Adventure in the Congo
Andrew and I have had the privilege to do a lot of really cool things over the past few years, but this short trip *might* have topped them all. Andrew had a work conference in Rwanda for a week, so after it was over we took the opportunity to cross over into the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a couple of days in order to do a gorilla trek and to climb Mount Nyiragongo in order to see the lava lake in the crater on top. Also, of course, we wanted to what the DRC is like.
The border crossing was easy-peasy because the company we used for the trek (Green Hills Ecotours, which I highly recommend) had already set up our visas and helped us every step of the way so that we got across without any hitches. The change from the Rwanda side to the DRC side was, in my opinion, dramatic. Rwanda has a very tidy feel to it, with nice roads and clean cities and drivers who actually seem to follow traffic laws (sort of). The minute we drove into the DRC, things were grungier and felt more chaotic and crowded, though not necessarily in a negative way. Things just seemed to operate at a different pace and in a different style. Our group of four chose the budget accommodation (of course) that was offered by the tour company, and it turned out to be a lovely hotel on the shore of Lake Kivu. This, from our perspective, was much better than what we would consider “budget” accommodation.
We spent the night there and rose early the next morning to drive out about 2 1/2 hours to Virunga National Park, where our gorilla trek would take place. After a briefing from the park rangers there, we were led on an hour hike into the jungle. Mountain gorillas are critically endangered due to years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only 880 left remaining (though other estimates are around 700), and they only exist in the Virunga Mountains (where we went) and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. We were told that every day, the rangers go and locate the different mountain gorilla families and monitor their safety.
When we reached the gorilla family that we were being led to, we were instructed to speak quietly, wear masks, keep our distance, and listen carefully for instructions from our ranger. We were allowed to watch the family of nine for one hour. The first gorilla we came upon was the alpha male of the family, and he was huge. He also did not care one bit that we were there, and almost seemed to be making a point in ignoring us as much as possible. Soon we saw the other members of the family, including a 4 year old and a 2 year old, the latter of whom was absolutely the star of the show. This little guy swung from trees right in front of us, spun in circles, clapped his hands, beat his chest, chased and wrestled with his brother, and even messed with the alpha male a bit. He was the only one that seemed to take any notice of the staring group of masked people so close by. It was so fascinating to watch the gorillas in their natural habitat, to hear them communicating and interacting, and to witness their beauty.
The next day, we embarked on the next chapter of our journey. We drove to the base of Mount Nyiragongo, which is an active volcano and 11,380 feet high. Our group of 4 (which was composed of 2 Americans (us), 1 Brit, and 1 Aussie), joined up with another American, 2 Italians, and 1 Spaniard, and our hike began. We ascended about 5,000 feet over a period of five hours, and then we peaked over the edge of the crater at the top and got our reward. A boiling lake of lava.
As you can see, the lava became only more impressive as the night grew darker. We could faintly feel its heat, but could distinctly hear its rumble. The pictures might make it seem like we were close, but the lava lake was in fact 600 meters below the crater’s rim, where we overlooked it. This lava lake is one of the few “persistent” lava lakes in the world. It was hypnotic, and we watched it from our cold perch for long periods of time.
We stayed the night in rudimentary cabins at the top, and our cook (yes, we had a cook), made us a nice hot dinner that night as well as breakfast the next morning. The hike down was quick, and by late afternoon we were already back across the border and in Kigali.
Andrew and I fly back to Tanzania tonight, and though we can’t wait to be back in our cozy Iringa house, we have very much enjoyed our trip into Rwanda and the DRC. It is so interesting to visit other African countries and to compare and contrast to Tanzania. Until next time!