Staring into the Nyiragongo volcano in the DR Congo has to be one of the most stunning sights in Africa. You’re looking into the edge of the giant cone at a pit of boiling lava far below – it feels like Mordor from Lord of the Rings. It’s a fairly easy and safe (as of summer 2011 – conditions can change) trip from Kigali, if you can successfully get a visa. But it’s definitely not cheap.
Crossing the Border
Four of us tried to go to the DRC consulate in Kigali (in Kiyovu across from the Canadian embassy) to get a visa. You can easily get a visa for $120 in 2 days if you have a Rwandan resident card and bring all the necessary pictures and documents. Otherwise, the consulate will say that you should have gotten a visa in your home country and no exceptions – so we got denied.
We then emailed a Congolese tour guide recommended by a friend, named Innocent (email address: [email protected]). He told us that it’s not guaranteed to get a visa at the border, but he’ll do his best to get us visas in if we want to try. So we sent him all of our information and then took a morning bus to Gisenyi (best to buy tickets in advance from Belvedere or Virunga, in town).
We waited for two or three hours near the border as Innocent worked his magic, and then he called us to say – hurry to the border, the visa is ready. The visa we got was valid for the area around Goma only, good for 7 days, and cost an exorbitant $285. We knew this price in advance, so we paid it and entered.
The crazy thing is that even if you’re willing to pay $285, you’re not guaranteed to get in. The next morning, Innocent tried to get 2 others over and couldn’t make it happen. He said it was because they had tried to apply for a visa online and included the name of their employer in Rwanda, who the eastern Congo authorities were not on good terms with.
Hiking the Nyiragongo Volcano
We then paid Innocent cash for the next day’s hike, which includes a $200 park permit fee per person and then there’s another $40-$140 additional per person depending on the size of your group. There were other people hiking with us. Each day, everyone starts at the same time because park rangers with AK-47s guard the group. Some had just made it into Goma and then gone to the Virunga park office to get the permit, so it’s possible to do the hike without arranging a guide in advance. But Innocent’s fee was pretty minimal, and he also made sure we had spaces reserved in the cabins at the top. It was definitely worth it for his visa help, all the arrangements and rides he provided, plus hiking up the volcano with us.
Before doing the hike myself I had heard two stories: one fit girl said it was super easy, but then a beefy dude said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. It’s somewhere in the middle. It is a long day hike, all uphill, often on uneven volcanic rock. But it’s just 5 hours of walking so most people should be able to do it. You can also hire a porter to carry your bag for $12/day if you want.
The hike starts in hot forest and ends at the desolate volcanic rocky cone, where it’s also really freakin’ cold (maybe 5 degrees C). We got up to the top in the afternoon and spent the night up at the edge of the cone, which is stunning to check out the bubbling lava at night. There are a few new wooden shelters with two mattresses each. If you don’t have a spot arranged, you need to bring a tent. Either way, make sure to bring warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag.
You also need to bring food and water for the 1 1/2 days, including dinner up on top. The rangers make a fire that you can cook or BBQ on. If you have space to bring extra food, they are really excited to gobble it up. We ran out of water on the way down – make sure to bring enough for the hike and the night, plus whatever cooking you plan to do.
The hike down is quicker, but tiring with constant downhill on muddy and rocky steps.
Goma looks and feels post-apocalyptic, as it was partially destroyed by the 2002 volcano eruption. There isn’t much paved road and there is still volcanic rock rubble everywhere, many people and kids walking around, and fortified barbed wire guarding UN compounds. There isn’t too much to do from what I could tell, but there are a few nice expensive expat restaurants and if you’re willing to be a little stupid (ie ask moto drivers to take you to bars with cheap drinks), you can find an adventurous night out. There’s a good bar with a pool table and a mix of expats and locals called Coco Jambo. No one in Goma speaks much English, but French and Kinyarwanda are ubiquitous.
Boat to Bukavu
The final highlight of the trip was a 4-hour speedboat all the way down Lake Kivu to Bukavu, DRC. It was a beautiful day, the lake was calm, and we were able to sit on the roof of the boat (because no one really minded) and re-enact the Jay-Z “Big Pimpin” music video. We arranged this by heading to the ramshackle harbor and finding a 2 pm government boat for $25. There’s also a 9 am faster boat for $50, and a couple of slow boat options for about $10 which take maybe 8 or maybe 12 hours (our French was non bonne) and look pretty miserable.
If you entered DRC with a legit country-wide visa this trip is easy, but they won’t let you on a boat with the Goma-only visa. We were lucky to get a DRC-wide visa while in Goma with Innocent’s help and a random chain of events that led to a very large, very severe immigration official taking pity on us and granting it for free. But I think it’s pretty unlikely this would happen again. I believe if you pay $100 you can get the country-wide visa granted from the immigration office in Goma, which is not at the border but in the middle of town.
Back to Kigali
From Bukavu we crossed into Cyangugu and took a 6-hour bus back to Kigali from Kamembe. These buses sell out so buy the ticket as early as possible. This bus ride was the worst part of the trip – windy roads, packed bus and the guy next to me was puking out the window the whole time.