“Not everyone succeeds.” Hiking guide Roger Tasiviwe is looking up at the green slopes of Mount Nyiragongo as he talks. “Some reach the final section, they see how steep it is, and they turn back.”
Climbing the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 3,470m-high volcano isn’t for the faint of heart – but it is achievable. The same can (hopefully) be said of my boundary-pushing plan to do it in a weekend. I’ll fly out from London on a Thursday night and arrive, via Nairobi, in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, to cross the border and attempt to summit Nyiragongo, before jetting back to the UK and my desk by Monday.
One of the world’s most evocative locations, thanks in no small part to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the DRC has been off limits for decades due to the civil war that saw more than 5m killed. With its increased stability, though, intrepid travellers are discovering the country beyond its conflict: the gorillas of Virunga, Africa’s first national park, and Nyiragongo, which boasts the world’s largest lava lake. I sat beside some roaring fires during this last British winter, but this one should take some beating.
I make my way across grey London to catch the evening flight to Nairobi. As the plane journeys down the eastern side of Africa, I try to sleep, my imagination racing with what it will be like to experience the volcano up close and personal.
I touch down at daybreak. An annoying delay to catch the Kigali transfer is quickly forgotten as we descend through mist into Rwanda, a country that, like the DRC, has known far more than its share of violence in recent history.
It’s a scenic three-hour drive out of the capital, Kigali, and through the countryside, with 50 shades of green, from lush forested hills to banana trees to tea plantations, passing villages where shop signs are colourfully painted in French.
We reach the shores of Lake Kivu, walking across the border into Goma and my third African country of the day. I’ve never been a collector of passport stamps, but this – Congo – feels like a cool one to get. Farmers lead goats along the roads. Women carry baskets of fruit on their heads. Chukudu – long wooden bikes with wooden wheels – are loaded with furniture or sacks of grain. Despite the domesticity of this scene, the M23 rebel group controlled Goma just a few years ago, my driver Eric Wrimo tells me. “There were rebels in the forest, killings in the towns. We had a bad time here, but it’s not the same now. Things are changing. The war is not Congo’s story,” he emphasises, keen for his country to be known for something else.
We take a motorboat from the crowded shore market at Kituku and cross Lake Kivu to the recently opened Tchegera Island Tented Camp. Water laps gently on the shore of this isolated place, distant from any phone or WiFi signal. I drop my bags in my tent, eat a quick lunch and set off to explore. Ignoring a light rain that’s begun to fall, I take one of the beach kayaks out and circumnavigate the little island, spotting cormorants in the branches and battalions of black and white pied kingfishers dive-bombing the water. Little sambaza fish, sold in piles at Kituku market, leap through the waves. Passengers wave to me from the ferries as I venture out into the lake’s open expanse, only turning back to shore as the sky and water turn soft pink.
I have dinner, including local tilapia fish, back at the camp – the calm before tomorrow’s storm.
A quick, hearty breakfast, then we motor back over the silvery water to Kituku and drive across rocky roads to Virunga National Park. “We call this an ‘African massage’,” laughs Wrimo, as we’re jolted around inside the 4x4.
Our group of hikers, guides, porters and rangers – the latter armed with machine guns for security – collect at Kibati ranger station and start from 1,989m altitude. It’s only an 8km hike to the top, but it’s almost all steeply uphill. “Snake,” says one of the rangers after about five minutes, casually nodding to his left as we manoeuvre through humid green rainforest. There’s a gentle rain coming down and a rumble of thunder.
It’s a steep, hard climb on a craggy path drawn in lava from Nyiragongo’s most recent eruption in 2002, rocks grinding away beneath our boots. The going, as they say here, is decidedly “polepole” – slowly, slowly. The majority of our group have made the (perhaps sensible) decision to give local porters their gear to carry, with just a few of us shouldering our own packs. It certainly adds to the challenge to carry 20kg, including camera gear, up this beast of a volcano. The real rain comes, soaking us through in minutes.
“Now we start hiking,” Tasiviwe jokes. The trail gets steeper and perilously looser, soil and rocks shifting unpredictably underfoot. The volcano, for much of the day hidden by cloud, looms ahead, the upper slopes only getting more austere. The path – a stream of black lava rock – is slick underfoot. The heavy rain shows no sign of letting up. Clearly, the DRC is so green and fertile for a reason.
We reach the final section – just 225m of altitude gain, but the trickiest and most difficult stretch of trail. This is where some hikers apparently give up. “They hand me their cameras to go up and take photos for them,” Tasiviwe laughs, shaking his head. I can empathise. My legs feel out of juice, and this final section is the toughest of the day – the 20kg on my back amplifying the struggle. We make painfully slow progress, using hands and feet to grind out the metres, pulling ourselves up the rocky slope as the rain abruptly abates and the sun picks its moment to bear down on us. Finally, we reach a cluster of cabanas – home for the night. Kitchen fires are lit.
We take the final few steps to the 3,470m-high rim of the volcano. There are delighted smiles all round, gazes transfixed by Nyiragongo’s massive lake of lava. “Virunga means ‘hills of fire’,” Tasiviwe explains. “It’s said locals used to sacrifice young virgin girls to stop the eruptions. They thought there were bad spirits here.” It’s unearthly: the 2km-wide crater of lava moves and shifts constantly, a black crust cracking into pools and streams of dazzling orange and blazing red. An African hawk eagle soars through clouds of steam and sulphurous smoke in the evening sky above.
We tuck into a well-earned plate of pasta and wait for darkness, when the lake gains its full effect.
It’s blustery and cold at the rim, but the luminous spectacle in stark contrast to the darkness is worth it. It’s captivating, like a roaring bonfire on an immeasurably grand scale, with an apocalyptic Lord of the Rings/Mount Doom feel to it. I watch little explosions, lava spitting, frothing waves crashing into each other. The lights of Goma shine in the valley below. There’s a crescent moon and a sky full of bright stars above. When the bracing wind drops, the warmth of the lava radiates to us, despite the fact we’re 700m above the lake. This is the kind of feeling you travel 6,500km in a weekend for.
After a cosy night packed inside tents within the cabanas, we wake to a beautiful sunrise. I spend a few final minutes up at the crater rim, being mesmerised by the hubble, bubble, toil and trouble of the lake.
The steep 200m stretch that tested us yesterday is even more treacherous on the descent, with loose rocks and gravel giving way left and right. A few people slip and hit the ground. Leaving the lava path behind after a few hours, we hike through the long grasses and thick forest on the volcano’s lower slopes, all the way back to Kibati station.
After a quick shower in Goma, I’m back at the border, crossing into Rwanda and indulging in another “African massage”, headed for Kigali.
There’s time for a coffee at Nairobi airport before the redeye to London. I consider how verging on the ridiculous it’s been to visit the DRC in a weekend, but how satisfying to taste a fascinating country that’s already calling me back for more. I think too about how few weekends could match the incredible raw pyrotechnics of Nyiragongo; the sight, sound, smell and feel of it will burn in my mind for quite some time.