The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa, is not only home to a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas. It’s also home to two of the eight major volcanoes that make up the Virunga Range, both of which are active.We had our first taste of the mighty Virungas when we climbed Mount Sabyinyo in Uganda, the oldest of these eight major volcanoes, and we were incredibly excited to be in the DRC. We were also definitely a little nervous given the volatile history of the DRC.
Mount Nyiragongo is one of six volcanoes that have hosted persistent or near-persistent lava lakes during recent decades. It’s also the second such volcano we’ve visited having climbed Ethiopia’s Erta Ale a couple of months ago.
Nyiragongo’s lava lake is one of the largest in the world with an estimated depth of 600 m. Because it’s lava is much less viscous it’s super fluid and able to move at speeds of up to 97 km/hr. It last erupted in 2002, causing widespread destruction across Goma and killing hundreds of people.
Given its history of large, destructive eruptions and its proximity to a populated city, it’s also one of the 16 ‘Decade Volcanoes’ that the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior monitors closely. Status flags can be seen throughout the city and the flag flying at the moment is a yellow one. This means that there is activity but nothing to worry about.
Today, with current activity levels it’s probably one of the more stable things in the country!
It’s a steep 1400 m climb to the summit, initially through humid jungle and then over loose volcanic rocks, and we walked past the fissure where the 2002 eruption had started. There were no views for the first half of the day given the cloud cover but nice company and interesting conversation meant the walk went quickly. Eventually it cleared a little so we could see where we were headed and there were some familiar lobelias just below the summit. We also had views back down into a dormant crater.
Once at the summit, we peered into the deep crater to see pockets of lava popping into view amongst the haze. As darkness fell, the crater came alive and it was mesmerising to watch the lava. It looked like shattered glass or floating ice; occasionally like the lights of a city being switched on. All vague attempts to describe this incredible site!
We made our own delicious dinner; you can never go too far wrong with a tin of Heinz beans, a fresh baguette and an avocado, and watched the lava for hours. Sitting at a height if 3400 m it was chilly and there was a cold wind but every once in a while it would warm up as the wind blew us a little heat from the lava lake.
After a wonderfully cosy sleep in a lovely hut, we were up before the sun for another look with breakfast before heading down back the mountain. We said our thank yous and goodbyes once back at the park office and were collected and driven back to Goma. We popped into a little local restaurant for a Congolese lunch buffet and then walked back to Rwanda.
What an unbelievable few days with memories that will stay with us for a long time. It’s not often your jaw actually drops, but a trip to Africa’s most active volcano was definitely one such experience!
How to buy a permit
It’s incredibly easy to buy your permit on the superb Virunga National Park website . We booked a month in advance.
Once you’ve paid for your permit, you’ll get an order number and you apply for your visa on the Virunga National Park website using this order number.
The website notes it can take 14 days but almost immediately you’ll get an email from the park with your visa letter, which you print and take with you when you cross the border.
You can book this through the park, but we found it much cheaper to use a private company. We contacted Emmanuel from Okapi Tours, one of the recommended companies on the Virunga website, and saved over $150.
You need your original certificate to enter the country and they look for any reason to charge you $70 for an ‘official’ certificate. Stick to your guns!
Getting into Goma and where to stay
Once we’d crossed the border, we walked to our accommodation. We were staying at ShuShu, supposedly the cheapest in town at $20/night. It’s very basic, but clean and centrally located.
Costs (US $)
- Permit – 300/person
- Visa – 105/person
- Transport – 300 (this was for both the hike and the gorillas).