Visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had appealed to me for some time, but the Foreign Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom permanently advises against all travel to the Central African country. Knowing what I wanted — adventure, wildlife, and culture shock — I decided it was worth the risk.
I, like many, didn’t have any idea what to expect of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Online research didn’t offer much direction — negative reports were the first to pop up — and I couldn’t ask anyone about their experience since no one I knew had been to the Congo or had any desire to go. I was on my own.
In some ways, it was liberating. I was free to form my own observations, free of any expectations. But I had no idea what I was headed into.
I crossed into the Congo from Goma, Rwanda. The difference between the two was immediately apparent. The tarmac literally came to a halt at the border and faded to dirt in the Congo. Once my passport was stamped and my yellow fever documentation analyzed, I was in. There was a major U.N. presence in the eastern part of the country, which meant that I commonly saw armored trucks, armed officials, and more guns than I could count. But the reason I wanted to travel to the Congo, aside from the adventure, was to find the mighty mountain gorillas. With that in mind, I booked my visit through the Virunga National Park, and a driver was waiting for me at the border to take me to my hotel because of the security issues in Goma. There were even armed security guards at the hotel as well.
But despite the guns, the atmosphere was amiable. Sure, I experienced culture shock, but I didn’t feel threatened. That evening, I needed to exchange my U.S. dollars for Congolese Francs. My driver said he knew of an “exchange place” in central Goma and, naturally, I thought it was a good idea.
We drove through the mania in Goma until we reached what can only be described as a frenzy of people on a street corner selling anything and everything you could possibly think of. There, I was told to roll down my window. Within seconds, I was approached by four men carrying enormous wads of cash, speaking in French and Swahili, who offered me different rates of exchange. It was all a little overwhelming, especially considering I thought we were driving to a “traditional” currency exchange, so I handed them $50 and hoped for the best. Francs were handed to me, I rolled the window up, and my driver took me back to my hotel.
When morning came, it was time for me to leave Goma and head to the Virunga Mountains — a task that’s easier said than done. As we drove through Goma, the roads were relatively smooth and offered a stunning view of Mount Nyiragongo. But as we got further afield, the road deteriorated into what can only be described as a miniature mountain range. There was no tarmac, no lanes, no buildings. I was thrown up, down, and side to side. This persisted for two or three hours.
The road from Goma was also filled with makeshift military checkpoints. They looked commonplace, but were manned by armed guards. It was unnerving to pass through them, to say the least, but the longer you spend in the Congo, the more “normal” these moments become. My driver would hand over a few Congolese Francs and we’d be on our way.
As we approached the national park, our car began to climb. The views were staggering, and I realized that driving through rural Congo is an adventure few get to experience. As the ascent got steeper and the car began to slow, children ran up to us, waving.
Once we arrived at the national park headquarters, I ventured into the jungle with two armed rangers and began my search for endangered mountain gorillas. The path was often forged right in front of me by nothing more than a machete. It felt like a true adventure. The soundtrack of the birds and insects led us the entire way.
Laying my eyes on the gorillas for the first time was a heart-stopping moment. While battling through the jungle, as we had been for hours, the ranger at the front of our group suddenly came to a halt. I crept beside him with anticipation and there it was: a male silverback gorilla, staring straight into my eyes from just a few meters away. After what felt like minutes, I diverted my gaze to the right and saw that there was a much smaller, female gorilla hanging from a tree. The experience grew to be even more surreal when three other silverback gorillas walked confidently toward us, causing us to head back into the jungle.
Every bump in the road and step through the jungle was worth it. It’s something you really have to experience for yourself. Making eye contact with a gorilla is something that will stick with me forever.
The gorillas were the reason I wanted to visit the Congo in the first place, but I could have seen them in Rwanda or Uganda. I also wanted to climb Mount Nyiragongo, the country’s 3,470-meter-high active volcano.
The next morning, I was up early again. This time, a much shorter drive to the Nyiragongo trail lay ahead. Once I arrived, I was immediately reminded that danger could be right around the corner — the fact that the entrance sign was riddled with bullet holes certainly didn’t calm my nerves.
The Park Rangers arrived, and we were off on an extremely long six-hour climb. Imagine climbing a steep staircase of jagged, loose rocks in weather that seems to switch instantaneously between unbearable humidity and pouring rain. Needless to say, the going was tough but the views along the way made up for it.
As always, there were elements that my camera couldn’t capture. But mostly, it was the sound I wish I could have captured in my images. The sound of the earth creaking, lava bubbling, plumes of smoke moving through the air, the wind hitting the lip of the crater. It was a sensory overload.
The descent only took the morning, but it was still tough. Every now and then I’d turn around to see the towering crater of Nyiragongo and wonder how I was at the top just a few short hours before. Once we were back at the ranger post, we were all thanked — thanked for choosing the Congo. The rangers seemed genuinely appreciative of the tourism we brought to the area. They knew more was needed, but that the situation was improving.
After the climb, I returned to Goma for the last time, then headed back across the border into Rwanda with a sense of achievement.
My short time in the Congo exposed me to things most people don’t get see or experience in their lifetime. I was within arm’s reach of four silverback gorillas, I stood and camped overnight at the edge of an active volcano, I heard the sounds and felt the heat of molten lava, and I drove in an armed convoy through the Congolese countryside. But I also experienced the kindness of the Congolese and knew that my presence there was truly valued.
If you seek adventure, wildlife, or a challenge to your perceived comfort zone, take a deep breath and go.
Whatever “it” is, it’s within your reach. The Congo was within mine, and I am forever grateful.