Earlier this year I finished my Cape Town to Cairo trip visiting as many African countries as I could. I did some research on what’s the best way to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country known for its violent crime. I came across Virunga National Park where you can do things like gorilla trekking, chimpanzee walks, and climb Mount Nyiragongo to see the world’s largest lava lake. What really fascinated me was the hike to Mount Nyiragongo because seeing an active volcano has been long on my bucket list, but I also ended up doing the gorilla trek. Read more about my gorilla trekking experience here.
I start this blog post saying that this hike has so far been the coolest thing I’ve EVER done in my life. And as I’ve traveled extensively, I’ve done a lot of cool stuff before like skydiving, safaris in Africa, multiple bungee jumps, lots of hiking and scuba diving, seeing pretty impressive sights, etc. But nothing can beat the experience summiting a mountain in DR Congo and the insane views you get at the top!
Booking your Trip
I used a tour company called Green Hills Ecotours. They will organize everything for you like transportation, visa, and permits (also food and accommodation if you want). They also help you with border crossing which turned out to be a savior for me as I had some issues coming back to Rwanda (more about this in the next post where I write about gorilla trekking).
Innocent, the owner of the tour company, and his team make everything to ensure you’ll have a great experience and everyone I met was so nice and helpful. Check out their Tripadvisor reviews – they only have excellent and very good reviews! That tells a lot, and I was ensured they are the best tour company to organize my trip to DR Congo.
Alternatively, you can book your trip through Virunga National Park’s website.
Crossing the border from Rwanda to DR Congo
Border crossing from Rwanda to DR Congo
As the Virunga National Park is close to the border of Rwanda, you’ll travel there overland by crossing the border from Gisenyi to Goma. Gisenyi is a lovely town in Rwanda situated by the Lake Kivu, and I highly recommend spending time there before and after your trip to Congo.
The entrance to the National Park in DR Congo
Green Hills Ecotours picked me up from my hotel, drove me to the border, helped with all the border formalities, and then drove straight through Goma to the starting point of the hike. The night before I had a met an Austrian guy in Gisenyi who had also booked with Green Hills and was joining for the hike. Even though I enjoy traveling alone, it was nice to share this memorable experience with someone! We were expecting other people to join too when we got to the starting point but turned out that we were the only ones! Not complaining though, I liked that we didn’t have to walk slower and wait for other people (not that we were very fast climbing up either).
Our group: two hikers, two porters and two guards
Before you start the hike, you’ll have an option to buy a wooden walking stick for $5, and I really recommend getting one. It was a huge help when trying to balance on the lava rocks. You can also hire a porter which is essential so that you don’t need to carry all your stuff because the hike is already challenging. This will cost you $24. Remember to tip the porters after the hike – they have a very physically demanding job!
One of our armed guards
The hike is divided into four sections, and after each segment, you’ll have a rest stop. The first segment it’s just a warm-up, and you stay at pretty much the same altitude. During this part of the hike, the previous group was coming down, and we met halfway. I was surprised to see how big (at least ten people) was their group compared to our tiny group.
The terrain after the first stop
After the first stop, the terrain changes and the ground is covered in loose lava rocks making it more difficult to walk. You’ll also start gaining altitude but nothing too physically challenging yet.
Spot the bird!
Gaboon viper sleeping
My hiking partner had asked before the hike if there are any snakes here and he was told not to worry, there are no snakes. I was kind of disappointed to hear that because I’m always excited to see snakes or any other exotic animals. Surprisingly, when we were hiking to our third stop, our guide spotted a snake. I was beyond excited as this was supposed to be the biggest poisonous snake in Congo – Gaboon viper! It was sleeping curled up inside a bush, so there was no danger. Besides the snake, our guide also showed us a camouflaged bird that I could not have seen myself because it was completely blended into nature.
One of the rest stops
When we reached the third stop, and as we were sitting at the rest stop I was kind of starting to worry about the altitude sickness, but I was still fine. During our hike from the third stop to the fourth, I began to feel a bit dizzy and nauseous. Bear in mind that I’m not used to high altitudes, and this was my first time summiting a mountain like this. This segment felt like the longest one, and we did several quick stops before reaching the fourth real rest stop.
An extra rest stop before reaching the fourth official stop
The fourth stop
The fourth rest stop is a hut where you can change your clothes if you want and put on some warm layers. Until this point, I had been wearing my hiking pants and a T-shirt and had been fine, but it was getting drastically colder when we reached the fourth stop. I put on a hoodie, jacket, hat, and gloves. When I got to the top, I also put running tights under my pants and a cardigan under the hoodie.
The view from the fourth stop – you can already see the cabins!
The last segment to the summit is short, and you can already see the huts from the fourth stop. However, it still felt physically challenging for me due to the altitude sickness. I really had to focus on not vomiting on the spot! It did get better when I reached the summit and got some time to get used to the altitude. Our total time to the top was around 5 hours.
There are cabins in a few rows at the top, and because we were the only ones there, we were able to choose ones closest to the lava lake. The cabin only has a mattress on the floor so don’t expect anything fancy. You also need to have your own sleeping bag and lots of warm clothes because it gets really cold. A head lamp is also a must because it gets very dark and there are no lights! If you’re like me and you’ve been traveling in Africa for a while without any warm clothes (like a hat, gloves, etc.), go to Kimironko Market in Kigali. I spent some time in Kigali trying to figure out where to buy winter clothes, and this is your best bet. You really need warm clothes for Mount Nyiragongo – don’t underestimate how cold it can get up there!
There’s also a toilet which is further down from the huts. It was very foggy when we did the hike, and trying to find the outhouse (especially when it was getting darker) was a challenge. Finding your way back up was just as challenging, and the lava rocks are slippery so be careful. The toilet itself was pretty clean, and it came with a nice view as the hut didn’t have a door. Bring your own toilet paper!
The Lava Lake
The first thing I did when reaching the summit, was, of course, going straight to the viewpoint to see the lava lake. The first thing I saw was a guy climbing up from the crater using a rope. What the heck, I was thinking… I was told that BBC is making a documentary there and the film crew had already spent a week living in a tent down in the volcano and they only came up when they needed food. I could barely see their tent close to the lava lake. Later on that night, I was invited to have some dinner with the BBC group. They had their own chef who cooked delicious vegetable soup and pasta.
If you book the trip on Virunga National Park’s website, you’ll have an option to pay for the meals and a chef will join you for the hike. Green Hills Ecotours provided me water and a lunch box with sandwiches and fruits. There is also one hut with “kitchen” where you can use the fire and pots if you want to cook your own food.
You can also cook if you want
If you are lucky and you have a clear sky, your guide will wake you up in the middle of the night to see the lava lake as the orange colors will be even more drastic in the dark. We weren’t that lucky, and the lava lake was covered in the clouds the whole night. I stayed up late talking with the guards by the fire because it was freezing cold outside. I could also use the internet because for some reason my Rwandan SIM-card still had a connection even in up in the mountains in Congo!
The view from the hiking trail
We left early in the morning to hike back and while some people had said that walking down is just as difficult as hiking up, it wasn’t the case for me. Yes, you have to be careful with the slippery and sharp lava rock, but overall I was feeling much better because I wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness.
We only stopped twice very shortly and made a quick stop to see the snake (still sleeping at the same spot!) and a chameleon. I think we made it down in record time and it only took around an hour. We were back so early that the next group hadn’t even left and we had to wait for the driver for a good half an hour.
Where to stay in Goma
My hotel room in Goma. Hotel Jerryson
When the driver got to get us, he took us to Goma to find a hotel. My hiking partner had booked this hotel on booking.com. There are not that many options you can book online but besides booking.com a great site to compare hotel prices is HotelsCombined. Hotel la Versailles Goma was the cheapest option at the time, but now there are other “cheap” hotels too. Note that you still don’t get value for your money – hotels are expensive but shitty. DR Congo is still not geared towards tourism. My tour company recommended a hotel called Centre d’accueil Caritas that is supposed to be one of the best mid-range hotels in Goma. Unfortunately, I hadn’t booked anything in advance, so it was full. The driver took me to Hotel Jerryson nearby, and I got a very basic room costing $50. The next day I did gorilla trekking but more about this in the next post!