I recently climbed the Nyiragongo volcano in the DRC and looked down upon the world’s largest lava lake. The experience was as good as advertised and worth every penny (all 300,000 of them)!
As has been the case often on this journey, I never planned on being in the DRC, one of the biggest, most volatile countries in Africa.
Then I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, where, over the course of a few days, I talked with several people who had returned from either mountain gorilla or Nyiragongo volcano treks in the DRC and couldn’t stop gushing about their experiences. I was only a 3-hour bus ride from the border so I mulled it over a bit.
$300 for an overnight hike, plus $105 USD for a visa was tough to pull the trigger on, but knowing I’d probably not return to Africa for a long time, the allure of the world’s largest lava pool at the Nyiragongo volcano was too great to resist. I liberally applied the “Mikey Rule” and signed up for another gorilla trek, too, since it was on sale for $200. Hey, go big or go home (which I’ll have to do in May, so I’ll likely go big a few times before returning, broke).
A unforgettable dinner conversation with my 98-year-old great-grandfather just days before I started this trip reinforced my belief in spending more money now (doing things, not accumulating them), in the prime of my life, than when I’m old, body parts don’t function like they once did, and I can’t fully enjoy things, anyway.
Also, The Mikey Rule: Life is short, will I regret not doing this (within reason)?
The visa process was surprisingly easy, since acquiring a 14-day visa is facilitated by the park when you book any experience at Virunga National Park, the oldest in Africa. Fast-forward to a few days later and Andy, Ned, and I were dealing with the surly French-speaking agents at the border, wondering just how long they’d take to review our Yellow Fever vaccine certificates, stamp our passports, and let us hustle to Nyiragongo.
Eventually we made it through the border, only to find out that the transportation that Andy & Ned had arranged through the park was not going to arrive and we’d have to sort it out in a hurry.
Shortly after negotiating a “taxi” to the park, we learned that this would not be the fast ride we were hoping for. Not only were the roads as terrible as we’d been told, but the driver made a couple of casual stops to top off his phone and gas tank, despite us letting him know we were running late and in a hurry. In addition, the car was struggling in a major way, sputtering and struggling to get past 2nd gear. It eventually overheated and could no longer go.
“All climbs begin promptly at 10:00 am. Late arrivals will not be allowed to climb and permits are non-refundable,” was all I could think of.
So, we did make it and balked at paying the driver what we had agreed upon after the crappy, slow ride. We paid $30 USD and hurried to the guard shack to sign in, angry driver demanding more as we walked away.
I had every intention of crossing the border, stopping at a market, and grabbing food and water for the hike (because I sure as hell wasn’t signing up for the $100 USD meal plan). I could’ve done it the night before in Rwanda, but trying to cross borders with produce never ends well. So, there I was, about to go on this tough little hike at altitude and I had nothing.
I was vexed that unlike pretty much everywhere else in the world, neither the park nor any entrepreneurial locals endeavored to sell basic supplies there. A captive audience ready to pay a significant markup and no one to capitalize? Missed opportunity.
So, as a last resort I asked the group of hikers that had just returned from the top of Nyiragongo if they had anything they’d be willing to sell me. Nuts. Biscuits. Granola bars. Hell, water was truly the only thing I really needed; I could fight off hunger for 24 hours and eat a good meal upon returning to Goma.
Luckily, they didn’t judge and were quick to share what little they had without asking for anything in return. Thank you, kind strangers from England!
After a brief chat from the ranger that a local translated into English. we began our ascent, 5 of us sandwiched between two armed guards.
We stopped several times for breaks, which were quite welcome and truly necessary. The last bit was the hardest. No switchbacks, just a steep grade straight up to the edge on slippy volcanic terrain. But once at the top, it was all smiles for everybody.
The views were incredible, both into and away from the Nyiragongo volcano, and once the sun went down, Mother Nature really put on a show. The lava lake beneath us bubbled and danced, mesmerizing us with it’s bright orange, eerie glow. I spent a few hours there that night and early the next day, since I didn’t sleep much. It was coooold. But beautiful, especially under starlit skies.
I figured it’d be a challenging hike, despite the relatively short distance, and it was. Not hard or impossible by any means, and not nearly as tough as the Choquequirao in Peru, which had my legs literally begging for mercy after doing 28 hard km the first day.
But, I was out of shape; it’d been a long time since my last round of hikes, in South Africa, and even longer since I’d been to the gym. The rocky, volcanic terrain was a bit of a pain the ass at times, more so during the descent, when I lost my footing 3 times and my rear end met the ground once. A pack of British biscuits for dinner wasn’t ideal, but it worked out. 40 lbs. strapped to my back meant I really had to focus hard on footing, scrambling, and balance because it’s steep and it’d be hard to slow momentum if I tumbled.
But my big mistake was not having enough water. When climbing from 6,525 feet to 11,382 feet, and back down the next day, you definitely need more than 500 ml of the lovely liquid. Unbelievably parched on the way down, and irked at myself, I was too stubborn to ask anyone else for water. My unpreparedness was not their fault.
I never get cramps, and was lucky not to experience them while hiking, but they hit me a few times once in Goma, when I sat down for a solid post-hike burger and a couple beers with Laurent and Emily, whom I did Nyiragongo with.
Despite the massive U.N. presence, Goma was chill and my AirBnB host, Timur, was fantastic. He and his friend Victor offered some memorable Russian hospitality and meals.
I was sore for a few days, but the pain was well worth it for such a unique experience. Another one awaited the next day, this one with different challenges (hello, pesky, pricky ants), but another big pay-off, one of Mother Nature’s gems: the endangered mountain gorillas.