The Eastern provinces of the Republique Democratique du Congo, or DR Congo in short in English, are known for being the deadliest place on Earth, the land of the most terrible and massive crimes and the highest number of deaths since World War II. So you can understand that I was a bit wary when I decided to come here.
This feeling was accentuated because I had to come from Uganda via Rwanda, and the bus I had to take there belonged to a company called “Atraco Express”. In Spanish, “atraco” means mugging and it didn’t make me happy at all that it was going to take place very quickly. This wasn’t the most appealing publicity trick I had heard of. I was wondering if “atraco” had any meaning in Swahili or Kinyarwanda, maybe “confort” or “relax”, something that could ease me a bit. Finally, it was French, an acronym that stands for Association pour un Transport Communitaire.
I came to Congo to research stories on tough matters: the devoted park rangers’ struggle against poachers, militias, soldiers and charcoal trafickers; and the situation of females in a region Human Rights Watch describes as “the worst place on Earth to be a woman”. It should be no holiday, but hard work and prudent behaviour. This last thing has never been easy for me, creature of the night.
The traitor Aztec king Moctezuma thought signs of sky as odd, anticipation of tragedies. To me, they announced an unexpectedly pleasant experience in Congo.
I was lovingly received in the city of Goma (Nord Kivu province) by my old friend, Samantha Newport, and her partner and their son, William and Alex. That was very nice. First morning, Andrè, a Congolese clerk, rushed into the office (where I sleep) looking for his mobile phone to take photos with it. There was a sun eclipse taking place! Stunning in the early morning’s light, behind some dark clouds.
Later in the day, Sam took me to the Parc National des Virunga’s headquarters, in the village of Rumangabo, one and a half hours North of Goma, by a very difficult road. This is a highly volcanic area. In 2002, Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, just 10 kilometres away from the city, sent a wave of very fluid lava which destroyed 80% of Goma. Just now, Mount Nyamulagira, 15 kilometres away, has been throwing lava for 21 days, though not in our direction.
The Goma citizens rebuilt their city between 6 and 20 metres higher than it used to be, on top of the new lava crust. Its streets, not made of concrete nor dirt, but of rough and edgy volcanic rock, are probably the bumpiest I’ve ever seen. Carmakers of the world should test their vehicles here, if they survive, nothing will stop them! And several parts of the road to Rumangabo run over volcanic rock too.
Sam had a surprise for me in Rumangabo: Ndeze and Ndakasi, a couple orphaned gorillas of about two and a half years old, whose mothers were killed in cold blood by charcoal traffickers (in which was a series of gorilla massacres in 2007), were playing in a special enclosure purposedly built for them in the jungle. I had written about Ndeze and Ndakasi’s plight in Mexico’s El Universal and Quo, and was delighted to see them well and joyful!
Ndeze chilling out in Rumangabo
In the Virunga range area, shared by Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, live the last 700 mountain gorillas of the world, so their protection from militia members, poachers and traffickers is vital for this specie’s survival.
Sam introduced me to one of her assistants in Virunga’s communication department, Eddy Mbuyi, a very intelligent and fun Congolese guy who became my guide and now, my friend. On the third day, we went up to Bukima, a rangers’ post in the park’s gorilla sector.
Behind Eddy, you can see two 4,500 metres volcanoes, Karisimbi to the left, and Mikeno, after which the gorilla sector is named. In total, we could see five volcanoes and we enjoyed a wonderful sunset.
This is Mikeno
And this is Nyiragongo, the one that destroyed Goma in 2002.
Mount Nyragongo is meant to be the most active volcano in Africa. Eddy said he heard the lava was coming at 14.00, and by 17.00 the city was covered and the population had escaped to Rwanda. It’s nearly one million people, imagine the madness! This volcano is not erupting just now, but in its crater it doesn’t have a water or ice lake, but a hot lava lake. There’s always smoke rising from it. At night, the clouds or smoke over it also reflect the lava lake’s red glow.
What we didn’t know was that Mount Nyamulagira’s eruption was visible from there. What’s that?, said Eddy when he first discovered the huge lava explosions.
What diablos is that!
Eddy got a telescope and we could see this... well, no, with the telescope it looks so well, you can clearly see the lava elevating hundreds of meters and then falling onto the slopes. This is all I could do trying to take a picture of the telescope image... not much.
An amplified image of the pic I took with the telescope.
For this one I only used the camara, no telescope.
Another one without telescope, amplified
The volcano is almost 30 kms away from Bukima, but we could clearly see the lava, which seemed to go up in the air many hundreds of metres. Later in the night, the wind formed a kind of huge sombrero with the smoke, which then reflected the red light of the eruption. I felt like in another world.
Every volcano should have a sombrero
Next day we went into the jungle looking for the Humba family, a group of gorillas habituated to human presence. This is important because generating income that can be used not only to protect the park, but for the benefit of the local communities (30% of the 400 usd we pay for the permit goes to social projects), is key to help the people to understand the importance of keeping the gorillas, instead of killing them (for their hands and head, which can be sold in the black market) or cutting hecteares of trees to make charcoal. The downside of their habituation is that, in the 2007’s massacres, the killers took advantage of the gorilla’s friendliness to approach them and execute them.
Ours was an amazing experience: we walked with three rangers who led us through the thick jungle to the place they had left the gorillas at the previous day. Then, they first tracked them to the spot where they made their nests to sleep, and from there, to where we found them chilling out and having the craic. Someone said that in the other side of the Virunga range, in Rwanda, there are too many tourists, you have to wait for days or weeks to get a permit and then, the rangers don’t do any tracking, they just communicate with radios and walk straight to the right place.
Meet the Humbas, then! First I almost bumped into the huge silverback, Humba, the family head, with his 250 kilograms, wow! Big fella, sitting in the shade and not really paying much attention to us. When Diddy, the ranger, told me he was just next to me, I thought he could get me by the neck in one second, so I walked away. I had to, because gorillas are very vulnerable to human illnesses and we are supposed to keep a seven metres distance.
Don't mess with Humba!
Later we saw other members of the family, like an old female, a baby with her mother having breast, and the youngsters that in a couple years will challenge Humba’s dominion over the girls.
Magori and her 5-month-old baby
Mago and her escuincle
Semakuba, a female Humba stole after a fight with Kabirizi, another silverback
Congo is what it is and all this sweetness couldn’t last forever. I was amazed at its wonders and really enjoying it, but I had to get to know the ugly sides as well. I had to interview the rangers, who have faced horrible situations in the hands of their enemies. And now I’m about to take a boat to another city, Bukavu, on the other end of Lake Kivu, where the drama of violence against women goes further than any of us could have imagined.
But this is the story I wanted to tell you just now. Congo, and Virunga in particular, are truly fascinating. I would say be extremely careful, but don’t discard coming here to experience it yourselves.
PS: Take a look at the Virunga park’s website: http://www.gorilla.cd