To the Far East of the war prone Democratic Republic of Congo is Africa’s oldest National Park, Virunga. It is at Virunga National Park that the world’s largest lava lake and the Nyiragongo volcano can be found. Mount Nyiragongo is located about 20 km away from Lake Kivu and Goma town. As an active volcano, Mount Nyiragongo is prone to frequent eruptions. It is unclear how many times eruptions have occurred in the mountain but about 34 eruptions have been recorded since 1882. The volcano still shows signs of erupting anytime after the most recent which happened as recently as in 2002. These eruptions have often led to the loss of several lives given that the lava floods flow out at great sped of less than an hour. The 1977 eruption claimed the lives of at least 70 people but the most devastating one recorded was recently in 2002. More than 140 people were killed and at least 120,000 more displaced with the volcano releasing great volumes of lava which headed for Goma town and continued up to the airport and Lake Kivu shores. The earthquakes that followed for 3 months left Goma town in great ruin. The volcano is now stable with the bubbling and roaring fires from the lava lake on the mountain summit attracting thousands of tourists who are interested in hiking mount Nyiragongo volcano each year to DR Congo.
How to reach Mount Nyiragongo
Hiking to the peaks of mount Nyiragongo is not for the faint of heart. Those who can brave the hike will be rewarded with beautiful scenery at the very top crowning it all by bearing witness to wonderful sightings of nature at its best. The lava lake at the top of the volcano explodes from side to side looking for the smallest space to explode out. This sighting of the exploding lava lake is considered one of the best in the world.
How do you get to Mount Nyiragongo. The journey usually starts from Rwanda or Uganda because most visitors to Nirgaongo tend to combine Nyiragongo hiking with other activities like gorilla trekking, hiking the Congo Nile Trail, game drives or boat riding in Lake Kivu. The journey from Kigali to Goma in Congo takes about 3 hours. You can take public transport if you are travelling on your own or use the services of a tour operator to transport you all the way to the starting point of the trail in Goma. The journey from Rwanda to Congo is very interesting with the beautiful landscape, great scenery, tea plantations and the Lake Kivu among the things that will catch your eyes. Mount Nyiragongo is less than an hours’ drive from the border with Rwanda. Crossing the Congo Rwanda border involves going through rigorous checking at the checkpoint. You will need to have all your travel documents and most importantly your yellow fever vaccination certificate to be able to cross the border.
Climbing Mount Nyioragongo
Climbing mount Nyiragongo takes approximately five hours and can be strenuous and challenging for one with low levels of fitness. It is important to prepare mentally and physically to deal with the steep sections of the mountain. Porters are available for hire at the starting point and foot of the mountain. The activity usually starts as early as 9am in the morning after breakfast. You start by heading out to the Kibati Ranger post in Virunga National Park for briefing about the activity. There are stops in between the hike to allow climbers refresh and also marvel at the scenery down below. The first part of the trail involves hiking through sections with little gain in altitude. This is where those who have a second thought about their level of fitness and overall ability to complete the hike can decide to quit. The second section is characterized increasing altitude and loose small lava rocks just after the first stop (resting point) that may cause you to slide off balance if you didn’t come with suitable hiking shoes.
In the third segment, speed is reduced and focus is priority. Besides the small lava rocks from the previous section, slippery stones and the higher altitude makes hiking more challenging.
The forth and longest segment of the hike is characterized by a stretch of steeper slopes and higher altitude. The weather gets colder as you hike higher and the rains are common around this segment hence requiring good layering and raincoats.
The fifth and final segment is the shortest but steeper than all the other sections. However the sight of the nearby cabins at the summit is enough motivate any would be hiker to reach the top. Moreover hikers who get to this point are allowed to complete the rest of the journey at their own pace unlike the beginning sections where you have to stick with the group.
The mountain top
There are two sets of cabins adjacent to each other on top of the volcano. Two cabins are built a few feet from the volcano and the other a few feet down the mountain. They are furnished with two small mattresses with pillows.
The top of the mountain has strong winds and is much colder than one would expect leaving you freezing if not well prepared. Warm clothing and a cup of coffee will come in handy while at the top.
After such a tiring ascent to the summit, being able to spot the lava lake and bubbling orange magma will give you a great feeling of accomplishment – an exciting lifetime experience that cannot be described by words or pictures.
Descending the volcano
The descent is rather quick and fast session that on average takes about 3 ½ hours. ut almost challenging as hiking up. The steep segments of sharp rocks require extreme care to avoid stumbling off to the ground. This part of the journey is becomes interesting as you will enjoy the full view of Virunga National Park, the town of Goma and the extreme end of Lake Kivu in Rwanda.
Tips for hiking Mount Nyiragongo
Hire a porter: Hiking with heavy backpack loads can make it difficult to navigate the steep slopes of the mountain. Porters are used to hiking this mountain and can help with your heavy luggage while also support you climb the tough segments of the hike. Each porter is allowed to carry a 15kg load and hiring costs about $24 per porter.
Know your fitness levels and physical limits: Hiking mount Nyiragongo requires some level of fitness. Ascending to the top can be strenuous and demanding while descending applies pressure to your ankles and knees often causing knee pain at the end of the hike. You need to know how reaction and sensitivity to weather changes as it can get really cold on top of the summit.
Mental readiness: Being physically fit is great but not enough to successful hike Mount Nyiragongo. You need to come prepared to complete the journey knowing that you will go through some physical challenges. It’s recommended you take a few days getting your body ready for major hikes by having minor hikes. Those who are on a longer safari can achieve this by first going for gorilla trekking or waterfall hikes before embarking on a greater challenge like Nyiragongo.
Have a hiking stick: A walking stick is highly recommended for both ascending the steep slopes and descending down the slope. Hiking sticks will help you remain stable and gain momentum during the hike.
Be property cautious: It’s important to always keep your belongings close to you, especially money, laptops, camera and any other valuable items you might have come along. The cabins on top are not as protected as you would expect.
Carry along a yellow fever certificate: To avoid more expenses while crossing the DR Congo border, try to get the yellow fever vaccination and card. The card is a requirement before crossing to DR Congo.
Carry warm weather gear: Carry along extra warm clothes to help keep you warm when it gets too cold on top. Mere layering may not be enough. You will also need thicker pants, heavy stockings, a scarf and heavy sweater.
Packing List for Hiking Mount Nyiragongo
- Good hiking shoes: These should be comfortable (preferably waterproof) walking shoes with rubber soles that would give good grip of the rocky slippery slopes while keeping your feet warm and dry.
- A rain jacket: This will protect you from any downpour. They should be light weight so as to easily ascend the mountains.
- Sunscreen and hat: This will help guard you from the suns heat and any downpours.
- Warm clothes: Layering is vital to keep you warm during the hike. The weather gradually gets colder as you gain altitude and actually gets worse at the top.
- Camera and Binoculars: A camera is vital to keep records of the amazing lava lake and great scenery around the Virunga ranges. You will need binoculars more especially while descending the volcano to catch the full view of the Virunga National Park along with distant shores of Lake Kivu on the other side of Rwanda.
- Daypack: A water proof falling backpack is very essential to protect your valuable belongings such as the camera, smart phones and iPads from damage from the rains.
- Packed lunch and bottled water: Hiking Mount Nyiragongo will make you tired, thirsty and hungry. Moving with something to drink and eat is essential.
- Portable charger: A charger will help keep your digital devices powered all the time on top of the mountain.
- Headlamps/flashlights: The mountain top is dark with no power or light supply of any form. Having a flash light can help you when it comes to moving around to the kitchen or toilets.
Note: Hiking mount Nyiragongo is a year round activity but we recommend that you target the dry season that runs through from June to mid September. The other months except for January, February and partly December are coupled by heavy rains that make the mountain steeps more slippery.
Mount Nyiragongo hiking permits go for $300.
Besides Nyiragongo hiking there are other great attractions within Virunga National Park such as Mountain Gorilla trekking, chimpanzee tracking, bird watching and wildlife viewing among others.