. He said I’d need it, and so I held on to it. At the first stop, we sat down to catch our breath for about 15 minutes, drank water, pumped glucose into my system and wondered if the hike would be like this all through. Easy, I mean.
The second Segment: It took us another 45 minutes or so to get to the second stop. The climbing had started but was still relatively easy. At this point we were walking on the loose lava rocks that were brought about by the last 2002 eruption.I got slower by the minute, and the group was very patient. Often they would stop to wait for me, and encourage me. I started doubting I would make it to the next stop. While we rested, Jean Louis our guide briefed us. From what I understood, the next walk was going to be a real pain in the ass. Well, he didn’t use the exact same words, but I wish he had because that would have given me the green light to start walking back down. We rested for 20 minutes before we continued.
The Third and fourth segment: This was arguably the most difficult part. The last eruption didn’t come from the top, but rather the sides of the mountain. Just 5 minutes from the second stop was the hollow crater that was left from the blow-up. We took a few minutes to look at it.
At this point the view had started changing, the vegetation had also changed from the forests to shrubs. We walked on, and started hiking, and hiking. It didn’t stop. My ally, my good friend — the walking stick — gave me all the support. It started getting colder and I could feel the air getting thinner, after about 30 minutes of non-stop climbing. The sky opened up and a hailstorm rained on us. We quickly got our rain coats and our waterproof pants and bag covers but continued to climb, braving the hailstorm, the biting cold, the gravity, and the altitude. I was on the verge of giving up while all the walkers maintained their speed. Understandably, I got slower and slower. The porters were right behind me. They encouraged me. “Continuez encore, nous sommes sur le point d’ettendre.” “Voulez-vous vous asseoir? On t’anttendra!” I felt bad, they were loaded with our luggage, our food, and I only had a tiny backpack with my glucose, camera and bottle of water, and I was this knackered, my feet hurt real bad from the hiking, and yet we were hardly at the stop point. Because of the rain, we couldn’t stop and take a break at the 3rd stop. We hiked, I cursed, but I kept moving and crawling, while my knees shook terribly. I started crying, I remembered all the time I had a chance to walk but I preferred to use a boda boda. I should have walked more. It took us close to 2 hours to get to the 4th stop, and as we approached it, I couldn’t feel my face. The biting cold hurt, and my fingers went numb. There was a little hut and I thought we were at the summit. The vegetation moved to tall trees but very steep. At the rest point, my porter helped me with my gloves, and a neck scarf.
I started to wonder if this was really worth it, if this made any sense. I was so weary to continue, but Jean Louis reassured me, pointing at the cabins just a few miles away, all visible from the shelter. It was close. We were almost there.
The Last segment to the Summit. The guide told us it would take less than 20 minutes. He urged us to go on our own pace. Good thought, I have been doing that since we left the base. There was hardly any vegetation, just rocks. Steep slippery rocks. Looking at the cabins on the summit gave me hope, but this last bit was tricky. There was no path, you just had to negotiate your steps. We were already in the clouds, and the cold got worse, real worse, I tell you. I feared I would catch pneumonia; I carried on slowly, way to the summit, and went straight to my cabin where I passed out for 30 minutes.
The most beautiful view on earth: I say this with confidence: after hiking for hours, with an almost injured leg, there’s got to be a reward. The summit is the reason this hike is always worth it. It is still freaking cold, but amazing. The lava crater is 1.2KM wide, and it was amazing how hot the rocks on the crater edges were yet less than a meter from it was biting cold. There was fog covering the lava lake, so we couldn’t see the lava properly at first. Luckily the wind came, very strong wind, and blew the fog away, clearing the crater — Oh my goodness! That was the most beautiful thing I saw. The Lava lay 600 meters below the edge of the crater and as the night fell the views got better. See, I have been zip-lining in Mabira, walked over a shaky canopy bridge in Rwanda, gone abseiling along the tallest waterfalls in Uganda, and still couldn’t compare. Summiting an active volcano humbled me to the core, I shall forever remember how it looked. BEST EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE.
Nyiragongo itself is a beautiful stratovolcano that features the world’s largest lava lake. The summit rim is largely destitute of vegetation and is oftentimes dusted with snow. From the rim, we could look down into a churning lava lake to clap eyes on the hot gases exploding up through a mosaic of molten lava. The weather was very frosty so it took us a while before we actually picked our jaws from the floor – to see the world’s largest active lava lake, boiling and bubbling. You can hear it, you can smell it, and sitting at the top we could make out the lava flow from some sort of fissure into the boiling cauldron of magma. Seeing it in real life is a truly rewarding experience, and realizing that all the pictures I had seen before didn’t quite capture that “thing” about it. If it weren’t for the biting cold, I would have slept outside by the lake.
There are 12 cabins at the top, and each accommodates 2 guests, with a little kitchen, a toilet and the ranger’s shell. I chose to sleep in the kitchen.
As the night waned, the boiling and vapors released to the air colored the sky vibrant neon orange. From the boiling, the smell of gasses (sulfur) filled the air. The boiling would sometimes make the earth tremble, but we trusted the rocks on the edge of the crater, where we sat and watched in sheer amazement. We tried a couple of shots, but nothing beats the view of seeing it live. I can testify, no body has captured the feeling of seeing the crater, bubble, boil, fume and rise to the sky. No body. We later gathered in the tiny hut for our delicious meal, then went to have the toughest night of it all at leisure.
The cabins, I must mention, have 2 leather mattresses with zero abilities to retain any sort of warmth. The sleeping bags I had hired came in handy. I wore all its contents to try and beat the cold, and then wore my hiking boots with 6 pairs of stockings to bed. I was still freezing. I tossed and turned, and tossed some more, and curled up into a ball. I wore thermal leggings beneath my hiking pants, and on my top half, I had a thermal base layer, a thermal sweater, two fleeces, and a rain jacket. I was still freezing, so I decided to get out at about 3am. The night was calm, with little wind, and the lava lake was fuming with all sorts of gasses. The boiling got louder, and I tried to record a video, but still couldn’t quite capture it.
Morning drew in closer and we started descending as early as 6.30am. The hike down is tough as it’s steep. It really messed with my knees. One had to negotiate the moves carefully to avoid sliding down and falling, and it took us 3 hours to finally walk down to the base, which was good. Upon arrival, it turned to rush hour again as we located our drivers who were waiting at the base to pick us up. We gathered for some group photos, located our porters and tipped them, exchanged contacts amongst ourselves and then bid farewell to the Coolest Place on earth!!
What you need to know before going to hike Mt. Nyiragongo
Permits. All trekking permits are secured through the Virunga National Park office and cost $300. Whereas brokers and travel agents can smoothly and easily facilitate the process for you, in line with organizing other details of the safari, it’s perfectly possible to do it directly with the Virunga office. All it takes is an email or a phone call to them, although alternatively the purchase can be made directly on their website through the link https://virunga.org/. The cost of the hiking permit covers the hiking fees, accommodation and meals at the summit. When booking directly with the Virunga office, an additional charge is levied for transfers from the boarder to the base of the mountain and back. The park ensures to have one of their officials meet you and help you with immigration as well. (Transfers can be optional)
Start time. Trekking starts at the Kibati Patrol post by 10.00am and are always preceded by armed Ranger guides. Late arrivals are discouraged and cancellation of a hike due to late arrival will attract a full cancellation fee on the permit. Trekkers are supposed to converge at the Kibati patrol post by 9.00am for briefing before embarking on the hike. Turning up early also allows for hikers to book porters and hiking gears should they need.
Distance. The hike starts at 1994M and ascends really quickly. The distance covered is 8KM and normally takes between 4-8 hours to hike up and less than 4 hours to hike back down.
Physical fitness. I have read blogs that say you don’t need to be particularly fit to be able to do the hike, but the aftermath outweighs the possibility, take a walk daily for at least 3 weeks before embarking on the hike. Hiking this volcano requires a bit of experience in mountain climbing, therefore it’s always advisable to be done by those who are in good health and physical conditions as the hike can be strenuous and altitude is gained really fast. It takes 2 days to complete the hike; on the first day, trekkers climb and often arrive late in the evening therefore overnight at the summit and on the second day they begin their descent. It’s a tough but doable hike. There are no switchbacks once you have moved past the first rest point, so you’re walking straight up a volcano with very little rest which may turn up to be a hard physical challenge. But don’t worry: if you’ve done some road work, you should have a high enough fitness level to make it to the top. For hikers with altitude sickness, Diamox is a good idea, a better idea is seeing your doctor first before embarking on this safari.
Capacity. The park allows up to 24 hikers a day, with 1 departure per day. Some days are booked to capacity, other days not. If you prefer smaller groups, check with your operator or the Virunga park office to allocate you accordingly. Weekends are normally the busiest as many of the UN and NGO workers in Goma opt to hike at that time. The summit has up to 12 cabins, each sleeping 2 guests; the cabins are basic with leather mattresses only. Hikers must carry the rest of the sleeping gears.
Security in the DRC is no secret — a lot of foreign offices report on attacks on some parts of the region. However, the DRC is too big, and therefore can’t be under attack at the same time; it’s about the size of East Africa balled into one state, only richer as they have stacks of mineral deposits that usually have the big shots hiring bandits to claim territories. It’s important to check with the people on ground at the Virunga National Park as they always have real-time information and look out for your safety a lot more closely than your embassy. This is only because the Virunga has been through a series of security-related events and are trying to get back on their feet; anything happening to a tourist directly affects them and thus they will not hesitate to close off the park and cancel treks should they feel that the tourists will be in danger. With that, don’t read the news or listen to your friends before you travel. The Virunga officials will tell you exactly what you need to know, and if they open the Mountain to trekkers, rest assured you would be safe all through.
Weather. The mountain summit is cold, actually VERY cold and freezing. Temperatures drop to below zero degrees in the night and are often dusted with snow or thick fog with likelihoods of hailstorms, so trekkers MUST carry as much warm clothing as possible. It is all so easy to catch a cold or pneumonia if not properly dressed. The nights are worse; the cabins are made out of wood and easily freeze up.
Also know that with weather like this you run the risk of hiking 8 hours only to get to the top and barely see a thing. When we got to the summit, it was frosty, we couldn’t see anything, we patiently waited until about 9pm when luckily a strong wind came and blew away the fog that had covered the crater, sometimes, you’re not too lucky, The weather is always unpredictable. However, on days with clear skies, you get the best views ever. Unfortunately, this can’t be determined ahead of time, not even at set off point. its how nature rolls.
Hiking Gear. Seasoned hikers always know what to pack, and because of years of hiking, they have mastered the art of carrying this weight on strenuous hikes, a typical hiking gear must include a Back pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water, clothing (Rain jacket, rain pants, down jacket, hiking pants, underwear, t-shirt, hiking socks and warm socks) and hiking boots. If you are not sure of what to carry, you can hire the Volcano pack from the Virunga office at $100, this which includes a rain poncho, warm long-sleeved sweater, thermal sleeping bag, fleece liner for your sleeping bag, drinking water and a packed lunch. If you’re staying at one of the Virunga National Park accommodations, (Bukima Tented camp and Mikeno) you may already be offered one, if not, you’ll want to pack those items on your own. Or pay for the Mikeno Package and a porter ($24) to carry it uphill.
Meal. The permit fare of $300 includes meals at the summit, a properly cooked dinner prepared by the porters and an early morning tea on the descent day. If you hire the hiking gear, you get packed lunches for use en-route on the hike.
Porter services. Hire a porter. The porters are unaffiliated to the park but are such handy people, you don’t want to realize half way up the mountain that you cant continue with a heavy bag, the climb is real steep and even for seasoned hikers, its best to be safe than sorry. You will pay $24 for the potters and that’s minus the tip. You can also hire a walking stick for $5. I couldn’t have done it without the stick. The maximum weight that porters are authorized to carry is 15 kg. Porters can be arranged by speaking with a Virunga National Park ranger at the Kibati patrol station.
Accommodation. The summit has up to 12 cabins, a kitchen, a rangers shell and a toilet, each cabin sleeping 2 guests; the cabins are basic with leather mattresses only. Hikers must carry the rest of the sleeping gears.
Guests seeking overnight stays before the hike can find a range of hotels from Gisenyi, to Lake Kivu and in Goma, popular options include Lake Kivu serena, Mikeno Lodge, Bukima tented camp. Kibati is approximately 45 minutes from Bukima Tented Camp and Mikeno Lodge by car. And about 1 hour from Goma boarder post for guests sleeping in Gisenyi.
Getting there. When booking through a Tour operator, your routing and visa is catered for. However, when booking direct with the Virunga office, they will have an officer pick you up at the boarder post and take you to the mountain base and subsequently pick you up the following day and drop you to the boarder post. The Virunga office will arrange for your visa as well, the cost being $100 single entry. You can do it all online once you’ve bought your permit, and it’s a seamless process from start to finish. The visa is usually processed within 48 hours and requires no paperwork.
The pretty simplest route to the Nyiragongo is arriving via Rwanda – Gisenyi. You can take a flight and land in Kigali International Airport, depending on what time your flight arrives, you could spend a night in Kigali or if you arrive early enough, say before 1pm, it’s a 5 hours drive to Gisenyi, which is on the boarder to Goma – DRC, There are loads of accommodation options in Gisenyi, Lake Kivu, Goma or in the Virunga itself. A special hire taxi from Kigali to Gisenyi will cost you $100, and if you opt for a bus, its only $15! Because of the hilly terrain, most of the driving’s around hills thus the 5 hours time. The bus drops you at the shuttle stage, from where you can take a motorbike (moto) for less than $1 to the boarder. With the tourist visa purchased through the Virunga office, you can only enter the DRC through the Grand Barrière border crossing between Gisenyi and Goma. There are two border crossings in Gisenyi, so make sure you’re at the right one before you leave the country. The Virunga national park (through whom you would have bought the tracking permit) pretty much take over from the time you cross the boarder, they will have an officer pick you up at the boarder post (usually about $60 each way for transfers) help you at immigrations and then drive you to the Kibati Information point where the hike starts from. At that point they will hand you over to the park officials and the rangers who will lead you on the hike, and the next day, when you hike back down, the park officials will have someone pick you up and either drop you at the boarder or at an agreed prior location.
Just like crossing any overland boarder, the process is seamless, get stamped out of the Rwanda, then proceed to the barrier where your luggage is checked and then head to the immigration across in Goma, present your yellow fever certificate (this is a must-have; without it you will be charged $50 and given a shot on site), then get stamped in to DRC. Usually its 1,2 back on my shoe, should you encounter any problems, you may get in touch with Vianney from the National park office on +243 99 1715401 or call your ground handler.
Flying to the volcano. You can fly to the summit. Yes, for guests who don’t want to be bothered with the 8 hours hike can part with close to $30,000 on a helicopter and enjoy the bubbly lava lake, which in my opinion, this being a trip of a lifetime could be all worth it. The biting cold and useless mattresses on the other hand is one of those things that both the hikers and fly in guests will share in common.
Flying also makes it possible for a certain niche who cant handle the strenuous trek, for instance tourists with PWD (people with disabilities (not on wheelchair), or elderly clients), this option is however NOT organized through the Virunga office, you may need to speak to a ground handler to arrange this.
When to visit. All year round as long as the Virunga say its ok.
Tipping. Generally tipping in the hospitality industry is Africa is usually left to the tourist’s discretion, no figures or laws enforce it, however the team that is to include the ranger guides, the porters, the cooks, and other people assisting on the trip heavily rely on the tips for their survival, they work diligently to ensure that you are safe and comfortable, they will usually do what they can, including carrying you should you fail to move forward amidst the hike, so it’s worth bringing extra cash to tip every one. The average range is $15 per person, however as mentioned, this is not a law.
Precaution: Take care of yourself while at the summit, especially in the night as it gets too dark. I imagined if I caught pneumonia in the night, what would happen?, if I slipped and fell on a rock and broke my tooth, what would happen, there are no demarcations at the summit barring you from how far on the crater you could go, whereas its nice to be adventurous and appear badass in your pictures, take absolute care of yourself, our guide told us of a lady who once slipped and fell in to the crater. There is very little the team at the summit can do to help you. Its all so easy to slip and fall especially if you don’t have a torch.
Don’t isolate yourself, should anything happen to you, logically, help would have to hike up the mountain for another 6 hours (God forbid 8 hours in the dark) to come to your rescue. Stay hydrated, don’t get too drunk, I know a bottle of whisky may chase the biting cold for a few moments, keep warm and stay safe. You’ll enjoy the experience much more when still alive.
Luggage room: The Kibati information point has a luggage room where climbers can leave unnecessary luggage when going on the climb, take only what you need to the top, the porters can help carry your hiking gear. Items like laptops, chargers, suitcases, souvenirs are completely not necessary, save that space in your hiking bag for at least a bottle of whisky to keep you company or a tiny flask for some hot tea when you’re sleep deprived.
Flying a drone: Don’t bother with it, the gasses that are submitted in to the air do have ash and this in some way affects how the drones fly, our guide told us that the crater has swallowed more drones than he could count. There were several broken ones littered all over the place.
What you need to pack
- Good Hiking boots that are water resistant– Hiking boots aren’t necessary but a good pair of hiking shoes is a must! I opted for my pair of Coach sage nylon cold weather hiking boots, with rubber J, which were comfortable from the get-go and they did quite a great job at keeping water out. I had zero problems with them on this specific hike — they were warm, comfortable, waterproof, and didn’t give me blisters or sore feet. Make sure to break in your boots before you arrive to ensure they’re comfortable when climbing up and down the volcano.
- Warm Clothing: if you hire the gear pack from Mikeno/ Virunga, you’ll already have a warm T-shirt, a Jacket, sleeping bags, raincoat and blanket, but it’s best you carry extra warm dry clothes as you can’t gauge how much you will need. To layer and to sleep in when you reach the top. I wore 2 cotton leggings beneath my hiking pants, and on my top half, I had a cotton top, a woolen sweater, a cardigan, a thermal sweater, a leather jacket, and a rain jacket. I was still cold when walking around outside! I carried 2 pairs of warm gloves, a woolen hood and hat, and over 7 pairs of stockings. 2 scarves. I got to a point where I slept with my boots.
- A headlamp, or a good torch. There is no electricity at the summit, except for what you get from the lava glow and in the kitchen, you will need a torch to serve as lighting In the cabin, or even while you walk to the lava point or kitchen or bathroom, I would recommend a head lamp because its easily strapped on you, I almost dropped my phone in the crater as I was maneuvering my way to view the lava.
- Rain gear and waterproof hiking pants. It’s the jungle, and so it rains anytime, carry a light raincoat, water proof hiking pants and a rain cover for your bag. If you hire the volcano pack, the rain poncho is already included.
- A drybag with change of dry clothes. As you hike, you sweat and most likely the rain gets to you, you will want to stay warm at the top of the mountain, carry a dry bag with your dry clothes, you can fit it in a polythene bag so it doesn’t get wet.
- A sleeping Kit. The cabin only includes 2 leather thin mattresses and nothing more. If you hire the Volcano pack, you’ll have the sleeping bag and warm blanket, otherwise you will have to carry these, and risk them getting wet.
- Portable pre-charged chargers for your camera and phone, or make sure to fully charge your gadgets before hiking as there is no electricity.
- Camera. You will need to capture these memories of a lifetime. If your phone has a good camera, well and good. I used both my iPhone 4 s and my Nikon D5300 to capture the memories.
- Prophylaxis, I usually carry Diamox, Anti malarias and painkillers. You never know when you’ll need it, I also carry massage oil, bandages, and knee support caps.
- Water, Glucose and some snacks, you’ll need to keep your self hydrated at all times
I have enjoyed putting together this piece, the memories come gushing right back and with each key I type. I promise that I should live to experience this trip AGAIN. This has been the BEST TRIP OF MY LIFE and I want you to experience it. Feel free to leave a comment, questions, or anything and I will be more than happy to advise you – For Free!