They heard the sound before they saw anything. The slamming of brakes, the rat-a-tat of gunfire through the windscreen. "Get down!" shouted the driver, before slumping over the wheel, bleeding copiously from the shoulder. Next to him, Rachel, the guide, had been shot in the head.
For the two young British tourists in the back of the Land Rover it was terrifying. Before they knew it, Robert Jesty and Bethan Davies, both doctors, were being dragged out and marched deep into the Congolese jungle, Kalashnikovs stuck in their backs. "I couldn't stop shaking," Davies says. "I was absolutely 100% convinced we'd be killed."
Davies, 30, from West Yorkshire, and Jesty, 29, from Winchester, met at King's College Hospital, London, where they both worked in intensive care and started dating two years ago, drawn together partly by their love of travel. On April 9 last year they had flown to Kenya to spend three months crossing Africa and were a month into their trip when they arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like thousands of tourists every year, they had come to Virunga National Park in the east of the country to see the world's only mountain gorillas in their natural habitat — the volcanoes shrouded in cloud forest that border the DR Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Twice the size of Cornwall, Virunga is one of the most biodiverse national parks on earth — but it is also the most dangerous. This is a region rich in natural resources, plundered by a dozen militia groups, who poach its wildlife, invade its land and pilfer its wood, fish and minerals to fund a conflict that has been going on for almost 25 years.
Last year, 10 rangers were killed, and Jesty and Davies became the first foreign tourists to be kidnapped by militiamen there, forcing the authorities to close the park for one of the longest periods since it was founded by King Albert I of Belgium in 1925.
The couple, who have never told the story of their hair-raising ordeal before, agreed to speak to me over the phone now that the park is reopening to tourists.
Their trip had already taken them through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. They had climbed Mount Kenya and were going more or less where fancy took them.
"Virunga was the one thing we'd booked in advance as we really wanted to go there," Davies says. On arrival, they were handed a disclaimer to sign. "I didn't even think about it," she says. "We had to sign a form that if anything happened to us it was our responsibility, but you get those even if you're going swimming with a two-year-old."
Trekking to see the gorillas was, she says, everything they had hoped for. The plight of these extraordinary animals, the largest of the great apes, was made famous by the American primatologist Dian Fossey in her book Gorillas in the Mist, which became an award-winning movie starring Sigourney Weaver. The largest silverback males grow to 6ft tall and 400lb, yet, as Fossey showed, are the gentlest of giants.
"It was such a special day, one of the best experiences I'd ever had," Davies says. "We saw 12 or 13 gorillas and got to spend an hour with one family. They were so unbelievably human, the babies playing around, the dads raising their eyebrows."
The following day, Friday May 11, they planned to climb one of the volcanoes, Mount Nyiragongo, to see the world's largest lava lake. They were collected from Kibumba camp at 7am after breakfast by Gustav, the driver, and Rachel Baraka, 25, one of the park's few female rangers. "I felt sorry for her, poor thing, as she'd forgotten her gun so had to go back and get it," says Davies, adding: "I'm always losing things."
They had been in the car for less than an hour, driving down a "long, empty, bumpity road", when they suddenly came under fire.
"These men just jumped out in the middle of the road and started unleashing bullets," Jesty says. Davies continues: "Three men dragged first Rob out of the car, then me, and ran us into the jungle. They were Rwandans and didn't speak any English, but they pointed their guns in our backs and shouted 'Be quiet!' and 'Vite, vite!'"
After running for an hour, the men stopped and waited for two other guerrillas. They appeared, dragging Gustav, as they wanted him to translate, even though he was bleeding heavily. "They said they would kill us unless we gave them money," Jesty says. "We gave them everything from our wallet, which was $200. They put the gun in my face and said, 'We don't want $200, we want $200,000.' I told them that's a lot, it would take a long time. They said we don't care if it takes a month."
It was the start of a three-day ordeal for the couple — and the worst possible news for Virunga's British-educated director, Emmanuel de Merode, who, unusually, was 6,000 miles away. He had just landed in Scotland to visit his teenage daughter, who is at school at Gordonstoun, Prince Charles's alma mater, when his phone rang with the bad news.
"When you get that call, it's awful, it's happened too many times," de Merode tells me. "Rachel was in a coma, a bullet lodged in her brain. I had to come straight back."
Raised in Kenya, where his parents were professors, de Merode has an impeccable British accent, having attended Downside boarding school in Somerset followed by Durham University, but is a Belgian prince who can trace his noble European lineage back to the Holy Roman Empire. He is married into wildlife aristocracy — his wife, Louise, a palaeontologist, is the daughter of the renowned conservationist Richard Leakey. Yet, instead of enjoying the luxury of a family chateau in Belgium, he usually lives in a tent far from his wife and children and risks his life in a country where almost nothing works.
He has been employed in Virunga National Park since 2001, and took over as director following the slaughter of nine gorillas by poachers in 2008. He is used to the park's problems: 176 rangers have been murdered here over the past 20 years. A month before Rachel was killed, he had lost six staff in an ambush, and a week before that another ranger had been murdered, leaving behind a pregnant wife and child. Yet another had been killed protecting one of the park's energy projects.
"We are the richest park on earth in terms of biodiversity," de Merode says, "but it's also a hotspot in political terms — it's been at the heart of the civil war since 1996, starting with the Rwandan genocide."
Hutu Interahamwe extremists fled Rwanda following their genocide of up to a million Tutsis in 100 days in 1994, crossing the border into Goma in the eastern DR Congo and taking over vast refugee camps. Rwandan forces eventually pursued them, triggering the first Congolese civil war, which saw the toppling of the DR Congo's longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Then, in 1998, came a second conflict, in which many countries became involved, resulting in the bloodiest civil war in Africa: as many as 6m Congolese died.
Though it rarely makes the news, in eastern DR Congo the fighting has never really stopped, exacerbated by interference from neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, which back rival ethnic groups. All parties want to get their hands on precious natural resources and minerals ranging from gold to coltan, crucial for mobile phones.
Since de Merode became director of the park, his hilltop headquarters have twice been stormed by rebel armies — the first time forcing everyone to flee to Goma, where he found himself running a refugee camp for rangers and their families. Vowing never to be forced out again, in 2012 he and his staff hid in the wine cellars of the park's luxury tourist lodge as the rebel group known as M23 launched an all-out assault. In 2014, de Merode himself was ambushed and shot twice in the chest, narrowly escaping with his life.
Yet he says last year was the worst so far "by a long shot". "It was terrible on every level, everything went wrong. When there's a war it's hard, but you can manage it, whereas last year was just chaos — they were hitting us from everywhere. We lost a lot of staff and morale was really down. Rachel's death hit the staff badly as she was the first female ranger to be killed."
The abduction of the British doctors was the final straw. "All hell broke loose," he says. "We had to get all the other tourists out very fast."
Meanwhile, Davies and Jesty had marched for three hours and were being held in a clearing surrounded by dense jungle and guarded by six militiamen. Davies says four were very young, aged maybe 16 to 21, one was in his early thirties and the leader was in his mid-forties.
"The first night was unbelievably unsettling," she says. "Two of them didn't drink, but four got absolutely rat-arsed on banana whisky and were watching porn on their phones."
Given DR Congo's reputation as the rape capital of the world, she was terrified. "I didn't sleep at all," she says. "I found it incredibly difficult and didn't stop crying. They didn't like that at all."
She was also upset at leaving Gustav, the driver, who had collapsed and lost consciousness after translating the ransom demand. The fighters had left him bleeding, pushing the Brits on. "I found that very difficult," she says. "We both work all the time with people who have lost lots of blood, so it's very unnatural to run away."
Next day, the drinking continued.
"Every time Rob went to the toilet, when he came back they said they'd kill him if I didn't sort the money quickly."
Fortunately, they left Davies alone. The men treated them reasonably well, putting up a tarpaulin to keep off the rain, providing them with food such as brioche and bottles of water, presumably not wanting to kill off their potentially lucrative captives.
They had been allowed to keep their phones as they would need them to raise the ransom. To Jesty's astonishment, he found he had 3G coverage and managed to call a close friend. "He was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, but he called our parents and the Foreign Office."
The couple thought about escaping, but rejected the idea. "We weren't tied up, but there were always people with us pointing guns, so there was no way to leg it," Jesty says. "Also, we didn't have any idea where to go and if we'd got lost in the jungle it might have been worse."
On the second afternoon the mood darkened. "The man in his thirties drank two litres of banana whisky, then began hacking round with his machete and pointing at Rob with his gun and shooting to one side of him," Davies says. "It was very Lord of the Flies. Up till then they had all been sitting in a circle talking to each other, working as a unit, but when he got drunk, they split up in ones and twos and it seemed no one knew what to do."
By then de Merode was back in Virunga, where he quickly established that the kidnappers were a splinter group of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) — what used to be the Interahamwe, génocidaires from Rwanda — and the commander of the main organisation was not happy.
"It was a part of this kidnapping industry that has taken off," de Merode says. "They thought they would get more for foreigners, but it didn't work." He insists no money changed hands. "Quite significant pressure was exerted on them and on their leadership," is all he will say about what happened next.
Finally, on the Sunday afternoon, the militiamen took Davies and Jesty back through the forest, the way they had come, eventually reaching a plain where they could see helicopters hovering overhead. The couple were ordered to hide under a tree. Eventually a middleman called Wolf came to collect them and took them to de Merode. "I have never felt relief like that," Davies says.
Desperately apologetic, de Merode drove them to the house of British diplomats in Goma, where the couple called their relieved parents, took a shower — "it was torrential rain, so were absolutely sodden in clothes we'd been in for three days" — and had a beer.
De Merode decided there was no alternative but to close the park. "We always said if we don't have a reasonable amount of security — and that means a lot — we wouldn't do tourism. That incident shouldn't have happened."
Six months later, they managed to arrest the ringleader of the splinter group, who is now on trial in Kinshasa. After eight months reassessing security and bringing in former Belgian commandos to train what de Merode says is now the best force in the country, he partially reopened Virunga to tourists in February, with no fanfare. He hopes to open fully in July, but admits it is a challenge: will tourists come back and will he be able to protect them? I joined him for a tour of the park to find out.
At Goma airport, the Belgian prince cuts a dashing figure in khaki ranger uniform as he clambers into the cockpit of a tiny cream and green Cessna bearing the words Parc National des Virunga. He checks the dials, then starts the engine, speaking to the control tower on his mobile phone — the aircraft is 52 years old and, somewhat disconcertingly, has no radio. The plane feels impossibly flimsy as it takes off over the tin roofs and lava rock from a 2002 eruption that devastated the city.
We fly past the mist-draped volcanoes where the gorillas live, then over grassy savanna to head north across the glittering waters of Lake Edward, one of the African Great Lakes, and finally over dense green rainforest towards the Ruwenzori, or Mountains of the Moon. The scenery is breathtaking. Every so often, he tilts the wings to point out a rare forest giraffe or a circle of elephants — and it feels like a scene from Out of Africa.
It's easy to see why he is so passionate about the work. Pointing at a map of the 3,000-square-mile park, which is divided into three sections — north, central and south — he explains: "It's the incredible diversity of landscapes that makes Virunga so special. It includes both the driest and wettest place in Congo and goes from 3,000ft to 17,000ft, with glaciers and the Mountains of the Moon that Ptolemy wrote about. More than half the terrestrial species of the African continent are here, so if you want to have an impact on protecting biodiversity, you need to protect Virunga."
We have not been airborne long when we see a series of plumes of smoke, and de Merode frowns. Trees are being felled by militiamen for the illegal production of charcoal, which is used as fuel by local people who have no electricity. It's an industry he estimates to be worth US$45m (£35m) a year.
Above the grassy savanna he points out where militias have taken over part of the park for illegal cultivation. "We did a study in 2017 and estimated it to be worth $170m, again mainly controlled by guerrillas."
There is also illegal fishing on the lake. And that's not all: a few years ago a British-based oil company, Soco, moved in, sanctioned by the DR Congo government to prospect for oil in Lake Edward. On the ground, battle lines were promptly drawn, with brutal consequences. The secret filming of alleged bribery attempts and harassment formed the basis of the 2014 documentary Virunga — a film so powerful that it was nominated for an Oscar, Leonardo DiCaprio came on board as executive producer, and it was bought by Netflix. Soco denies it made any bribes.
De Merode's deputy, who exposed the alleged corruption, was arrested and tortured and local fishermen were beaten up and killed. In 2014, de Merode himself was ambushed and shot twice in the chest — narrowly escaping with his life. Throughout, Soco, which abandoned the region in 2015, denied any wrongdoing, calling the attack on de Merode "disturbing" and condemning violence of any kind.
The militias remain a constant threat. I don't learn till later that the plane we're in has also been shot at. "A few times," de Merode says, adding: "We've now learnt to maintain a safe altitude." He estimates there are about 3,000 guerrillas in the park. Aside from the FDLR in the south and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) of Muslims from Uganda in the north, there are other militia groups in the area, known as mai-mai. All survive on resources from the park, including poached wildlife, as well as banditry and kidnapping.
"We're probably the most valuable piece of conservation real estate on earth," de Merode says. "The inability of the state to restore rule of law means they exploit it — that's how they have been surviving for more than 20 years."
Virunga is the world's second oldest national park after Yellowstone and was declared a Unesco heritage site in 1979, but it presents a philosophical problem.
"The park is being preserved by law for the whole of humanity," de Merode says. "But that cost is borne by the local population — they have one of the most fertile soils on the planet, everything grows, but most of it is set aside for conservation."
Four million desperately poor people live in the region. The week before my flight with the warden, I had spent a few days travelling through neighbouring villages and met people who had been displaced three or four times in the fighting, still at the mercy of the militias that were kidnapping and raping women and demanding ransoms. All complained that the biggest problem aside from violence was lack of land. From their point of view, valuable land is being protected for the benefit of a few affluent foreign tourists.
De Merode says that if the park were developed in a sustainable way, it would bring the communities an estimated $1bn a year. "The park covers almost 2m acres and a family will earn $6,000-$8,000 for an acre of land, so that's $1bn of lost income for one of the poorest peoples on earth, just so the rest of us can enjoy the wildlife — it's an enormous social justice problem," he says.
"What brought us here are the gorillas, but it's about much more than that. Our problems are security, but the underlying causes are economic — extreme poverty and the collapse of a state that doesn't provide anything."
We fly north to Mutwanga to see how he is trying to address this. In a poor village of wattle houses, I see a man carrying a vast bundle of bananas on his head, some children rolling a bicycle tyre, and cloth spread on the ground on which pieces of cassava are drying. Beyond the village we head up a hill, in the shadow of the mountains, and come to a narrow elevated channel of water, which de Merode proudly declares is the only aqueduct in Congo.
The channel diverts water from the Butau River into a pumping station with a German turbine to generate electricity, part of a EU-funded pilot scheme started in 2010. The project generates enough power to supply the school, hospital and street lights, as well as 600 homes and small businesses.
A couple of miles away is a new factory where a machine churns out bars of blue laundry soap that workers are boxing — all powered by the new electricity. Producing 40 tons of soap a day, it is the first factory in the area and the only source of formal employment, providing 200 jobs. Palm oil to produce the soap is bought from local farmers. "Upstream, apart from the employees, we have 4,000 farmers whose income has increased 22%, while downstream we have 5m consumers paying 15% less for soap," de Merode says.
If this seems like an unusual thing for a national park director to be involved with, it is just the start. "When I became director, I didn't expect to be building power plants," he laughs. In fact, it is one of eight.
Later we stop at Matebe to see a much bigger plant that opened in 2015, funded with £15m from the American billionaire Howard Buffett. Nearby are a series of pylons. The astonishing aim, eventually, is to power the whole city of Goma and also enable the provision of drinking water from Lake Kivu, with the help of the UK charity Mercy Corps, which has built a water processing plant and pipe network.
He estimates that more than 8,200 jobs have been created in the area since power became available, and hopes that by 2025 this will increase to as many as 100,000.
He is also trying to help market local coffee, taking it to an international fair where it got rave reviews, and is working with Belgium's best chocolate maker on using local cacao, as well as with the Chinese foundation headed by Jack Ma, the Alibaba billionaire, to look at using bamboo from the park to produce furniture or even charcoal.
We end the day at his hilltop headquarters in Rumangabo, where he and other staff live in tents. A welcoming fire is crackling in the luxury lodge, which is yet to reopen, and screaming baboons chase each other across the lawns. De Merode grimaces. "I call them the yobs of the animal kingdom," he says, having been attacked by one aged five on a school trip in Kenya, when he was living there.
The lodge feels anything but sinister, but then he takes us past a compound of bloodhounds and spaniels that can detect ivory and ammunition, and through a locked safe door down steps to an underground lair, his very own White House Situation Room. Inside, people are sitting at computers and a large screen on the wall shows a map of the park, with red flashes to mark enemy positions, it's like Jurassic Park.
They are all over the place. He points out one band of militiamen by the lake, another in the centre where land has been grabbed, another in the south following charcoal. All are engaged in poaching wildlife.
In the past, one problem was the complicity of rangers, who often went months without pay. When de Merode took over, it was on the condition that he could set up an international foundation to raise money for projects and subsidise wages. The rangers receive about £25 a month from the Congolese government (it doesn't always come) and £140 a month from the UK-based charity.
For this reason, he closely follows the latest developments on Brexit. "If the UK crashes out, it would be a disaster for the park. We receive 80% of our funding from the EU, and it could disappear overnight." He has also more than tripled the number of rangers over the past eight years, from 230 to 731 (of whom 29 are women), stepped up training and reduced the average age. They carry GPS-enabled radios so their location is known at all times. In the centre of the park is the 300-member rapid-reaction force, whose job is to confront armed groups. But it is clear it is not adequate for the vast area and thousands of guerrillas.
A microlight flies every day around the park with sophisticated facial-recognition equipment to identify the armed groups. "We have a database of all the forces," de Merode says. He clicks to show an enemy camp, then zooms in to see a man with a PKM machinegun at an intersection of paths. "He's waiting for people to come past and will demand money," he explains. He zooms in on another figure in a red baseball cap, a man called JTM (Je t'aime), who recently took charge of one mai-mai group after its leader was killed in February. "They have changed completely in nature. They are much bigger and better organised and equipped than they used to be."
He shows me a series of photographs of militia recruitment, then training, lines of young men doing press-ups as a leader barks at them. On the ground are piles of maize, solar panels, which they are using to charge mobile phones, and weapons including RPGs and a 60mm mortar.
On the screen he clicks to show areas from which militia have been forced out by rangers. "If we have very good intelligence, communications and fast mobility, we can offset lack of numbers."
All of this has, of course, made de Merode a marked man. "I am constantly confronted with unexpected things," he shrugs. "My job is to keep managing these curveballs. I have to combine the job of running quite a big foundation with managing a park, which is also quite a military structure."
Like all his rangers, de Merode wears an orange patch on his uniform emblazoned with a gorilla, and to him they are sacred, just as they were to Fossey. It was in Virunga where she first started working with the gorillas in 1967. She was driven out by war after six months and moved to the Rwandan side, where she lived among the gorillas for almost 20 years until her murder, which remains unexplained.
De Merode has literally crossed front lines to save these magnificent beasts. In an orphanage at the park headquarters we watch a glossy black mountain gorilla shin up a tree trunk and stare straight out at the tourists in the hide, beating her chest, then resting her head on her arms, deep brown eyes glancing up soulfully, posing as if for a selfie.
Her name is Ndakasi and she and two others in the enclosure are orphans, their parents shot dead by poachers when they were babies 12 years ago, while the fourth was caught in a snare and has a missing foot. Ndakasi was just two months old and clinging to her dead mother when rangers found her.
It was part of a massacre of nine gorillas. When de Merode became park director shortly after and fighting became so heavy that he was forced from his headquarters, it was the gorillas he was most worried about. "The fighting was in their area," he said. "It was a mess."
He flew to Kinshasa and begged the president for permission to negotiate with the rebels, then bravely crossed the front line to meet their commander. "I was asking to be able to continue managing the park, particularly the mountain gorillas as that's sacred ground for us, incredibly important from the conservation perspective and to bring in tourists."
Somehow the softly spoken Belgian prince convinced the warlord. "He didn't want to be held responsible for the park collapsing," he says. "He agreed to my terms, but told me, 'You'll never succeed!'"
Eleven years on, his conservation programme is a resounding success — the population of mountain gorillas has quadrupled since Fossey was murdered and most of that growth is in the DR Congo, despite all the problems. There are now more than 1,004 gorillas across the three countries — about 300 of them in Virunga National Park.
To try to protect tourists who want to see them, every tour party will now be accompanied by 24 armed guards.
De Merode hopes to get tourism back to the levels of 2017, when 7,000 tourists visited, bringing in £3m in much-needed revenues — a large contribution to the park's £8.5m annual running costs. Since it partially reopened in February, the park hosted 229 tourists in six weeks. At the moment, the heavy security means each visit costs the park money, though he hopes to be breaking even by September.
He is also paying a high personal price. As we watch the antics of the gorillas in the orphanage, playing up to their keeper Andre, ringing a bell, grooming each other and sitting in a tyre, de Merode admits he sees more of them than his own family.
Over supper, when I start quizzing him about his family lineage and the invitations he receives for royal weddings (he never goes), he looks embarrassed. "I'm more of a nouveau prince," he laughs. "Not that it has much relevance to my life here in Congo." He admits being away from his wife and daughters "is very hard", but says he has no intention of leaving.
"I'll stay as long as I'm wanted," he says. "I have an extraordinary team around me, and they are achieving incredible results. I couldn't imagine a more rewarding job."
Almost one year on from their ordeal, would Rob Jesty and Bethan Davies go back?
"In hindsight I feel unbelievably naive and didn't appreciate the scale of the danger," says Davies. "I had no idea of the depth of dislike between different groups there or that parts of Virunga park have been a no man's land since the Rwandan genocide."
She suffered nightmares on returning to the UK and found it hard to talk about what had happened until recently. The couple sent condolences to Rachel's family and exchanged emails with Gustav, who survived but has moved out of the park over fears that he was in danger. They have left King's College Hospital and will move to Bristol in August, where Davies will start a new career as a GP. Their ordeal has not stopped them travelling, though they prefer slightly safer destinations — when I spoke to them earlier this month they were in Japan, admiring the cherry blossoms of Kyoto and enjoying ramen noodles.
Yet knowing Virunga has reopened, they have discussed returning to finish their trip. "I'm interested to know what changes they have made," Jesty says. "I definitely wouldn't discourage other people from going. But I think it's different, on a personal level, going back where something so intense happened. I don't know how I'd react. I'm not in any rush."
For her part, Davies says: "I really love the idea of going back while being really conscious of the enormous upset our time there caused our families. But if anyone understands the dynamics of the area it's de Merode and I would trust him implicitly if he thinks it's safe. I feel unbelievably sad not just at what happened to us, but that when someone is trying to do something so great, this had to happen to his project."
Donate to the wardens of Virunga National Park at virunga.org/donate