Disclaimer: travel advice from the UK and the USA currently urges against non-essential travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While we don't recommend you ignore this advice, we wanted to bring you this update from the heart of the recent volcanic activity and share some amazing pictures.
Have you ever wanted to get up close and personal with a lava-spewing, smoke-belching, earth-shaking volcano and not turn crispy in the process? Recently Nyamulagira, a volcano just north of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), blew its top (well its eastern flank to be precise) and the authorities of Parc National des Virungas took curious (and it must be said, slightly brave) travellers to within 1.5km of the eruption site.
The overnight trip offered a ringside seat to some of earth's most creative and destructive forces. The ground was littered with volcanic rock, the shrapnel of previous eruptions, so the going was slow and difficult for intrepid trekkers. But the reward was an evening spent under a sky smudged red from the glow cast by a fountain of lava. Travellers reported that they were blown away (not literally) by the experience.
The final weekend of treks to the Nyamulagira volcano site ended with the spectacular sight of several lava fountains shooting into the sky as a new eruption began next to the volcano's embers. And Nyamulagira isn't the only bad boy in the park: Nyiragongo, which last made news in 2002 when it destroyed a good deal of Goma, is also turning into a tourism hotspot. During the 2002 eruption the lava moved slowly enough to give most residents time to evacuate but 4,500 buildings were destroyed, 120,000 people were left homeless and much of the city, including the north end of the airport’s runway, was buried under two metres of molten mess.
Today, those who undertake the five-hour climb to Nyiragongo's summit are rewarded with views into the earth’s smouldering heart and the world’s largest lava lake from the crater’s rim. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, watching the fiery glow of the lava cauldron is a wickedly surreal, if slightly unnerving, experience.
Nyiragongo stands at 3,468m with a short but impressively steep section near the top, so you need to be moderately fit to tackle this beast. Guides, armed security and a bed in one of the eight A-frame cabanas built on the crater’s rim are all included in the US$200 per person permit. Each cabana has two bunks, each bed with a mattress and pillow but nothing else. You will need to bring your own food, water, sleeping bag, sunscreen, toilet paper, torch and warm clothing. The latter is essential; nights are extremely cold on the summit and gloves, hats, windbreakers and sweaters will go a long way.
The Nyiragongo volcano trip, along with visas and the park's signature mountain gorilla excursion, can be booked online at Parc National des Virungas' website, www.visitvirunga.org. Park authorities are also well informed on the safety situation inside the park and the country's stability in general. The park is the world's second-oldest national park after Yellowstone in the USA and consists of a mighty swathe of dark forest in the heart of Africa. Unfortunately it is also one of the world's forgotten parks and, after years of civil war, has dropped off most East Africa itineraries. But not for much longer; with a new visa system in place, increased regional stability and sound management, the park has seen a surge in tourists since it reopened in 2008: will you be one of them?
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