When someone asks me what’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I answer without hesitation: the lava falls of Nyiragongo!
Nyiragongo volcano (3470m) is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), about 15km from the city of Goma, in the mountain range of Virunga. A magnificent lava lake, the largest in the world, is located in the crater. The site is breathtaking and the “show” incredibly beautiful!
Nyiragongo volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but few studies are carried out because many armed conflicts have been shaking the country for years. The lava lake was discovered by a German explorer in 1894. Several eruptions took place: in 1977, the lava destroyed the walls of the volcano and flowed more than 100km per hour over the city of Goma to the lake Kivu, destroying the city and causing the death of several hundred people. The most recent eruption in January 2002 also resulted in the destruction of much of Goma and nearly 150 people died. More than 400 thousand people had to escape from Goma. The lava arrived at the airport, which complicated the arrival of international aid and the evacuation of the local population.
The 2km-diameter crater is gigantic. In the bottom, the lava lake is constantly boiling. In March 2016, a small cone was formed in the eastern part of the crater, from which small lava flows are regularly expelled, creating the spectacular rivers and lava cascades that flow into the lake.
How to get there?
Due to the proximity of the city of Goma and the Rwandan border, it’s relatively easy to get there. Most visitors arrive by plane from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
From Kigali, it takes about 3 hours and a half by public transport to Gisenyi, the border town of Goma, Rwanda side. From Gisenyi, you go to the Congolese border of Grande Barrière by motorcycle taxi (500rwf, 5mn), and on the other side, you are already in Goma, not far from the city center!
From Goma to the beginning of the trail, in the town of Kibati (15km), you have to take a motorcycle taxi or taxi, about 20USD one way. You can also get there by public transport, but allow a lot of time and according to the rangers, it’s not safe and the buses are crowded (of course), it can be hard to find an empty seat on the way back.
The tour starts at 10am. The easiest is to spend the night in Goma, but if you don’t want this option, you can cross the border early in the morning and go directly to Kibati. Allow plenty of time as there’s often long lines at the border, especially the working days!
How to book? How to apply for the visa?
The easiest way is to go through the Virungas park website: www.visitvirunga.org
They are very efficient and if you have any doubts, you can send them an email, they usually reply immediately.
The excursion to Nyiragongo costs 300 usd. You can book it online, and once you make the payment, you receive the invoice. With the number of invoice, on the same website, you can apply for the visa. You fill out the form and payment details. On the website it says that the process can take up to 2 weeks, but in my case, I received the confirmation of the visa at the border in 24h!!! This confirmation or letter of invitation confirms that you booked the excursion to the volcano and need to be printed as a proof of “visa at the border” for immigration at the border.
I had no problems at the border, it was Sunday afternoon, a very quiet day. By presenting my passport and my letter of invitation, the immigration officer checked that my name was on the list of the visa applications, and in 5mn my passport was already stamped! It’s also necessary to go through the sanitary control where a nurse takes your temperature and checks your vaccinations certificate.
Safety during the trek
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is clearly improving and the region of Goma, North Kivu is considered safe but the peace agreements are still weak. Check the last information about security before travelling. Rangers can keep you informed by email via the Virunga park website. I felt safe all the time. The Congolese are very nice people and very welcoming!
During the hike, two armed rangers escort the group, one in front and one at the back. They never live the group and also stay in the huts during the night.
For security in Goma, see the coming article “A walk in the streets of Goma”.
When to go?
The best season to go to Nyiragongo is during the dry season, from June to mid-September, even if it can rain any time of the year.
The temperature at the top is feezing, between 2 and 7 degrees celsius.
What to wear and bring?
Warm and waterproof clothes! It can rain at any season!
A waterproof jacket, two fleece, a thermal shirt and an extra t-shirt to change at the top to stay and sleep dry (I sweat a lot), one or two pairs of extra socks and trousers (in case it rains) or/and waterproof trousers.
A warm sleeping bag (temperature 0 degree) protected with a plastic/waterproof bag.
At least two liters of water, no water or source available on the way nor at the top.
The food: plan for a lunch, a dinner and a breakfast plus snacks. You can also pay for a cook but for less than 24h, it is not really worth it, especially if you are alone.
Walking stick available at park entrance (5usd), not essential but useful as you walk on volcanic stones most of the way and also useful to descend.
All these items should fit in a medium-size backpack. If you need a porter, they are available at the entrance of the park, for 12usd (tips not included) and carry up to 15kg.
Where do you sleep?
In small huts at the top of the volcano, right next to the crater! Basic but all equipped with small foam mattresses on the floor and pillows, but no blankets! So you need a warm sleeping bag! And it’s cold at the top! Between 2 and 7 degrees approximately. The huts are for two people but if you are in a small group and travel alone, you will have your own. A tip: do not leave money in the cabin when you are not inside!
The toilets are basic, in a small cabin below the huts with a rope to go down and up!
Altitude gain: 1471m, altitude at the beginning of the trail: 1999m and at the top: 3470m
Hiking time to ascend: about 5h (6h with breaks)
Hiking time to descend: about 3h (4h with breaks)
Distance: 8km (one way)
This walk is not too difficult and is accessible to anyone in good physical condition. The elevation gained is more than 1400m, but the group is going at a slow pace. The rangers wait for the last one and stop regularly, about 15mn every hour walking.
The path begins just behind the control post of the Virungas park located in the village of Kibati. You can hear many UN peacekeeper helicopters patrolling the area.
The first part crosses a pretty forest, the path is easy and relatively flat. After an hour’s walk, we arrive at the lava flow of the 2002 eruption. It becomes more difficult to walk in the volcanic pebbles. I’m surprised that the vegetation is still exuberant with many flowers and pretty butterflies at this time of year (September).
Little by little, as you gain altitude, the views are magnificient. We walk into the forest again. We arrive at the porters’hut; from here, the vegetation almost disappears and the now steeper trail zigzags on volcanic rocks. We can already see the huts at the top.
We finally arrive at the huts and the edge of the crater at 17h. The view from the crater is impressive! A lot of smoke hides a bit the bottom of the crater and the lava flows, but we see better and better as daylight drops.
The viewpoint of the crater is just a few steps up the huts, which is very handy.
Be careful, do not leave money in the huts while you are out!
The descend the next morning is faster, we leave at 7am and arrive at 11am, with many breaks along the way. The most difficult part is the descend from the camp, be careful not to fall on the sharp volcanic rocks which can be slippery after the rain.