Christopher Koski speaks of his perilous trail to witness the endangered mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park and his overnight trek to the active volcano Mount Nyiragongo
The Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, evokes images of remote tribesmen living among the dense jungles that encapsulate the country. It is a nation blessed with immense natural resources: diamond, gold, copper, uranium, cobalt and oil, with an estimated value of US$24 trillion. Yet somehow it remains staggeringly impoverished and stuck in a state of constant chaos and destitution. Earlier this year, I sat on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, watching the sun set across its waters and behind the dark mountains of the DRC. It seemed so mysterious, similar to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: dangerous and unknown, beckoning an adventurer to take to its shores.
Just across the Rwanda border is the town of Goma. The first thing I noticed was the unmistakable mark of the United Nations; their identical white vehicles are everywhere. There is a huge UN presence in DRC with more than 22,000 UN officials and soldiers stationed around the country. It is, by numbers, the UN’s largest mission abroad. I asked locals their sentiments on the UN in DRC, and the consensus: “We don’t know what the UN does here, and we don’t see how they are helping us. They are here for their own benefit.” UN workers are paid a western salary and receive ‘danger pay,’ a bonus for working and living in a volatile area. A UN soldier’s job is to provide protection and support to fend off notorious rebel fighters hiding out in the jungle of the Virunga National Park. They are active in the region, having recently killed 50 villagers in a machete attack, adding to the 600-plus that have been killed in the past two years.
Precariously close to this conflict is Virunga. It was the first national park to be established on the African continent and occupies troops of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. With less than 790 individuals left in the wild, we drove hours on rough roads through villages and farmland to see them. On arrival to the park’s edge, we met the rangers, armed with machetes and machine guns to guide and protect us. We began walking, not directly into the forest, but along its edge through sorghum and potato fields. We observed the families harvesting their crops, exchanging greetings in Swahili and French as we passed by. After an hour’s walk, we crossed into the forest, shimmying underneath an electrified fence. A couple of trackers met us and direct our guard’s east, who began hacking away with their machetes to clear a trail.
That is when we saw them. Sitting in tall grass, one gorilla was chewing green bamboo shoots and tree leaves. She was entirely undeterred by our presence as she acknowledged us and swiftly returned to her meal. Two juveniles were playing up on the hill, running around a tree and pulling each other’s limbs and hair. An older male, the silverback, sat quietly in the shade of a tree. As I watched their mannerisms, it was evident that they are one of our closest relatives. Because of this fact, they are vulnerable to disease transmitted through human contact, meaning that we had to wear surgical masks to limit such transmission. The hour went by quickly in their presence. We took our last photos, slipped back underneath the fence and made our way to Goma town.
We returned the next day to a different section of the park to start an overnight trek, as the park also holds another treasure that is equally special. Looming over the horizon is the active volcano Mount Nyiragongo that erupted in 2002, killing 15 per cent of Goma’s people. We began the day hiking through the open forest, and then onto a damp jungle. The final leg was a volcanic rockslide, until we eventually arrived at several huts situated on the edge of a massive caldera, inside which lies the world’s largest lava lake. The main crater spans 2km in width and was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Although it sat far below us, the heat was strong and was a welcome reprieve from the chilly winds at our backs. At night, the glow was most apparent as the florescent lava flowed along culverts to the lake. We sat and watched this boiling caldron like a campfire late into the night, mesmerized by its destructive beauty. On our return the following morning, we reminisced on the experience of such a sight, all agreeing it was a highlight of our life’s adventures.
I’ll have to explore more of this country another time. For logistical, security and visa specific reasons, I cannot access much more of DRC, but this little section is a gem, and those lucky enough to see it will not be disappointed.