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Venturing into ‘the Heart of Darkness’ – Africa’s Congo

Feb 28 2017 Written by: Rob Barbour Photography: Rob Barbour

Late last year I ventured into this little known African country on an exploratory trip with some fellow intrepid travellers.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), previously Zaire and the Belgian Congo, conjours up many images in people’s minds.

A checkered past, brought famously into our consciousness by Joseph Conrad’s book –‘The Heart of Darkness’ , reinforced by the stories of exploitation as the Belgian Congo and latterly by despot presidents.

In recent times DRC has seen unrest as a result of massive refugee movements from Burundi and Rwanda fueling civil unrest. Throughout all this, a vulnerable habitat of equatorial rainforest hosts small but viable populations of mountain and eastern lowland gorillas and an array of other mammals struggling to survive amid the rampant exploitation.

Most recently, with the stabilization of the security situation and significant investment by Howard Buffet to give communities alternatives, there has been a resurgence in tourism for what is really an amazing travel experience.

This is Mount Nyiragongo which is a 3470 metre active volcano in the Virunga National Park in the DRC.  You can reach the crater rim after a 6 hour climb and look into the crater to see the world’s largest crater lake bubbling away.  You camp in small huts for the night – right on the crater rim. It is an extraordinary experience. The glow from the volcano can be seen at night from mile around.

Nyiragongo Crater Camp on the crater rim – early morning 3470 metres

Nyiragongo Crater Lava

The tented camps and Mikeno Lodge in Virunga National Park are reminiscent of permanent tented camps in Kenya or Tanzania with flushing loos and bucket showers. The gorilla trekking is easily comparable to Rwanda and Uganda. Two highlights of the trip were climbing Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano with the largest active crater lake in the world. The climb is a solid six hours and you stay in two person cabins on the crater rim. The climb is rewarded with the extraordinary views of the glowing magma in the crater lake below, seen from a viewing 20 metres from the cabins.

After descending the mountain we stayed at the idyllic Tchegra Island in Lake Kivu, with views back to a glowing Mount Nyiragongo. Whilst sipping on a glass of wine we reflected on our incredible, otherworldly experiences. One of the highlights was a 3 hour fast boat trip down Lake Kivu to Bukavu on the southern end of the lake. The journey took us past forested islands and small fishing and farming communities with the vast mounts of the DRC on one side and Rwanda on the other.

Our final destination was the Kahuzi Biega National Park, home of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla. This species is threatened by habitat destruction so it was a privilege to see these primates in their natural habitat.

This is Nyakamwe.  He is the Silver Back Mountain Gorilla of the Nyakamwe Family in the Virunga National Park, Eastern DRC. In his family there are 2 silverbacks, 3 adult females, 1 subadult female, 1 subadult male, 3 juveniles and 2 babies.

Young mountain gorilla – Nyakamwe family – Virunga National Park -DRC

A special thanks to our travel partner who have pioneered travel experiences in the Eastern DRC and organised the logistics of this incredible exploratory trip. Also to the courageous rangers who continue to be passionate about protecting these wild places. Lastly a huge thank you to Geraldine, Bridgit, Roxanne and Lubna who took the plunge to explore with me and made the trip so much more enjoyable.

My hope is that travellers continue to have the opportunity to venture into the DRC as their presence helps communities understand the importance of protecting their valuable natural resources and endanged species.