My journey into the Democratic Republic of Congo is one for the ages. It’s definitely in my top five most memorable travel experience ever. During my entire life’s worth of travel experience, I can only recall two instances when I was hit with a burst of emotion from seeing one of our world wonders. The first time it happened was when I first laid eyes on the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. And the second time was when I was approaching the world’s highest waterfalls, Angel Falls, in Venezuela. Since then, I haven’t felt that positive emotional hit. That is, until I crossed over to Democratic Republic of Congo, drove through the city of Goma, and braved the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano Trek.
That feeling is truly magical. So, when I did the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano Trek, I knew I was going someplace really special.
Crossing over from Rwanda to Democratic Republic of Congo
My group was definitely feeling a lot of anxiety from the anticipation of crossing over to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Myself, my girlfriend, and sister was dropped off at the Rwanda-DRC border (Grand Barriere) by our driver. The first part should be relatively simple which is to get stamped out the Rwanda side of the border. And as expected, everything went smoothly and we got stamped out of Rwanda. Now comes the more scary part.
From here, things are suppose to be a lot less safe. We are now entering one of the countries that the Canadian travel advisory designated as “AVOID ALL TRAVEL”. We are now entering a country that has armed conflicts to this day. Not to mention a rampant Ebola epidemic.
After crossing from the Rwanda side to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) side, we were greeted by an ominous looking chlorine hand washing station. This water tank also has a voice recording in Swahili that repeatedly said something along the lines of “wash your hands to prevent the spread of Ebola”.
As soon as we reached the DRC side of the border, we entered the immigration building. To our surprise, it’s actually quite well developed. However, our next fear is if the immigration staff are going to be corrupt and try to shake us for bribes.
To our surprise again, the immigration process went fairly smoothly. The immigration officials did do some extra check to confirm our visa is valid so we had to sit by the benches and wait for approval. After about 20 minutes of waiting, we were called back in line and got stamped in the country. Wow, I was pleasantly surprised how well that went!
Afterwards, we set our eyes towards the Virunga National Park office which is conveniently located right across the DRC immigration office.
Filling out paperworks and getting picked up at the Virunga National Park office at the Grand Barriere
Despite the park mentioning that we need to be at the Virunga National Park office at Grand Barriere by 8:00am, no office staff was present at that time. We ended up waiting by the benches for 10-15 minutes until someone came and opened the office.
The Virunga National Park staff asked us to fill out the guest book. Then, we submitted our insurance and indemnity forms. If you booked your trek through the Virunga website, you will also be asked to pay $105 USD for the visa. And yes, they accept credit card for this.
You will then be given a permit for the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek which we made sure we kept with us at all times.
After all the paperworks are complete, we were picked up by a jeep with Virunga National Park drivers. From there, we were ready to head into Goma.
Driving through Goma
Driving through Goma is one of the most surreal experience in my travel history. Seeing the locals living their everyday life was such an eye opening experience. Going through Goma was as raw as a big African city was going to get.
It was at this very moment that I was emotionally moved by what I saw and experienced.
Goma was definitely chaotic. Although, it seems that the locals were very much accustomed to this sort of chaos. I was also surprised at how well developed the roads were in Goma. Perhaps this is from the recent infrastructure deal that many African nations have with China.
Before long, we arrived at the Virunga National Park office where we met up with some armed rangers for the next part of the journey.
Visiting the Virunga National Park office in Goma and being escorted through the “exposed” areas
Hanging out at the Virunga National Park office was very interesting. It seemed that the park employs quite a variety of individuals ranging from security, construction, rangers, and administrative roles. They even had Europeans working for the national park.
Soon after, some armed rangers joined us. We will be driving through exposed areas where kidnappings have occurred in the past. The armed rangers are suppose to prevent this from happening again.
After leaving the office, there was a toll “gate” that we needed to cross before entering the “exposed” area. The gate was nothing but a piece of stick blocking the road. On the toll gate, we also needed to wash our hands with chlorine water and be checked for Ebola with this device they point on your ear.
After going through the gate, our convoy continued on. We were escorted by armed rangers on top of military looking trucks. This must be what it’s like to be a government official always escorted by armed security. The drive was pretty neat as we got to witness more locals doing their everyday routine. Eventually, we arrived at the base of Mount Nyiragongo where the adventure will soon begin.
Debriefing at the base of the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek
When we arrived at the base of Mount Nyiragongo, the Virunga staff brought out the backpacks that we paid $100 USD extra for. The backpack included warm clothes, a sleeping bag, food, water, and juice for the hike as well as dinner and breakfast at the volcano’s summit.
The backpack was huge, it’s probably at least 65 liters. As soon as all the tourist arrived for the trek, they rallied all of us together and gave us a safety briefing on what to expect on the trek.
Afterwards, we were asked if we wanted to hire a porter who can help carry all our stuff. I have to say that you 100% need a porter. The hike is very difficult and even if you are an athlete, the altitude can still get you.
Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek from the base to the top
I’m not going to lie, the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek is one of the hardest hikes I have ever done in my life. It starts off relatively easy which will actually fool you into thinking that the hike is not going to be so bad.
The hike is separated into several rest points. If I recall, there was about five rest stops. Hiking to rest stop #1 and rest stop #2 was relatively okay and I didn’t struggle to keep up with the group.
The problem came when hiking towards rest stop #3, #4, and #5.
You’re basically hiking on loose volcanic rocks and it’s easy to stub your toe, roll your ankles or hurt the bottom of your foot. I personally have some bleeding on my left index toe and I pulled some muscles at the bottom of my right feet during the hike.
But the single worst part about the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek is the altitude. This was the part that killed me the most. As soon as we hit rest stop #3 and onwards, I really struggled to keep up with the group. I was constantly out of breath because my body had trouble keeping up with the increasing altitude.
Eventually, I started getting massive headaches from the altitude. At some point, the headache became so unbearable. I then asked my sister to give me some Advil to help keep me alive during this brutal hike. Did the advil work? It reduced my headache but it definitely didn’t go away. But I’m so glad I took the advil. There’s no way in hell I could have made it to the top without it.
To illustrate how high the peak of Mount Nyiragongo is, the top of the volcano has an the altitude of 3470m. This altitude is similar to the altitude of the world’s highest capital city of La Paz, Bolivia which is 3640m high.
This hike was definitely throwing everything at us to make our life a living hell. As soon as we arrived at rest stop #2, it started raining really hard. This made the hiking conditions very miserable as our ponchos wasn’t working and water was getting in. Our shoes was soaked. And, it was really humid inside those ponchos making it very uncomfortable wearing them.
Pushy ranger guide
I felt bad during the trek because I knew that I was slowing down the porters who was instructed to wait for me by the ranger guide. Had they kept going instead of constantly trying to push me to go forward, I would have felt okay. Annoyingly enough, even when I was dying, they kept trying to push me to hike. I wasn’t sure why they were rushing me so hard because the expected time to reach the summit was 6 hours. Despite being the slowest person in the group, I still made it to the top in 5 hours.
So that part really pissed me off because I just needed an extra two minutes to rest at the rest stops.
Final push to the summit
Rest stop #5 was when the temperature started dropping rapidly. That’s when we all had to start adding layers to our clothes to keep warm. The temperature felt like it was freezing as we did the final push from rest stop #5 to the summit.
By the time I finally reached the summit, I was so dizzy from the altitude and freezing cold because my shoes and clothes were all wet. I felt miserable and decided to lay inside our shelters for a bit before checking out the volcano lava lake at the top.
Getting settled in our shelters, eating, and hanging out with fellow trekkers
After I took a little bit time to rest, I hiked up a bit more to hang out with fellow trekkers in this little hut. Inside the hut, our friendly cook was heating up some warm beverage for us to drink to keep us warm. We also took the time to dry our wet socks and shoes by the fire which turned out to be an amazing idea.
Most of our shoes and socks were wet. Thankfully, the stove actually dried our socks and significantly reduced the wetness of our shoes. One advice I’d give to anyone who wants to do the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek is to bring some flip flops when you get to the top. You’ll definitely need it!
Checking out the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano crater during the day
After I recovered from the altitude sickness that I was experiencing, I got out of our warm and comfortable shelter to check out the lava lake. Oh man, seeing that crater was amazing!
It was definitely worth all the pain and suffering that I experienced to see this amazing volcano. Of course, I started taking lots of pictures and really admired the sight.
At first, there was a lot of smoke which made seeing the lava lake difficult. Periodically, the wind would push the smoke to another direction allowing us to see the lava lake. After speaking with the rangers, they told me to come back to the crater at around 8pm because that’s when the volcano’s lava becomes more visible. Apparently, they said that you can even see lava flowing.
My sister and I setup our cameras on time lapse mode to capture the transition from day to night. Shortly after, we retreated back into the “kitchen” to eat dinner.
Checking out the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano crater at night
Our dinner was steak, and some soup. It was definitely hearty and left everyone full to the max. After feeling satisfied from eating that delicious dinner, we all went back to admire the volcano at its fullest. The darkness allowed you to see this intense crimson glow of the lava lake.
There was a tiny volcano inside the volcano that was erupting which made for a cool scene to watch. My sister started joking that she wants the big volcano to erupt. Everyone looked at her and pretty much said…”um…you don’t want that big one to erupt”.
Besides taking pictures of the volcano, the stars and the city of Goma was very visible from the top. I sat there admiring the stars and the scenery. I definitely felt grateful that I had this opportunity to go to such a difficult place to reach to see this amazing world wonder.
Credit our fellow trekker Nico Scherer for these four images
Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek back down to the base
When I woke up in the morning, I would say, that my sleep was alright. It wasn’t great, but I’ve had worst sleep before. The weird thing that I noticed is how warm it got in the middle of the night. I actually started peeling some of my layers because of how progressively warm it started to get.
I also found it amusing that we all lined up to use the “outhouse” bright and early in the morning. The outhouse has an open concept so you get a very nice view when you use it.
After eating a quick breakfast, we began our descent not too long after.
The trek back down the volcano was significantly easier than the trek up. As we got lower and lower in elevation, it got progressively easier to hike. I was able to keep up with the group this time and the rangers were happy that we’re moving along nicely.
Taking pictures and saying our goodbyes
As soon as we reached rest stop #1, we all started taking group pictures of our entire trekking crew. Then, we hiked back to the base where we dropped off our bags and said our goodbyes to the rangers, porters, and fellow trekkers.
We also gave our porters a very nice tip because there is no way we could have reached the top of the volcano without their help.
I would say that this trekking group was a fun one and I really enjoyed everyone’s company. Everyone was talking about possibly teaming up again because it was just one of those rare groups that really meshed well together.
Crossing over back to Rwanda
Not long after, the jeeps came and drove us through the “exposed area” once again. However, this time around, there was a slight problem.
As soon as we reached the “toll gate”, our vehicle was stopped and we all had to exit the jeep.
We stood there waiting as the “toll gate” manager was fighting with the Virunga National Park staff members about not paying the toll. Apparently, they forgot to issue Virunga National Park a receipt and the toll owner said no receipt means no entry. So they were fighting for awhile until Virunga just caved in and paid for the toll again.
The final drive out of Democratic Republic of Congo
We were then loaded to another vehicle with armed escorts as we headed back to their office. From the office, we switched vehicles and made our way back to the Grand Barriere.
I glanced out of the window while reminiscing about this amazing experience I had travelling into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Seeing all the locals live their life and going on an amazing adventure of a lifetime.
My sister and Karen tried buying some Congolese money before entering the border and I’m pretty sure they got ripped off. But I don’t think they cared. They were happy to get a souvenir out of it.
The crossing back to Rwanda was uneventful. We were definitely very happy to see our driver, Emmanuel, at the other side as we continued on to the next portion of our journey in Rwanda.
Recommendations when doing the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek
- Bring Advil because you never know if the altitude is going to make you feel sick or not.
- Make sure to bring extra socks, shirt, and pants to the top because they’re most likely going to be wet during the trek.
- Bringing a pair of flip flops will give you an opportunity to dry off your shoes by the kitchen stove.
- You don’t need to bring so many layers of warm clothes for this hike because they’re included in the backpack package.
- Make sure you buy the $100 backpack package because it’s definitely worth it. Having two cooked meals, sleeping bag, snacks, and warm clothes makes a huge difference in your trekking experience.
- You definitely want to hire a porter – everyone did – because the trek is very hard and these Congolese porters are so much stronger than you are.
Travelling to the Democratic Republic of Congo to do the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek is one of the best travel experience I have ever had in my entire life. I was truly lucky to go here when I did because I felt like it was a small window when it was actually safe to go there.
Last year (2018), two British tourist got kidnapped in the “exposed” area I was speaking of. In order to get them back, I heard Virunga had to pay the ransom fee to the kidnappers.
Not long after, the Ebola epidemic happened 300km away from Goma. And in most recent news, the first case of Ebola in Goma just occurred when a priest was infected after being in contact with Ebola victims. He died soon after.
It’s just one of those things when you travel. Many of the most troubled places in our planet also has some of the most beautiful wonders and travel experiences. My only regret during this whole trip was doing the gorilla trekking in Bwindi National Park instead of Virunga National Park. So if you plan on going gorilla tracking, then I recommend you also do it in Virunga National Park. Afterwards, you can do the Mount Nyiragongo Volcano trek which is an unforgettable epic adventure on its own.