Goma, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Are we actually going to the Congo? We asked each other this questions on multiple occasions before actually going to the Congo. The trip was booked we were in the deep and quite frankly I was thrilled, Maysa nervous but also thrilled. If you check the advisories and the news and ask anyone who knows where the Congo is, they will tell you, you’re a damn fool.
I’ve never been one to take these advisories too seriously, more often than not I feel like it’s your country’s way of not being liable for their citizens should they travel to a certain place, and often these advisories shroud an entire place in danger instead of explicitly calling out certain locations.
At the end of the day, all the hyped up trepidation we felt was for naught…Not to say I’d be meandering around Goma on my own at night but the warnings of being raped, kidnapped, mutilated, and robbed was a bit far fetched. I could see myself getting mugged there should I be wandering the streets alone at night but anything worse would be a slight on every single wonderful person we met while visiting the DRC. I’ve had hotel staff in Nairobi who were uncomfortable letting me walk to a bank alone in broad daylight, and in Goma our hotel staff did not seem too enthused that we wanted to venture out for water and other supplies in the late afternoon/evening, but they gave us the directions nonetheless and didn’t seem too surprised when we returned with smiles on our faces instead of lines etched with paranoia.
The most remarkable thing about Goma city proper is the sheer amount of UN vehicles you’ll see driving around or parked in hotel parking lots. Another interesting aspect are the roundabouts which are decorated to memorialize things like the 2002 Nyiragongo eruption in which about 147 people died, destroyed thousands of homes and left over 100,000 people homeless. The eruption came through fissures in the side of the volcano letting lave stream through the center of town, 15 years later you will still see piles of lava rock on the side of the road and notice that some people have used the rock to make stone walls. Since the rock and dust is black it makes Goma look a bit grimy, almost like a coal miner’s town in the Great Depression, but life is so vibrant and the landscape so green, its easy to enjoy the contrast.
The absolute most fascinating thing I saw in the city of Goma were the boys on Chukadoos (wooden freight bicycles) transporting loads of wood at the speed of light. Sometimes they were racing each other, usually with two young men on each-one steering, the other securing the load of thin logs. While we were waiting for our ranger, BienFait, to escort us to the Virunga I stood outside the ranger station on the street photographing and filming Chukadoo drivers. I guess the few tourists that do come to Goma these days don’t usually get out of the car at 7am with their camera, as I received many a curious/incredulous stare. David, our Goma driver and guide, told me that I could photograph and film anything as long as he was there but if I was on my own I could get fleeced for a photography license.
“The easiest way to extract money from a tourist is to catch him taking photographs. In fact, the DRC’s ‘no photography’ regulations don’t seem to be enshrined anywhere; they probably fall under Mobutu’s famous Article 15–debrouillez-vous–that you have the right, indeed the duty, to ‘improvise’ or ‘get by’, making money anyway you can.” (Tony Wheeler, Dark Lands)
David took us to a popular local restaurant called Magali Fan Club where you eat buffet style, an awesome selection of traditional and fragrant Congolese food, it would be the single best meal we had in 4 days in the Congo. We were recommended Nyumbuni Lodge another day for dinner, the food was not local and it was just so so but the restaurant has a calm ambience for an evening meal and drinks.
At really early o’clock, David picked us up at our hotel, Caritas Lodge, we stopped for a bit to wait for our ranger escort, Bienfait, and then carried on down some seriously harrowing roads to the Gorilla trekking station in the Virunga. We drove by children waving, some with the hands out asking for money others yelling “Biscuit!” at us. Is that a thing here, do tourists gives kids cookies in the Virunga? In Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC when I have gone on safari or in this case a gorilla trek, kids run out when they see the tourist vehicles looking to get money and gifts from tourists. I have literally never thought to bring anything with me, can’t afford to hand out cash, and have always been told never to give money to random people but to donate money or items to a charity instead of giving to individuals. I’m curious to know how often these children’s efforts are rewarded.
We were ushered into a room with chairs set up facing a map of the park and a white board with the names of the Gorilla families and how many of each type of gorilla belonged to each family. There were about 8 other people there eagerly awaiting to begin the trek. We were given the run down of how we needed to act around the gorillas, what not to do and which families we would visit. Were were split into 3 groups and then told to tuck our pants into our socks to avoid getting accosted by red ants. Everyone was wearing long pants or leggings except me. I had worn a ¾ length pair of leggings and my hiking boots so there was a 2-3 inch space of bare skin. My reason for this was that I knew it was going to be hot and I didn’t think about needing to cover my legs. I felt that David or Amahoro tours should have mentioned this in their information package. They had done an excellent job with everything else. There was nothing I could do but brave the jungle in my ¾ length leggings and hope for the best. This didn’t detract from the incredible experience I had while watching the Rugendo gorilla family, a swarm of red ants could have been crawling up my legs and I would still have been wide eyed, in awe, snapping photos and just staring at the most magical creatures on our planet.
We walked up and down small hills and through farmer’s fields for about an hour in the sun, one ranger in front and one in the back. Our head ranger DeoGracias, went in front and I behind him. We started to ascend a pretty steep hill, not sure how long we’d be ascending for, I stopped part way up because I hate being in front of others and I was hot. Turns out it wasn’t long because the Rugendo family was just chilling on the edge of the forest and the farmer’s fields munching on bushes; secure in the knowledge that there were 2 rangers protecting them. Once we got within 30 feet of the gorillas they told us to put our masks on, this is because gorillas can contract human ailments. There are about 900 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild, just over a hundred are habituated to humans and they live between Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC. The rest of the gorilla families are not used to humans and would become quite aggressive if we tried to hang out with them and watch them eat. The Rugendo family does not mind our presence but you can tell that they only trust us because the rangers with us are known to them. They still watch us, seemingly passively but as soon as we are near to the baby, Mom watches our every move out of the corner of her eye. Baby wants to come play with us, babies like to play with the rangers so they are curious about humans. The Rugendo’s 4-month old little nugget kept trying to stumble toward us like a miniature furry drunk, but we knew we had to stay 5 feet or more away. It was awkward on the hillside rife with plants to scramble backwards from the baby so the rangers were cutting down bushes left and right for us to move back.
The hour was up too soon, I could have spent a full day hanging out with these incredible animals, I so badly wanted to scoop up the baby and play with it and if a silverback had fist pumped me I would have been pretty stoked but sadly it was time to go. The rangers are so nonchalant about what they do but their job is incredibly important and at times extremely dangerous. Rangers get killed all the time by poachers and militia, in the last 20 years more than 160 rangers have died protecting the gorillas and the Virunga. About 2 weeks before we arrived 13-14 Tanzanian soldiers were killed in the Congo, the country is still incredibly unstable but for now the Virunga and Goma are safe. How is it that a country so rich in natural resources can be so corrupt, violent, and poor? I guess you can thank Belgium for fucking up a perfectly beautiful country.
Returning to Goma, Bienfait, our escort blew a tire on the poorly kept road and we waited while he loaded his motorcycle on top of a ranger jeep. We bounced and jerked to and fro all the way back to Goma, passing the site where a huge military gun was left from the M23 militia uprising against the military. They were trying to destabilise the Virunga so that Soco Oil could drill in Lake Edward. The government won because the UN got involved and convinced Joseph Kabila to protect the Virunga and send Soco packing. There is still much unrest in the Kivu region. It’s a strange site to see a gun being overtaken by weeds, that just 5 short years early was being used against the town and the rangers, as civilians fled on foot and overloaded trucks to get away from the fighting. The village in present day looks so peaceful and normal but you know the 10-year old herding goats down the road probably had to run for his life when he was 5. When I visit Quebec City or Santo Domingo, DR, there are old canons lining ancient city walls that are left as a reminder of the past and who fought and won the right to call that place home, for our present day freedoms. Those canons are simply a symbolic reminder of the past, why this massive gun was left outside this village for 5 years I cannot with certainty say but it seems as though its more because no one has thought or been able to get rid of it.
The next day we would be climbing Nyiragongo for 5 hours and needed some healthy sustenance and a good sleep to get us up there. I had read that the beginning of the hike was pretty easy and the rest got harder. I felt moderately prepared, I work out 4-5 times a week usually and I trekked for 5 days in Nepal; I was not prepared. The first part of the hike is fairly easy and quite pleasant but the next 4 hours are awful, I mean the views are great but when your anxiety takes over and you can’t breathe you don’t notice the view. Maysa stayed with me as I lagged behind literally taking 1 step at a time. The whole time your feet are rolling around on loose lava rocks going steadily up and up for hours. But once you reach that final rest stop, the wind whipping around your head, catching your breathe before the final 20-30 minute ascent, that literally looks straight up; you know you can do it and the effort will have been worth it. I rarely give up on anything but about ½ way up I wanted to quit. I powered on of course, I knew I had to see the lava lake. We bought wooden walking sticks at the bottom, I was sceptical at first but after about hour 2, I was extremely pleased to have one; especially on the descent when rolling rocks threatened to dislodge your feet and send you tumbling to the ground. We dumped our stuff in the cabin and piled on the layers, it was sooooooo cold at the top, like above the tree line cold. The barometer read 8 degrees but with the wind chill I would have wagered it was 0 at most. I really wished I had bought those ugly pink gloves in Dubai because as I was trying to photograph the bubbling lava, my fingers were solid blocks of ice. Of course as a desert dweller for the past four years and having never been particularly fond of winter, I can’t handle weather much below 15 degrees.
Nothing, no amount of google image searches, and blog reading can prepare you for the sight of hot, crackling bubbling lava lake in all it’s dragonesque, mordor glory; 700 metres below you at the top of a 3400 metre volcano. Knowing this very pit of lava nearly leveled Goma in 2002, smelling the sulphur, and perched on the razor edge of a cliff trying not to let the wind get the better of you, its surreal. I can’t explain it because such things should not be read but seen in person.
After watching the lava lake in a gray haze for a little while we went down to the cook’s hut and sat next to the fire, warming our stiff and frozen bodies. Thomas our cook served us a delicious potage and beef spaghetti. The perfect meal after a hard climb and shivering at the edge of the lava lake.
After dinner I went back up to the edge of the cliff to stare awhile longer. The glowing red of the lava was even more striking now that the sky had gone black. We shivered awhile longer, completely dumbstruck, I was extremely happy I had brought my telephoto lens so that I could get some really close shots of the lake. I was so cold I just wanted to curl up inside my sleeping bag and drift to sleep. A little rum and hot chocolate would not have been remiss and if I had to do it again, I would have brought some. I tried to convince the Rangers, Porters and Cooks that they should start a rum and whiskey beverage service and offer calf massages!
My hopes of a warm, snuggly sleeping bag were dashed when I crawled in and realized that my sleeping bag was thin and had thinned out considerably around the zipper area leaving a substantial area of mostly nylon to shield me from the cold that permeated our little cabin. My sleeping bag was a worn out piece of crap that let my dwindling body heat slither out through the worn nylon into the night sky. The cabin itself is outfitted with two small mattresses and pillows covered in vinyl and while the cabin blocked the wind it was not insulated from the cold. I resolved that once I was tucked into my sleeping bag, I would not be getting up to pee until morning. Maysa came down a little later needing to pee but not wanting to go down to the outhouse because it was so dark and the path precarious so she opted to squat behind our cabin. Thinking that everyone had gone to sleep, she ventured out but to her dismay people were out and about with their flashlights so she got stage fright and couldn’t go for awhile, I think she may have been out their with her bare ass to the wind for a good twenty minutes; I tried to help by singing to her such bathroom classics as “Let it Go” and “You can do it put your back into it,” I was not being helpful she said so I stopped, ignored her pleas to the night gods for a quick and steady stream, and went to sleep. I slept fitfully that night, woke up to Maysa talking incoherently in her sleep, feeling heavy gusts of wind violently shaking our cliff-side dwelling.
Waking early the next morning, I was so miserably cold I felt certain that I could just not get up, that I would just have to remain a frozen popsicle in that cabin for the rest of my life, but my bladder got the better of my and I forced myself out and down to the outhouse. The outhouse was an unpleasant structure to enter but it was open to the cliff side overlooking the most incredible views, so while you were trying to hover over the seat aiming your stream into the hole you were blessed with a view that lasts a lifetime. The sun was still rising, the sky all pinks and purples, the hopelessness that I felt before I got up disappeared and I felt excited about the next few hours ahead.
Thomas served up a hearty breakfast and we all began our descent down the steep cone of the volcano to the first rest stop. Maysa’s fear of heights took over on the descent so it was my turn to wait for her as one of the Porter’s graciously assisted her all the way down. I fell once and cut the heel of my hand, fell a few more times but did not suffer any more cuts or bruises. One man fell quite hard as he was descending the first part and with already bad knees and his walking stick jamming into his ribs, he was unable to descend as quickly as the rest thus a ranger stayed by his side the whole way down. It was precarious but I learned to watch the sure footing of the other guides, rangers, and porters and followed them down to firmer ground. The last section of the trail is the most pleasant, descending through woods on firm packed dirt, watching out only for roots crossing the path.
After 3 of the most incredible days of my life visiting the Gorillas, and climbing Nyiragongo, often called the most dangerous volcano in the world, I felt extremely fortunate and cheerful, completely exhausted but excited for the next 2 weeks of our trip.
I never once felt unsafe while visiting Goma and the Virunga, in fact I left with the desire to see more of the DRC. More people visit Rwanda and Uganda to see the Gorillas but with the rising cost of Gorilla trekking in Rwanda, more people are starting to head to the Congo. Being able to also trek Nyiragongo and visit the famed Virunga was the selling point for us but all the little experiences we had while hanging out in Goma made me wish we had stayed another day, if only to eat more Congolese food and dance the night away to Congolese music.