By Guillaume Bonn | 25 June 2020
Just the sound of that name has always created a feeling of fear, curiosity and yet, for as long as I can remember, a strong attraction.
Mobutu Sese Seko is another name strongly associated with that part of Africa, as the dictator and president of that country for more than three decades, which he named Zaïre.
I remember as a kid thinking of him like an African emperor who had powers that few men ever had in their lifetime, which contributed for some strange reasons to his charisma and aura, maybe not dissimilar to the hysteria we have today for Hollywood stars.
Then, in 1997, before I could go there, Sese Seko had to flee the country, as Laurent Kabila’s rebel army was about to seize the capital, Kinshasa.
This new strong man named it Congo DRC, or Democratic Republic of Congo. However, nothing really changed except Kabila wasn’t as cool as Mobutu; perhaps it was all to do with the shirts he wore.
Then, I finally went, around 2003, when I had to cover and photograph some obscure war between two militias who wanted control of a particular town.
FINALLY GETTING TO VISIT THE DRC
It’s hard to say if the situation in Congo had actually gotten worse or if it remained the same since the new regime was in place. What was evident though is that it was getting more complex, with neighbouring countries now intervening outside of their borders via proxy militias to gain control of minerals like gold, diamonds or lithium, which powers our smartphones.
Since then, I have been back countless times, always wearing my photojournalist hat: observing, learning, understanding the ways and cultural traditions of this vast, forgotten and remote place.
In 2008, Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian Prince, was named director of Africa’s oldest park, the Virunga National Park, by the Congolese government. Given the chronic insecurity in eastern Congo, De Merode and his 700 rangers’ main focus was on protecting the park’s exceptional wildlife, including critically endangered (and important) populations of low land and mountain gorillas, elephants, okapis and chimpanzees.
He then focused his efforts on economic and development initiatives using the park’s resources through tourism, rural electrification through clean energy, sustainable fisheries and agriculture – a major programme with the aim to generate 80 000 to 100 000 jobs in communities around the national park, providing young Congolese men and women with viable alternatives to engaging in conflict-related activities.
A HELICOPTER SAFARI
I recently lead a helicopter safari for four people to the Virunga Volcanoes (that are shared with Uganda and Rwanda)m which also happens to be a World Heritage Site – one of the last pristine habitats in the world, rich in biodiversity and part of the African Adventure Travels I put together for intrepid travellers.
We travelled with two helicopters that we joined in Uganda and flew all the way directly to Mikeno Lodge, our main base in the park.
Being on a helicopter safari with the doors open, flying low above the forests, feeling as you can touch the top of the huge trees, being exposed and connected to this unique environment, gives one a sense of adrenaline I have rarely experienced before. Of course, the disconnect between the cost of flying and the extremely precarious circumstances of the people living in the area can be disconcerting. But our presence is what is financially support De Merode and his conservation efforts to change the outlook of the area and its people.
We flew over Lake Kivu to a private island to spend the night, where a beautifully inviting tented camp and a horseshoe island were waiting, after a day’s trek with the endangered Grauer’s low-land gorillas.
Another day, we flew over the grave of the American naturalist, Carl Akeley, who came here back in the 1920s to hunt gorillas. The five he shot are still on display at the American Musuem of Natural History in New York
Then we decided to fly to the shores of Lake Edward, for a picnic and look for large herds of elephants we had been told about, so we pushed on to the Rwenzoris or “The Mountains of the Moon”.
Going to the Congo when the security situation permits it, and travelling with an old hand such as myself, can easily be turned into a family holiday in the safest possible way.
The Virungas is one of the most unforgettable and truly unique travel experiences anyone can ever dream of.