UPDATE, 5 June 2018: Virunga National Park will be closed until 2019. More here.
In March 2018 two Gorilla Highlands volunteers climbed to the the world’s largest bubbling lava found atop Mt Nyiragongo (3,470m/11,380ft) in Virunga National Park. They chose the Democratic Republic of Congo because they felt that the country needed their support, based on its turbulent history and ongoing challenges with conservation. Their trip gives us a chance to update our Nyiragongo advice first published two years ago:
1. The experience is out-of-this-world
The feeling of standing on the edge of a gigantic volcanic crater and staring at the red-hot bubbling lava lake cannot be captured with a camera. “Unreal”, “stunning, amazing, humbling”, “coolest thing I’ve ever done” are some of the written assessments on TripAdvisor where the experience scores maximum points. Everything else on this listicle is of secondary importance. If you can do it, definitely do it. It is likely to be among the highlights of your life.
2. Trust people on the ground
The DRC seems to be too big to manage (it’s about the size of western Europe) or at least too rich (its mineral deposits are extraordinary) not to tempt selfish foreign players. This is why it is crucial to check the security situation first. Do not rely on travel advisories put together by bureaucrats in capital cities far away. Their top priority is to protect their backs and they will always err on the side of caution. In short: they would prefer you never go to Congo. Focus instead on what the authorities of Virunga National Park have to say. Their interest – possibly higher than your own government’s – is to make sure nothing happens to you. Any bad news would hit them too hard to be worth the risk. So when they open Nyiragongo for hikers, they do it because it is safe.
3. You do not need to be extra fit
The two days of Nyiragongo hiking are demanding. The most tiresome element are volcanic rocks that wobble under your feet but there is also the sheer distance and altitude factor. The good news is that you will not be in hurry. The trek is timed in a way that allows even a slow person to make it. You might take 7 hours instead of 4 but you will reach the crater and then have a night of rest before the descent. Your legs may hurt for some days afterwards but you will be fine.
4. Get yourself walking sticks
Get a stick — or two, if you believe in the balance of things. Besides helping on the descent, you get a full body workout if you use two walking stick actively on the way up. You don’t have to be old or have bad knees to use these things! Local artisans make hand-made wooden sticks for purchase right there at the base of the mountain. They are very artistic, with burnt-in etched designs.
If your Nyiragongo hiking follows gorilla tracking, forget the idea that your ‘waterproof’ hiking boots will actually stay dry inside. The gorilla trail can turn into mud and your shoes will get that mud all over them, not just the soles. If you have the luxury of bringing two pairs go for it, or use the old trick of inserting plastic bags as a barrier between your socks and shoes to bring some relief when you set out to climb the volcanic marvel.
6. It is full-board, and it isn’t
Hikers who pay for the complete package directly to the park are often surprised that it isn’t as all-inclusive as they thought it would be. Better keep 100 dollars in small denominations in your pocket because you might need to pay your porter ($24), and will likely want to tip him and the cook at the end (the food is amazing).
7. Forget that you are on a continent that is supposed to be hot
It is going to be freezing up there. Bring twice as many layers of clothes as you think you might need, and then some more. Pack some warm gloves for sure.
8. Mind your belongings
We are conditioned to lose our reservations high in the mountains, and protecting your money and valuables is one such example. Simple huts at the top of Nyiragongo have no locks. What you have might tempt a desperate porter, or even a fellow hiker with strange hobbies.
9. Do not forget your yellow fever certificate
If you arrive to the Congolese border without the yellow booklet, they will charge you $70 to make you one. With vaccination or without it. You can, of course, also ask to pay a fine instead…
text: Miha Logar, DeAnn Hickey; photo: Marcus Westberg