Volcanic Wonder: Hiking Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo

Climbing Mount Nyiragongo is a mythic quest that ends in a rare sighting of the world’s largest lava lake. | By Alicia Erickson  
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Trekkers to Mount Nyiragongo have to make their way on treacherous lava-coated rocks. Photo by: Michael Runkel/robertharding/Dinodia Photo Library

A boat floats on the glassy waters of Lake Kivu at dusk. The moon is aglow and a fisherman casts his pole for the final catch of his day. My mind locks into this meditative scene, momentarily forgetting the worn-out city where I am staying: Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Next morning, my friend Allison and I are to begin our trek to Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano deep inside Virunga National Park, with the world’s largest lava lake.

Virunga, one of Africa’s oldest parks, is a mercurial landscape full of volcanoes, glaciers, savannahs, forests and Afro-alpine vegetation, all of which hold a rich cluster of wildlife within. This natural bounty has placed the park at the centre of a civil war for decades. Violence has endangered many species, in particular the mountain gorilla. In recent years, however, tourism has opened up, enabling visitors to trek to Mount Nyiragongo.

 

From Goma to Virunga

We set out for Goma on a rainy November morning, anticipating a quick, hassle-free journey. Goma is most easily reached from Rwanda, where the closest international airport is located. As I was living in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, at the time, I broke up my trip to Goma by stopping in Musanze, a Rwandan town in the North Kivu province near Volcanoes National Park, another region teeming with lakes, volcanoes, and wildlife.

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The volcano last erupted in 2002, streaming through the city of Goma. Photo by: Yannick Tylle/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Forgetting that it was Umuganda—a national holiday falling on the last Saturday of every month, where Rwandans took up community service—our journey didn’t begin until noon. Delayed buses, torrential rains, cancelled visas, a handful of other complications, and many hours later, Allison and I had finally made it to Goma, which is in eastern DRC. Frank, our driver for the weekend, greeted us at the DRC-Rwanda border and navigated us through the city. We drove by an old airport littered with abandoned airplanes and through the town’s narrow streets cluttered with single-storey concrete buildings and buildings lined with coils of barbed wire. Congo is a place of survivors. Goma is gritty and rough, a testament to the years of warfare and instability that have ravaged its people. Yet there is a vibrancy that resides side by side with the chaos here. Streets are cluttered with aluminum shacks selling tropical fruits, bright kitenge fabric, and cell phone kiosks. Motorcycles honk and rev as they weave in and out of alleyways.

About 30 minutes later, we had made our way through Goma’s complex labyrinth to our home for the night, a peaceful enclave on Lake Kivu, just in time to watch the moon rise over its placid waters.

 

Climbing Through the Rain

We wake up with the sunrise in anticipation of our climb. The skies are clear and the sun shines as Frank drives us towards Virunga. A nervous energy lingers as we approach Kibati Patrol Post, the starting point for our trek. Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption was in 2002, the effects of which can still be seen in Goma and the national park.

Hiking a Volcanic Mountain in Congo

Clockwise from top left: The volcano’s nightly eruptions are a prized sighting; Virunga National Park, where Mount Nyiragongo is located, hums with rare birds and animals; Hikers usually rest in metal cabins atop the mountain; Virunga is also the habitat of giant lobelias, common to forests in East Africa. Photos by: Yannick Tylle/Corbis Documentary/Getty mages (lava), Michele D’Amico supersky77/Moment/Getty Images (bird), De Agostini/P. Jaccod/De Agostini Editore/Dinodia Photo Library (plant), Kostyantyn Storozhenko/shutterstock (cabin)

A group of 10 eager climbers from different nations gather at Kibati along with a team of rangers armed with AK-47s, and porters carrying our food supplies. The hike starts at a gentle incline through rainforest terrain. Ahead of us, the volcano looms ominously. Behind us, the Great Rift Valley stretches for miles in thick green forested hills, extending west into the heart of the Congo and in the east towards Kenya. The sun shines bright as we take our first steps.

We have a long way to go. The hike starts at 6,525 feet and ascends to 11,382 feet over just a few kilometres. After the first rest point, the ground beneath us shifts to slippery volcanic rock. The terrain becomes increasingly uneven and challenging to navigate.

Within an hour, I can feel the first few drops of rain. At first, the light drizzle is a reprieve. But as it quickly turns into a torrential downpour, I long for the sweltering heat. Our ponchos and rain gear are well-intentioned but useless at this point. Water cascades down my face and backpack, while I scramble up the slippery escarpment. The higher we climb, the further the temperatures plummet. Time, temperature, sight—all start to blur together as I will one foot in front of the next, the volcano farthest of my preoccupations.

We huddle in a tin hut at the final resting point before the summit. The rain has subsided but I am soaking wet. Shivering uncontrollably, I curl into a ball to try and keep warm—a feeling that seems quite fleeting at the moment.

Between the summit and I is one last climb up vertical slopes entirely comprised of lava rock. With little traction and no clear path, I start to walk, hindered by the thick fog and the force of the wind. Soon, my chilled hands lose all sensation and I am unable to grip onto my walking stick. I methodically place one foot in front of the other as the campsite slowly draws closer.

 

Transfixed by Lava

After another hour or so, I clamber up the last of the rocks to reach our home for the night. At the top, a dozen metal shacks are built into volcanic rubble for sleeping. Stripping off my wet clothes, I layer on every piece of warm, dry clothing I can and set off across the precarious volcanic rock to finally witness what we have come for. Over the edge of the rim, the lava lake comes into view, bubbling and sputtering from the crater a few hundred feet below.

Sub-freezing temperatures at the top can only be escaped by squeezing into the makeshift shack, where our dinner cooks and our clothes dry over a toasty fire. I periodically duck inside to warm up and listen to park rangers and guides recount stories.

“I would come up here every day if I could,” one park ranger muses.

Though they are in high spirits and won’t talk about it, I know these rangers have witnessed the violent invasion of the park and have lost more than one comrade in the fight to protect Virunga.

Once I seal the warmth in once more, I bundle up to make my next trip outside to marvel at the volcano.

“You are fortunate it rained so you can see,” our guide tells us. “Many people don’t get to see the lake clearly. This is nature, it is unpredictable.”

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Clockwise from top left: Goma, capital of North Kivu in DRC, is a strife-torn city, afflicted by years of civil war; Rangers to Virunga are often armed to protect tourists; Lake Kivu is flanked by DRC and Rwanda on either side; The lava lake is sometimes blanketed by fog, hindering the wonderful view. Photos by: Great Pics – Ben Heine/shutterstock (market), Juan Alberto Casado/shutterstock (ranger), Chris Dennis Rosenberg/Moment Unreleased/Getty Images (camp), Ben Houdijk/shutterstock (lake)

Lucky does not quite capture the immensity of Mount Nyiragongo’s offerings. The night sky is tinted pale pink from the lava’s gold and orange flames. Rivulets of lava form an exquisite and complex tapestry, as ribbons of fog dance around the volcanic sphere. We stand as long as we can bear the numbing temperatures, mesmerised by the fiery mosaic.

 

The Way Back

In the morning, we wake for sunrise and for one last peek at the lava, only to find ourselves enveloped by a blanket of fog. The lake, once vibrant in the dark of night, is now invisible. We pack and prepare for our inevitable departure, blindly forging our way down the mountain.

Descent proves to be more precarious than the ascent, the rocks slipping from under us as we carefully manoeuvre our way out to the slick forested slopes where our adventure began.

At the bottom, we wait for Frank to pick us up. “Pardon,” he slurs in his thick French-Congolese accent. “There was a protest in Goma today. Roads were blocked. Cars were burned. People were shot.”

Without warning, we are jolted from our nature-induced trance into reality. Here we stand, on the cusp of the two universes in the eastern Congo. One foot in the jungle and the other in the solemn world of political strife. As we drive away from Virunga, we are unsure of what adventures await us next in Goma. We hold onto the quiet from Mount Nyiragongo for as long as we can, not wanting to leave behind our wild escape yet.

 

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Essentials

Getting There

Flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Kinhasa, the largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) usually require one or more layovers in the Middle East or Africa. Goma is a two-hour flight away from Kinhasa. Some visitors also fly into Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, which is a three-hour road trip from Goma. Treks to the summit of Mount Nyiragongo begin at the Kibati patrol post. Park rangers lead all treks and porters (unaffiliated with the park) are available for hire. Travellers need permits and must book treks or hiking tours in advance, which can be done through visitvirunga.org

 

Visa

First-timers to DRC need to apply for a visa with minimum three months validity (Rs13,250) through the Democratic Republic of the Congo Embassy in Delhi.

 

When to go

The best months to visit are from July to October.

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