Enter the Congo

View of Karisimbi volcano from Nyiragongo volcano. Vapours in the foreground are from fissures in the crater rim releasing hot, sulphurous gases. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

It began with a picture, which should perhaps come as no surprise being a photographer. It was an alluring, enticing picture which insinuated itself into my thoughts and surfaced whenever boredom threatened or I was overcome with sleep. It beckoned and yet I was wont to answer its call. I blocked my ears and tied myself to the mast to resist its siren song, only, it wasn’t a song at all but an image and an idea. A bewitching idea, “What if…”.

Seared into my conscious like a brand, the image was the one reason that trumped the thousand-and-one reasons not to go. It remained in my vision long after I had ceased gazing at the monitor with admiration and awe. It was not only the natural beauty of the landscape itself but what it represented – vastness, power, majesty, destruction, life. It was a Tolkien-esque Middle Earth, and it was within my reach. If only the reach of my desires could exceed the grasp of my fears. It was Nyiragongo volcano. And it was in the Congo.

The Congo. It is a name that has become synonymous with danger, conflict, wealth, poverty, corruption, colonial ineptitude and disastrous self-government. It is a country that tells the history of the whole of the African continent. A country where strife has become the status quo, with the shadow of peace glimpsed but fleetingly through the haze of tension-filled ceasefires. It is also home to the largest tract of unbroken rainforest outside of the Amazon and possesses an irresistible lure, Virunga national park. Mired in hostilities and threatened by interests ranging in scope from coal production, and poaching to elicit animal trade and oil interests (SOCO), Virunga is a UNESCO world heritage site under threat and it teeters on a knife’s edge. In brief, it is a place like no other.

The Congo is a country that I had long yearned to visit and yet I had prevaricated, postponed, and delayed as it often proved to be the focal point of violence, both human (Rwandan genocide exodus (1994), m23 rebellion (2012) and natural (2004 eruption of Nyiragongo volcano). However, it can be difficult to convey the sheer magnetism such a place is able to exert. It occupied the realm of thoughts and dreams, and even while photographing within Nyungwe national park in adjacent Rwanda, my thoughts drifted across the border and I was left with a vague sense of longing and desire. Close as I was to the Rwanda/DRC border, it was not enough. There was a sense of discontentment and malaise even while photographing and experiencing unique and wonderful flora and fauna. I could feel the tension building. Whenever I availed myself of an internet connection I would scan dozens of pages of trip reports, security updates, wildlife and landscape photos. However, there was still a voice, a voice grown hoarse with repetition and steadily weaker and yet which still forestalled my full commitment. Some might call it the voice of reason, or that of the most powerful of primordial instincts, self-preservation. I might have remained in this agonizing limbo, dreaming without taking action, indefinitely torturing myself with tantalizing possibility until an expired VISA robbed me of choice.

However, fate or good fortune intervened, and one day in my increasingly manic state as I frenetically jumped between webpages, I stumbled across the recently released documentary by Netflix – Virunga.

Beautiful cinematography, a haunting musical score and an incredible narrative dispelled any remaining doubts and sealed what might already have been inevitable. Now my focus was singularly on the Congo. The questions raised by the documentary along with the powerful imagery quickly displaced all other thought, including any of self preservation, and fomented into a full-blooded obsession. An obsession which compelled action.

And so minutes later, I slumped back in my chair and stared at the computer monitor. The thousand dollar plus confirmation receipt for transport, park permits, Volcano hiking permit, and Visa application request open in one window. Outnumbered ten to one by travel advisory warnings, apocryphal security situation updates, and recent articles on protests and renewed hostilities. I exhaled long and slowly, “What the fuck am I doing?”…

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