As twilight falls, the active lava lake at the top of Nyiragongo volcano boils like a gigantic atlas of doom. My heart is racing, but I try to grasp my camera steadily while stretching out at the edge of the Nyiragongo caldera to immortalize the magical scene. This is the very reason we struggled to cross the border of the enigmatic Democratic Republic of Congo. Every step of our grueling 5-hour trek feels relevant now.

Last winter I stumbled upon a jaw-dropping image: a tiny tent glowing at the volcano rim in the pitch-black darkness, just above a viciously fire-breathing lava lake. It looked insane, but at the same time, I felt a flash of pure beauty. The caption declared that this out-of-this-world volcano called Nyiragongo lies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It set off my alarm bells, but soon the only thing I felt was a compulsive beat banging against every cell of me: I must climb that surreal Nyiragongo that I hadn’t know even existed.

Quenching the thirst of adventure didn’t come easily this time. After some manic googling we found out that it really is possible to visit the Congo DR nowadays, though it’s not advisable according to most countries, such as the USA or our own. The dream was soon eluded, but not forgotten. When roaming Uganda and Rwanda last June, we caught ourselves gazing dreamily over the border of Congo DR. It was so close, yet so unattainable. We decided to do everything we possibly could to cross the Congolese border and complete the crazy Nyiragongo trek. Well, we eventually did, and it wasn’t too smooth, but that’s a whole another story.

Our Nyiragongo trekking team from Kasitu Ecotours: Daniel, Tresor, the best off-the-grid cook ever and our loyal porter
Our Nyiragongo trekking team from Kasitu Ecotours: Daniel, Tresor, the best off-the-grid cook ever and our loyal porter

Entering the Virunga National Park at the Foot of Nyiragongo

Our Nyiragongo trekking day dawned finally after an exciting night and day spent in the Congolese border town Goma. Our tour operator picked us up and off we drove through the borderland of Goma noticing how literally this town lies in the shadow of Nyiragongo. During the 20-kilometer ride we saw how the recent eruptions had destroyed life, but in the middle of the debris and collapsed houses there were still laughter and hope.

After a while, rusty and bullet-ridden signs welcomed us to Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa. Conveniently located at the trailhead of Nyiragongo volcano, the Kibati ranger station is the starting point for all Nyiragongo treks. We were greeted by a group of muddy hikers returning from the summit. They seemed tired, but grinned blissfully and couldn’t stop extolling the adventure. It pumped our adrenaline levels even higher. After signing the papers (yes, the risk was our own), we got a short briefing from the park rangers and were finally ready for our Nyiragongo trek!

Hiking Through the Rainforest in Fear of AMS

A pleasant rainforest accompanied us through the lower slopes of Nyiragongo. Monkeys, chimpanzees, bushbucks and even gorillas habituate these lands, but we saw only some birds and ants. The latter were my enemies – they made me jump over their paths and almost run a couple of hundred meters just to make sure that I didn’t get any unwanted travel companions. Even though the rangers hype the possibility of seeing chimpanzees and gorillas on the Nyiragongo trek, those diamond sightings are reserved for separately chargeable gorilla and chimp treks.

Our first break was well deserved after an hour of hard work. The rangers patrolled at the both ends of the path while we celebrated our first triumph with some homemade Congolese cookies. We tackled the first leg of our Nyiragongo trek in almost 30 minutes before the usual schedule, which made our rangers proud, but ourselves a bit worried. Whereas the Nyiragongo climb begins at 1989 meters, it ends 4-6 hours later to a whopping 3470 meters, so the ascend is quick and steep. Since deciding to trek Nyiragongo I had been anxious about the acute mountain sickness (AMS), from which I suffered in Cuzco a couple of years ago.

The best way to prevent the AMS is to climb slowly and stay hydrated. Luckily this time both of us were unaffected. Our brisk start came with a price, though. A few members of our group started to stumble over, and some were almost at the verge of giving up their dreams of conquering Nyiragongo. Our guide, Tresor, made a great job convincing the rangers to slow down before anyone was injured. In the end, hiking a mountain is certainly not a competition!

Crossing the Lava Fields of Nyiragongo

Just after the first break, the scenery changed radically, as the lava fields of Nyiragongo spread before us. I was surprised that the lava below our feet was from the 2002 eruption. Somehow the rugged landscape reminded me of Finnish Lapland. Scrambling on the lava gravel wasn’t easy and ascend was unmercifully steep. I praised our walking sticks dearly – you definitely need one to survive! Falling might be dangerous, as the volcanic gravel is ruthlessly sharp and spiky.

We had felt tired already after the first leg of our Nyiragongo trek, but the stunning views towards the neighboring volcano loaded up our energies again. Fortunately, the breaks started to pour in faster, in about 30-45 minutes intervals. The next affliction came out of the blue, though. Just after grabbing our sandwiches at the second break, the cloudburst began. We were hoping for just a quick shower, but torrential downpour became our companion for the next hours, making the last legs of our Nyiragongo trek even harder. During the rainy season, it’s impossible to avoid getting wet, but the dry season was almost here. We just had bad luck.

The slope of Nyiragongo was getting even steeper, and the thinning air made us gasp. Rain blurred the field of view, leaving open just ten meters around us. We stopped briefly at the fissure from where the lava of Nyiragongo had burst all the way to Goma, creating massive channels. The volcano was breathing in heavy fumes through smaller fissures, reminding that it’s still alive.

Die-hard trudging in the middle of thick smog and drizzle brought us to a new rain forest, which had grown upon the lava fields from the 1977 Nyiragongo eruption. The loose lava surface turned into slippery mud. Then the desirable shelter was ripped off, again. We continued to struggle our way through barren lava fields. My fingers were so frozen that it started to feel like our dearest Lapland. Congo DR took us by surprise: our waterproof gear was already soaked.

Conquering the Peak of Nyiragongo Volcano

Torrential rains forced us to cancel one official break of the Nyiragongo trek, so the final rest stop was already above the clouds. At last, we could see the peak of Nyiragongo volcano upon us. But the climb seemed disheartening: the ascension looked like 45 degrees. Our jovial guide Tresor raised the spirits by telling that the Nyiragongo summit was just 200 meters upon us. It was a tough struggle, though. The volcanic gravel was so loose that it brought down several members of our group. The final leg took only half an hour. Nevertheless, it was the hardest part of our Nyiragongo trek, with already tired muscles.

The Nyiragongo summit was in the clouds when we arrived. I had heard that some trekkers don’t even see the lava lake, which made me nervous. Tresor comforted me by telling that the sky usually clears up after heavy rain. Suddenly, our wet gear brought us luck! As we changed clothes, the landscape started to brighten up, and in one hour we could see all the way to Goma! We couldn’t have hoped for a better prize after the exhausting climb, yet this was just an appetizer.

Spending the Night at the Nyiragongo Volcano Summit

Are you ready to face the heart of darkness, the mouth of Hell? Nyiragongo has been awarded with many nicknames and overnighting above the world’s biggest lava lake is a nerve-wracking idea.

I was pretty terrified from the moment we acquired our Congolese visas throughout the Nyiragongo trek. However, once we reached the volcano peak, I somehow calmed down. I was waiting for heavy smells and fumes, which feel suffocating to me since I have a chronic lung disease. When we visited Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, even healthy persons weren’t allowed to stay at the edge of the smoking caldera more than 5 minutes. Luckily, it’s a different deal at Nyiragongo. There’s just a light smell of sulfur hanging in the air. It’s not more than you would feel near a swamp, and much less than we have encountered in the volcanic areas of Nicaragua or Iceland. Since breathing was easy even for me, a healthy person won’t feel any inconvenience. But of course, the altitude makes you breathless, also hindering the last part of the climb.

The Nyiragongo summit camp lies a bit below the highest point. So when you’d like peer at the blazing lava, you´d need to climb to the rim with a ranger or your guide. I suggest witnessing the lava show both at the twilight and right after the darkness has fallen because lightning affects the atmosphere drastically. During the night, the Nyiragongo lava lake is usually more visible. We were incredibly lucky, because at the time of our visit the crater was fully “open” like locals say, meaning that clouds and fumes didn’t cover the view at all.

The boiling lava of Nyiragongo forms beautiful, constantly changing compositions. It looks like a world map, where the countries are exploding and re-forming right under your eyes.

Gazing at the fiery lava after the nightfall was something I won’t ever forget, though I was shivering from both coldness and fear. Watching the lava lake at the rim is safe, but of course, you need to be careful not to fall. There’s a small cross memorating one Chinese trekker who lost her life here. At the crater walls are visible layers, or lava benches if you wish, from the past eruptions. If this giant chooses to erupt again, the lava flow could run even 100 km/h, since the lava is exceptionally fluid. So you wouldn’t make it very far. It’s a disturbing idea, but then again, it didn’t stop us from fulfilling our dream – and I’m still ecstatic about it!

The inhospitable conditions at the Nyiragongo summit bring you firmly back to reality, though. You have to be prepared for the severe weather and very basic accommodation. The scarcely vegetated Nyiragongo summit might even be snow-capped, and the winds are harsh. There are eight tents inside small, wooden huts, meaning accommodation capacity for just 16 people. In fact, you can’t really call them tents or cottages. There are just wooden platforms with roof and walls; most of the windows and doors are broken. Inside you’ll find a loosely hanging canvas upon two mattresses. It’s a shelter providing some shade from the harsh climate, but you definitely need to have enough warm layers to survive.

To add some fun, both our tent and sleeping bags were wet when we arrived. Of course, also our so-called waterproof shoes were soaking and base layers all sweaty. Luckily, we managed to dry one of the sleeping bags at the campfire and used it as a shared blanket. We drank around ten cups of tea and took some soothing herbs to support sleep. We felt shivery in our tent, but finally, tiredness took over, and we managed to get a few hours’ sleep.

The cottages at the top of Nyiragongo are scattered at two narrow strips of even ground. It’s a steep trudge up and down. Thus visiting a toilet at the Nyiragongo summit is not for faint-hearted. You have to hang on tightly to the rope as you descend an extremely steep slope. Be careful not to fall as lava gravel flows under your shoes. In the outhouse, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view reaching even the lights of Goma.

The boiling lava caldera of the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The boiling lava caldera of the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Is It Safe to Climb Nyiragongo?

You can’t escape the fact that Nyiragongo is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. So is it really safe to climb an active volcano? I would say yes, but the truth is that you never know. Walking around independently might be dangerous since the volcanic area has fractures emitting gas, but locals know how to avoid them.

Goma has its own seismologic observatory monitoring both Nyiragongo and its sister volcano, Nyamuragira, which is titled the most active volcano in Africa. Volcanologists should know well in advance what these giants are up to. However, due to poor funding, their resources are lacking, and the last time Nyamuragira erupted in 2010 it didn’t even give any sign. Some volcanologists claim that during the last eruption of Nyiragongo in 2002, the fracture reached all the way to Goma. That would mean that the next time eruption might start in Goma!

Before entering DRC, check the current security situation. The guerrillas roam in the Virunga area since it has been the battleground for the army of DRC and different armed groups, such as the FDLR (the remnant of Rwandan Hutu rebels), for some 20 years now. Every trekking group heading to Nyiragongo will have two armed rangers. We had even three, which made us wonder if it was more dangerous at that time. When some tourists were left behind during the climb, the rangers seemingly panicked and couldn’t even hide their reactions. So there might be real dangers hiding in the bushes, although we felt completely safe during our Nyiragongo trek.

How to Book the Nyiragongo Trek

Several Congolese tour operators can organize the Nyiragongo trek, and it’s also possible to book it independently from the Virunga National Park. We would suggest picking a local tour operator listed in visitvirunga.org, which is the official tourism site of the Virunga National Park.

We went with Kasituthe officially Eco Tours, which was somehow able to get our Congolese visas in a just one day instead of the officially required seven days. Our tour cost 500$ per person, including the visa (100$), the national park fee (250$), all transports, private guide, an excellent cook at the Nyiragongo summit, and all the food and drinks during the hike. Kasitu Eco Tours picked us up from Gisenyi, the border town on the Rwandan side, and helped us through the border of DRC.

Our guide Tresor was both enthusiastic and informative; an excellent travel companion in every sense. Whenever we stopped to take a breath, he conjured up different sweet or salty snacks. We were surprised by the quality of the food at the Nyiragongo summit: our dinner and breakfast at the mountain were so much better than most of the meals in fancy hotels in Uganda. The starter salad was actually among the best we’ve ever had in Africa. And it was cooked over a campfire at sweeping 3470 meters!

Quick Checklist for the Nyiragongo Trek

Only one group can trek to the Nyiragongo summit daily, and the group size is limited to 16 persons, due to the accommodation capacity. During June and July the Nyiragongo treks can be fully booked, so assure your spot well in advance. Park rangers lead the hike even if you have booked the trip through a tour company.

You must arrive at the Kibati ranger station before 9 AM; the Nyiragongo trek starts around 10 AM. The climb takes 4-6 hours depending on the weather conditions and overall fit of the group. It is possible to conquer Nyiragongo also on a day trip, but it will be a long and very challenging day.

Be sure to pack full rain gear, warm layers, long underwear, enough warm socks, gloves, a hat, and some snacks. When finally reaching the Nyiragongo summit, you’ll need to change a dry base layer immediately. Don’t underestimate the conditions, as the temperature at the summit might be near freezing and the risk of hypothermia is real. Sleeping bags can be rented for 7$. If you don’t have a cook with you, bring also enough food. A hot 3-course dinner can really make the day after an exhausting trek.  So consider hiring either a chef or cooking utensils.

Porters can be hired at the Kibati ranger post for 25$ and I strongly recommend taking one to save your energies. We had one porter for two of us carrying a shared backpack and of course our waters and meals. The maximum weight for one porter is 15 kg.

Despite the steep prize and rough climb, we were extremely content with our Nyiragongo trek. Not everyone in our group agreed, though. Some felt that the tough trek and conditions were too much to bear. If you are moderately fit and can handle camping at the cold temperature for one night, the unreal sceneries of Nyiragongo will bewitch you for good. The prize of Nyiragongo trek is witnessing the boiling lava lake at the top – it was one of the undisputed highlights of our one-month tour in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo DR.

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Take part in our grueling climb into the mouth of Hell! Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo boasts the world’s biggest active lava lake. We overnighted just upon the fiery caldera with armed rangers.

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