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Exploring challenging parts of the world is now one of the most dynamic sectors of the travel industry – and an elite coterie of destination and security specialists has risen to the occasion. Sophy Roberts reports.
At the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is Virunga National Park. It is the natural habitat to around 200 of the world’s remaining 880 mountain gorillas. It is also at the centre of a region that is rich in oil and minerals, which has made it a target for exploitation. In March, DRC prime minister Matata Ponyo said the country was looking into redrawing Virunga’s boundaries to make way for extractive industries. Although discussions about it are ongoing, this is extraordinary for a World Heritage Site park established in 1925, but also testimony to how much pressure there is to make the DRC’s land pay for a desperate civil war-torn population.
These pressures are not going to go away anytime soon and how much of that wealth will ever reach the people most in need is hard to know. Transparency International ranks the DRC, joint with fellow African country Chad, a lowly 154 out of 175 countries and territories in its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Yet in the midst of all this complexity, there is the tourist lodge Mikeno, where the comforts are genuine: soft linens, hot showers, impressive food. Not that the sybaritic is why one would come here; Virunga is bafflingly beautiful enough. It sequesters not only gorillas, but also one of the world’s largest crater lakes bubbling with lava, glacier-crowned mountains and palm-fringed hot springs.
Here, on the edge of a forest, it may feel like one is standing in Eden, but of course this place is also riddled with problems, which won’t quite let the DRC shake off its Conradian Heart of Darkness reputation. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office marks much of the country orange, “advising against all but essential travel,” with the remaining areas marked red “advising against all travel,” – a position derived from the DRC’s civil conflict with armed militias, which by 2014 had caused 2.7m people to be internally displaced, according to the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency). While I don’t witness these issues in my comfortable tourism bubble, the horrors of this region are well-documented and openly discussed with me by my travel planning expert, Kate Doty of San Francisco-based GeoEx, who is under no illusion about the challenges that this country presents as a holiday destination.
Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.
Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.