By Sebastian Dorsch
The Democratic Republic of Congo is certainly not what one thinks of first when it comes to a vacation or a weekend trip. However, it would be presumptuous to assume that the country has nothing to show for. It is home to some amazing landscapes and natural phenomena.
One such phenomena is Mt. Nyiragongo, an active volcano with a lava crater lake on top. For sure, this has got to be one of the most impressive things I have seen in my life so far! So I want to share the memories of my trip with you.
Congo, an unbelievably vast country in central Africa, comprised of the territory that colonial powers left untouched in the early scramble for Africa. With a growing desire to call a colony his own, in the late 19th century King Leopold of Belgium declared Congo his private colony. This was the beginning of a troubled and at times very cruel history of the country that is blessed with and at the same time cursed by an incredible amount of natural resources which make the by nature fragile structure of such a large country a pawn in the hands of various powers.
Goma, is located in the densely populated Kivu Provinces and Africa’s Great Lakes Region on the border to Rwanda. The city is home for more than one million Congolese, a fact which is not visible as you enter Goma. The city center is short on skyscrapers, shopping malls and other indicators of large. Considering the history of Goma, however, it is only logical. The massive sprawl of the Goma Urban Area and its sheer size compared to the tiny Gisenyi on the Rwandan side of the border however is clearly visible from the top of Mt Nyiragongo.
Goma’s main roads are bustling with life and can be somewhat overwhelming when you are only used to quiet and orderly Rwandan cities. Only a dozen kilometers north of Goma, still within walking distance of the Rwandan border, lies Mt. Nyiragongo, an active volcano that covered Goma and it’s outskirts with Lava last in 2002 and back then displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The unusually high content of silicon gives its lava a rare water like fluidity and let it accelerate to more than 100 km per hour when it made its way down the slopes of Mt. Nyiragongo in 2002.The stream reached Goma and even the shores of lake Kivu more than 15km away – a fact which still shapes Goma’s streets visibly.
More than a few houses are built on a thick layer of cold Lava and piles of cobble stone can be seen on nearly every corner as they are a welcome construction material. The volcanic crater contains the world’s largest open & visible lava lake – to see this is the bottom line for visiting Goma and its surroundings – apart from Gorilla tracking. The latter is Goma’s second most popular tourist attraction (though I skipped it cause of its hefty price tag of 450 dollars for only the license – 625 and 750 dollars in Uganda and Rwanda however, respectively. Adding the opportunity costs of coming to DRC and its notorious reputation are probably the reason why not many tourists take advantage of the cheaper gorilla trekking.
In hiking Mount Nyiragongo, the “Virunga National Park” (website) is the only operator authorized to offer tours in the National Park. In the online shop I bought one permit two weeks in advance – which is as easy as ordering from Amazon. After the booking I received a confirmation code which “allowed” me to shell out another 105$ for the touristic visa. I had the proper document for border crossing in my inbox a few days later. I showed it on the Grand Barrier Border between Gisenyi and Goma and 15 minutes later I was in DRC – a very smooth process considering that otherwise according to various reports it is a matter of luck to get in to the DRC.
As you arrive in Goma, you will immediately notice the detached and massive Mt. Nyiragongo towering over the city scape of Lake Kivu’s “coastal” towns Goma and Gisenyi. The Virunga mountains has even higher summits, but they are not as easy to climb nor do they offer the stunning experience of active lava on the top.
The National park mission point is located in the village of Kibati north of Goma. As one of the few tourist spots in and around Goma, taxi drivers usually know where you want to go. The drive on road from Goma to Kibati – or to be more precise: what is left of the road after negligible maintenance, war and the last volcano eruption in 2002 – provided me with an interesting glimpse into the daily life of Goma’s inhabitants. Hotels and the national park itself offer transfers as well. Transport via “Moto” is possible as well, but not one of the most convenient and safest options.
The rusty national park “Welcome” sign and the national park office building – both riddled with bullet holes – ensure that you don’t forget what has happened only a few years ago in the broader region. Together with other tourists who booked the tour, we started from the bottom accompanied by different porters and two armed guides. Look forward to meet and get to know some interesting people on the way, it’s of course only a certain kind of people who undertake such an endeavor.
Some of the porters are visible aged men who hike the mountain a few times each week – probably already for decades and for more to come. I wished my French would have been better to unravel a bit more about them and their stories. My first reflex was to feel bad letting an elderly man carry my backpack while I enjoyed a convenient and not too exhausting hike. One however has to acknowledge that it’s a well-paying job in a region that is otherwise desolate of opportunities for the vast majority.
There is one path to the top winding itself up to the top on the hillsides of Mt Nyiragongo, becoming steeper and steeper as you go up. It is only 8 km to the top, but of course not a relaxing Sunday afternoon walk. Nevertheless, it should not pose a problem for a reasonably trained and healthy adult. The first one or two kilometers one follows a regular forest path which develops into a stream of congealed lava and cobbles as the trees give way to a lighter vegetation of bushes and high plants. Frequent stops ensured that everybody could get a break and recover.
With half the difference in altitude already behind us, we found ourselves within direct eye-shot of the top and with a huge grey wall in front of us to overcome. The path got steeper but never was technically difficult to hike. With the top already in grasping distance, we stopped 100 or 200m below the top at the porters shelters for a last break. The last 10% were indeed the only part a bit challenging in a technical sense as you cannot rely on a path but rather have to navigate yourself to the top on the pretty steep slopes of loose cobble stone.
As soon as you can take the first breathtaking glimpse into the boiling and bubble throwing lake, it is totally worth all the efforts. The View of Lake Kivu and its surrounding plateau region gets more amazing as you climb up and is at worst stunning. On good days – as we were lucky to have one – one can let his or her gaze wonder from Rwanda’s thousands of hills on one side via the shores of Lake Kivu and the two borders towns to the infinite forests of the DRC on the other side. Notably is the vast emptiness of Congo on one side and the crowded hills of Rwanda on the other side. You get a good feeling for the difference between a country of 90 million inhabitants on 2.3 million square kilometers and one that harbors 15% of the amount on 1% of the respective area.
Make sure to be prepared for the trip and bear in mind that you will spend a night at 3500m. The website of the Virunga National Park offers an excellent description of all issues to take care of before starting the trip. The most important misjudgment you can fall for is probably: The active volcano will not keep you from freezing at the top – the sense of warmth quickly gives way to exactly the kind of cold you would expect from a detached 3500m high mountain.
Almost as impressive as the first glimpse into the boiling lava lake is the same identical lake after dark. The lava poses a stark contrast to the otherwise deep black night around the crater. Lava flows and small eruptions are more visible than during the day. Unique as well is the view of the volcano’s fumes from the distance illuminated by intense shades of red and orange from below.
It was worth to get up very early in the next morning and watch the sunrise from the crater. Though there was no actual sunrise because of clouds and mist, the view over the Lake Kivu plateau is a bit clearer in the morning. In general, we were lucky to enjoy a clear view with clouds almost never covering the volcano and the lake.
At around 7 AM we started our descent and arrived at the Kibati Mission Post at 11 AM. I had to take a “Moto” back to Goma as my Taxi skipped on me. Not the preferable option, so make sure to have clear arrangements with your driver.
I spent one additional day in Goma strolling and here is the article