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.