VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, Democratic Republic of the Congo — You could hear it long before the mountain came into view, a deep, thunderous rumbling in the distance.
Three park rangers, well-worn AK-47s slung over their shoulders, led the group across a black field of volcanic rock towards the Nyiragongo volcano’s new eruption site.
Nyiragongo is the most active volcano in Africa and its latest eruption has drawn travelers from around the world — raising hopes that a growing tourism industry could help revive eastern Congo, home to the deadliest conflict since World War II and more recently a bloody election.
The volcano eruption cuts a deep ridge of blood-red lava across the hills of black stone, north of Nyiragongo’s main edifice. The lava jumps violently upwards from a silhouetted rim, consuming the mountainside in a vivid, liquid blaze. The burnt orange of the smoky sky fights for dominance with the blue sky.
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“This really is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” said Jonathan Kalan, who had traveled from Kenya.
Congo may seem like an unlikely vacation spot, but the numbers of those willing to cross into the country Joseph Conrad so famously labeled “the heart of darkness” is growing by the year.
While the war was still raging in 2008 the park had no visitors. By 2009 they were up to 550, and it’s doubled every year since then, with 3,800 tourists expected in 2011, and 5,000 to 6,000 in 2012.
Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest, and also one of its most unique. Cai Tjeenk Willink, the park's business development officer, calls Virunga “the top notch of volcano tourism.”
In addition to Nyiragongo and her sister volcanoes, the park also offers endangered mountain gorillas, the misty Lake Kivu and treks across one of the highest mountain ranges in Africa.
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Bolstered by funding from the European Union and foreign investors, the park has big plans to bolster its growing appeal to travelers.
This January, Virunga’s first tourist lodge will open, boasting a dozen swanky bungalows with lava walls. Treks to see chimpanzees in the hills of Tongo will also begin then, and by the end of the year the park hopes to add to their repertoire a safari to see lions, leopards and elephants.
Within the park there are things more dangerous than wild animals, though. Members of the rebel group the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) operate within the park and 15 rangers have lost their lives in contacts with the group this year.
The job is dangerous enough that the park’s website offers a link to donate money to a program to care for the widows of dead rangers.
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Volcanologist Dario Tedesco, who has been working in the park since 1995, calls the rangers “the most trained troops in the Congo.” Fifty new rangers received Special Forces training this year to protect those visiting the park.
“We don’t want people to enter the region doe-eyed,” said Willink, the park's business development officer. “But we take the security of our tourism very seriously, and if we have any indication that an area might not be safe, we immediately stop tourism to that area.”
But while the Nyiragongo brings in tourism, the volcano is anything but benign for those who live in its shadow.
“Goma is the most dangerous city in the world,” said Tedesco.
History suggests he may be right. Memories of the 2002 eruption, when lava shot from a fissure partway down the mountain, remain fresh in the minds of those who live here. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee into neighboring Rwanda and 80 percent of the city’s business district was destroyed.
“The next time the eruption could happen right in the center of the city,” said Tedesco. “If the past is the key to the future, then we have to be very careful.”
For eastern Congo’s long-suffering residents, the steady rise of tourism offers hope for the creation of local jobs and a boost to a struggling economy. But is the budding tourism industry really a sign of increasing stability for the Congo?
“I think it portrays the hope for a better period,” said Willink. “It indicates that people do think the troubles are getting less and less, but people are still very cautious and a bit afraid.”
When one hears of eastern Congo it is mostly about anarchy, rebels and rapes. Yet just over the border in Rwanda the tourism industry accounts for more than $430 million of the country’s GDP.
Virunga Park still has a ways to go — it expects to earn a profit of more than $1 million for the first time this year — but the hope remains that it will become known for its volcanoes, gorillas and mountain trails.