Newly inspired to see mountain gorillas, Serena and Dani and I went the next day to the Rwanda Tourism Information Centre in Gisenyi. As we’d figured, they had no openings. Only eight slots are available per day to go gorilla trekking (because the conservationist programs aim to limit the gorillas’ exposure to humans), and all of them are usually booked well in advance. We had hoped for last-minute cancellations. No such luck.
Disappointed, we headed down the road toward the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The national border was only a couple of kilometers away and we could walk there; we figured the day wouldn’t be a total waste if we could at least see a bit of a different country. We knew the Congo is considered one of the most dangerous countries one could enter, with no real functioning government and rumblings of the country’s civil war still flaring up in many parts, and rebel armies terrifying the locals. But our new British friend David, who’d been working on the Congo and Rwandan borders for years, had told us that Goma and its outskirts were safe for travelers. Because the rebel armies wouldn’t want our countries to get involved with what they are doing, he said, there was slim chance of us being targeted. So we were convinced. The danger, admittedly, held its own appeal — who wouldn’t want to explore a place where few outsiders dare to travel? Still, we felt leery as we got our Rwanda exit stamps and walked over to the immigration office of the Congo side.
Signs in French welcomed us to the DRC, and the immigration officers inside the plain cement office beamed and called jovial hellos at us. Hmmm, not a bad first impression. While we handed over the $35 visa fee, a tall, thin young man approached us and asked us if we were the three foreign ladies that had been in the Rwanda tourism office earlier that day, asking about gorilla trekking.
His name was Innocent (pronounced in the French “inno-CENT”) and he worked for a company called Green Hills Eco-Tours that promoted regional programs including gorilla trekking and exploration of the active volcano Mt. Nyiragongo, just outside Goma. The Rwandan tourism agents had contacted him thinking we might want to hear about gorilla trekking in the Congo, but we’d left the office before he got there. Clearly, three Caucasian women (mzungus, in the local parlance) are a rare sight in these parts, and we looked mighty conspicuous amid the other border crossers, immigration officers, and women selling fruit on the side of the road.
We walked with Innocent up the long, dirty and dusty road, bisected by a thin median and flanked with cement walls, heading toward the Goma city center. Innocent had warned us that the locals here do not like it one bit when mzungus take their photo. If I’d had my camera out, I would have snapped pictures of a mostly gray landscape. United Nations transport vans and humanitarian agency vehicles chugged down the pockmarked road, clotted with porous black lava rocks left over from the last time Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in 2002. A series of barbed-wire-topped gates and grim concrete walls shielded UN buildings, hotels, and the offices for aid organizations such as Action Against Hunger, UNICEF and Medecines Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). I took a quick photo, careful not to let anyone see. Only a few friendly smiles or greetings stood out among the hard stares of the people we passed. Even the city of Gisenyi, which we’d considered not entirely friendly to travelers, seemed more welcoming than this. Cargo planes flew close over our heads toward the UN airport nearby.
We approached the center of town, one abandoned or falling-apart storefront for every two in operation, the streets rutted and unpaved, black lava rock and dirt everywhere, the sidewalks teeming with people on foot. People rolled by on chikudus, curious wooden two-wheeled push bicycles that look like oversized children’s kick-and-go scooters. Green Hills Eco-Tours was located in a nondescript office containing only a desk, a couple of chairs, and some framed gorilla pictures on the concrete walls. The company worked directly with the Congolese national park system, and a parks officer sat behind the desk, a stack of gorilla trekking permits in front of him. Uganda and Rwanda’s gorilla tours were always booked solid, they had told us at the Rwanda tourism office, but “there are always spots in the Congo.”
Obviously, this was because of the security risks in the unstable country, and even our friend David (who’d encouraged us to go to Goma) had warned us against leaving the city limits, due to potential rebel attacks. To make matters worse, tomorrow was day one of the 2-day Congolese Independence celebration, a time when rebels unhappy with the current balance of power tended to exert their muscle. The US State Department’s warnings against travel to the DRC could not be more explicit: Essential travel only is advised at this time. Other travelers clearly heeded the warning. The gorilla trekking permits in the Congo were $100 cheaper than in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda, yet the slots remained unbooked.
We had to make our way to Kenya in two days to meet our friend Casey and help him with the free public health clinic that he’d organized via the Tulane University School of Medicine. If we were going to get there for the opening day of the clinic, we could only go gorilla trekking the next day, the worst day of the year for us to enter the Congo. Innocent worked with gorilla tours in Rwanda and Uganda as well as in the Congo, and he put in a call to the Uganda tourism agency to ask about cancellations.
While we waited for them to call Innocent back, we went to lunch in a nearly empty restaurant. A big buffet waited for us; these are common in the region, with dishes such as creamed spinach, shredded cabbage-and-carrot salad, fresh avocado, roasted goats’ meat, baked plantains in a light tomato sauce, black beans, fried potatoes, and sliced fruits such as banana, watermelon, green apple and passionfruit. The waiters seemed blown away by our presence. Innocent’s cell phone rang. There were three last-minute cancellations in Uganda, three days from now, the day we were supposed to arrive in Kenya.
So now we had a decision to make: go gorilla trekking tomorrow, on the most dangerous day of the year in the Congo, or go in Uganda and arrive two days late to our volunteer work in Kenya. Innocent assured us that the Congo trip would be safe. The mountain region around here was more secure than in the rest of the country, he said, and we’d have armed park rangers escorting us. We still weren’t convinced, and decided we needed to get on the Internet and do some checking. Innocent, stand-up guy that he is, walked us over to an Internet cafe where we endured quiet stares — some friendly, some not-so-friendly, most of them very curious — as we waited for a computer to open up.
An hour later and we still hadn’t gotten the answers we needed. Internet connections were slow, we were working on foreign keyboards, and most of the travel sites and forums we tried to access wouldn’t open up in the Congo. Of all our Google search results, we could only open that same US Department of State warning: only essential travel to the Congo is advised.
We walked back to Innocent’s office as the sky darkened, discussing the pros and cons of our options. Innocent seemed certain of our safety on our way to, and inside, the Virunga National Park where the gorillas live, and offered to accompany us. The Congo trekking was a bit cheaper than the others, and its gorilla protection programs clearly needed whatever tourist money they could get. We decided that karma would be on our side if we chose the Congo. So we booked three slots to go trekking the next morning.
The next day …
Gorilla trekking means waking up early, very early; in our case, 4 a.m. An hour later found us crossing the Congo border again; half an hour after that, Dani and Serena and I sat the back of an SUV, its windows tinted dark, with Innocent and a hired driver in front.
The road out of Goma looked much the same as the one leading into it: as bumpy and rutted as they come, black lava rock jutting up, everything covered in black dirt and choking dust. Instead of walled-off UN buildings and humanitarian agencies flanking the road, though, fields covered in black rocks, dingy trees and dirty wooden huts stretched out on either side of us. The massive, pointy-topped Mt. Nyiragongo loomed in the distance, backlit by the pink-streaked clouds of the rising sun. The brightening sky, and the vivid hues of the dresses and head wraps of the women we passed, served as the only spots of color amid so much black, brown, and gray. It occurred to me that had it not been for this volcano, the city of Goma and its surrounding countryside wouldn’t have appeared nearly as bleak and depressing and ruined as it did to me. I took a few photos, but the violent bumping and jarring of the SUV on the rocky, pitted road made any quality images impossible.
After about an hour of this, the SUV pulled up next to a small wooden structure, a Virunga National Park ranger station, and an affable green-clad ranger in a beret strode over. He exchanged a few words with Innocent, and greeted Dani, Serena and me before zipping up a thick black parka, adjusting an AK-47 strapped to his chest, and speaking into a walkie-talkie. Then he climbed onto a motorbike and zoomed ahead of us. Our driver followed him, going faster now to keep up with the quicker bike, flinging us around the back seat even more vigorously. This was our security escort, part of our gorilla tour package. “Our biggest responsibilities are quality and security,” Innocent told us. “All these rangers keep track of our guests at all times. This is our obligation to you.”
We started winding up onto the mountain, the SUV really bucking and jerking now, our road barely more than a rocky path through fields of crops and wooden hut after wooden hut. The atmosphere went from dark and dust-clotted and sour to green, fresh, cool, herb-scented mountain air. People sat in front of their huts cooking or washing, children playing unattended. Others walked up and down the path, rolling big loads of crops on chikudus, or balancing boxes, baskets and bundles of sticks on their heads, babies strapped to the backs of most women and many children. Goats, pigs and chickens ran around.
Innocent told us the agrarian villages in these mountains had been largely spared from the civil war, free to grow their beans and bananas and potatoes in peace. Besides the gorillas, these people were the main beneficiaries of local eco-tourism — indeed, we passed a bright, modern school that Innocent said was built with tourist dollars — and, in contrast to the reaction to us in Goma, lots of them actually seemed happy to see us. The children shrieked and waved and chased the SUV, shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and adults gave us thumbs-up. Lots of the kids also yelled “Give me money!” with palms outstretched, a common response to seeing (seemingly) rich white tourists not only in Africa, but in developing countries around the world. At one particularly steep incline, the SUV stalled, unable to navigate the hill. Again and again we tried to drive forward until the driver asked us to get out so he could back way up and build some speed on approach. We got out and before long were surrounded by lots of children, their hands out.
I never know the correct way to act in these situations — to reinforce the begging doesn’t seem like a good idea, but then again, denying food to a poor African child doesn’t, either. I dug in my bag and handed over a packet of crackers. We waited for the SUV to make it up the hill; it kept stalling at the same spot. More people came up the hill to watch the action and ogle us. Word of my largesse had spread and others approached me. One older lady asked, “Bisquit?” a few times before I realized she was asking for “biscuits.” When I dug in my bag again, a forest of hands grabbed at me. I gave my remaining two packs of crackers to the two older ladies in the crowd, thinking they were moms and would surely distribute the goods fairly. A crowd of young men by now had gathered behind the SUV and pushed it up the hill, and after cheering and clapping, we climbed back into the vehicle and continued up the mountain.
Up and up we climbed until the road really became indistinguishable from the rocky terrain around us. A Virunga National Park pickup truck, its bed converted to bench seats, waited for us. We transferred vehicles and continued up for another 10 minutes or so, until the crops gave way to a broad, open, rolling steppe. Another ranger station stood there, and we hopped off the truck. We had arrived at the beginning of the gorilla trek.