eastern congo has always been on my travel radar; not just because of the romantic and tragic documentary that came out a few years ago (although this is likely the cause of thousands of other americans traveling there every year since it has reopened to tourism a few years ago), but because of the beautiful, tragic, and complex history of this part of the world. it screams of 'old africa' and of the 'consummate explorer' wearing his pith helmet and hacking his way into the wild jungle before him...
since I thrive on making people uncomfortable with some of my travel expeditions (sorry, Michele) and since i was already planning my 3+ week fam trip to east africa ('familiarization trip' in the travel biz) I eagerly tacked this on with the limited time I had; 5 nights and 6 days in Virunga... not ideal, but not unfeasible. my curiosity was piqued; was it as unsafe as everyone told me it would be? was it as safe as others told me it would be? is it going to be difficult to get there? would i recommend it to others to travel? could it possibly be as beautiful as i had hoped/expected it to be? i set out to find out myself what all the fuss was about.
i read a few blogs before heading out that began with the headline : don't read the news about Eastern Congo before you travel... hmmm, seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? reading/writing about NOT reading about it. at this point, most people i know don't even question my destinations or travel itineraries, its just 'jen's off again to africa'. i brushed off the recent news of a city in eastern Congo just days before leaving saying "its almost 400km away from where i'll be... its fine. do you know how horrible the roads are there? it could take DAYS to travel that distance"
i landed in kigali, rwanda (aka the cleanest city in the world) sans plastic bags and slept the night in Kigali. i was picked up early the next morning by my driver who would take me to the DRC border, and there I would exit Rwanda and enter DRC; escorted by a team of local experts to assist with the border crossings. i thought this was overkill, personally, i've walked across, driven across, pushed a broken car across, and even snuck across african borders plenty of times so pretty sure i'll be fine, thanks. i was met at the border, eased out of Rwanda and was met by my DRC border assistant to walk me through the crossing and put me in the Virunga vehicle to be on my way.
firstly, the daily list of Virunga visas didn't include mine... not a problem, the office was called and a new list brought down (potential bribe averted). next came the tricky part, the health post. apparently there had been many reports of the health authorities requiring 'payments' for new yellow fever cards by wazungu, claiming some inane mistake was made when the card was filled. the problem with mine was that i had scratched off a mistake I had made to the address on the front- easily corrected and matching all other documents with me. the health authorities made me come into their office and kept me there claiming that it was invalid and required $70USD for them to produce a new one. i insisted it has been through 20+ countries and never had a problem and also really, REALLY, are you really worried i'm bringing yellow fever into your country?!? i explicitly told the woman in charge i would not give her a dime- that i would sit there ALL day, if necessary, and stare her down but she wouldn't' get a dime from me. she called my bluff. then i called hers.
after about an hour and all of my lunch was finished i began to scheme up different solutions. i then told her that i would gladly take my yellow fever and my yellow fever card and return to Rwanda and visit a clinic there to get a new card. she then threatened to rip up my yellow fever card and cursing me out in a mixture of french and swahili (which luckily or unluckily i understood). i then took a picture of it in her hands with my phone and she proceeded to lock it in a cabinet in her desk... ok, this lady is NOT messing around... but neither was I. somehow we got the health director in goma to come through this chaos and i was then eagerly given my yellow fever card and sent on my merry way. luckily, as soon as i got in my open park land rover and picked up my two armed guards in goma, i was back to my excited self. i had averted a $70 setback, an unpleasant poke by an angry congolese nurse and/or gotten kicked out of the country for good. AND i was ON. MY. WAY.
first stop? downtown goma... not so glamorous. we stopped by the Virunga office to pick up my two, dedicated armed guards for the next 2.5 days; Patrick and Jackson. i didn't know, as no one told me beforehand, that i would have them dedicated to me the next few days. JUST ME. in fact, i only really figured this out when they just kept following me everywhere i went. we made several other stops to pick up other things, fruit (tree tomatoes, whatever they are), guns, etc...
off to Virunga, through the mighty Kivu province to Kibumba camp, my first night's stop. the trip was only about 1-1.5 hours from Goma, though with even slightly more ideal roads, it could have taken about 30 minutes. we drove through many towns, checkpoints, and expansive views over the Virunga range. it was magnificent... and i hadn't seen anything yet.
several things were noteworthy, that i noticed along the way. 1) there were SO many people that lived here! i came to learn that over 4 million people live within one day's walk from Virunga- that's a ton of people... that's a TON of pressure on the land. 2) while i knew how poor Kivu was, i was unprepared for how destitute it felt (for lack of a better word, i guess). having worked in the townships of South Africa, and the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to name just a few places, one cannot accuse me of not ever setting eyes on poverty. there was something different about this place, it FELT different. the only other time i've ever felt this was in haiti after the earthquake, where its not just poverty, but the feeling of despair, war, violence, complexity and of hope struggling to survive. perhaps i am wrong, and i truly hope that I am, but it really struck a cord with me and i was surprised... i was surprised i was surprised because i sometimes think nothing will surprise me anymore.
i arrived around 14:30 at Kibumba camp, one of the newest camps in Virunga, open only a few months, i believe. the camp is beautiful; it has a stunning main lodge built on a beautiful lookout high above the towns below and has several (I believe six at the time) safari-style tents with double beds, a flush-toilet and shower (with hot & cold water!). I arrived to a large and filling lunch starting always (ALWAYS) with a soup. it was very good, much better than expected, and very very filling. i retired to my tent for a few hours to rest, read my bird book and take a nice hot shower.
dinner was at 7 and sundowners started around 6:30. i taught my eager congolese bartender how to make a negroni... in swahili no less. i sat round the boma with a group whom which i was going to be gorilla trekking with the following day. young brits and aussies who had been traveling the globe in search of wildlife for 3 months- this was their final trip and a fitting one. we all had a nice filling dinner, treated like kings and queens by all of the staff and set off for a night sleeping in the bush.
early the next morning i set out with my driver and my two armed guards to Bukima where most of the gorilla treks start promptly by 9:30. it is worth it to note that I only thought this weird the first day, me, getting into a land rover in DRC with my male driver, and two male guards with rifles- after that day i was always happy to see them. i noticed how they seemed so stern, but every now and then would wave quietly at a young one running alongside the vehicle yelling at the mzungu to please give them a kalamu... they were always looking stern, but i supposed they had to; one of their main jobs was to keep tourists, like me, safe. they need to be taken seriously for this reason alone. always stern, but always kind. considerate. i never carried a bag on my own (much to my chagrin) and never opened or closed my own door. i was met with a smile every morning and given a 'lala salama' after every evening. i had several opportunities to have some real deep conversations with some of the rangers during my 6 days, and have come out the other end with even more respect than i had before visiting - which was a lot. of this, i could write a book...