Mount Nyiragongo is one of Africa’s ultimate travel experiences, although few people have heard about it.
It’s an active volcano with a boiling, spitting lava lake. As part of a five-hour hike you can admire lava spurting into the air, as well as take in vistas that are more impressive than Mount Kilimanjaro.
You walk up rugged slopes, possibly after encountering some gorillas, then sink your senses into the inner workings of our Earth.
Interested? You bet. It’s one of the world’s most unique travel experiences and it’s yet to be plastered all over Instagram. You’ll be going off the beaten path here and the experience will be very personal, and possibly with no other visitors around.
There’s just one thing – Mount Nyiragongo is situated in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It’s Okay – Mount Nyiragongo is Currently Safe
If peace prevailed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country would easily become a leading travel destination in Africa. Yet two decades of volatility in certain parts of the nation has done little to keep away tourists from discovering its hidden treasures.
While the DR Congo is the only country in the world where both lowland and mountain gorillas reside, another hidden treasure lies in the great Virunga National Park – Mount Nyiragongo and its boiling lava lake.
Mount Nyiragongo is the only place in Africa where tourists can see a boiling lava lake up-close.
The active stratovolcano is located just over the border from Rwanda, close to the town of Goma. This is now one of the safest areas in the country. You may have seen the Netflix movie Virunga, which illustrates the civil war that has engulfed both a country and the region’s gorilla population.
The current situation is different and all reports are that Mount Nyiragongo is safe to visit. The security and safety situation is always changing, so don’t just take our word for it (the UK and Commonwealth Foreign Office is a trusted source of information). It’s not a trip for the feint-hearted, but this is the Congo, so it’s never going to be an easy trip for first-time visitors to Africa.
This is a special place and those who want to connect with their wild side will find a superlative experience.
About Mount Nyiragongo
Mount Nyiragongo is 3470 m high (11,380 ft) and located 20 km north of the town of Goma near Lake Kivu. It is one of the 7 major volcanoes found within the Virunga conservation region that covers certain sections of Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo.
Nyiragongo has had over 30 recorded eruptions in the last two centuries. Its last major eruption in 2002 caused the lava lake at the summit to gush out and flow down the mountain to surrounding areas at speeds of about 110 kilometers per hour, destroying property and life.
Despite the potential danger posed by the volcano, tourists flock the town of Goma and brave the two day hike to admire the boiling lava lake at the summit.
Virunga National Park had been closed to tourism for most of 2018 but is presently open once again. 2019-2020 is the perfect time to visit and witness Mother Nature at work.
The volcano is stable and safe for now and possibly many years to come. A group of researchers closely monitors the mountain’s volcanic activity from a nearby Observatory in Goma.
How to reach Mount Nyiragongo
Most tourists combine gorilla safaris in DR Congo with hiking Mount Nyiragongo. The journey to the volcano usually starts from Rwanda or Uganda. It is therefore advisable to catch a flight to Kigali before proceeding to Congo by road.
Most flights to Kigali arrive in the afternoon or late evening. The distance from Kigali to the border with Congo is about four hours by road.
It is recommended to book a hotel for the night before proceeding to the border the next day. There are cheap public buses and vans transporting people up to the border, but it is more convenient to use the services of an experienced tour operator. Visitors will be delighted with their trip from Rwanda’s capital to the Congo border as there is so much to see.
Rwanda is a beautiful country with rolling hills and valleys covered with green tea and other plantations. This provides plenty of opportunity for travelers to make stopovers, whether to relax by the romantic Lake Kivu or other scenic spots in the area.
Once at the border, tourists are required to show their travel documents and a yellow fever certificate. After clearance the traveler can then proceed to Goma town in Congo.
From Goma, excitement and anticipation sets in as you can already spot Mount Nyiragongo and the white fumes rising from the summit. Travelers are ultimately driven straight to their lodge for a well-earned break before the big ascension.
The actual Mount Nyiragongo hike
Mount Nyiragongo hiking tours in Congo start early in the morning at 9:00 am. Tour operators usually pick their clients from the hotel and drive them to the starting point in a village called Kibati.
All tourism activities in Virunga National Park begin with a briefing from the head guide or ranger. After the talk, hikers get some walking sticks and have the opportunity to hire a porter for about $15.
The porters help carry any heavy luggage or equipment and will assist inexperienced hikers navigate through the more difficult sections of the mountain by giving a hand where necessary.
Another group of porters is responsible for carrying supplies and helping set up things at the summit, including preparing meals.
Hiking to the top of the volcano takes approximately five hours. The most important quality while climbing up a mountain is mental preparedness. Hikers also need to be reasonably fit to complete the hike.
Be prepared, as conditions can be tough up there. Ideal preparation includes taking long walks and hikes on rocky terrain.
There are three segments to the hike with brief stops to rest, marvel at the scenery and take photos.
What to expect at the summit
There are 12 cabins with beds at the summit. Hikers don’t need to pay for the cabins as it’s all included in the hiking fee, which also includes dinner and breakfast. Once on top, hikers have a brief rest and are then led to see the roaring fires and lava lake gushing up and down the volcano.
The experience is difficult to put in words. But at the end of the day, you can get the feeling of having accomplished something special that only a few are privileged to experience in their lifetime.
The temperature at the summit is very cold and windy. In order to have a comfortable hiking experience, it is highly advised to come with a light rain jacket, hiking boots and warm clothing.
Descending the volcano is quicker and takes about three hours to complete. It gives you clearer and more sustained views of the Virunga National Park, Goma town and Lake Kivu.
Cost and requirements for hiking Mount Nyiragongo
Climbing mount Nyiragongo is possible throughout the year. However, the rainy seasons cause the trails to be more slippery and difficult to explore. The most ideal time to climb Mt Nyiragongo is during the dry months of December to February. June and September are also favourable.
Nyiragongo volcano hiking permits cost $300 per person. The permits are acquired directly from authorities in Virunga National Park, or preferably through a tour operator. International visitors making their own travel arrangements need to first get hiking permits before proceeding to apply for a Congo visa.
Security clearances are tougher in DR Congo compared to Uganda and Rwanda. The best way to ensure your visa is approved is to travel with a tour operator. Tour operators take care of everything, and provide all the necessary visa assistance. The Congo visa currently costs $105.
Mount Nyiragongo – What Are You Waiting For?
This is a bucket-list travel experience that cannot really wait. Just think about it – hiking to the top of an active volcano, sleeping at the summit, and watching a lava lake spit flames and ash.
The security situation in the DRC is always changing, so you really need to plan and act quickly, because in a few years time this experience may not be possible.
Okay, it’s not an experience for everyone. This is hiking an active volcano in a volatile and still war-engulfed country. Which is exactly why it is so appealing to so many people. If you want to connect with your wild side, then Mount Nyiragongo is on another level.