A top the Mount Nyiragongo summit lays the largest active lava lake on earth — the Nyiragongo Active crater safely hidden in the Virunga massif in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It towers 3,470 meters above sea level, (11,380 ft.). The temperature at the summit is often below freezing; a couple of days the bare rocks are dusted with snow, and mostly devoid of vegetation. The mountain is harbored inside Africa’s oldest National Park, the Virunga National Park, about 20Km north of Goma town and Lake Kivu, just west of the border with Rwanda. Nyiragongo is a scenic stratovolcano built from several layers of lava. The volcanic activities are quite predictable as its monitored from the city of Goma by a group of Congolese volcano logists to gauge the seismic data and situation of temperatures, and therefore safe for tourists. However, its no doubt that since the 2002 eruption, the volcanic mountain is still sometimes feared for its eruption tendencies, with some recorded eruption occurrences of over 34 times since 1882. The main crater is about 2 km wide and is usually filled with a churning lava lake 600m below it. From the rim, trekkers can peer down into the churning lava lake. The volcano’s forested lower slopes are inhabited by a number of wildlife species including monkeys, chimpanzees, bushbucks and birds although the wildlife numbers considerably reduced as a result of the recent eruption barely 15 years ago that caused massive destruction to both human, wildlife and properties. Nyiragongo and the nearby Mount Nyamuragira are all together responsible for close to 50% of Africa’s historical volcanic eruptions. During the recent 2002 eruption, some of the lava flows were clocked at 100 KM/hr, reaching as far as Lake Kivu, nearly 20km from the mountain. The eruption, however, didn’t start from the top of the crater, but rather the sides, and as of today, visible hollow craters grace the slopes of the mountain.
The treks start at 1994 meters (about 6’500 ft.) At the Kibati patrol post. Armed ranger guides guide all treks. The duration to reach the summit at 3,470m is 6 hours and the total distance to be covered is 8km; some trekkers aim for 4 hours while other groups may take up to 8! You have to be cautious of the steep slopes and how this will affect your body’s ability to rapidly adjust to the altitude. Porters unaffiliated to the park can be hired to help ferry heavy luggage. Proper hydration is required as altitude sickness can be an issue for most of the trekkers.The climb begins at about 1,980m and ascends to 3,470m very quickly; all this while you will have to weather a biting cold, hailstorm and a steep climb. It’s recommended to consult your doctor before embarking on this hike so as not to endanger yourself and inconvenience other hikers.
Although uncommon, seasoned hikers and trekkers who are time bound can ascend and descend in a day, however it is recommended to spend a night at the summit to be able to recover the lost energy and then descend the following day. Basic accommodation and meals are provided at the summit, this also gives ample opportunity to see the lava lake at length and enjoy the fascinating views.
19 ITEMS TO NOTE WHEN PLANNING 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 immigrations 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. 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. 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. This means that hikers must have some level of physical fitness as the hike can be strenuous and altitude is gained really fast. 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 let that put you off: if you can walk around 8KM without stopping, 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. The weather is always unpredictable. However, on days with clear skies, you get the best views ever. Unfortunately, this can’t be pre-determined, not even at set off point.
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. For first time hikers who aren’t sure what to carry, a hiking gear costs $100 and can be organized through the Virunga office. It comes with a sleeping bag, rain poncho, a few warm clothes water and packed lunches.
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. Although unaffiliated to the park, porters can be hired at the base of the climb to carry loads for $24 round trip (gratuity not included). 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, each 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 and the ground handler handles all your movement arrangements. However, when booking direct with the Virunga office, they will have an officer pick you up at the boarder post (usually about $60 each way) and take you to the mountain base and 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.
For direct bookings, you may fly to Kigali International airport and then proceed to the boarder in Gisenyi, 4 hours away either by a private hire cab for the cost of $100. You may also opt to use a shuttle service as well, and the cost is about $15 each way and this 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 in Rwanda and Goma in the DRC. There are two border crossings in Gisenyi, so make sure you’re at the right one before you leave the country.
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.
What to carry. You must bring full rain and cold weather gear (moisture-wicking base layer, sweater or fleece, jacket, rain-resistant pants, long underwear, warm socks, hat, and a 0°C/32° –rated sleeping bag). The mattresses at the summit bear zero ability to retain any warmth. Temperatures at the summit are routinely below freezing. Although most people arrive at the summit sweating from the steep climb, this sense of warmth quickly gives way to cold. A complete change of base layers is a must. Failure to bring proper gear will lead to hypothermia. Please do not endanger yourself and others by coming unprepared for these conditions.
Additional items to carry; A hat, a pair of gloves, and a scarf, a headlamp to wear at night, you don’t want to risk dropping your phone in the crater or while you are hiking back and forth from the latrine. One of the best ways to prevent or treat altitude sickness is to stay hydrated, and if you decide to take Diamox, you’ll be peeing regardless, as it’s a diuretic. Expect to spend much of the night tag-teaming your cabin mate as you each head into the freezing cold air to pee. A headlamp comes in handy when you brave walking over lose lava rock in the night. A dry bag is also worth getting to be able to keep your dry clothes and documents. Fully charged power banks, as there is no chance for charging anything at the top. A small flask to keep some hot tea to take in the night I found out is a good idea.
Flying to the volcano. The experience you derive from visiting Nyiragongo lava lake is built up from a couple of the activities you undertake while consuming the service (trekking, hiking, etc) however some clients may not be able to handle the strenuous trek, for instance tourists with PWD (people with disabilities, or elderly clients) There is an option to fly to the volcano by helicopter, this option is NOT organized through the Virunga office, you may need to speak to a ground handler to arrange this, although as you can imagine, it will cost several thousand dollars may be 30 grand! To be honest, this could easily be the highlight of anyone’s life so I think it’s worth spending.
When to visit.All year round
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: The rim of the summit doesn’t have barriers deterring how far climbers can go, do not risk your life and get too close to the rim as it’s so easy to slip and fall. Especially in the night as it gets too dark. 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.
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