November 2011: My friend Sterling and I spent a week in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to see the Ituri forest. Visiting the vast, mysterious forests of equatorial Congo was a goal of mine for as long as I could remember. To visit the Ituri is to follow in the footsteps of the American explorer Stanley into the Heart of darkness-Jospeh Conrad book. The Ituri is one of those last places on Earth that is relatively unknown and truly wild. It is a rain forested region of pygmy tribes, wild animals, and rebels where true adventure can still be found. I also went to the DRC to see Virunga National Park, Africa’s first national park where some of Africa’s most spectacular and deadly volcanoes such as Volcano Nyiragongo can be found and during my visit camping on the rim overlooking the world’s largest lava lake was possible. This is the story of my DRC adventure.

 

 

About DRC

The DRC is French speaking and is the 2nd largest country in Africa. The DRC is huge and extremely difficult to explore. It is known for its corrupt government officials, bad roads, huge rainforests and dangerous rebels. The DRC is so recourse rich that it should be one of the richest countries in the world but instead its resources have invited corruption and war. The DRC was the largest private colony of the Belgian King Leopold, who established the DRC as his own personal kleptocracy. He sold slaves, rubber and ivory for his own personal benefit enrichening himself at the detriment of the people of DRC. Later when the DRC became independent from Belgium, it was run by a string of corrupt rulers. Mobuto one of the first presidents stole so much money from DRC that he remains one of the richest rulers that the world has ever known. His overthrow and subsequent proxy wars between the USA and Soviet Union led to two Congo Wars that became the bloodiest post World War II wars that have led to almost 6 million deaths. Eastern DRC continues to suffer from war and violence as rebels that fled Rwanda’s genocide sought shelter in remote eastern DRC and have formed into independent militias that menace the local villages.  The DRC has a vast potential to not only be one of the most interesting and beautiful tourist attractions in Africa, but it also possesses immense economic potential that has attracted the attention of the worlds developed countries such as China and the race to exploit its resources is in full swing.

 

 

My travel route

Goma and a Volcanic Lake

To enter DRC, we crossed from Rwanda into Goma. I hired a local DRC fixer in Goma to help us with the visa arrangements at the border and the private transport to Virunga and the Ituri. After spending a few days in Rwanda, we crossed the border relatively hassle free into Goma. Goma is a complete mess and is one of the most threatened cities in the world. It sits on the banks of the Kivu Lake, a lake that sits on top of a reservoir of lava and belches giant lethal bubbles of carbon dioxide occasionally asphyxiating unlucky fisherman or anyone that is downwind and then of course there is the giant angry volcano only 15 kilometers away-Volcano Nyiragongo. Nyiragongo  has erupted in the past sending torrents of fast-moving lava into the city killing and displacing thousands. Last but not least there are the hordes of refugees flooding into Goma from fighting between rebels and government soldiers in the region. The rebels on occasion have even invaded parts of the city. Goma just can’t catch a lucky break.

 

Lake Kivu one of the deepest in the world sits on top of a lake of magma that sends bubbles of methane and CO2 burping forth from time to time suffocating everyone in its path.

Goma airport, plane sitting on top of lava rock

Goma was starkly different than Rwanda. The city was far more difunctional, run down, impoverished and in general disarray. There are thousands of refugees living in makeshift camps, lava rocks from previous eruptions are piled up in the streets and in huge mounds around the airport. There is a palpable feel of desperation in Goma and although the city is interesting it is difficult to enjoy being in a city with so much intense poverty.

While in Goma, we went straight to the Virunga Park HQ office to sort out our permits and ranger escorts. Working in the office were local DRC and white Belgian rangers. The manager of Virunga is a Belgian white man of Belgian royalty. While in the HQ office, I discussed Virunga with the rangers, and we studied the map of the park plotting out where we could safely go and where we should avoid because of the likelihood of encountering dangerous rebels in the park that would either kidnap us for ransom or kill us. For the time being the road and hike to the volcano was likely rebel free but just in case it wasn’t we would be escorted by armed rangers. Sterling and I would be the only foreigner on the volcano and in the Ituri for the rest of the week.

 

 

DRC public transport

Homemade cargo transport bikes commonly found in DRC

Homemade cargo transport bikes commonly found in DRC

Homemade cargo transport bikes commonly found in DRC

Sleeping Above a Lava Lake on Volcano Nyiragongo

As we approached the volcano, another one erupted in the distance sending steam and molten rock into the air. Nyiragongo loomed above us as we climbed. The armed rangers led the way and at one point I thought we were under attack by rebels when one of the rangers seemed startled and urge us to move away quickly. It turned out that there was a rockslide up above and he was being precautious.  Nyiragongo was a monstrous volcano standing almost 12,000′ tall and we have to climb its steep flanks straight up soft and slippery pumice rock for 3 hours before reaching the crater’s ridge.  But the difficulty of the hike was lost upon us when we first laid eyes on the mesmerizing red glow of the lava lake that lay before us. The lava lake must have been 1000 feet below us, but its roar was deafening. Waves of lava in the lake 20-50′ tall splashed and crashed sending bombs exploding. As the sun set and skies darkened the red glow of the lake grew brighter and the spectacle became even more mesmerizing. We stayed in small wooden cabins on the edge, but we spent hours near a viewpoint at night just staring into the lava lake. It to this day is one of the most spectacular sights I have seen in my travels.

 

 

Another erupting volvano

Bullet holes are seen here in the national park sign, evidence of the many rebel and ranger battles that occur in Virunga Park.

Park ranger

Steaming Fumerole 

The climb

View from the top

Lava Lake-Less than 10 years ago this volcano erupted and sent a river of lava streaming into the city of Goma below killing thousands. Now we were going to climb to the top and sleep there next to the lava lake.

Lava Lake

Lava Lake

Me at the Lava Lake

Driving Across Volatile Virunga National Park & Ituri Region

After Nyiragongo, we needed to cross Virunga to get to the Ituri and this was the most worrisome of the trip. We could have flow to Beni and skipped Virunga but the planes are not reliable and not safe, so we decided to drive instead. But rebels in the park could ambush us and even shoot at our vehicle. I knew from reading the parks blog that ambushes do happen from time to time, and rangers are killed in shootouts. We picked the safest route to Beni but there were no guarantees in the remote Virunga Park. The road was lonely and passed through remote sections of bush, ideal for an ambush and we didn’t have a security escort for this part of the trip. I felt unease for the entire 4-hour drive through the park. The roads were empty desolate, and anything could be lying around the corner waiting in ambush. In the Rwindi Plains area we drove through we knew it was also the hideout of several rebel groups, such as the Mai Mai, who wear human body parts as decorations, and Interhamwe, and various other renegade Hutu militias left over from the genocide who in large were responsible for the brutal deaths of a million people. We were informed by rangers and our guide that we should be or maybe might be safe in traveling through this area, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. There were some beautiful areas, but we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife except baboons. There are elephants, lions and hippos but to find them we would need to go deeper into the park, and we didn’t have time or permission to do so.

Eventually we left the park and started passing through small villages, where food venders selling all kinds of snacks would approach our vehicle. We managed to eat well, fruit, bananas, and nuts for cheap without even leaving the car. There were numerous police checkpoints and most of the time we didn’t even interact with the police. Our local guide handled the police and advised us on the most part to remain in the car and avoid wandering around town alone because we would likely attract the attention of corrupt police who would try, and shake is down for bribes.

We spent the night in Butembo, a bustling city in the shadow of the mighty Rwenzori-Mountains of the Moon, a mountain range I climbed over a decade before from Uganda.

The roads were horrendous all the way into the Ituri with the exception of a newly paved 1 hour stretch of road that the Chinese had recently paved. It was a huge relief to have a small break from the constant shaking and back jarring potholes and we promptly fell asleep and had a brief nap until the paved road ended. As we went deeper into the Ituri, the villages decreased, and the jungle grew deeper. We were back in rebel ambush country. Rebels seeking to plunder resources from the forest and local villages hid in the forests and on occasion would ambush travelers to take a nice 4WD vehicle like ours. Although most of the time the vehicle wouldn’t be taken since many rebels do not know how to drive.

 

 

Road through Virunga

Baboon on the road trying to break into our car

Virunga Plains

Buying food from our car in villages

Buying food from our car in villages

Village lady in Ituri

People of Ituri

People of Ituri

Okapi Reserve and camping with the Mbuti Pygmies

In the late afternoon, we reached Epulu, heart of the Okapi Reserve, a reserve named after the elusive jungle like giraffe creature only found in the Ituri region. The reserve also protects a vast tract of rainforest. The plan was to stay in the Okapi reserve for a few days, hike in the surround forest and look for wildlife and spend the night with the pygmy tribe in the forest.

Upon arrival at the ranger checkpoint before even entering town, we were sent to meet the head ranger, Michele and to process our passports. We would end up spending 3 nights in the reserve in a ranger cabin on the river and one camping in the forest at a Mbuti pygmy camp about an hour’s walk into the jungle.

 

 

Epulu

River running through Epulu-I was told that every year a handful of people from the village are taken by crocodiles from the river.  

These okapis, found in the national park, were rescued from the rain forest and are now being kept in the enclosures. Although we didn’t see any in the wild, we saw the droppings of one on the trail in the jungle.

 

 

Captive Okapi in Epulu

In the USA where everyone has a big screen television it is hard to imagine a place where most people don’t have electricity and for these boys, they are thrilled to stand outside the window of a local restaurant watching a Van Damm movie inside being watched by the patrons.

Sterling and our guide having a beer in Epulu

I saw and heard plenty African Grey parrots flying above the tree canopies of the Ituri Forest, but the only one I was able to photograph was one in a cage. These parrots are meant to be one of the most proficient parrots at mimicry. In our hikes of the forest, we also came across other wildlife such as the monkeys in the photos below. 

 

 

Black Faced Mangabe

Jungle monkey

Camping with Mbuti Pygmies

The rangers were very reluctant to let us hike too deep into the forest due to the presence of rebels. The Mai Mai rebels, a group of rebels that believe the pygmies are animals and have even eaten them as bush meat, were known to be in the area, so all of our trekking in the forest was with an armed ranger. Michele the lead ranger, a tall, stoic and chiseled warrior looking man joined us. We hiked for a few hours into the forest stopping to watch monkeys and look at elephant and okapi tracks until we arrived in the pygmy camp, a cluster of small conical stick huts. The pygmies live near town for the rainy season and in the dry season they descend deep into the jungle to hunt and gather fruits and nuts. What they don’t eat, they trade to people in the village usually in exchange for alcohol and tobacco.

We loved our time with the Mbuti pygmy’s. Michele would translate for us, and the chief would explain their life. They move around the forest and only come near the town when they have food, usually antelope meat to trade. They also flee deep into the forest any time the rebels come because the rebels are their enemies and kill and eat them.

The Mbuti took us hunting with nets in the forest, although nothing was caught, and they showed us their life in the camp. Then later on at night we sat around the campfire and ate together and sang Mbuti campfire songs, while the chief smoke a giant bamboo marijuana bong. The fun and relaxation all came to a crashing end when a thunderstorm passed sending us all into our shelters to wait out the crashing lightening and torrential rain.

 

 

Pygmy camp

Pygmy camp

Pygmy camp

Pygmy camp

I can only imagine what kind of a life this elderly pygmy woman’s eyes have seen. Life for the pygmies of the Congo is better these days. However less than 10 years ago a rebel army with a leader who developed a taste for pygmies terrorized these jungles.

Me at the Pygmy camp with a guy wearing an Obama Dracula tshirt

Pygmy camp

Pygmy camp

The cream on her face is from a forest plant that is ground up and placed on skin to preserve beauty.

Pygmy camp

Sterling showing the camp their photos. For once in his life Sterling felt like a giant. He looked  7 feet tall compared to the Pygmies. One pygmy man, appearing at least least 18 years old when asked his age answered , four since pygmies as was explained to us tend by the park ranger tend to be unaware of their age.  

 

Pygmy camp

Pygmy camp

We set off with the pygmies to hunt in the jungle with nets. The pygmies carried these nets on their heads and spread them out while hooting and hollering trying to scare the game into the nets where they would be speared. We didn’t catch anything.

Chief smoking marijuana from a very long bamboo branch that has got to be some kind of record for longest pipe.

The children didn’t have any electronics, iPad or video games. Instead, they had each other and the forest and they were some of the happiest kids I have ever seen. They constantly played, giggled and sang songs like in this video when they were singing around a campsite using the leaves as percussions. Their singing was angelic. 

 

Pygmy Children singing around the bonfire at camp and using the leaves on the fire as percussion  

After visiting Okapi Reserve, we drove back direct to Uganda and onward to Kigale, Rwanda instead of back through Virunga. Even though the border crossing was remote and the road very bad, I felt it would be safer than crossing Virunga again. Other than bruised backs, we didn’t have any issues except for when our driver decided in the middle of the Ituri to ask for more money when our vehicle started to experience mechanical issues with the engine and then a shouting match between him and our guide ensued in French with the driver at one point threatening to pull over and kick us out on a lonely jungle road. This didn’t happen luckily, and it never would have anyways. As soon as we were dropped off at the Uganda border in a dusty lawless border town, Kasindi, where we slept on the top floor of a brothel with ear shattering Congolese music playing all night. But I never felt happier, we survived the DRC and Uganda just felt a lot safer for me since it was my first sub-Saharan African country that I visited a decade ago. We ended up finding another taxi to take us to Rwanda and along the way, we visited Queen Elizabeth national park to see some wildlife.

 

Dusty border town view from our brothel hotel

Rebel Attack

Only 6 months after our visit a ruthless group of rebels invaded the town of Epulu killing dozens of people and taking dozens more hostage. The rebels killed most of the captive Okapis and burned down many of the park buildings before fleeing back into the jungle. Lead Ranger, Michele, who served as our guide in Epulu helped to fight off the rebels while also helping to rescue park employees and villagers despite the active gunfire. Sadly, park rangers often find themselves on the front lines of war and this is the kind of life they have to deal with in the DRC. Michele and the other rangers valiantly fought off the rebels but despite best efforts many from Epulu died and others including women were marched off into the forest as prisoners and likely raped. I remember talking to the park warden, a man from Belgium who told me he missed his wife who lived in West Africa. I asked him why she lived so far away instead of with him in the park. His response was that it is too dangerous for her in Epulu. In a part of the world where rape is all too commonly used as a weapon and rebel attacks are always a threat, I can understand why he felt this way now.

 

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