Thursday, 11 December 2014

Democratic Republic of Congo

For weeks we'd been discussing the possibility of travelling to Democratic Republic of Congo. Friends we had met along this trip had tried and failed to obtain visas in recent months, with the situation too volatile or the national park near Goma closed due to rebel activity there. We applied for visas and got the all clear, so we thought we'd go for it. The foreign office advice of no travel to areas outside Goma and only essential travel to Goma itself added to the excitement. Although the day before we were set to travel across the border 14 people were hacked to death with machetes, reminding us of the dangers in the area.

Our first glimpse of DRC was from the border crossing in Rwanda, where all went relatively smoothly. We then made a 10 minute journey across the city, showing us the centre and some suburbs of the city. The roads we travelled down were better than several other African cities we've visited, although practically every other vehicle was a 4x4 with UN or Oxfam plastered down the side.

We walked into our hotel and soon felt out of place. We'd had to splash out for a couple of nights, as we were unable to find any budget accommodation. I walked in wearing 4 day old underwear (laundry is a rare luxury) to find very wealthy looking businessmen in suits. Our differences in wealth showed at meal time, where we tried to pretend that we were strict vegetarians to avoid the staff realising we couldn't afford any meat dishes. The cover was blown at the buffet breakfast where I stacked about 4 platefuls of ham.

A nights sleep in the comfiest bed we've slept in for 4 months, possibly ever, saw an early start for our journey to gorilla trekking. We soon saw the real side of the city, where a turn off the main road saw you on a dirt track surrounded by dishevelled looking shacks. Either side of the road there were lines of boulders, where a volcanic eruption in 2002 had buried half the town. The outskirts of the town were packed with UN bases, including a military camp which seemed to stretch on forever. We were also required to pick up an armed guard for the journey 'for our safety'.

The first hour and a half of the trip saw the state of the roads reducing us to an average speed of 30mph. The second hour and a half didn't see us get above 6mph, with the roads turning into outcrops of steep rock for our 4x4 to attempt to climb. Every so often the driver would stop for a few seconds and look in his mirror, before driving off again. This was a little unnerving until we realised it was because kids had jumped onto the back of the vehicle.

Our trek to the gorillas saw us hiking through farms on the outskirts of Virunga National Park until we found our entrance, which was a duck under the electric fence into the park. Here any signs of tracks disappeared, with our 2 guides creating a route with their machetes, whilst the two guards with ak47's looked on for rebel groups who are rumoured to be hiding within the park.

The guides stopped us after a reasonably short hike and told us to put on our medical masks, used to stop spreading diseases to the animals. We turned the next corner to find 3 gorillas lieing feet away, including a huge silverback laid on his stomach. They acted as if we weren't there, occasionally giving us a grunt which the guards returned to show we weren't a danger to them.

Around the corner was a further 6 or 7 gorillas, including a tiny 2 year old. It seems the younger they are the fluffier they are, with this one looking like a ball of fluff, with an Afro I'd be proud of. At one point the little one tried to grab hold of Sammie's leg, our guides forbid contact with the gorillas, so the 6 of us had to run away from this 2 foot high little thing. The older gorillas seemed contempt to just lie there, occasionally grab something to eat and every 30 seconds or so let out a huge, huge fart. There wasn't many occasions when they weren't farting and I wasn't giggling.

The next morning we made the short journey to the 1900m high base of the Mount Nyiragongo trail, where we met the group of Indians, Turks and a fellow Brit who we'd be ascending with. The first 2 and a half hours of the hike went pretty smoothly, with the only downside being a lack of views because of thick cloud cover. We were walking along unsteady layers of volcanic rock, laid on the ground during the eruption 12 years ago. The second half of the trek took a lot longer, with storm rains battering down on us and a member of the group, sloth girl, deciding to make a competition out of how slow she could walk. The group couldn't separate because of the potential dangers in the area, so we were stuck behind her, pacing for 3 or 4 steps before stopping for her to catch her breath. By the sounds she was making I can only assume she was going through labour whilst doing the hike, so fair play to her for finishing.

After 6 and a half hours we reached the 3500m high summit. The freezing winds, heavy rainfall and lack of any consistent movement meant that we were absolutely freezing, me and Sammie went and changed into dry clothes before even bothering to look over the ridge into the volcano. Fortunately our huts were approximately 5 metres from the ridge, so a good view wasn't hard to come by. After a couple of cloudy glimpses of the worlds largest lava lake, we headed for bed at 6pm, moaning and shivering. I spent the night in 4 t-shirts, 2 trousers, a jumper, a hoody and a sleeping bag and it still wasn't warm.

The next morning however our bodies had reheated and we came out to look at the lava in the pitch black. It was an absolutely amazing view, seeing the lake of lava settling before starting to throw around pools of lava and releasing scores of smoke. I really can't write well enough to do the place justice, it was amazing. The health and safety consisted of a guide occasionally telling us to be careful near the edge, which explains why a tourist fell to her death a few years ago. It was completely untouched, with you leaning over the edge looking 100m down into the crater.

The journey down saw sloth girl up to her old tricks again, so the gentle 3 hour descent turned into a 5 and a half hour hike that was mostly stationary. After that we got a ride back to the border and crossed back into Rwanda. It was a short detour to Democratic Republic of Congo, but it's definitely got to be two of the best experiences of the trip so far.


The trip from Malawi to Rwanda took us on a 4 day journey from the south to the north of Tanzania. This included over 50 hours of buses, over two thirds of which didn't hit tarmac. The best journey took us from Mbeya to Tabora, where an expected 12 hour journey was supposed to see us arrive at 8pm. 5 breakdowns later and we arrived at 2am, after circling the town to find accommodation either full or trying to charge us a fortune, we went back to the station and spent the night sleeping on the stationary bus.

After a rough few days travelling through Tanzania we reached the Rwandan border. Here we discovered that about 2 weeks earlier Rwanda had changed its policy of letting in tourists in for free and started charging them for a $30 visa. This turned into a nightmare as we didn't have enough dollars to cross the border, but after getting some off a local for some outrageous exchange prices, we finally made it into the country.

The contrast between Rwanda and Tanzania or Malawi was huge and immediately obvious. The land was completely dominated by hills, with all of this land cultivated for farming. The buildings, roads and organisation of the land gave the country a much wealthier feel to it than what we'd been used to. A ban on plastic bags and the whole population donating two hours of their time on the last Saturday of the month to community service, gave the country a beautifully clean and finished look. 

Our journey from the west of the country into the centre only took a couple of hours, the country is a dot on the map next to Tanzania. Our destination was Kigali, the capital of the country and the cleanest, calmest and most welcoming city we've seen. The streets were even lined with palm trees. 

The first day in the city was spent doing the main tourist site, with it being Rwanda this was the genocide museum commemorating the 1994 genocide where 1 million people were killed in 100 days. The museum was fascinating, looking at the causes and effects of the genocide, it was crazy to think even people our age must have witnessed horrific events. The Hotel which the film 'Hotel Rwanda' was based on didn't live up to the heights of the museum, with me and Sammie walking around the hotel for 15 minutes before realising there was nothing here but a functioning hotel. A good few days in the city was topped off by sharing a goat leg and arm between 5 of us, a delicious Rwandan speciality. (I'm still not sure goats have arms).

From Kigali we headed to Kibuye, a small town on the edge of Lake Kivu. 2 and a half hours of snaking roads through mountainous scenery took us to the town. Here we hired a motorbike taxi to our hostel, seeing Sammie try and balance a bag on her front and back whilst staying on a motorbike was hilarious. She fell off a stationary bike just before we came out here.

Our new home was equipped with stunning panoramic views of the lake. We spent the next few days relaxing here, reading, playing plenty of cards and going on some hikes of the hills surrounding the lake, even spotting an otter who came up for air a few metres away from us.

A boat trip north up Lake Kivu took us to our final Rwandan destination of Gisenyi. Here we stayed in an old Belgian colonial mansion which had been converted into a hostel. We stuck to a similar routine of doing very little here, organising future plans and spending some days by a pool. 

The time spent in Rwanda has been a nice chilled break, it's a beautiful country where just walking or driving through the hills is a great experience.