Imagine a place straight out of fantasy and mythology: a portal to the centre of the earth. A fiery pit, spewing red-hot smoke and flames and boiling molten rock. The real-life incarnation of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. Now imagine you can actually go there and see it with your own eyes.
And then stop imagining, because you really can.
The fantastical place I’m referring to is Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano that looms over the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It sits just inside Virunga National Park which is part of a volcanic region that’s shared between DR Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda; a region that is home not only to eight volcanoes, two of them still active, but also to the world’s only remaining wild mountain gorillas. In other words, a pretty incredible place that you should definitely visit if you can manage to wangle it.
The name Nyiragongo means ‘smoking mountain’, and as soon as you look at it, you can see why. It’s the most active volcano in all of Africa, and its perfectly symmetrical cone contains the world’s largest permanent lava lake, a huge pool of red-hot liquid that churns and spurts like some sort of hellish cauldron.
If ever there were a place to see before you die, this is undoubtedly it.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit Nyiragongo while I was volunteering for four months in Uganda (if you want to know what I was up to, have a look at my Uganda page for more posts about the country). As soon as I arrived I started to hear tales from friends who had scaled the volcano, and they showed me jaw-dropping photos, and everything screamed at me that this was something that I simply HAD to do while I was in the area.
So I roped in Linn, a travel blogger friend (check her out at www.travellinn.com, she’s ace!), and together we took a two-week trip around the west of the country. And once you’re in western Uganda, it’s only a few more hours’ drive to cross into Rwanda, and from there into DRC and Virunga National Park. When you think of it like that, well, really it’d be rude not to!
That’s not to say I wasn’t nervous. The last volcano I climbed was the 2,980 m tall Ol Doinyo Lengai in northern Tanzania in 2016. It’s also active, and I found both the ascent and the descent extremely challenging to put it mildly (to find out why, check out my post Ol Doinyo Lengai, Mountain of God). At 3,470 m tall Nyiragongo is bigger, so would it be even harder? Was I still fit enough? Would I make it to the top?
But as a photographer, I wasn’t going to let a bit of healthy fear cause me to miss out on possibly one of the most awesome photo opportunities of my life. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, and off we went.
We arrived at Kibati ranger station, the start of the trail, at around 10 am, and after registration, we joined the group we’d be walking with. Due to ongoing conflict in DR Congo, and the presence of dangerous armed militias within Virunga National Park, everyone who wants to climb Nyiragongo has to walk together as one group accompanied by armed rangers. The maximum group size is 24 – and while some days there can only be three or four people, we were unlucky and had a full complement. So our group was 24 walkers, plus assorted guides, porters, cooks and guards, which made for a noisy and slow-moving caravan.
Of course there’s another very real danger when climbing an active volcano: what if it decides today is a good day to erupt? I’m pretty sure halfway up the side of the thing is not the best place to be if molten lava starts spewing out of it! Fortunately on Nyiragongo they have a monitoring system and a series of coloured flags to alert people to the likelihood of an eruption. I checked out today’s danger levels: happily the flag was yellow, which translates to ‘The volcano is active. No immediate danger. The population can lead a normal life.’ Obviously green would have been preferable, but if yellow is good enough for the guards and porters, it’s good enough for me!
Depending on how strong you’re feeling you can choose whether or not to hire a porter. Now, I’d seen the photos and done my research, and I was determined to get the best photos I possibly could, so I was not travelling light! I had my Canon 5D Mark IV, 24-70 and 70-200 L lenses, a 2x extender, a tripod, and my small Fuji X100T camera, plus the usual overnight stuff, extra layers, and water, so it made perfect sense to hire a strong young man to help me out. This way, I figured, I’m also giving someone a day’s work and contributing to the local economy, right? At least, that’s how I justified it to myself!
Dragging out my rusty French from the depths of my memory I learned a bit about my porter. His name was Jean, and he’s 19. He’s currently still in school, but has ambitions of going to university and becoming a doctor. He does portering on Nyiragongo just one day a week to earn extra money for his studies. His friend Elli, who carried Linn’s bag, is 18. He’s the youngest of 9 children and works in Virunga to help support his family.
And so, with packs distributed and suncream applied, our gaggle of hikers hit the trail. Just as we were leaving, we saw yesterday’s group returning. Slightly grubby but happy, they wished us well as we began our ascent.
Stage One – First Look
Nyiragongo is 3,470 m tall. The trail starts at 1,994 m, and you have to walk about 8 km with a vertical ascent of just under 1.5 km to reach the top. The climb is divided into 5 stages with decent rest stops between each one to allow for the slower climbers to catch up and ensure the entire group stays together. Even allowing for slow walkers, it takes no more than about six hours to reach the summit, and could be much less if you are a small, fit group.
We took the first stage at a fairly quick pace. A well-trodden and slightly muddy path took us gently uphill through Virunga’s thick green forest. As we walked, our guide, Roger, told us a bit about Nyiragongo.
The volcano has erupted twice in living memory: in 1977 and most recently in 2002. In 1977 there was no monitoring and the eruption came in the middle of the night without warning. The lake drained catastrophically: lava streamed out of the volcano at up to 100 km per hour and engulfed the villages on the lower slopes. Around 2000 people died.
Then, on the 16th January 2002, Nyiragongo erupted again. At that time there was still no monitoring: conflict in the country made it impossible for scientists to be there. But locals had more warning because it happened during the day and it was preceded by a series of strong earthquakes. When it finally blew, one hole burst open in the side of the volcano and another close to Goma’s airport, and lava oozed out. But because it was slow moving lava this time, people were able to outrun it, and most escaped. Still, around 100 died, thousands were displaced, and the lava destroyed 40% of the city.
Stage Two – Lava Trail
It took us a little under an hour to complete Stage 1. We stopped for a rest and a snack, and then it was onto the next leg – and now we began to see signs that we were actually climbing an active volcano. The path became steeper, and mud gave way to a carpet of small stones: little tiny pieces of broken lava. Our guide told us this is because the slow-moving lava from the 2002 eruption cooled and hardened on the surface while still flowing underneath, and this continued movement caused the hard surface rock to break into tiny pieces.
Our guide’s name was Roger. He’s 37, has been a guide for 10 years, and has climbed Nyiragongo well over 150 times! That’s a hell of a lot of walking!
Roger grew up in a small village called Kyondo, about 400 km from Goma. When he was about 10 years old missionaries came to his village and he became fascinated by them. He wanted to learn more about these strange ‘muzungus’ (white people) so he began working with them, doing small jobs and acting as a guide. This later led him to move the 400 km to Goma to study tourism management, and from there it was a natural hop, skip and a jump to being a volcano guide.
Stage Three – Getting Closer
Stage Two took about 45 minutes, and then after a short stop for a sandwich and a loo break (yes, there are even toilets on the volcano, albeit not terribly pleasant ones), we were on the move again.
The terrain changed again, and now we were walking over hard, smooth lava, firm and solid underfoot like a frozen river of rock. But there was still plenty of vegetation too: leafy green ferns, brightly coloured flowers, and plentiful bird life all around us.
We were also high enough now to see out over the valley, with the city of Goma in the distance and beyond it, the hills of Rwanda.
While above us we could now see where we were headed: the top of Nyiragongo, enveloped in clouds.
While we walked I chatted briefly to one of the guards. Bernard has been a ranger for 22 years, and in all that time he has never once fired his gun in anger. I found myself hoping he wouldn’t get the chance to do so any time soon.
Rangers like Bernard risk their lives every day to protect the park, the mountain gorillas, and the tourists from Congolese rebels. Shortly after our visit, six of their number were killed in an ambush in another part of the park that’s currently closed to tourists. Bernard wasn’t among them, but it only goes to show the bravery and determination of guys like him.
Stage Four – Nearly There
The path got steeper still, but was still firm underfoot and entirely doable (especially since I wasn’t carrying a heavy bag), as well as being much greener than I’d been expecting. Everywhere we looked we saw weird plants including all sorts of succulents and flowers that I’d never encountered before, as well as some giant groundsels similar to those I saw on Kilimanjaro.
At 4.15 pm we reached the final rest hut, where the porters dumped their belongings (this was where they’d be sleeping) and then carried on ahead to divvy up the huts and prepare for our arrival. We, meanwhile, took a quick loo and water break before pushing on for the top.
Stage Five – Final Push
As we got higher we were finally able to see the top – with the little cabins that were to be our shelter for the night perched high on the cliff in front of us. They came in and out of view as clouds swirled round the top of the volcano, and as we climbed higher still the mists engulfed us too, so that we could no longer see down into the valley. It was ethereal and mysterious but also a little worrying: what if the clouds at the top meant we couldn’t see inside the volcano? I’d heard horror stories of people who came all this way and then never got to see a thing: what if this happened to us? But Roger assured us we’d be ok; the heat from the lava would burn off the clouds in the crater, he said. So on we went, keen to get to the top now and see for ourselves.
The Crater – First Look
And then, finally, at around 5 pm, after roughly 6 hours of climbing, we made it. I dumped my backpack in our hut and then charged up to the crater edge, desperately anxious to see the thing that we’d come all this way for: the famous lava lake.
And… nothing. The crater was completely full of clouds. Very occasionally, just for a split second, the mist would thin and I’d get a tiny glimpse of something red, very faintly… but then the gap would close again and all I’d see was whiteness. I wanted to cry with frustration. But I still had faith. We were there all night; surely it couldn’t stay like this forever? So I spent the time getting set up: unpacking my bag, rolling out my sleeping bag in the hut, getting my camera gear together, and scouting out the best spots to shoot from. When that cloud cleared, I’d be ready.
And finally, as darkness fell, it did clear. And it was everything I could possibly have dreamed it would be and more.
There are only six permanent lava lakes in the world, and Nyiragongo’s is the biggest of them all. At its fullest it can be up to 700 m across, though when we were there the lava had receded to a more modest 200 m diameter. Its size can vary due to the volcano’s activity, and in fact technically this lake is still part of the 2002 eruption: the lava has carried on bubbling ever since then.
The 200-metre-wide pool of red-hot lava boils and bubbles at 2000°C, with spurts up to 10 m tall and gas explosions bursting like fireworks. It’s constantly changing, shifting and moving, new cracks appearing and old ones closing up, old lava cooling and sinking as fresh, molten rock rises to the surface. Even though we were sitting 600 m away, we could feel the heat of it on our faces – the difference in temperature when we went back down to the huts was striking. And the sound it makes is astonishing – rushing and roaring like a waterfall, or like a boiling ocean. I captured some of it on video, but I’m not sure this does it justice.
From below, the glow from the lava lights up the clouds of smoke like a red beacon. It’s hardly surprising that locals believe Nyiragongo is the home of the devil and the gateway to hell – after all it literally is a portal into the centre of the earth.
I was utterly transfixed. At the risk of sounding too gushy, I honestly think this may be the most incredible thing I have ever seen or will ever see in my entire life. The power of the earth, the raw heat and energy rising up from that gateway to the underworld, was indescribable. I took photo after photo, and every time I thought I’d taken enough I looked out and saw something else was even more interesting and more beautiful than the last. And with my 70-200 zoom lens and 2x extender I could see closer and in far more detail than was possible with the naked eye. I’m really struggling to find the words to describe just how incredible that was.
But then a weird thing happened to me. When I took my eye away from the viewfinder, and took the time to appreciate the spectacle properly with my own eyes, I was gripped by gut-wrenching fear. Even sitting perfectly securely on the solid rock at the edge of the crater, with no risk of falling, I suddenly became acutely aware that I was just inches away from certain death: lean a little bit too far, slip and lose your balance, and that’d be IT. And – I don’t know if you get this – but I felt this weird compulsion, wondering what it would be like to throw myself in. I’m told this is a symptom of vertigo – and don’t worry, I wasn’t going to do it! – but the power of that shifting pool of red-hot rock was so mesmerising I was at once drawn to it, and terrified of it.
I stayed on the crater rim as long as I could, watching and photographing and trying to print the memory on my mind as indelibly as possible. But eventually, even with the heat from the lava, the cold got the better of me and I decided it was time to go to bed. On the way back, I noticed that the view from the other side was pretty spectacular too, with the lights of Goma sparkling in the distance.
There are twelve simple hikers’ huts at the top of Nyiragongo, each one equipped with two mattresses. Unroll a sleeping bag and wrap up warm, and it’s not a bad place to spend the night. Linn and I were lucky enough to be allocated one right below the crater rim, which allowed me easy access to kit and clothing during the evening.
Of course the downside of being so close to the crater meant we were just about the furthest from the long-drop toilet hut which was further back down the mountain and bit of steep slog to get to in the cold and dark!
A few more huts near the top of the volcano provide accommodation for the guides, and a place to have dinner, which was prepared for us while we were busy watching the action.
Moving around at the top is a little tricky: the surface is obviously steep and uneven, and once it gets dark can be rather precarious. Take your time when moving around, and a headtorch is a must!
The morning after
Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the cold, but I slept appallingly. We were woken at 5.30 am, and given an hour to pack up and have breakfast. But eating could not have been further from my mind. Not only was it far too early, but I had just one hour left in this astounding place before I’d have to leave and never see it ever again. No way was I going to spend that hour sitting inside a hut! So back I went to the crater rim, to soak up that view one last time.
And then it was time to leave. I reluctantly tore myself away and down we went, taking care not to slip on any loose stones. It was steep but not too terrifying, particularly with a walking pole to help with balance, and as long as I took my time and made sure to put my feet on the bits of ground that looked solid, it was fine.
We left the top at around 6.30 am and after a quick march downhill with just a few short breaks, we were back at the trailhead by 10.30 am, where the next day’s group – just six of them this time – were getting ready to leave. I wonder what they thought when they saw us all returning…
And even though it was rainy season, it didn’t rain on us at all. Not a drop. I still can’t get over how lucky we were. Nor for that matter, how lucky I am in general, to have the enormous privilege of getting to experience that astounding place. I can’t imagine I will ever get to experience anything even close to that powerful ever again.
And now for the practicalities…
Climbing Nyiragongo: is it safe?
UPDATE: About a week after I published this post, two British tourists were kidnapped in Virunga National Park and a ranger was shot and killed. The tourists were later released unharmed, but Virunga has now been closed to tourism until further notice due to safety concerns. Below is what I originally posted, I hope you may still find it interesting, and I very much hope it becomes useful again in the future when the park reopens.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been dogged by conflict for many years. Armed militia operate in parts of Virunga National Park, and as I mentioned above, only a few days after my visit there, 6 park rangers were ambushed and killed by rebels.
So you are absolutely right to ask the question, and for some people, the risk will be too great. Others go, but absolutely do not tell their family until they get back!
My view was this: DRC is huge – it’s the 2nd largest country in Africa after Algeria and the 11th largest in the world. Much of the conflict that’s going on is well away from where you’ll be. I even checked with the UK Foreign Office before going and they only advised against travel to certain areas, so I was happy that I would be ok and that my travel insurance would cover me for the visit. I suggest you check again before booking your trip.
In addition, the park itself is 3,000 square miles and rangers monitor the situation closely. If there is any risk to tourists, they simply won’t let you go. In fact, the entire park was closed to tourism from 2009-2011 and 2012-14 out of safety concerns – so you know they take it seriously. So I decided that if they said it was ok to go, I’d trust them. Obviously when you go the situation may have changed, so you’ll need to decide for yourself.
As for the volcano itself, well of course it’s steep sided, uneven underfoot and will be dark. So take your time, take care, and don’t go too close to the edge. In 2007 a woman from Hong Kong did actually fall off and die, so be careful up there!
Booking, visas, and other essential information
Nyiragongo is situated just inside DRC close to the borders with both Rwanda and Uganda. The best way to get there is to travel via Rwanda: either fly to Kigali and then drive, or cross the border from Uganda at Cyanika.
You will need separate visas for both Rwanda and DRC. If you are only passing through Rwanda, you can get a ‘transit’ visa that costs $30; you’ll need another for the return journey – at the time of writing these could be bought at the border though rumour has it that an electronic visa system is in the process of being introduced, so do check. If you’re travelling on an East Africa Tourist Visa (which allows multiple entries into Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) be aware that it’ll be invalidated once you leave the zone and cross into DRC, and you’ll need to buy another visa to come back. DRC visas can be organised either directly through the park authorities or through your tour company and cost $105.
You can book the climb directly through the Virunga Park Authorites at visitvirunga.org/treks – scroll down and click on Nyiragongo (but do take a look at their gorilla and chimpanzee trips too if you have the time and budget). They will organise your visa, the climb itself, and there are options to add on meals, water, and extra gear like sleeping bags and warm jackets (all highly recommended). Then all you need to do is get yourself to the start of the trail.
However Linn and decided to travel with Green Hills Ecotours, who were recommended by a friend. They picked us up from the Uganda-Rwanda border and drove us to Gisenyi, a small town close to the border with DRC. We spent the night there (at the stunning Inzu Lodge) and next morning, our guide, Roger, collected us, guided us through the DRC border formalities, and then drove us to the start of the Nyiragongo trail. Green Hills also provided us with sleeping bags, warm jackets, and walking poles, as well as a plentiful supply of food and water and a tonne of information. Note that if you book directly with Virunga you won’t get an actual tour guide, just someone to lead the way. In Roger we had a much more informative English-speaking guide – in fact he was so good he pretty much ended up guiding the entire group!
The hike itself takes about 6 hours. If you have a reasonable level of fitness you should be absolutely fine, though people who suffer from altitude sickness may struggle at 3,470 m. If you’re desperate to see the lava lake, but really can’t do the climb, then there is actually a helipad at the top which is used by scientists for easy access to study the volcano, but you’ll need extra deep pockets to be able to use it!
What to take
When I climbed Kilimanjaro I wrote an extensive packing list – this trip is obviously much shorter but many of the same rules apply here so do check it out if you’re not sure. Things absolutely not to forget are:
- Good hiking boots or shoes. You can do it in trainers, but it’ll be much harder.
- Warm clothes – temperatures can drop below freezing at the top.
- A change of clothes and clean socks for the top – keep these in a separate plastic bag in case it rains on the way up.
- Wet wipes and toilet paper
- Suncream and a hat
- A warm sleeping bag
- Food and water – I’d recommend getting the meal package.
Have you been to Nyiragongo? What did you think? Or are you thinking of going? Post your comments and questions below.
Note: Green Hills EcoTours offered us a small discount in exchange for a mention on the blog. All thoughts and opinions are my own. I don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive reviews. All prices are correct at the time of writing.