by Sandor Carter
Congo; the very name is what keeps most people away and yet at the same time lures others to the enigmatic, second largest country in Africa and into the heart of the Continent.
The airfield was cut out between rough fields of beans and bananas on one side and a rusty UN outpost on the other. The forest behind disappeared from view into distant volcanoes. It was raining. Six men, five armed with AK47’s and another with bandoliers of ammunition were there to greet us, they were our escort to the lodge, welcome to the Congo.
This was Rumangabo in eastern DRC, north Kivu Province. Once it had been the headquarters of Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi general in the Congolese army and commonly known as ‘the Chairman’. Now it was the headquarters of one of the most remarkable national parks in the world, Virunga. The oldest park in Africa, it was established in 1925 as Albert National Park and today it occupies 7,800 sq kms along the DRC’s borders with Rwanda and Uganda. It holds within it 200 of the last remaining 750 mountain gorillas, along with chimpanzees, lowland gorillas, both forest and savannah wildlife as well as highly active volcanoes. In the north of the park stretch the Ruwenzoris, the famed Mountains of the Moon and beyond that the forests that are home to the Bambuti Pygmies.
We had been in the park for five days and had already seen chimpanzee and mountain gorillas on two occasions. The gorilla sightings were without question some of the very best I have ever had, relaxed family groups in settings ideally suited to photography and the whole experience perfectly managed by the accompanying ICCN rangers. These charming and professional men are the backbone of the park and over 140 of them have lost their lives in defence of Virunga and the wildlife that they care for.
On the sixth day we found ourselves slogging through drizzle up the side of Nyiragongo, scrabbling over loose lava rock and wondering what on earth we were doing as we climbed towards the top of the most violent volcano in Africa. It took us five hours to reach the summit at 11,385 feet, it was barren, desolate and very windy; it would have been miserable had it not been for what we were looking at. 1,000 feet below us, at the bottom of a sheer sided crater, was quite literally a flaming lake. This surely was Tartarus and the river Phlegethon had surfaced from the bowels of the earth. Our small party was made up of seasoned travellers and gnarly guides and there was silence. Our porters – all ex FDLR Hutu militia – arrived to set up camp and as evening set in the colours grew more and more vivid, a bewildering array of reds, oranges and purples. I felt drunk.
Congo is not for the fainthearted, it is edgy. Between 1998 and 2008, when peace returned, eastern DRC saw the largest loss of life as a result of conflict since the Second World War. The UN reports that the region continues to see the highest incidents of rape and sexual violence in the world. Virunga National Park is a lifesaver and 30% of all park revenue goes to the surrounding communities. This is a park whose progress must be allowed to continue, its wildlife is too precious, its scenery too dramatic, its people have suffered too much and are now trying so very hard.