DR Congo - Climbing Volcanoes

DR Congo - Mount Nyiragongo Volcano Climb

So guest blogging, where to start? It was quite a climb.. And what better way to spend the last few days in Rwanda than a boys' trip to neighbouring DRC to scale a volcano!

Hugging the southern most tip of the Virunga Mountain Range and the northern shore of Lake Kivu, Mount Nyiragongo and its lava lake perch, currently one of the most active volcanoes on earth. The surrounding area, close to the DR Congo-Rwanda border (recently more infamous for its political instability than tourist sites), provides an eerie yet exhilarating backdrop prior to a full day’s hike and chilly, summit campsite. 

Just to give you an idea of the power bubbling in Nyiragongo - it’s last major eruption resulted in near devastation of Goma, it’s neighbouring city to the south, including the relocation of over 400,000 residents.

So, of course, and without any hesitation, once word was out that travel advice to the region was amber rather than red, a group of six ill-prepared, but wide-eyed gents booked their trip. 
Heading out from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, we were treated to an outstanding view across the region, as clouds parted the further Northwest we headed, on the oft cloud filled path hovering above the green valleys. This included a great view towards the glowing and glaring Nyiragongo (that's it on the left below) as we reached Rwanda-DR Congo border town Gisenyi.

We were in for a rude awakening as we crossed the border into Goma. A city of turbulence, chaos and a sea of black rock, a reminder of what happened during the 2002 Nyiragongo eruption. It was that sort of feeling where someone or something, in this case Mount Nyiragongo, was announcing its devilish presence.

To make use of our evening before the early morning accent, we joined the rest of the expat crowd in Goma for one too many beers (and even a fancy cocktail – thanks to Neil’s poor French ordering) at popular haunt La Chalet.

And onto the climb: A series of bullets holes in the entrance sign observe the climb starting point at just over 1800m above sea level. Hiking three quarters of the way to the top – to just over 3000m – was especially fine, plenty of time to learn about the region from our guides and snap increasingly impressive landscapes. However, after departing the last base camp, we were in for something much more treacherous. Scrambling up nigh on vertical, craggily rock face was punishing to say the least. Even the fittest among the group were quite happy for frequent pit stops at this stage.

The local Sherpas, however, paced on all too easily in ill-fitting sneakers, one even carrying a drone on his shoulders (yes, drone, a couple of other fellas in the same group brought it up to see if they could fly it into the crater with GoPro attachment and retrieve footage. Yet to hear if the experiment was a success, but I have my doubts).

The reward for the hike: a quite chilly and damp, cramped cabin, precariously close to the rim. Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY! In unison, our party of six observed that not one of us had ever experienced something quite so magnificent. Imagine that towering, cartoonish volcano you jot out in your head, this was it! Crackling and snarling, this beast was magical. Twilight and then night just added to the awesomeness of the 400-metre wide lava pool. Luck was on our side all day with clouds and smoke plumes failing to curtail our view.

With feelings of vertigo kicking in, and polarised between taking more photos and simply just starring downwards, trusty iPhone took measures into it’s own hands by hastily shutting itself off. It was for the best, as the images you take back are nothing compared to being right there, silently standing and watching in awe. To that we poured a round of whiskeys, tucked into well needed spaghetti bolognese (thanks Dan, I had not thought to bring anything despite a bag of haribo gummies) and chatted around our fire until the early hours at eleven thousand feet.

I will admit that accommodation at the top is far from 5-star (well apart from an Indian, UN-peacekeeper chap who had paid for wine and three course dining experience. Not sure where you can sign up for this, maybe next time?), but comfortable nonetheless after a daylong hike.

After a shallow sleep, it was time to rise at 6am, where we swallowed some coffee and took one last look into the crater, before clambering back down the side of a mountain. 8 hours up, and 3 hours down, we were back in Goma and ready (definitely not ready) to paint the town red. Confidence was at an all time high, as all six had successfully scaled and descended the summit with no injuries, and so beer and shots flowed throughout the afternoon and into the evening at grungey nightclub Mambo Jambo. And why not, for an evening we were champions who’d just kicked a volcano’s ass!

Getting there

The Virunga National Park have created a great website with instructions on getting to the National Park, booking treks and sourcing visas. Definitely use this as a first point of call when planning your trip. Make sure to wear decent hiking boots, pack warm clothes (including gloves/hat), prepare plenty of nosh that you can heat up and bring along a flask of something strong to cheers to at the top!