‘Welcome to the country everybody says you should not go!’. These were the words with which Daniel, our tour guide, welcomed us to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ok, at that time we were still in Gisenyi, Rwanda but the message was clear. Everyone is very conscious of the fact that DRC is not a prime tourist destination, or a completely safe one for that matter. So why on earth were we about to cross the border into the dark heart of Africa? We were going to climb the Nyiragongo, an active stratovolcano in Parc National des Virunga, whose crater at 3.470 metres contains one of the largest lava lakes in the world.
Life in Virunga and Goma
Virunga National Park, formerly called Albert National Park, covers 7.800m2 in the east of the Congo, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Created in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, it is the oldest national park on the African continent. Albert National park was initially established to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests. The park fared well until the mid 1980s but in the next thirty years, the gorilla-murdering-charcoal mafia, rebels and refugees from the Rwandan genocide all but destroyed the park, evicting its staff and depleting the animal population. Since 1994, 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park. After 2008, the political situation stabilised somewhat and control over the park is back in the hands of the Congolese Wildlife Authority. Tourist numbers are increasing steadily and the European Union has supported investments in social infrastructure and safety. The situation remains precarious however, which becomes clear from the fact that as recent as April 2014 the director of the park was ambushed and shot, through fortunately he survived.
Sounds lovely does it not? When one of my roommates in Kampala suggested this as the destination for our next trip I was not sure what to think. Because besides the challenges faced by the park itself, I also knew that we had to pass through Goma, a conflict-ridden city on the border of DRC and Rwanda. A huge influx of refugees from the Rwandan genocide, attacks in the political aftermath of this event and, let us not forget, a devastating eruption of the Nyiragongo in 2002 (yes, that is the volcano at the top of which we were to spend the night) left Goma a broken city. But as I would be traveling with five American girls I figured that if they were not worried I should not be either. Even though all maps with travel advice for the Congo are coloured deep red (and that is not because it is so nice and warm). And in spite of the news that four people were killed in riots over a bill presented to parliament a week earlier…
I did not know what to expect. Of course I had heard about DRC and Goma on the news and conflict studies and UN peacekeeping missions were a big thing during my International Relations studies. However, when we arrived at the border there was no intense security check, no military forces with guns and the difference in road quality was smaller than when you enter Belgium from the Netherlands (at least for the first 500 metres). Goma is grey and poor, a city covered in volcanic dust and rocks, with three paved roads and the rest a maze of rocky alleys. The UN is omnipresent in its armoured trucks and blue helmets can be seen in every watch tower. But there are people in the streets, shops are open and kids are running around. We bought popcorn from a street vendor and were offered a drink in the house of our tour guide. Congolese hospitality at its best, with delicious cheese to help our body recover from the strenuous hike up the volcano.
While in the park, there are only a few reminders of the grim history of this area. The park sign is covered in bullet holes, the park rangers carry serious guns and the cabins we are sleeping in at the top have been partially destroyed (although the volcano is also to blame for this). It was a beautiful hike, through the forest, over loose volcanic rock and rather steep to complete our ascent from 1.900 to 3.500 metres. At the top the crater lake awaits, which is a spectacular sight. Early in the morning with the light of both the moon and the sun we could see the lava moving around, a melted version of our earth that has come to life. It felt like standing on top of the world, with the clouds beneath us and a clear sky above our heads. Fair enough, it was also cold and very, very, very wet on our way up, but the more I think about it the more special this experience becomes.
Daniel welcomed us to the country of which everybody says that you should not go there. I am glad we did (if only for the exotic stamp in my passport). Though there are downsides for sure, I believe that tourism can contribute significantly to the quality of life in areas like Goma. Money spent on the park, its rangers, the porters carrying our food, Congolese tour companies and the popcorn lady in Goma has the power to provide this city with a brighter future. People monitoring the volcano (because oh my, some tourists might die), government providing funds to protect endangered animals because they generate revenue or roads being constructed to transport all the tourists are just a few examples. I fully understand not everyone is willing to travel to a post-conflict area, but am also certain there are enough daredevils out there to make a difference.