It is hard to say which is the more memorable experience – to stand on a volcano’s peak at night and watch a lava lake boiling away in a crater far below like a fiery vision of Hades; or to stand yards from a mountain gorilla in lush forest and sense the almost human intelligence behind its eyes, an unmistakable feeling of distant kinship, as you size each other up.
Happily it is no longer necessary to choose, because after two decades of largely uninterrupted conflict, after 20 years of infestation by warring militias, brutal soldiers and desperate refugees who slaughtered the wildlife and chopped down the forests for fuel, a fragile peace has returned to the one place in the world where it is possible to do both: Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The southern section of Africa’s oldest national park – a Unesco World Heritage Site boasting 3,000 square miles ranging from snow-capped mountains and glaciers to savannahs and swamps, rivers, lakes and eight volcanoes – is cautiously reopening to tourists, though armed rangers must escort them. It is still no place for the timid, but for the pluckier traveller it offers access to a raw, untamed land like nowhere else on earth, and to nearly a third of the world’s roughly 900 remaining mountain gorillas.
Virunga lost thousands of elephants and hippopotami during the war years, but its gorillas – a critically endangered species – actually doubled in number. That is partly because they were of less interest to poachers and can hide deeper in the forests, but mostly because Virunga’s courageous rangers ventured out daily to monitor them – with or without the militias’ permission. Emmanuel de Merode, Virunga’s Belgian director, calls their survival “the greatest miracle in modern conservation”, but one achieved at huge cost. More than 140 rangers have died protecting a park that was the centre of the DRC’s carnage.
Reaching Virunga is not straightforward. The easiest route is to fly to Kigali, capital of neighbouring Rwanda, and take a three-hour taxi ride to the Congolese border city of Goma where the park authorities will organise visas and transport to Rumangabo, the park’s headquarters. To see the gorillas, two companions and I spent a further 90 minutes in a four-wheel drive, bumping and scraping up a barely passable track to the park’s new Bukima tented camp.
We were its first guests, and it was still a work in progress, but it commanded stunning views across a fertile valley to three volcanoes – Mikeno, which is extinct, and Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, which are emphatically not. Between them they have erupted more than 70 times since the 1880s, and three times this century. Great clouds of white vapour billowed from their cones.
Early the next morning our armed rangers arrived and set the rules. Stay six metres from the gorillas. Wear face masks to spare them from infection. Avoid eye contact. No flash photography. One hour only. There are mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, but they attract many more tourists and are much less wild, while in the DRC you still have them to yourselves.
We then set off across the valley, hiking past mud-and-bamboo huts with banana-leaf roofs, women tilling fields of potatoes and beans, and barefoot children dressed in rags. An hour later we reached the forest at the foot of Mikeno, and began scrambling up a dry river bed through a tunnel of trees and ferns, vines and creepers. Thirty minutes after that we met three more rangers who told us to put on our masks. As we did so, there was a rustling in the dense vegetation and a young male gorilla appeared. We gawped as it calmly stared at us then loped off on all fours.
The next hour was unforgettable. We watched a 400lb silverback called Nyakamwe, the patriarch of this group of nine, nonchalantly munching leaves. We watched younger males beat their chests to impress us. We watched the mothers tend their young, and the younger gorillas playfully fighting, somersaulting, climbing trees and rolling on their backs. Some brushed right past us. One even performed a little pirouette for our benefit. To reassure them our guides made noises halfway between a grunt and a clearing of the throat.
The most amazing thing was how human the gorillas were – not just their eyes and facial expressions, or their dexterous use of fingers and thumbs, but in their behaviour. They were affectionate, irritable, tender, protective, bored, mischievous, extrovert. “Every time I see gorillas it blows me away how human they are,” said Mikey Carr-Hartley, a guide who arranged and joined my visit to Virunga. Of course, gorillas are some of man’s closest relatives, the family tree having split around nine million years ago.
That night we enjoyed the relative luxury of Mikeno Lodge, which occupies a hilltop in the grounds of the park’s Rumangabo headquarters. The lodge opened during a lull in the fighting in October 2011 but was mothballed six months later when the M23 militia resumed battle and park staff took refuge in its wine cellar.
We were warmly welcomed by Richard and Gilly Thornycroft, the dispossessed Zimbabwean farmers who now run it. We had drinks and dinner on a large deck with breathtaking views across a forested plain. We then retired to thatched cottages with fires burning in their grates, and instructions that read: “If you hear prolonged gunfire stay in your bungalow, turn off the lights and our rangers will come and collect you if it’s serious.” A dozen militia groups still inhabit the park’s central and northern sections.
The next day we set off early to climb Nyiragongo – the first tourists to do so since M23’s surrender last November. To reach the starting point we took what was once a paved highway, but is now a rutted ribbon of mud, fringed by exotic vegetation and rough wooden shacks without water or electricity. There is nothing bland about the DRC, nothing western and homogenised. We passed few other vehicles save occasional ancient lorries laden with people and cargo. We passed vibrant markets, colourfully dressed women carrying vegetables on their heads, crowds dancing and singing outside makeshift churches, children playing soccer with balls made of rolled-up plastic bags. We saw men carrying great bundles of wood or huge sacks of charcoal on chukudus – rough-hewn wooden contraptions like giant children’s scooters unique to this small corner of the DRC. We passed several army posts, for the area is still heavily militarised, and the spot where gunmen ambushed and nearly killed de Merode in April.
At the foot of Nyiragongo we were joined by seven rangers armed with AK-47s to protect us against FDLR rebels still camped out on its far flank, and by 10 porters, most wearing little more than ragged T-shirts and worn-out plastic sandals, to carry our tents, sleeping bags, food and water. It was embarrassing. We felt like Livingstone or Stanley.
We climbed through muggy tropical forest, through fields of crumbling lava that were deposited when Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 and are now covered in flowers, to the barren black cone itself. As we rose the verdant valleys below us vanished, the temperature plummeted and the slope grew ever steeper. For five exhausting hours we laboured upwards into the clouds until – at 3,470m – the cracked and spiky lava abruptly ended in a jagged edge. Beyond it sheer walls plunged down into a huge crater filled with mist and vapours. It was like reaching the edge of the world.
From somewhere below that dense and swirling whiteness we could hear a roar like a raging sea. We could smell sulphur, feel occasional blasts of hot air rising and see columns of steam escaping from fissures in the crater’s walls. But of the world’s largest lava lake in the bottom of the crater we could see absolutely nothing.
It was disappointing, but we had no time to mope. Darkness was falling. The wind was rising. It was bitterly cold. Eight old tourist huts built on a ledge just below the rim were no longer habitable, though the park is restoring them. Their roofs had been blown away and their steel frames corroded by the volcano’s sulphurous fumes. So we pitched our tents, put on all the clothes we had, and heated food on a charcoal fire. Two black ravens looked on – the only other life on that desolate peak. Nearby, hammered into the lava, a cross fashioned from iron rods commemorated a Chinese lady who fell into the crater in 2007.
And then we noticed an orange glow in the night sky. We scrambled back up to the crater’s rim, peered over, and gasped in astonishment.
The mist had cleared. Far below us a great cauldron of magma boiled and bubbled in the darkness. Its surface was riven by deep red veins and roiled by fountains of molten lava spurting upwards. The lake seemed almost alive, seething with some malevolent energy. “The devil lives down there,” a porter said. We watched, awestruck and utterly mesmerised, until eventually the extreme cold drove us back to the blessed warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.
When we woke at dawn the mist had returned. We peered over the rim but could see nothing. It was as if that fiery vision of the previous night had been a dream. As we began the long descent it occurred to us that Virunga itself is a bit like that lava lake – a wonder only fleetingly, tantalisingly visible to the outside world.
For now it is open, but it remains to be seen whether peace endures, whether the guerrillas repel or gorillas attract the visitors that this extraordinarily beautiful but cash-strapped national park so badly needs.
Martin Fletcher was a guest of the Safari Collection (thesafaricollection.com) and Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com). The Safari Collection offers a three-night privately-guided trip to Virunga National Park from $3,450 per person, including transfers, permits, accommodation and meals. Kenya Airways flies daily from London Heathrow to Nairobi with onward daily connections to Kigali; returns cost from £791
Photographs: Alamy; Martin Fletcher; Mikey Carr-Hartley
Get alerts on Africa holidays when a new story is published