What It Means to Be Human
Visiting volcanoes and mountain gorillas in Africa’s oldest national park.
Bubbling a hundred meters below, glowing orange and stirring restlessly, the world’s largest lava lake reveals itself. Through dark clouds of smoke, folds of magma rise, solidify into continents of black crust on the ocean of molten rock, and slowly sink back, dissolving into the burning matter. As we stand on the rim of the Nyiragongo Volcano watching the universe spitting out of the crater, billions of years on our planet seem to look back at us. This is the bowels of the Earth.
After nearly six hours of walking through thick jungle and rocky, charcoal-colored landscapes of lava rocks, reaching the summit at 3,470 meters in the humid cold of a thick fog feels like we have taken a pilgrimage to hell. Hiking the Nyiragongo is trying, but this view speaks for itself. The smell of sulfur and a pleasant heat wave suddenly enwrap us, and we find the tremendous rushing sound of the active volcano strangely calming. No one utters a word.
“I have accompanied travelers a hundred times to the top now,” says Raymond, our guide. “But each time, even for me, it is like witchcraft. It’s so powerful. Mesmerizing. Like God is speaking to us.”
Raymond is a ranger at the Virunga National Park, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mount Nyiragongo looms over the very southern edge of the park, just above the city of Goma — like a sleeping giant guarding the gate to a place that commands similar superlatives for description. Virunga, meaning “volcano” in local Kinyarwanda, is Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, an animal kingdom seemingly shrouded in mystery at the heart of the continent.
Created in 1925 during Belgian colonization, Virunga is mostly known for being home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas. But the iconic apes are just one of thousands of species that populate the protected area, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unparalleled diversity of ecosystems.
Since the day I arrived in Goma to work as a freelance journalist, the Nyiragongo had beckoned me to step into Virunga and explore its smoky summit. Visiting the park had been on my to-do list even before I landed in eastern DRC, but nothing was going to prepare me for its lush and intense beauty.
Flying over in the park’s khaki green and beige Cessna plane, the whole range of Central African landscapes unfolds below. In the southern sector, a few kilometers from the Nyiragongo, mountain gorillas huddle together in misty forested hills, over which tower six inactive volcanoes. Lions, antelopes, elephants and buffalo roam the great Rwindi Plain, the middle sector’s savannah stretching all the way to the shores of Lake Edward. There, hundreds of rare birds and fish species thrive among the rich swamps and high grass.
Beyond the lake, the Rwenzori Mountains stand tall in the northern sector. Their dry, rocky landscape earned them the name “Mountains of the Moon” — inaccessible ice queens with their snowcapped summits, the only eternal snow in Africa along with Mount Kilimanjaro. Okapis, a rare animal that looks like a cross between a zebra and a small giraffe, can be found in the forest at the very northern tip of the park.
In many ways, the Virunga National Park stands as a testament to the incredible resilience of the Congolese and their determination to strive. Throughout the several civil wars that engulfed the east, rangers kept protecting Virunga at the cost of their own lives, and today, the park is leading the way for the region’s economic revival. Aside from the volcano hike, travelers can now stay at a beautiful luxury lodge in Rumangabo — the park’s headquarters, climb the Rwenzori Mountains, and of course visit the mountain gorillas in their forest habitat.
As we enter the equatorial forest on our own way to meet them, Innocent, a veteran ranger who has been working in the gorilla sector all his career, reminds us that we are indeed just “visiting.” Following rules of gorilla hospitality must be respected at all times, including wearing a surgical mask to avoid spreading germs, and never, ever looking at the dominant silverback in the eyes.
Rangers lead the way, hacking at the vines with machetes to carve a path in the dense jungle. They track gorilla families every day, making sure they are healthy and following evidence left behind to tell when groups move from one place to another. Here, a bed made of branches. There, warm gorilla feces. We have to keep up with them, pulling ourselves up small hills and avoiding occasional red ants at all costs, but after just an hour making our way through the vegetation, Innocent stops abruptly.
Two black, shiny eyes peer at us through the dense foliage. Slowly, a massive leathery hand parts the branches and a silverback emerges from behind bamboo trees. I hold my breath. The awesome animal stares at our group, sizing us up, before simply sitting down and beginning to chew on some leaves. He looks at us with as much curiosity as we have toward him.
“He doesn’t mind?” I ask Innocent.
“Not at all,” the ranger replies. “I think once they have been habituated, gorillas enjoy seeing us. We’re like the daily TV program,” he tells me.
And indeed, the dominant male is soon joined by one of the females and two gorilla offspring eager to come play with the strange creatures that we are. Rangers gently push them away to avoid their coming too close. Curiosity, excitement, surprise and sulkiness wash over their human-like faces, like scolded toddlers. I wish we could play with them, really.
One hour flies by too fast. We walk off in a daze, still muttering our wonderment under the silly-looking masks. To be so close to such powerful animals has been a privilege.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered species on the planet, with only about 800 remaining.Their mighty stature is an illusion; they are prey to deforestation and human greed. After the immutable power of the earth we witnessed inside the Nyiragongo’s crater, spending time with the gorillas feels like watching a reflection of our own vulnerability.
Men lose their lives to protect these beautiful creatures from ourselves. Whether that makes sense or not, I am reminded of the candid words a Polish couple visiting Virunga left in the guest book: “Now, we understand the reason that brought us here, to uncover our own truth about what it means to be human.”