Sometimes you gotta risk a little, to get a little more back. So while both the UK and US Department’s of Affairs suggest all but absolutely necessary travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo is cancelled immediately, I kinda thought finishing my mission to every country in the world absolutely qualifies as”Absolutely Necessary Travel”, so on I went.
Visas in Central Africa are an absolute nightmare, and the DRC is no different, and while I had dreams of overlanding all the way from South Africa to Morocco up the West Coast of Africa, the visa for DRC was proving difficult unless I visited eastern DRC, home to the Virunga national park, the mountain gorillas, and to one of the most amazing sites on the whole planet – the world’s largest lava lake, in the Nyiragongo volcano.
The deal with Eastern Congo is that if you buy a permit to their National Park to visit this stuff, you automatically get permission for a visa (you can do the same thing I did to get the visa here, this is the official government site). The drawback? It’s $405 for the permit and visa, and that’s only worth a couple of days in the park. Still, when you see either wild mountain gorillas (something I have done previously in Rwanda, AMAZING!) or climb the Nyirango Volcano and visit the lava lake, you’ll be happy to have parted with your money. 2 of the best things on our planet to do, honestly.
So I logged in, signed up, applied for my visa, had it granted, and started planning my trip. I was in Rwanda, visiting my last few countries in East Africa, so my plan was to take a shared minibus from Kigali, the Capital of Rwanda, overland to the border, then cross into the notorious eastern city of Goma. From there, get a hotel, then the following day, through the $405 payment, be picked up at the hotel and taken to climb the volcano, camp overnight, see all the sights and descend the following day. Another night in Goma, then back overland to Rwanda and make my way deeper through Africa from then.
Fortunately, a blogger I knew online (Kirsty from NerdyNomad.com) was randomly doing the same trek, on the same weekend as me. So I tagged along with their group which was awesome. So nice to speak English and swap travel tales with people.
The bus ride from Kigali to the DR Congo was breathtaking, amazing vistas, huge wide expanses, and my awful little bus tootling along through these hills. The border took a little bit of work, but thankfully our visa information had been passed onto the officials on the border, a little ‘admin’ fee here and there and we were across, a short hop further onto Goma and we found our hotel.
It should be pointed out that countries in Central Africa aren’t geared towards tourism, so prices are through the roof. I stayed in a dank, dingy hotel that looked pretty nice from the outside, affordable (but not cheap) at $75 a night, and this is what I got.
I love a bit of adventure travel, and the following night I’d be camping on the side of the volcano, so when you throw yourself into crazy travels, you have to accept some dodgy conditions, all part of the fun if you ask me!
So we drunk a few beers, chatted into the night, hit the sack and the next day we were picked up by the official 4x4s, driven to the Virunga National Park office, registered for our permits, and off we went. Driving through Goma is a strange, strange experience. In 2002, the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, pouring hot molten lava right over the town, leaving 120k people homeless, 150 or so dead, and destroying 15% of the city entirely. The city, of course, has grown back, but there is lava rock everywhere, people have built houses out of the stuff, and still the impressive Nyiragongo volcano sits ominously in the background, right on the doorstep of Goma, who knows when next to erupt. Scary stuff.
We drive for an hour or so to get to the foot of the volcano, where we are greeted by our armed guards. These guys are necessary because there are rebels in the area, and gunshots are frequently heard, with some of the armed guards having lost friends in the gunfire they trade with the rebels. Not only that, the mountain gorillas are in the national park too, and poaching is a huge problem, punishable by life imprisonment but again that doesn’t adequately deter the bad guys, so the armed guards are the defenders of the gorillas too.
The trek soon starts, and it’s about 8 hours or so from bottom to the top. The summit sites around 3500m so you can definitely feel a lack of oxygen once you reach the end, making the last 1-2 hours pretty strenuous. Also, it’s hot at the bottom being Central Africa and all, but by the time you reach the summit, and the sun begins to set, the temperature quickly plummeted to below zero, and it was very very cold!
I didn’t do any training for the hike, so you don’t have to be in great shape to manage it, but don’t expect a leisurely stroll in the forest either. You’ll be tired by the time you reach the top, guaranteed. And it’s not unheard of for people to suffer from altitude sickness and have to descend, and also for people who were a little too out of shape to fail the climb. So while you don’t have to be in fighting fit shape, remember 8 hours hiking up a steep mountain is no joke, and you have to respect it. The way up through. wow. You can see all the volcanos in the region, and the higher you get, the more impressive the views become.
The sheer beauty of central Africa somehow gives you the extra strength you need to keep going, and many times throughout the day I had to pinch myself to check if what i’m doing is real. In the depths of inner Africa, the Congo no less, climbing an active volcano, armed guards protecting us, to see the world’s largest lava lake? This is the lifestyle I’ve always dreamed of, and somehow or another, I’ve created it for myself. Proud, and grateful.
As dusk began to settle we finally arrived at the summit, I could see the smoke billowing out of the crater, and I could smell the acidic bite of the sulphur in the air. And although the hike had tired me out, all I wanted to do was get to the lip of the crater and see the lava! So I summoned my last bit of energy and sprinted to the end, wow – there it was. Real lava, bubbling away. It wasn’t yet dark so it wasn’t as striking as the pics on the net, that would come around midnight, but it was still mightily impressive. A Chinese national had recently fallen into the crater 2 months before, so I was trying to be extra careful, not a nice way to go.
The porters (compulsory as part of the visa package) set up the tents, we put on whatever warm clothes we had, had dinner together and waited for the pitch black to set in. When it did, the lava subsided a little so we went to sleep and the guards told us they’d wake us if it really took off, which around 1am it did. What a sight.
We all sat around the lip of the crater for about an hour, not saying anything. Just soaking up the sounds, smells and sights of this amazing place. One of the most spectacular things I’ve certainly ever seen, and worth all the hassle, bureaucracy and costs involved getting in. I went to bed to escape the cold with a huge smile of my face. One of the other members of our group though was struggling with altitude sickness badly and had to be carried down on a stretcher in the pitch black, a start reminder of the dangers involved with truly intrepid travel (note: she was ok after descending).
We woke up super early the next day, quick breakfast in the freezing cold, and we began the descent. 4 hours later we’re at the bottom, all truly knackered but very fulfilled with an amazing couple of days, the bullet holes in the park’s sign compounding the feeling of how fortunate we are to be able to witness such a place.
So back to Goma we went, before long I was on another shared minibus back to Kigali, Rwanda. Another country off my list, a super tough one at that, and what a way to do it. Just go here, and thank me when you come back! Happy travels!