Heart of Darkness: Trekking the Nyiragongo Volcano
// June 6th, 2010 // DR Congo
Did you catch yesterday’s initial post on the Congo? If not, check it out here.
The day was here. I had wanted to trek up Nyiragongo Volcano, to an active lava lake for two years now. It had been closed due to the rebels’ attacks on Goma in 2008 and had only been open again since March 1st of this year. Just three months after it’s opening, I was going to trek up one of Congo’s most fascinating natural wonders. My driver Tomote picked me up and we took a short five-minute drive to the Rwanda-Congo border. I paid my $35 visa fee, and we met my guide Peechin. Then we drove into Goma to pick up two UN workers from Tanzania who would also be trekking with us. It was a bumpy ride out of Goma to the Parc National des Virunga. I had heard that in Goma there were a lot of UN workers and peacekeepers but I was still surprised. I passed three UN camps just on the way to the volcano. Virtually every other car on the road in Goma is from some sector of the UN.
We got to the Nyirgongo Volcano base and waited for eight more people to arrive. Only 15 people are allowed to trek per day, and four armed guards escort them. Therefore, you are required to hike together. People trickled in, and at 11:30am, we started the climb. Within the first 15 minutes, I was breathing heavily. The altitude was really difficult for me. I was also surprised to discover that there were no switchbacks; you hike straight up the mountainside. Our first stop was an hour and a half in, and it couldn’t have come a minute sooner. I was already tired. I knew we had another three and a half hours to go, and I was questioning whether I would make it. But, of course, the reward of seeing a dramatic lava lake at the top kept me going. By stop two, I was wondering what ever gave me the crazy idea to do this. While my muscles were holding up okay, I was short of breath. The porters refused to pass the hikers going up, so those poor souls carrying all of our heavy gear had to pause every time I did. My guide Peechin was so helpful, encouraging me to go slow and take rests if I needed it. And I did just that! I knew I would make it up, I just wasn’t sure how long it would take me. We reached the top in five hours. After gasping for air up the last bit, I was still short of breath just walking around at the top. When we reached the summit, you see two things: the summit sign telling you that you’ve made it and a small wooden cross. Unfortunately, a Chinese trekker lost his life by falling into the crater. Since my balance was not good, I tried to stay a foot back from the edge. It was cloudy when we first arrived, but the porters thought it would clear up in an hour.
Unfortunately, it was a rare event but the clouds never lifted. It was freezing cold and windy at the top! We set up our tents on a narrow strip of land with a steep drop-off. I got a few glimpses at the lava, but for the most part it was just a red glow. As much as I was disappointed about not seeing this 2km wide lava lake at its best, it was still more than worth it. The stunning views of Lake Kivu, Rwanda, and Congo were amazing. And even without the lava, the crater was still really impressive. Due to the altitude I had a headache and was a bit nauseous. the guide and porters cooked up a delicious meal of rice and beans, and I bundled up in all of my clothes and my sleeping bag. The night was so windy so it was on and off as far as sleep.
We got up the next morning, just hoping that maybe we could see the lava lake, but as soon as we unzipped our tent, it was just thick fog. The hike back down was tough! The only thing that made it better was that I could actually breathe. But my muscles were definitely not happy. I slid a lot of times, but luckily only landed flat on my bum once. I would like to note here that falling on volcanic rock… not so great on the tush. It took us three hours to get down the mountain, where a car from Hakuna Matata Tours was waiting to pick us up. Nyiragongo Volcano had completely and utterly exhausted me! It took a day or two for me to recover and even as I write this, I’m still a bit sore. I put on my running shoes this morning and found two holes in the sides of them; these bad boys aren’t going to hold up much longer (luckily I have a backup pair with me). So, it’s probably best to do this trek with hiking boots. Hakuna Matata Tours did an excellent job arranging transport, guides, porters, and camping supplies. I felt very safe traveling in Congo with them and recommend the company for all of you adventure junkies out there! As tiring as it was, I have to say, I’m really proud that I made it, and maybe I’ll do it again in five years- when I forgot how tough it was! Check back tomorrow to see all of the pictures from my Nyiragongo Volcano trekking experience. You won’t want to miss them!
Disclosure: Hakuna Matata Tours provided complimentary services, however all opinions are my own.