thought I'd do a trip report from a recent short trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was an interesting place to visit for sure.
My actual trip was to visit a close friend who works in international development in neighbouring Rwanda. I stayed with him in his home in Kigali for several days but central to the trip was an excursion to Virunga National Park in the east of DR Congo. He'd done the trip before but wanted to show it to me and I allowed him to organise the whole thing. But I must admit to quite a bit of trepidation for this trip though. I've travelled independently to plenty of interesting places before such as Vietnam, Laos, Sumatra, Cuba, Costa Rica etc etc but only DR Congo had the advice - "Essential Travel only" listed against it in on the UKs Foreign Office website. Or at least this part of Congo had. Political tension, the presence of active militia, and the murder of a park ranger a few weeks before my visit all contributed to the warning. General rule of thumb is, if a country has “democratic” as part of its name, you should seriously consider that as warning. There’s not much democratic about DR Congo – arguably one of the most corrupt places in the world. And that is not a reflection of the people but rather the history. Nevertheless, my trust in my friend - with his long experience in the region - meant I hoped
all would be okay.
I'd watched a brilliant two-part BBC documentary in December about Virunga National Park and I knew this would be a totally unforgettable experience. Yes there were dangers, but the (little amount of) tourism was massively valuable to the region and helped in the fight to keep the area and its animals safe from interference from humans.
Our visit had two main tent poles. Firstly, a climb up the unbelievable Nyiragongo Volcano. A huge live volcano containing the largest lava lake in the world (by some distance). There we would camp on the lip of the crater before descending the next morning. Then it would be a trek into the jungle to meet a family of gorillas.
We decided to take a public bus from Kigali – the capital of Rwanda. This cost a negligible amount - a few dollars each. It was the first day back at school so the bus station was insanely busy. I’d spent a few days in Kigali already and a few points to make. Firstly, it’s extremely clean and tidy. Plastic bags are banned, the population – including the Prime Minister – get on their knees every Sunday morning to pick up litter. Secondly, apart from a few shopping areas it doesn’t feel very crowded.
Well this bus station was the exception. And, as far as I could see, Jon and I were the only white people among the throng. So we were certainly the centre of attention. Jon turned this to our advantage by getting the man from the bus company to reserve us the front seat on the next bus. This was a mistake. The front seat was the most cramped one! As the bus went on its way it stopped at every opportunity to pick up more passengers. Soon the bus was packed to the rafters. Jon and I stuffed into a corner just behind the driver.
We actually got out shortly before reaching Congo. Jon had an Indian friend who managed a tea plantation and lived on a property in this beautiful setting surrounded by fields of tea and close to the (slightly uglier) factory. He had a cook(!) prepare us a huge Indian meal – a buffet of Indian dishes in fact complete with chapatis and ice-cold beer. A royal send off! He gave Jon the number of a UN contact he had in case we “got into trouble”. (Oh god.)
Rwanda and DR Congo are dissimilar in many, many ways. The most notable being, from the point of view of a traveller, the state of the roads. In Rwanda the roads are well paved, kept spotless from litter and often even have nice flowers planted on the roadside. You wouldn’t need passport control to tell you when you’ve crossed into DR Congo. The country is larger than Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway combined, but has fewer miles of paved road than little Belgium.
Jon’s friend drove us to the border and outskirts of Goma- the Congolese city squashed right up against the Rwandan border. There are two crossing points here. The Grande Barriere and the Petite Barriere. The latter being a small building in a tumultuous area of the city with hundreds of people crossing at any one time with goods piled high on carts, bicycles and old cars. The Grande Barriere was our crossing point; a modern building with officials behind desks and lots of seating.
Goma sits on the edge of Lake Kivu – one of Africa’s Great Lakes. It’s beautiful but deadly and is about 1,000 sq miles large. This part of the world is one of the most geologically active places you can find, this is the Rift Valley. The east of Africa is splitting away from the main part of the continent and this water fills in part of the rift. Have a look at Africa and you can see the fracture – much of it filled with lakes.
And where you get two plates tearing apart you get volcanos, hence the large volcano we were visiting. The volcanos also mean the land is rich in the sort of soil that allows the trees that gorilla love to eat leaves from to grow tall. Lake Kivu is a fresh water lake and scientists had found evidence of periodic large-scale local extinctions around the area – all caused by the lake releasing the massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide dissolved in the lake’s waters. Nobody knows what causes these releases, but it’s yet another hazard in this deadly land. The next time it happens, millions will be at risk. There are 500m tons of CO2 trapped in the lake and it’s release would create a massive deadly but invisible and odourless cloud of death. Not good.
Within sight of the lake we crossed without issue (although we needed to prove we’d had a Yellow Fever vaccine certificate) and a driver from our hotel for the night was waiting to pick us up. This was during an epic rain storm – the rain hammering down loudly on the roof of the border crossing building, on us as we ran towards the car, and then on the car as we ventured into the city. The relentless sound of the heavy rain lent to the fevered excitement I’d been feeling on entering the country.
My friend had climbed the volcano before and told me that the rain was equally torrential during his climb and a repeat would mean everything would be soaked including the contents of our bags and our feet and no waterproofing would protect me. So the first mission was to buy some sandals I could slip into at the top of the volcano. He asked the driver to find somewhere cheap (any other tourist would ask for somewhere safe) and we duly pulled up to the side of a cheap looking group of shops. Immediately a crowd gathered around us and a man who appeared to be in army or police uniform ushered us out of the car after briefly talking to our driver.
The combination of the heavy rain and the already growing crowd of people meant that we ran, like The Beatles through a throng of fans, through a group of people whilst this army guy (soldier?) and a few other locals formed a sort of ring around us. People were actually reaching out to touch me as we ran through a shop, out the back, across a courtyard and into a second shop which was little more than a tiny open storeroom. The soldier sat opposite me whilst an increasingly large group of curious locals stood in the rain staring at me and my friend. They wanted $4 for the sandals and the soldier kindly negotiated them down to $3 before accepting the $1 difference as a sort of payment for his services. We were then ran back to the waiting car (which had another crowd) and almost literally bundled into it. Just before I entered the car a large tipper truck was passing by on the road. One of those big ones with big metal sides. It was filled with small children – you could just see the tops of their little heads absolutely PACKED into the back of this massive metal truck and all singing. I barely had time to comprehend it. I sat in the back of the car, dizzy. I looked at these plastic Adidas sandals in one hand and a bunch of local currency in the other whilst sound of the rain continued to assault my senses.
“Who was the man in the uniform? Was he like a local captain?” I asked.
“He was no-one. He just wanted to make some money”.
The morning of the climb...
A Virunga Park jeep came to pick us up, and we got a big ranger as a guard. He sat up front with his rifle, chatting to us but very much there to make sure no locals messed with us as we drove north out of the city. The roads were filled with white UN vehicles, scooters piled laden with goods, big old smelly trucks piled even higher with goods and chukudu – distinctive wooden bikes totally unique to this part of the world that are somehow able to carry enormous weight. They were like something you’d imagine some ancient society building. The road to the volcano – once out the city - was actually paved!
Only one trip a day goes up the mighty Nyiragongo. The climb starts at about 11am and takes about five or six hours, ascending to 3,500 meters. Last night, looking from our hotel (which backed on to the death lake), we could actually see a red glow in the sky from the volcano’s enormous lava lake. We gathered inside the entrance to the trail around 10am and took stock of our gear. For $100 you can rent the kit. A backpack, sleeping bag, cold weather clothing and other essentials. A team of porters would carry your bag as well as food and supplies. Jon had done the climb before and decided this was a waste of money considering we didn’t have to come far. We had backpacks, we had sleeping bags, cold weather gear and we’d frozen a massive batch of chilli that he cooked the morning before – we’d kept it in the hotel’s ice box and now it was slowly defrosting. We’d had rice and even parmesan (which I’d been instructed to bring from London). And, most importantly, a large bottle of single malt Scotch. We paid two porters to carry our bags. Mine, Emmanuel, was wearing slip on sandals! All this was arranged via the rangers who had spent ten minutes explaining the rules and what we could expect – so there was no special knowledge required to hire things.
And off we set, at first along an easy path with foliage on each side. There were about eight or nine climbers, perhaps fifteen porters, and four park rangers complete with AK47s. This part of the world is elevated so the temperature was in the low 20’s (or 70’s if you still use F) and, luckily, it was dry.
A few words about the rangers. Since the park opened in 1925 (it’s Africa’s oldest National Park) some 170 rangers have been murdered. Eight this year alone. In fact, since two British tourists were kidnapped this Spring the park will stay closed until 2019. These rangers aren’t risking their lives merely to satisfy tourists, they work to protect this part of the country, it’s magnificent wildlife and to preserve the park’s economic contribution. They genuinely believe in what they are doing as so do their families. I’ve seen interviews with the widows of these rangers who passionately support the work that the park does.
The problem is the militia. There volcanism makes the land rich in rare earth minerals. There are chemicals here vital to the manufacture of mobile phones and other tech. Warlords control these resources, recruit child soldiers, and often battle against the work of the park, threatening and killing rangers and even killing gorilla. They would rather the park didn’t exist. The rangers we met were lovely, very knowledgeable and passionate about the work they did.
It was an interesting group – mostly Europeans. A British couple, some Frenchies, Swiss and the two guys Jon and I immediately struck a rapport with: two firefighters from Oregan who only worked in the wildfire season and literally parachuted into each job out of low flying planes. I thought they might be making this gloriously cool job up but I have since confirmed that, yes, these were real life heroes. Just to add an extra annoyance, one of them, Shaun, spent his winters in Rwanda as a live-in volunteer helper at an orphanage for street kids! I visited it on my return to Kigali and it’s amazing and Shaun is really really good with the kids. Ladies – that is marriage material right there.
The climb, as you might imagine from a volcano, steadily grew steeper. Soon, we were walking on old lava. It had been broken down into roughly spherical pieces so this bit was tough – like walking on a sort of rocky ball pit. And then as suddenly as that bit started it ended again and we were back to terra firma.
There were a few rest stops on the way. And usually there were more rangers waiting, sort of on guard. We’d be waiting for everyone. We went up as one group so if you walked ahead, you’d eventually have to stop and wait. I’m guessing this was for safety.
We continued to climb and the path got steeper. We got onto recent lava – solid and smooth. One of the rangers showed us the site of the 2002 eruption and the source of this new lava. That eruption killed 245 people but made 120,000 people homeless. The eruption point was from the flank of the volcano and probably not much more than two-thirds up. I stood on the lip of a hole in the ground and it looked like the entrance to a cave to my eyes. We didn’t venture inside, but the ranger posed for me here so all was well.
We climbed on. Unfortunately one of the girls, who was already struggling, had a serious problem with her knee. We had to wait a long time for her to catch up. Eventually the group did split apart with some porters and a ranger practically having to carry her up.
The vegetation was continually thinning out. Eventually we were above the trees and surrounded only by plants. We caught a whiff of sulphur. But oddly that soon passed and I didn’t smell any more – even from the top. Or perhaps I got used to it. I was suffering a bit from the altitude, getting a slight headache and panting heavily even after a few steps. I consider myself fairly fit but perhaps I don’t cope that well with altitude.
Towards the very end of the climb the plant life disappears entirely and you’re exposed to the elements. The only things on the ground are rocks. It suddenly gets very cold. There’s a hut here where you can use change into cold weather gear. For me it was a jumper on top of a thermal vest, a ski jacket and woolly hat. There are basic toilet facilities here too. For this last bit there is no path – you clamber over the rocks using whatever path suits you best, Lord of the Rings style. At the top are several wooden huts, situated meters from the lip of the volcano. Those would be our homes for the night and we clambered towards them.
Ah that view of the lava was close! But it was a hard climb, with the thin atmosphere, the steep angle, the tiredness of the preceding six hours and the loose rocks. A piece of cake for an experience climber no doubt. And within the ability of anyone with a bit of determination. But it wasn’t a mere stroll upwards either - everyone was having to pick their footholds and put the occasional hand to the ground. Expect maybe the smugly ultra-fit firefighters I’m guessing…
But soon enough I got to the huts. And it was bag down and another twenty meters upwards to get my first view of the lava lake.
There was a small group of four already there, with a camera concentrated on the lava lake and some of the faster members of my group. I went to see what they could see. Someone had turned the top of the mountain into a gigantic crater with a 300 meter drop down to a landscape of rocks the sizes of houses. This was a landscape that was not accessible to humans except through a fatal fall. It looked like a land that was subject to repeated catastrophes – like the ground of some distant, chaotic and uninhabitable planet. In the middle of this a churning pit of lava. You can't help but gawp at the sight of it. A place not of this Earth, right here on Earth.
Just as the twilight was fading that poor girl with the dodgy knee was finally lifted to the edge of the caldera. She looked down at the lava. “Totally worth it. Totally worth it.” she said. And as the darkness descended, the volcano lit up. The red light from the lava lake was bright and luminous.
We had bought some coals from the rangers and cooked up our chilli. IT WAS SO GOOD! We had tons so we gave our porters a second dinner.
Then the bottle of whisky came out and we spend the next four of five hours watching the lava with the two American lads (who had their own whisky but ours was better. Sorry it just was.) Let me tell you – it was FREEZING. The cold wind must have given it a lower than freezing point wind chill. Jon had bought hand warmers up and I was very grateful for them. But the lava’s churn was hypnotic. Like watching a fire but a thousand times cooler. You could hear it and you could feel a distant warmth from it - the caldera is 1.2km wide so it’s still a distance away. Sadly the cloud was out, but was not low enough to obscure the lava lake however it did stop us from being able to look out from the volcano to Goma or Lake Kivu.
Let me tell you about this lava lake. It’s 300 meters in diameter – bigger than a sports stadium. We were seeing the top of a lake that was 600 meters deep and containing five and a half million litres of magma. The biggest on the planet.
After a few hours it was just too cold to stay out any longer. And we would have an early start the next day. To bed! Sleeping bags on a hard floor (roll mats were provided) and time to tuck in. It wasn’t comfortable but after all that climbing sleep was easy to find.
The journey down was uneventful. We went down as a group and although going down is never easy, we had some good chats. We got down to the bottom, posed for a group shot next to a bullet ridden sign, and then took a jeep with our guard to the gorilla! North we went, further into bandit country. The paved road ended and we watched the towns go past. Soon we turned off and started climbing past villages and farmers. This was a wild landscape but rich in vegetation thanks to the rainy climate and the rich volcanic soil.
We were to be glamping. A posh tent with lots of comforts. They served us a lovely meal and put sleeping bags in our beds. For a shower they heated water on a fire, you could smell the burnt wood during the shower! From the garden of the camping site was a beautiful view of an extinct volcano.
There was also a cat – unusually it was happy to eat absolutely anything from our evening meals. I didn’t look badly fed, but if you want to see a cat eating rice, then Virunga National Park is the place to go.
The next morning we woke and were greeted with a large breakfast and a plate of fruit. One of the pieces was a “tree tomato”. It was like a cross between a tomato and a plum. Very weird. The starting point for the gorilla trek was just around the corner. I wore a red t-shirt and bought a waterproof jacket and we went for a briefing.
There were perhaps a dozen other people visiting the gorillas with us, including some of the French climbers from Nyiragongo. One of them acted as English translator of the briefing. We would have to wear face masks to prevent potential human germs from infecting the gorillas, we could not get within seven feet of the gorilla, and there were a few other rules about eye contact and body language.
The ranger explained how there were about 20 gorilla families and we would be broken into three groups to visit a family each. This meant gorilla families would only be visited once a week or so. There were six French visitors so they were to visit a very large gorilla family together – with several adults, several babies and a few juveniles. The other six would be split into two groups of three, but being made up of three pairs we convinced the rangers to split us up into four and two. And Jon wanted to get back to his 2 year old daughter before her bed time and so by asking to go to the nearest group we got to be the group of two!
We set off through beautiful lush countryside, skirting the edge of the jungle. Some rangers track the gorilla early in the morning (partly to protect them) and our ranger guide is in contact with them by radio. After about 30 minutes we crossed a fence and started trekking through jungle. It took perhaps another 30 minutes before we encountered the trackers. “You cannot wear red – gorillas don’t like it.” Well the ranger in the hut said nother about that! I had to don Jon’s blue waterproof poncho. Annoying…
We walked a few more meters and there was a female. Amazing! Right there! We stood in awe, there was a little baby next to her. This was already incredible. Then a huge silverback loomed into view. We were stood on a sort of natural path with bushes immediately behind us The silverback decide that’s where he wanted to go. We stepped back as far as we could with the ranger there to help. The silverback walked right in front of us and then stopped side on to us with a bit of (massive) bottom showing. He stopped for about 30 seconds. I know because we videoed it, but it felt like about five minutes. This was not seven feet. But we had little choice. I could have jumped away I suppose but we were transfixed and the ranger was clearly unconcerned being there right next to us. In my head the silverback was just letting us know he was there. Finally he moved gently away towards the woman.
The family was spread out across perhaps a thirty-metre area. We moved from place to place, meeting each member of the family. A little baby frolicked in front of us and started trying to swing from a nearby tree. I could have reached out to touch it, but that was forbidden of course.
We spent a full hour in the company of these amazing creatures. Never did I feel threatened even though the biggest silverback decided to stare at me for a minute. Amazing gentle creatures.
Too soon, it was time to leave. What an experience. We walked back. And then the rain came.
And did it rain!
Monsoon like rain soaked us through. My backpack (apparently waterproof) literally filled with water. We got back, had a shower, dried ourselves and it was time to head back to Goma and the border.
On the descent down from the hill local kids ran to the jeep, put out their hands and shouted “chupa” – they wanted empty water bottles that they could sell. If only I had known. They also shouted something else whilst pointing – turns out they were crying “white people!”
On the way back there were road blocks put up by locals demanding bribes. Even the UN have to pay. Somehow Virunga Park jeeps get a pass.
We went back through the Petite Bariere – through a throng of thousands of people. We caught a bus and, well, Jon missed his daughter’s bedtime.
Can’t have them all.
What a trip!