Journey to the Glowing Heart of Congo

Congo beckoned.

On the first leg of our trip up from South Africa to Egypt, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the one area that fascinated us and that we wanted to visit, but thought that we might skip. We had met many people from DRC in South Africa; we had heard Congolese ndombolo beats from our flat overlooking Hillbrow on Friday nights; we had heard many stories from Congolese who fled. But for the same reasons that many Congolese have migrated to South Africa – civil war, rebel armies, instability, insecurity – we were unsure about a trip to the DRC.

It is in Dar es Salaam that we find that a visit to the DRC is possible. While staying with our friend Megan, a well-informed and avid traveller, she shows us a recent trip report posted online about a visit to the Parc National des Virunga in the Congo. She directs us to the Park’s website, which is informative and contains stunning photos and glowing trip reports. The story of its rangers (over 140 of whom have lost their lives since 1996) and their fight to protect the park fascinates us, and National Geographic has just listed Virunga its top trips for 2012. Megan has already corresponded by email with the park’s tourism director, who writes: “I would advise you to do the trek to our active volcano the Nyiragongo with its massive lava lake, which is very impressive. It is very much worth it to spend the night in the shelters at the crater edge!”

We are hooked. We immediately decide to forego a safari in Tanzania and put the money instead towards a visit to Virunga in the DRC. We book and pay for our permits and DRC visas through the Park’s website (with credit card via Paypal!), and make arrangements to meet Megan in Gisenyi, Rwanda in order to cross into Goma together on 4 April 2012. A guide will meet us at the border, accompany us through immigration, and provide us with transport to the Park.

On 3 April, everything threatens to come undone as Megan’s visa has not come through due to an oversight by the Park office. Our visit is delayed by one day as we sit in Gisenyi, waiting and watching the volcano’s red glow in the night sky from a distance. Finally, at 8:30pm on Wednesday night, the Park office calls. The visa has arrived! Just in time to do our shopping at the Boulangerie de Gisenyi and rearrange our bags for the next morning.

We leave some belongings at the Presbyterian Church guesthouse in Gisenyi, crossing into the DRC with just an overnight bag. Our guide meets us at the border at 7:15am. We have expected that he might be needed to smooth things over with immigration, but instead find that the crossing over of tourists (visiting the Park) and NGO workers (living in Gisenyi and working in Goma) appears to be a daily affair. We are greeted by a kind-faced immigration officer. “Bonjour Papa,” we say. “Bienvenue,” he replies, smiling.

The contrast between Gisenyi and Goma is sharp. Cleanliness and orderliness are immediately replaced with chaos, crumbling buildings, garbage, and diabolical roads. Black volcanic rock is everywhere: buildings are built from it, streets are black with it, and large black boulders line and sometimes block the roads.

We ask how security is in Goma. The driver replies, “Things in Goma are calm at the moment. But it is around Goma that there are problems. There is a man named General Bosco who used to be part of the government. Now he is wanted by the UN and the International Criminal Court. He is in the area around Goma with his soldiers, doing massacres and terrorizing the people.” “Sème la terreur” is the description the driver uses. I try to imagine life in the eastern DRC.

We drive through Goma, curiously peering out the windows. We stop briefly at the Park office, pass hotels and markets, then start to leave the city. Many large SUVs drive by, marked “UN” or with some NGO’s logo. We pass the military bases for MONUSCO forces from Uruguay, India, and South Africa, the old airport with abandoned shells of airplanes that was destroyed by the 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, people on bulky local bicycles made of wood, and small houses built of wooden planks planted into the lava rock. A UN soldier waves to us as we take photos of the compound.

Suddenly a taxi-moto pulls in front of us and its passenger extend his arms, indicating to us to stop. An armed Congolese soldier disembarks and begins speaking angrily to our guide, gesturing at us in the back. He accuses us of having taken his photo, but we have no idea where he has come from. A large crowd gathers and watches the heated discussion between the soldier and our guide, while we sit quietly in the back. After several minutes, our guide hands over a US$20 bill and the soldier rides away. “Things are like this in the Congo,” our guide says. “Corruption is just open like that.” He also has a lesson for us: “Never hand your camera or anything over, because once you do that, they can ask for anything, even $100. Just talk.”

We arrive at the Park headquarters 20km north of Goma and, after a briefing, head up Mount Nyiragongo. We are 17 tourists and we are told to stick together, as we are accompanied by one guide and three armed rangers. A dozen porters bring up the tail end. It is an 8km hike to the summit at 3468m, which we are informed will take a minimum of 5 hours.

The hike is well-planned, in five parts with four breaks at fixed intervals. The first part is relatively flat through grassy forest. The second part rises sharply up and is littered with volcanic rock. The peak is covered in clouds and we hear a constant deep rumbling; we wonder whether the sound is coming from the storm clouds or the heart of the volcano. Then there is forest and more forest, but steep and it starts raining. We start to see steam rising from fissures in the mountain. The last break is at the old cabanas, a dilapidated and collapsed tin structure where we later learn that the porters sleep. Finally, the summit, which we mount exhaustedly, each of us picking our way independently across the rocks. Our teenage porter, Moussa, walks near me and tells me “Courage” as I climb slowly up the summit, while he is the one carrying our heavy bag. Finally we arrive at the small cabanas at the top. An icy wind blows.

It takes a moment to remember why we have climbed the mountain. We mount the few final steps, past the cabanas, to the crater’s edge. There we see one of the most incredible sights of our lives. A pool of molten rock, cracked from the heat, red hot, bubbling and smoking. The smell of sulfur permeates the air.

As night falls, the colours change and smoke fills the basin. We escape to our cabana to shiver under our sleeping bags, which have become damp on the hike up through the rain. We eat happy cow cheese with bread for dinner, too cold to navigate the opening of the tin of tuna we have brought, looking at photos of the beach in Zanzibar to imagine being warm. An orange glow is visible through the window of the cabana, until a mist descends and thickens the air. We fall asleep wearing every single dry item of clothing in our bag and wrapped in two sleeping bags.

The next morning, the lights of Gisenyi and Goma still glow when we awaken. The volcano is visible once again, living and pulsing with heat and breathing out its smoke. A long last moment’s glance before we start the slow descent down over the slippery volcanic rock, as the day begins.

At the bottom, we meet the new day’s group of tourists ready to ascend the mountain. We look back up towards the summit, but it has been covered by clouds.

On the way back to Goma, we stop at the point where our guide informs us that the 2002 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo started, covering the city and arriving at the shores of Lake Kivu. He tells us how relations between the DRC and Rwanda were difficult at that time, and it was not until evening that the border was opened for people to flee Nyiragongo, “the place of the evil spirit”. At the fissure, a large lava rock bubble has formed above the ground, sitting alien amongst a pile of volcanic rock rubble. Local children climb into the bubble and pose with large bricks of rock, giving small rocks to us as presents.

We continue the drive towards the border, passing through a few neighbourhoods of Goma. We see a Catholic cathedral that was destroyed by the 2002 eruption, only its stone outer walls remaining as a skeleton of its former self, maintained as a memory while a new cathedral has been built across the street. There are two houses marked “Cette parcelle n’est pas à vendre”, and one house half demolished by the municipality because it was “too far into the street” (but also because of political differences). There are markets and nightclubs with rocking music, universities, a photocopy machine powered by generator on the sidewalk, ndombolo beats playing in the streets, nightclubs that “the Congolese like” because they play good music. We drive through the grand Hotel Karibu, owned by a friend of former President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, hauntingly empty. In the parking lot are two old but surprisingly well-maintained buses, which our guide tells us were used by Hutu to escape into the DRC after the Rwandan genocide. We pass the port, with a boat full of people ready to depart for Bukavu, then drive through wealthy neighbourhoods of Goma along the shores of Lake Kivu. Many of the grand houses are inhabited by NGOs, which in our guide’s perception do little to help the local population, but have nice new big SUVs. Our guide points out the former home of Mobutu, the governor’s house, and the lakeside mansion of the first lady. We have few pictures of this drive as there are soldiers and police everywhere.

A glimpse of the Congo, and we slip back across the border into Rwanda. When we check our email that evening, I find a message from an acquaintance stationed in Goma. “ROANNA READ NOW!” it is titled, and contains a warning that security is about to go drastically downhill in the eastern DRC and we should avoid any travel outside of Goma due to the movements of General Bosco. We know that gorilla tracking in the Mikeno section of the Park has already been suspended, about one week before our visit, because of potential threats.

All this leads me to question our guide during our visit, “Is it difficult to live in the DRC?” His reply surprises me, as he laughs and says, “No, we don’t pay taxes. Our government doesn’t ask a lot, but it doesn’t give us a lot either.” Smiling children, fragile wooden houses, soldiers, rebels. It’s difficult to understand, impossible to accept, that life could be like that.

The capital is far away, inaccessible by road. From Goma it is a week to Kisangani, then a week by river to Kinshasa. We slip across the border out of the Congo. We will reach Kinshasa another way.