Congo I: Journey to Congo
There are a few experiences on safari that rate themselves as extra special above others. There’s something about walking through the bush where you become vulnerable, or sitting in the midst of elephants with their intimate social interactions. I highly rate sitting on a hill with a 360 degree view with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest gnu-ing around you, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for that 1 hour with a gorilla family.
The 300kg Silverback crosses his arms and stares at you, then scratches his head, while a youngster looks at you and then does a summersault before looking back at you as if he wants to know that you’re still watching, or if you’re going to play.
The Virunga Volcanoes
I knew our trip to see Congo’s gorillas was going to be a real adventure when we crossed the border at Goma. We spoke to the immigration official in Swahili, handing him our passports and photocopies of our visa approval through the window with Expats written over the top. I don’t want to dwell on the pessimistic perspectives of Congo written up in most articles, but the stories of officials confiscating passports and then demanding bribes or “recovery fees” did pass through my mind. He reached to a drawer in his desk and pulled out a cardboard folder with a hand-written piece of paper with a list of names, nationalities, and passport numbers. Our names were all spelled correctly, but the nationalities were jumbled not to mention the passport numbers. It didn’t seem to matter and he nonchalantly ticked our names off and corrected the nationalities. Our passports were passed to another official along with some mutterings in French, while we waited for the $50, 14-day visa, recently negotiated by the conservation body for tourists.
We stopped at the ICCN office to pick up our permits before driving north to the park headquarters and newly built Mikeno Lodge. The excitement was hard to contain. In stark contrast to Rwanda where the roads that tourists see are all paved and clean, and the experience offered a highly polished and organized system that you’d expect in Switzerland, Congo was the opposite.
Like any other town?
Goma itself is a town occupied by the UN- mostly Uruguayan, Indian and South African troops who live in fortified compounds with watchtowers and drive around in jeeps and helicopters spending approximately $3million per day. Congolese soldiers walk around heavily armed with Kalashnikovs, RPD’s and rocket launchers, while pickups with music systems and flags blast political slogans and music, campaigning for the up-coming elections.
Blood hounds being trained to help rangers.
As we drove through the countryside we were astonished at the number of children running out to give thumbs-up and ask for pens and biscuits. As in Rwanda, the volcanic soils are intensively farmed and appear very productive, just less orderly. We remarked how few were the small kiosks selling basic necessities like soap. It is obviously a hard life and everywhere we looked, the scene cried out with a story. As we drove into the headquarters on the edge of the forest, one could not help notice the old grand administrative buildings that spoke of a different era.
Yet despite the evidence of deterioration, the result of decades of turmoil, there is an atmosphere of hope and positive change.
(photos by Gian Schachenmann)