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Know Before You Go: How to Hike Mount Nyiragongo, an Active Volcano

PHOTO: Eric Isselee | Shutterstock

Yes, you can actually camp next to an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is known by intrepid travelers as one of East Africa’s greatest adventures. Hikers can purchase permits through the Virunga park service, and spend the day trekking through a multitude of ecosystems–get ready for shady forests, slippery lava rocks, and stark inclines as well as an unreal view of neighboring Rwanda–before spending the night next to the red glow of the world’s largest lava lake.

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PHOTO: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
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Getting There

Mount Nyiragongo is located approximately an hour outside of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Goma shares a border with Gisenyi, a lakeside town in Rwanda. Many tourists to the region fly into Kigali, spending several days in Rwanda’s capital city or gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park before driving to Gisenyi. It is possible to spend the night in either Gisenyi or Goma prior to hiking Nyiragongo, though Gisenyi is a bit more idyllic and quiet.

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PHOTO: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
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Booking Your Trip

Book your trip through the Virunga Park service website. The site is incredibly straightforward, offering a variety of different options including transport, food packages, and even gear rentals. The hike up Mount Nyiragongo is lead by park rangers, and private trips (except in extremely special circumstances) are impossible to arrange. Booking this adventure through a tour company isn’t really necessary unless it would make you more comfortable to do so and would be part of an extended vacation package.

 

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PHOTO: Renedreuse | Dreamstime.com
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Packing

Though the morning portion of the hike might be warm, it is almost guaranteed that evenings on Mount Nyiragongo will be frigid. Even if you’re renting gear from the park service, bring extra cold weather layers (including hats, scarves, and gloves) to fend off the howling winds and low temperatures. Make sure to also pack additional snacks, as well as an excellent camera. No need to bring tents, as permanent cabins dot the rim of the volcano. Porters are available at the base of the hike, and they can be hired to carry hiking packs up the mountain.

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PHOTO: Photovolcanica.com | Shutterstock
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Monitor the News

As of late, political protests in Goma regarding the lack of an upcoming presidential election have rocked the city. Though tourists should be fine, make sure to check current news outlets prior to arrival for both volcanic and political eruptions. Although Mount Nyiragongo’s last large eruption was in 2002, the volatile nature of the volcano is continually monitored by scientists in the region.

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PHOTO: Photovolcanica.com | Shutterstock
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Mental Preparedness

This hike is hard. Really, really hard. It begins at a steady pace through a shaded forest before hitting treacherous paths filled with slippery lava rocks. It can take between four and seven hours depending on the abilities of your group, and the last 40 minutes feature an exceptionally steep incline. Unfortunately, it’s rare for 100% of the hiking group to make it to the summit. This trip definitely requires trekkers in good physical shape, as well as those of serious mental toughness. Start the hike confident, and you’ll do just fine.

Book a Hotel

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PHOTO: Eric Isselee | Shutterstock
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Don’t Forget the Altitude

Mount Nyiragongo clocks in at 3,470 meters (11,385 feet). Though this might not seem very high, hikers ascend in just a single day and altitude sickness is fairly common at the summit. Consider taking Diamox or another altitude medication for a better experience, and make sure to hydrate and have Advil on hand.

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Purchase or Bring Walking Sticks

Walking sticks will save your life on this trip. A selection of hand-carved sticks are sold at the base of the hike by local community members, and they make a huge difference on both the way up and down (especially when it comes to scrabbling over loose rocks). My knees, while terribly angry that they had been forced to hike up this mountain, were very grateful for the walking stick on the way down.

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PHOTO: Janos Rautonen | Shutterstock
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Moderate Your Expectations

Unfortunately, Mother Nature is unpredictable and many hikers have turned away from Mount Nyiragongo disappointed with the lack of lava lake views. On our hike, visitors just the day before were barely able to see the red lava, whereas the volcano was entirely clear for our journey. Know that these views are not guaranteed and unfortunately require a bit of luck.

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PHOTO: Kiki Dohmeier | Shutterstock
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Don’t Lean Over

No, really. All of the park rangers told gruesome stories of tourists plummeting to their deaths trying to get a closer glimpse of the mesmerizing lava lake. Instead, keep a safe distance and follow the ranger’s instructions carefully. Enjoy Mount Nyiragongo from a safe distance, which will still allow you to take all the photographs and bask in the red volcanic glow.

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Get Ready for One of the World's Most Impressive Views

After hours of hiking a steep incline, the small metal cabins at the edge of the volcano are a welcome sight. The rangers will encourage you to quickly put your bags down in the assigned cabins before making your way to the volcano’s edge. There, nothing can really prepare you to see the bubbling surface of Mount Nyiragongo’s lava lake. The lava consumes itself, twisting and churning in a vaguely macabre dance. It’s beautiful, terrifying, and beyond evocative. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’m already plotting my way back to hike Mount Nyiragongo again.