I did it. I climbed a volcano.
You know, Congo has a lot going against it. There’s extreme violence, there’s severe corruption, there’s absolute poverty. But there is beauty. There are things you can’t even dream of doing in other places, like seeing gorillas, camping by the Congo River, or floating down rapids. And climbing a live volcano to see the pool of lava at the top.
It was a long trek, took us six and a half hours to get to the top, though a lot of the delay was a result of the rain storm that decided to grace us with its presence towards the top of the mountain. I seem to have a tendency of attracting said storms during hard hikes, such as in Kimpese [note to self – be better prepared for the rain in a rain-heavy country].
We set off from the base in Virunga Park (which was really cool to be in considering I’d recently seen the amazing documentary about that very area) in the morning. There was a loud Spanish group and a noisy French group hiking with us, and I was travelling with a Spaniard and a French person who then tried to keep their nationalities secret for the rest of the trip so as not to be associated with them. We had to all travel together, so you basically went as fast as the slowest person (thankfully, I was just the second slowest person so didn’t feel too bad about the speed).
There are four pre-determined stops along the way, between 45 minutes to two hours in between. Most of the hike is tough but doable, as long as you’re relatively fit, but the last stretch is intense. It’s incredibly steep, all tiny loose volcanic rocks, and if you make the mistake of looking down, you can basically see the bottom of the mountain. Everyone said to save our energy for the last stretch and they weren’t exaggerating. Save your energy for the last stretch. Having a tiny phobia of slippery slopes at tops of mountains, I found that part to be the hardest, especially since I was soaking wet and freezing cold at this point. Fortunately, my poor porter took pity on me and helped me for that entire section.
Then we arrived at the top. It is very, very cold at the top, incredibly windy and if it had rained on your trek, the temperatures drop even further. Fortunately, since we were in Goma for work and didn’t have time to prepare our own food, we’d hired a cook who had gone up ahead of us and greeted us with an amazing bowl of hot soup. I then changed out of my soaking wet clothes and once the fog cleared up, we headed to the volcano top.
That was spectacular. You’re rather far away from the crater, so you don’t actually feel the warmth from the lava (alas), but it was amazing. It is so active, constantly boiling and bubbling. You could also hear it, rumbling in the distance. Mt. Nyirangongo is one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, and its lava is the fastest moving lava, which is terrifying for Goma, as it’s hard to predict when it will blow, and then there is not much time to prepare for it.
Once we took our fill of pictures of the crater (and got too cold to really enjoy the top), we headed back to our “cabin.” There are 4 cabins at the top, each fitting 4 people (two on each side), so up to 16 people can book a trek. There have been instances of three people per tent when it was overbooked, but for two people it’s very comfortable. There are tents inside each room with mattresses, two rooms per cabin, though I use the word cabin very loosely – in between the two rooms is an open area with the wind blowing through the tarp covering the area. There is also a bathroom with probably the most amazing view onto the Goma valley, though it’s a little terrifying to get to.
Our cook made us a delicious dinner and after we were semi-warm from the fire, we headed to bed. I slept amazingly well, it was very warm and comfortable inside the tent, and only came out the next morning because they threatened to leave without us. A quick breakfast and back down we went. The first part was of course terrifying again, but then the rest of it was a smooth hike down. It took us about four and a half hours to get down, where our ride was waiting to take us back to Goma.
What to Bring: Hiking gear (strong shoes, sticks if you need them, etc), warm clothes (temperatures drop to a little above freezing almost every night), camping gear, waterproofing materials to cover your bag and sleeping bag in case it rains. If you book your trip through Virunga, you can rent most of this stuff directly from them.
When to Go: Anytime of year, depending on the security situation of the area and of course, the activity of the volcano itself.
How to Get There: You have to get to Goma first, which has its own set of challenges. From there, the Park or your tour company normally provides transport that picks you up from your hotel. It’s an easy drive but best to go with a guide to make sure you don’t get lost if you want to get there yourself.
Travel Time: 45 minutes to the mountain, on average 6 hours to get to the top. It can only be done as an overnight trip.
Risk Assessment: It’s a hike up a mountain. Come prepared. The Park was closed for several years due to M23 activity but it is now safe to do the hike. There are also two rangers that accompany you for the entire trip, so we never felt unsafe on the trip.
Contact Info: To make a booking, contact the Park directly (http://visitvirunga.org/, you can also make bookings to stay at the luxurious Mikeno Lodge or see the gorillas here). Remember, there are only 16 spots per hike, and you normally need to make a booking in advance as spots fill up fast. We used a tour company (there are a few, but we chose Kivu Travel http://www.kivutravel.com) to provide us with snacks, meals and transport. Comes out to be more expensive, but less of a hassle to prepare.