Camping at the World's Biggest Lava Lake
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because staying overnight at the edge of a lava-filled crater in Central Africa is pretty damn cool.
By Taylor Mayol
S’mores, sleeping bags, campfire songs … and lava? That’s exactly what you get with this epic camping experience. While gorillas lure most tourists into Congo’s Virunga National Park, its unknown gem lies in the clouds atop Mount Nyiragongo, home of the world’s largest and most active lava lake.
Adventurous hikers can trek up the side of this sometimes snow-dusted active volcano and camp on the rim of the bubbling, lava-filled crater in basic wooden structures. This is one of just five real-life Super Mario Bros.-style volcanoes in the world — including Hawaii’s Kilauea and Mount Erebus in Antarctica. But be ready for a brutal four- to six-hour hike and below-freezing temperatures. The summit sits at 11,382 feet — an elevation so high that despite the molten lava, you need layers and layers of clothing. The Congolese park service warns that you’d better be prepared or you risk hypothermia.
This is as close as you can get when it comes to smoky cracks in the Earth’s crust.
Although backpacking in Central Africa may not jump to mind as the safest activity in the world, according to park rangers it now is. It’s been almost a year since the rangers reopened access to this stratovolcano after closing it because of nonnatural hazards. Ben Andrews, a research geologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s global volcanism program, notes that the political climate has made things “dicey” in the past. Now, armed guards accompany tourists because, well, it’s in everyone’s interest.
It’s precisely because of Congo’s erratic, war-torn history that this on-the-edge campground remains relatively unknown, even for backpackers traveling in East Africa. So if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind experience, this is as close as you can get when it comes to smoky cracks in the Earth’s crust. Geologist Ingrid Smet of Volcano-Adventures points out that more and more volcanoes have been put on the no-go list in recent years, like in Italy and Hawaii, because of safety concerns. While other volcanoes are shutting down, this park’s newfound fame from Netflix’s Virunga has meant some major upgrades to the pre-trek experience, including a slick new website and the ability to purchase your park pass online.
The downside? It’s pricey for foreigners — $250 for a park permit plus another $105 for the entry visa. This activity isn’t for the faint of heart, either. If you’re like me and you want to know the odds of getting covered in hot lava in the middle of the night, the answers might not comfort you. Scientists say the volcano is predictable and relatively safe, but Andrews warns that when Mount Nyiragongo does blow (or rather, gurgle over), it will be fast and furious. Normally a person can outrun lava flows, but during this volcano’s last eruption in 2002, lava speeds clocked in at 62 mph.
Even still, campers like Brittany Lin from Calabasas, California, who made the trek in 2015, say it is “mesmerizing.” Dominique Rouleau from Montreal visited Nyiragongo in February 2014. As the sun set, she and her friends sat wrapped up in blankets near the volcano’s edge, where they “could feel its heat on our faces and hear its low, quiet rumble.” Andrews says he would probably go if he had the chance since “volcanoes are pretty fun.” That might be the understatement of the year. But if you’re hoping to roast marshmallows over this open fire, you might need more than just a stick from the woods.