I couldn’t believe it: a monkey had shat in my breakfast.
It was the morning of my hike up Mount Nyiragongo, and I couldn’t help but worry this was a bad omen.
My friends and I were nervous enough as it was about the climb. We’d spent the night at Mikeno Lodge with an Australian couple who had descended the volcano the day before, and they’d had nothing but horror stories to tell.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the athletic-looking guy had told us. You’re definitely going to struggle with it.
But it’s so worth it, the woman had gushed. Just really, really, really hard. So hard.
The four of us had exchanged nervous glances, and I’d quickly popped an anti-altitude sickness pill in my mouth. Mount Nyiragongo was an active volcano that was home to the largest lava lake in the world, and getting there would involve a five-hour, five-mile hike to the summit.
As we packed our bags after breakfast and spoke about what lay in wait for us, I struggled to calm the butterflies in my stomach.
I really didn’t want to fail.
We reached the base of the volcano after a bumpy ride through the cool morning air, and began the mad rush of organising everything we needed to before my trek. I handed my permit to a member of staff in the office, found the luggage room to leave my backpack in, and peed in the worst toilet in the world. Side note: I’ve never had so many people unlike my Facebook page after posting a photo! Turns out people don’t like to hear about my urine pooling around my hiking boots.
Only mildly traumatised by the experience, it was time to meet my porter, cook, guides, and rangers. I paid $5 for a wooden walking pole, then we gathered in a huddle for our briefing.
Before I had time to mentally prepare for the challenge that lay ahead of me, we were walking, and I was waving my walking pole around because I had no idea what to do with it.
This first segment was a warm-up stage of the hike: just a 45-minute trek over reasonably flat ground in the jungle. This was the easiest section of the hike, although the fact that I found it surprisingly challenging didn’t bode well. The hike starts at 2,000 metres, which I knew from previous experiences at altitude, my body found hard to acclimate to.
This was a time to chat to the people in the group, to find out where we were all from and what the hell had brought us to the Congo to climb an active volcano.
The second and third sections were my favourites.
I’d been training for the hike in Lisbon for months before I left, but the altitude was knocking me down and I didn’t have the energy to go fast. Because these rocks were loose and wobbly in these segments, we walked much slower, and I was able to make my way to the front of the pack. I love clambering over rocks, so on this part of the climb I was in my element.
At one point, we paused to stare into a fissure in the earth, sulphuric steam rising from the vents around us. Back in 2002, Nyiragongo had erupted from its flank, sending a two-metre-high wave of lava down into the city of Goma, and we were now standing where it had all began.
Our group was split into two here — faster and slower walkers, and while I felt as though I should go with the slow group, I knew my fitness levels were higher than I gave myself credit for. I’d trained hard for this and I’d been walking towards the front with few struggles up until this point.
I went with the fast group.
Immediately, I knew this was a tremendous mistake.
As the group picked up the pace from the steady trudge we’d been racking up previous to this, I was slowly overtaken until I’d fallen straight to the back.
This segment was a slog. It was the longest part of the hike, far steeper than the stages we’d encountered before. We were gaining altitude rapidly now, taking huge steps continually upwards with little time for rest. I watched in dismay as the rest of the group powered on ahead of me and out of sight.
My ranger became nervous at this development, urging me forwards, not wanting us to separate and leave anybody vulnerable.
I knew I was pushing myself too hard. The lava rocks were starting to blur into a sea of blackness, as I struggled to inhale enough oxygen. More than once, I considered telling the ranger I couldn’t do it and would need to descend.
Is this altitude sickness?
My lack of French kept me from announcing my hike was over, and when I spotted the final rest stop an hour later, I felt as though I could burst into tears of joy.
All I had left was a 30-minute hike to the summit and I knew I could make it.
I’d read beforehand that the fifth segment is the toughest, but I wasn’t sure how anything could top the previous stage.
We all felt the altitude now, breathless at 11,000 feet high, an unbelievably steep climb stretching in front of us to the top.
There wasn’t much of a path to follow here. Just a side of a volcano to scale, choosing any route that made the most sense; none of them any easier than the other. Up we climbed, some of us on our hands and knees, all of us taking it slow and steady, the smell of sulphur now beginning to penetrate our nostrils.
We had been told by our guide that in a group as large as ours, it was exceptionally rare for everyone to make it to the top, so I was overjoyed to see nobody failed to reach the summit. Even the 72-year-old man from Singapore made it, which had me wondering just how active I would likely be in my 70s. What a badass.
Multiple times during the climb, I’d wondered if the hike would be worth it.
I’d considered giving up more times than I could count, the prospect of being able to breathe properly far outweighing that of peering into the world’s largest lava lake. It was just a volcano — how special could it be?
But that first glimpse of lava will forever remain etched into my memory.
It was like staring into a photo. I’d spent so much time researching Nyiragongo that now that I was finally there, it didn’t feel real. I was so in awe that I had to keep blinking to prove to myself this wasn’t a dream.
One of the guides brought around hot cups of tea, which were gratefully sipped as we stared down into what felt like the gates of hell, all of us rendered speechless.
I sat down on a nearby rock, inhaling the fumes, watching the sun set, and thinking to myself that this was going to end up being one of the coolest things I ever do in my life.
After my traumatising toilet experience at the start of the day, I was fully prepared for an awkward squat in the fresh air, but the outhouse at Nyiragongo had one of the best views from any toilet I’ve ever used.
There was even a toilet seat!
But still no door, which was still weird and nerve-wracking.
Virunga offers a meal package to hikers, where you can pay for a cook to climb the volcano with you, hand out snacks and drinks at rest stops, and then put together a three course meal in a toasty-warm cabin when you reach the top. The decision, for me, had been a no brainer, and from the moment I stepped inside the chef’s hut, I was glad I’d opted for it.
It was a surprisingly delicious meal for having been cooked on a single hot pan in the middle of a small cabin.
What I had yet to realise at this point was that being at altitude can seriously dampen your appetite. From the moment I finished my soup, I was struggling to eat the pasta and potatoes, and stomaching the dessert was near-impossible. Despite my struggling stomach, I ate as much as I could, aware that I’d be needing the energy tomorrow.
We spent over an hour in the cabin, relishing being somewhere so warm while everyone else was shivering outside in freezing temperatures.
Afterwards, we bundled up and faced the bitter cold once more to take blurry photos of the lava lake now that darkness had finally fallen.
As we sat and drank hot cups of tea together, we discussed whether you’d feel any pain if you were to fall into a pool of lava or whether you’d be obliterated in an instant. We spoke about how this was one of the coolest things we’d ever seen, and shared stories of other volcanoes we’d climbed around the world; other mountains we’d summited. Kilimanjaro in 2018? Don’t be surprised if you see me tackling it.
Part of me considered sitting shivering up on the rim for the night, watching the lava crash like ocean waves against the crater floor. Part of me knew I’d regret not making the most of my time in such a special place, but I also knew I’d have a long and difficult climb back down the following morning, and I needed to get some rest.
Sleep was hard to come by, and I tossed and turned for hours in my poorly-insulated cabin. The mattresses were more like gym mats, made from a material that had zero ability to hold any heat. Without anything to use as a pillow, it was like resting your face against a window in the middle of winter for hours on end.
I’d taken Diamox to prevent altitude sickness, and the tingling side effects were in full force: my entire face had pins and needles. It was in my tongue, my lips, my eyeballs, and all over my hands and feet. Diamox acts as a diuretic, too, so in addition to my paresthesia, I was creeping outside every hour to pee over lava rocks. While the outhouse is accessible during daylight hours, attempting the descent after nightfall would have been treacherous, even with a headlamp. Instead, I’d pee on the rocks beside the cabin, listening to the lava bubbling and splashing beside me as a thousand twinkling stars illuminated my skin to anyone else who was emptying their bladder at the same time.
Attempt to sleep — get up to pee — attempt to sleep — get up to pee — and so on and so on until 5 a.m. rolled around and it was time to get our day started.
We were served breakfast in the chef’s hut: a hearty meal of fruit and meat and cheese and yoghurt, but still my appetite was shot from the altitude, so I could barely eat a thing.
I met back up with my friends and learned that one of them had been throwing up all night long. We concluded it was either food poisoning or the altitude, hoping it was the latter because we were about to rapidly reach lower ground.
We packed our backpacks, grabbed our walking poles, and psyched ourselves up for the descent.
If I’d found the ascent tough, I knew it would having nothing on today’s adventure. Reports online had varied: some people made their way to the bottom in half the time of their ascent; others took twice as long to make their way down. I knew I was going to struggle to stay upright regardless of how long it took me.
The first section would likely be the toughest of the day. It was the steepest part of the hike and consisted of loose lava rocks that fell away as soon as you attempted to transfer any weight to them.
Taking a deep breath, I hovered a tentative foot down, windmilling my arms in wide circles as I tested every rock with my toes. There was little way of knowing which ones would tumble away until it was too late and you were tumbling down with them. I had no confidence.
Within a few minutes, my porter rushed down the volcano towards me and held a hand in my direction.
“Thank you!” I gushed, as he smiled shyly up at me.
Together we walked, him tightly gripping my hand and pointing to where my feet should go, me generally flailing around and feeling like this was far harder than attempting to stand upright when surfing.
I’d love to tell you all about how I found my footing eventually, but that would be a lie.
I was quite literally all over the place as we made our way over the scree. Of our group of 24, just one other girl and I were the only flailers who needed continual help from our porters.
Section four was just as relentless on the way down, and two and three would have been nerve-wracking if I hadn’t had someone showing me where to place my feet.
I couldn’t have done it alone.
Every step I took had me on the verge of falling down, and if I hadn’t had my porter by my side, I would have had to slide the entire whole way down on my ass.
It was either that or risk a broken ankle.
Words can’t describe how glorious it felt as we approached our final rest stop and knew we just had one segment left to walk.
Less than an hour remained until my legs would be free and I could finally take a shower. As we began our trek over the flattest section of the walk, I began to wave my hiking stick in the air with abandon, galloping towards the finish line with only a slight tremble in my knees. I had made it, I realised, and I couldn’t keep the grin from spreading across my face.
At the end of our trek, chaos reigned supreme, as we all rushed around in an attempt to tip every ranger, exchange contact details, find our transportation, and locate our luggage. I handed out my spare cash, spotted the Virunga truck that was waiting for me, and began to say my goodbyes. Some people were heading back to Goma, some to the Rwanda border, and then there was me, who still wasn’t done with the DRC yet.
After taking some last minute photos, I grabbed my backpack, clambered up into the truck, and turned to wave a sad goodbye to my friends.
And thus concluded the most incredible experience of my life.
What to Know Before You Climb
It’s 5,000 times colder at the summit than you think. Trust me: take twice as many warm clothes as you think you’ll need. Everyone in my group was freezing all night.
Don’t bother with a tour. It sounds unbelievable, but my time in the DRC was one of the easiest trips I’ve ever taken. I know it sounds intimidating, but once you’re there, it’s anything but. Booking through Virunga’s website is quick and straightforward, you’ll have someone from the park meet you at the border and stay with you at all times, and there’s no need to worry about anything. Because you can only do the hike through Virunga National Park, you’re literally just paying a tour company more money to have the exact same experience.
The trek is tough but doable. It took us five hours to reach the summit and three to get back down again. Some groups make it up in as little as four hours; some take 12 and get there after nightfall. This is a hard hike. There are no switchbacks, so you’re walking straight up a volcano with very little rest. It was easily the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever set myself. But don’t let that put you off: if you can walk around 15 miles on flat ground without stopping, you should have a high enough fitness level to make it to the top.
It’s an affordable way to sample travel in the DRC. The Congo is one of the ten most dangerous countries in the world, so traveling extensively there isn’t an option unless you want to die. Climbing Nyiragongo is a pretty safe way to spend 24 hours in the country while doing something badass at the same time.
Know that you run the risk of seeing nothing: You can’t predict the weather and we ended up being fortunate on our trip. The night before, it had been so cloudy that the guys at the top didn’t even get to catch a glimpse of the lava while they were there. We had completely clear skies for the entire time we were at the top. Unfortunately, you do run the risk of hiking all the way to the top of the volcano and seeing absolutely nothing when you get there. Nature!
It’s worth paying for extras. I don’t know how I would have managed without my amazing porter, so I highly recommend spending the $24 to hire one. On top of that, you can pay $5 for a wooden walking pole, which was more than worth it on the descent. Finally, you can shell out $100 for a gear + meal package. While this isn’t essential, not having to pack a sleeping bag, or attempt to prepare dinner and breakfast for myself on top of a volcano, was a huge bonus.
Diamox is a good idea. Unless you’ve spent time above 3,500 metres (around the altitude of Cusco, Peru) and know you aren’t prone to altitude sickness, it’s wise to stock up on Diamox (altitude sickness preventative) and take it on the hike. One of my friends had symptoms of altitude sickness and spent the entire night throwing up on the side of the volcano.
You can leave your luggage behind. Maybe it’s just me being a worrier, but I was so concerned about what to do with my luggage on the hike. The good news is that there’s a luggage room you can store your bags in while you’re hiking. I bought the gear package from Virunga, which came with a fully-stocked backpack, so that’s what I had my porter carry to the top; I left my backpack in the storage area.
Don’t read the news before you arrive. Here’s what you need to know about the safety situation in the DRC: if tourists are likely to be in any danger, Virunga closes the entire park and doesn’t let anyone enter. It makes sense — if something was to happen to a tourist there, they’d suffer enormous losses. Because of this, I recommend that you don’t, don’t, don’t read any news about the DRC before you arrive, because all you’ll do is scare yourself. In the two weeks before I arrived, there were news reports on how hundreds of locals — and two UN workers — had been discovered in mass graves, massive prison breakouts of militia members, a shelling of a school, a resurgence of Ebola, and so much more. It’s better to be ignorant and know that if you were in any real danger, you wouldn’t be allowed into the park.
Don’t get too close to the edge. There are no barriers at the summit of Nyiragongo, and it’s all too easy to slip and fall. A few years ago, a Chinese woman died when she tumbled into the crater. One of our guides even witnessed it and told a fairly gruesome story about the entire experience. Needless to say, be very careful and don’t get too close to the edge — not even for the ‘gram.
Don’t bother attempting to fly a drone over the volcano. Our guides referred to the volcano as a drone graveyard because there were dozens of broken ones littered all over the summit. It has something to do with the ash in the air affecting how they fly.
Avoid weekends if you want a smaller group. Weekends are the busiest times to hike, because the UN and NGO workers in Goma often sign up to climb on Saturdays. We had a group of around 24 on the Saturday I chose, but a normal number is more like 6 or 8. Even though I usually like small groups, we had such a wonderful bunch of people on our hike that I was happy we had so many people to cheer each other on.
Tip your porter, cook, rangers, and guides. Bring extra cash with you to tip everyone when you finish hiking. These guys risk their lives every day to take tourists all over Virunga, so you’ll definitely want to show your appreciation. I tipped my porter $50 (this was probably 5 times more than he was expecting!), and the cook, rangers, and guides $10 each.
Get travel insurance. Yes, you need it — don’t be stupid. Arrange travel insurance way in advance for your trip, and expect to struggle to find someone to cover you if you’re from the U.K. My usual provider, World Nomads, doesn’t cover British travellers in the DRC, and I struggled to find an alternative. Battleface is a good option if you’re coming up with nothing, as they’ll insure pretty much anyone for any trip ever. And, of course, if you’re not British, you should definitely go with World Nomads. They’re the best travel insurance provider I’ve come across during my seven years of continuous travel.
What to Pack for Hiking Mount Nyiragongo
Decent hiking boots that are water-resistant: Rain is common when you’re at the summit, so you’ll want to look for hiking boots that are water-resistant in order to keep your feet as dry as possible. Make sure to break in your boots before you arrive to ensure they’re comfortable when climbing up and down the volcano. I wore the Salomon X Ultra Mid 2 GTXs, and had zero problems with them on this specific hike — they were warm, comfortable, waterproof, and didn’t give me blisters or sore feet.
Multiple pairs of socks: They’ll keep your feet warm and wearing two pairs will help prevent blisters when hiking. I recommend getting a pair made from Merino Wool, as they’ll be super soft, and keep your feet cool when you’re sweating and warm when you’re cold.
Waterproof hiking pants: The weather can change rapidly and it’s more common than rare to encounter rain, or even hail, on the top of Mount Nyiragongo. Waterproof hiking pants are a good idea for keeping yourself warm and dry, which is important, as people have been known to get hypothermia when not properly dressed at the summit.
So many thermal clothes: If you opt for the gear pack from Virunga, you’ll have a fleece and rain jacket in your pack already, but I recommend taking several extras, too. I wore thermal leggings beneath my hiking pants, and on my top half, I had a thermal base layer, a thermal sweater, two fleeces, and a rain jacket. I was still cold when walking around outside!
A hat, a pair of gloves, and a scarf: I know. You totally think this is overkill now, but I promise you’ll be so glad you packed these. When it’s almost freezing outside, there’s a strong wind, and you’re sleeping in a cabin with holes in the walls, you’ll be grateful for any additional warmth you can get.
A headlamp to wear at night: One of the best ways to prevent or treat altitude sickness is to stay hydrated, and if you decide to take Diamox, you’ll be peeing regardless, as it’s a diuretic. Expect to spend much of the night tag-teaming your cabinmate as you each head into the freezing cold air to pee. A headlamp makes this an awful lot easier, especially if you’re going to be stumbling over loose lava rocks on your way to the outhouse.
A dry bag: It’s definitely worth getting a dry bag and keeping your change of warm clothes inside, as well as your camera and anything else that’s important to you. That way, if it rains, you won’t have to put on wet clothes. I’ve been traveling with this 13l Sea to Summit dry bag for five years and counting — I love that it’s strong, lightweight, and yet to let me down in watery situations.
How to Get to Virunga National Park/The Democratic Republic of the Congo
If you’re sensible, you’ll arrange to get your visa for the DRC through Virunga National Park. You can do it all online once you’ve bought your permit, and it’s a seamless process from start to finish. My visa was approved within 48 hours and required no paperwork.
With this visa, however, you can only enter the country through the Grand Barrière border crossing between Gisenyi in Rwanda and Goma in the DRC. There are two border crossings in Gisenyi, so make sure you’re at the right one before you leave the country.
You’ll most likely fly into Kigali and then travel to Gisenyi via private car or public transport. The former is usually $100 each way, and the bus is around $15 to Gisenyi, then you’ll need to take a mototaxi for less than a dollar. It takes four hours to get from Kigali to Gisenyi — although the distance is short, the roads are winding, so driving is slow going.
The border crossing was incredibly easy, and no different to any other overland crossing I’ve done. Get stamped out of Rwanda, show your yellow fever card (you need this in order to enter the country), get your temperature checked, and then get stamped into the DRC. The entire process took five minutes. If you encounter any problems when crossing the border (or anywhere else in the park), you can call Vianney on +243 99 1715401 for assistance, so it’s worth making sure you can make phone calls within the DRC before you travel there.
How to Climb Mount Nyiragongo on a Budget
Hiking Mount Nyiragongo is easier to do on a budget than trekking with mountain gorillas (although you should try to do both on your trip), because you don’t need to stay in the DRC the night before your climb. Virunga National Park can pick you up at the border and take you straight to the starting point of the hike on the very same morning. Gisenyi, on the other side of the border has rooms starting from $11 a night, whereas you’ll be looking at a minimum of $40 if you decide to spend the night in Goma, in the DRC. Once you’ve descended the volcano, you can then travel back over the border to Rwanda and cheaper accommodation.
Permits to climb Nyiragongo are $300 through Virunga National Park, and this price includes accommodation in the cabins at the top.
I personally recommend spending an extra $24 to hire a porter to carry your backpack to the top, because hiking for five hours with 10+kg on your back at altitude will only end up breaking you.
I’d also recommend spending the $100 to get the gear + meal package. The package includes a warm sleeping bag and liner, a rain jacket, and a fleece, and you also get snacks, 5 litres of water, and a delicious three-course meal cooked for you in a warm hut at the top. Let’s just say that anyone who didn’t splurge on the gear package was pretty jealous of our feast at the top.
If you’re on a tight budget and super-athletic, however, you can skip those extras and just pay for the permit.
Hiking Mount Nyiragongo: The Highlight of My Life!
I’ve said it so many times, but guys, this really was the experience of my life!
If you’re wondering if it’s worth the money, I can tell you that I’m currently making plans to return next year to do it all over again, because it was simply that incredible. It was easily worth the money!
So if you’re on the fence against going, jump straight off of it and on to Virunga’s website.
I promise it’ll be one of the best things you ever do.