The story of “Crossing Congo” begins at a couch in my hostel in Kigali. It’s breakfast time and as I wait for the coffee to be cooked, I find myself in a conversation with other early birds. We share memories, plans and travel stories. It is a great morning. The sun is shining brightly, the couches around me start filling with people and it is just an overwhelming moment. The last weeks, as I traveled in western Tanzania and Burundi, I rarely met other travelers. Here the hostel feeling comes back and takes over. I am looking for people to join in on my plans to climb Karisimbi volcano and then visit the mountain gorillas in the Rwandan forests. During this specific moment, a British guy, sitting across the table, tells me the following: “Why don’t you go to Congo? The volcano there is even active and you can visit the gorillas as well.”. This thought sparks a flame inside of me. I never planed to cross the border. I thought visas are impossible to obtain and that the region is a dangerous place. He tells me, that friends of his were there just one week ago and they were impressed. I take a look inside his travel guide and become interested. Even though I have trouble to remember all the facts from one second to the next, the spark ignites a fire. I have a new plan.
I am trapped between worlds and plans. I still have my original plan in mind to continue to Uganda and further to Ethiopia and I don’t want to loose to much time with my detour. The idea develops and I tell myself, that this is the chance; the chance to turn a dream into reality. My respect for Congo is enormous and I don’t feel organizing everything myself based on the fact that, I have no first hand information available and no one who covered this ground before me in reach. For me Kigali is the place to organize it. I start wandering through the city, going from one tour agency to the next, just to hear, that they do not offer tours to Congo; to dangerous.
My last chance is an office, I search for more than half an hour. The agents are very helpful, but they still do not offer a tour to Congo. But one of them remembers a guide, who worked for them, and that he was in Congo. With this help, we manage to find a contact of an agency. And voila, they are willing to take me into the heartland. The first offer is via text message and the next day, I get picked up to see them in their office. While I check all the options and discuss the price, I am even worried about my insurance. Will they cover me in a conflict zone? I call and chat, and after one hour I have a confirmation in my hand: they cover me! The adventure may begin!
From dawn to dusk
It is a leap into another world. Crossing the border from Rwanda to Congo. It is a simple walk and my guide even helps me with the papers. I have no idea what to expect on the other side. Rwanda was a heaven in Africa for me. Strangely well organized, structured and predictable. Also safe, as I assume by African standards. I never imagined that I would end up in Congo. It was a dream and I even saw it as an unhandiness, when I ended up in front of the Congolese embassy instead of the Burundian two weeks earlier and asked for a visa. A little bit of uncertainty is in the air and even though my research into safety in Congo proved to be quite excessive but successful, I never have been to an so heavily armed area before.
As I walk through the streets, armored UN-vehicles pass by, with soldiers in full gear ready to face everything. Goma is the base for the UN and NGOs in the region shattered by rebel activity in the area. Just one week before I enter, the M23 rebels killed some innocent people from the villages 50 kilometers north-west of Goma and the news even vibe through German newspaper. I proceed with caution, stay of the street between dusk and dawn, and keep myself on guard all the time. Still Goma is considered safe and speaking with expats and locals my tensions loosen a bit and I feel definitely better. I might as well get used to the new situation and I keep telling myself that in four days I am back in Rwanda on the safe side of the border.
You might ask, if I am mad? I am definitely not. I am aware of my surroundings and I put a lot of research into the security situation. I talked with tourists, who just came back from the Congo, I engaged an agency to take me to my destinations in the Virunga National Park and I assessed many details. The reputation of Congo plays a huge role in it’s perception and thousands of international aid workers live in Goma and travel through Congo. They are not mad either, but are aware of their surroundings. The national park would never allow visitors to enter it’s borders if they cannot guarantee the safety of their guests. The income of tourism is valued to an enormous scale and the national park considers tourism as the number one source for helping the region to stabilize and develop. The protection of the park, the nature and the mountain gorillas is top priority.
Crossing Congo – The moving Perspective
Crossing Congo – The Series:
Part 1 – Heartland
Part 2 – The East
Part 3 – Glowing Earth
Part 4 – Majestic Gorillas
Part 5 – The Flying Whistle
Part 6 – The Stream
Part 7 – Jungle Bumps
Part 8 – Equator Rocks
Part 9 – Capital Walks
Can’t wait for more?
Check out the German series of “Crossing Congo“!