Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Democratic Republic of Congo
The Gorilla Story Part 1. Some Insight into Mountain Gorillas.
 

Kasole of the Munyaga group beats his chest for us! Watch a video here. Who is Kasole? Find out here.

Having returned from guiding my nineteenth gorilla trek in fourteen months, I thought I’d share some of the insight that I have gained so that if you are considering a trip to see mountain gorillas you have more than the standard info pack you might receive from standard operators.

I personally prefer trekking in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The experience is slightly less regimented, sometimes disorganized, but is undoubtedly more intimate. The history of the gorilla groups in this article therefore applies to the groups in DRC, however, the Mountain gorillas are essentially the same wherever you are in the Virunga Massif. 

Below are some frequently asked questions (see my next post for some history into the make up of the six of the gorilla groups you’ll most likely visit in DRC):

How many species of gorillas are there?

There are 2 species of gorilla- the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). The former is found in Virunga and split into two subspecies- the Mountain Gorilla of which half live in Virunga National Park, and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) found in northern parts of the park and in Kahuzi-Biega National Park south of Lake Kivu.

How many mountain gorillas are left in the wild?

This question is a bit of a misnomer because mountain gorillas don’t survive outside of the wild. In fact, the only place where they survive in captivity is at the orphanage at Mikeno Lodge. While the results of the 2016 census have not yet been released, the estimates are that there are now over 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, between Bwindi National Park in Uganda, and the Virunga Massif. Stay tuned for up-to date information.

How big is the area that the mountain gorillas live in?

The amount of land that mountain gorillas have in the Virunga massif is on 447km2. You can clearly see the pressure of humans on the land when you look at a satellite image of what is left of the forest. An initiative by the Virunga is buying land adjacent to the park to replant bamboo and expand the area available to the mountain gorillas.

The forest (East) of the N2 in DRC is home of the Mountain gorillas. As you can see, the area of land in DRC is much greater than that in Rwanda.

What do mountain gorillas eat?

Mountain gorillas are vegetarian but occasionally will raid a nest of safari ants (Dorylus sp). and sometimes eat mushrooms. They select from over 60 different species of plants but their favourite is bamboo which may make up to 90% of their diet during bamboo shoot season. The rest of the time, over 75% of their diet consists of 3 species:

(Galium ruwenzoriense, Peucedanum linderi, and Cardus nyassus). A big silverback can eat up to 30kg per day. 

The blue sign represents the new park boundary for bamboo project. Expanding the habitat for Mountain Gorillas.  The forest in the distance is the current park boundary and limit of Mountain Gorilla habitat.

Are gorillas territorial?

No. Mountain gorilla groups live in overlapping home ranges that vary in size from 3 to 34 km2 depending on group size and food availability. They tend to move less than 1 km per day, resting and feeding for about the same amount of time. Occasionally when they encounter other groups or danger they will travel further, but not usually more than 3 km in a day.

What do you mean by a silverback?

The term silverback refers to a full-grown male gorilla. Male gorillas mature somewhere between 9 and 10 years old. At this time they are already much bigger than the females and the hair on their backs begins to turn white or silver. Somewhere between 12 and 15 years old, they reach their full size and can now begin to compete for females. They are now considered a silverback.

Humba's son poses for the camera.

Who is Humba?

Read this post.

While the specific make up of each gorilla group is different, gorilla groups are led by a dominant silverback. It isn’t completely straight forward and there’s a lot that is going on that we can’t see, but it seems that females choose who to follow. Remember, these are highly intelligent primates. Dominant silverbacks will usually tolerate other silverbacks in their group either because they are their sons, but occasionally they will also tolerate non-related silverbacks in the group- it is after all advantageous to have a strong coalition when they do encounter other gorilla groups to help guard the females from being abducted or convinced to join the other group.

Silverbacks are very protective of their groups and will display and act violently towards perceived threats including lone males and other gorilla groups.

How do you tell the difference between a male and female gorilla?

It is actually quite difficult to tell the difference between a young male and young female gorilla unless you see the penis. Gorillas have internal testicles so you can’t go by that visual cue either. However, adult gorillas exhibit sexual dimorphism (the fancy word for males & females looking different)- mainly in size and the obvious “silver-back” of a fully mature male. An adult male gorilla can weigh more than 155 kg which is almost twice what a big female weighs (80kg). If you could look at their skulls, you’d also see that the males have bigger skulls with a very pronounced sagittal crest. This is the attachment for the chewing muscles. They also have fairly large canines.

What is a gorilla’s life like?

Babies are born after a 255-day gestation period. They weigh about 2kg at birth. Twins are sometimes born, but it is very stressful for the mother and they rarely survive. 18% of infants die in the first six months- and the mortality is higher in the wet season because of respiratory diseases. Another 16% will not make it to 3 years, but after that they have a good chance of surviving to adulthood (8 years).

Females mature at 7-9yrs and usually have their first baby at 10. From then on they have babies about every 4 years for the next 20 years.

When males mature, they will often leave the group they were born into and join small groups of males or become solitary hoping to start their own families. Mature females also leave the groups they were born into and either join other groups or solitary males to form new groups.

What is a typical day on a gorilla trek?

Usually somewhere between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. small bands of trackers and rangers head out to find the gorilla groups. They do this regardless of whether any tourist is going to visit for monitoring purposes. Because the gorillas tend not to move that far, the trackers head out to where they saw them last and begin tracking from there.

Meanwhile, back at the ranger’s station, you are waiting for the registration process to begin. You’ll have your permit in hand and you fill in your details including passport number into a book and then sit down to wait for a briefing. It is fairly simple in Virunga, because there are fewer groups, and fewer people visiting, so you all sit in one room and the head ranger explains gives a short explanation of the gorilla groups and which ones you will visit. When you are ready to go, the rangers distribute facial masks and ask you to sanitize your hands.

At this point if you would like a porter to help you with your bag (and hold your hand on the slippery slopes) they are waiting outside ($15 fee per porter paid directly to the porter). You can also buy a walking stick for $10.

Once this is done you head off on the walk. The rangers have a fairly good idea of how long it will take to get to each gorilla group so you head off through the fields adjacent to the park to one of the numerous paths that enter the forest. When you enter the beautiful forest you head along a network of paths to where the trackers have found the gorilla group that you will visit. The trek can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours. You leave your bags and take only your cameras. I recommend carrying an extra camera battery and memory card in your pocket because you will likely take a lot of photos and video. You will don your mask and slowly approach the mountain gorillas. The rangers will vocalize to the gorillas to let them know that everything is ok and you will begin your 1 hour with the gorillas. This is non-negotiable, but if you want to spend more than 1 hour per day with gorillas, and have a relatively good fitness level - contact me. In my experience, the rangers are keen to get you in good photographic opportunities so sticking close to them often gets you in the best places. Your hour will go by fast. Then it is time to head back to the ranger post where your trek ends.

Sometimes all you need is an iphone and a cool hat.

How should I behave in front of the gorillas?

  • Be silent in the presence of the gorillas.

  • No smoking

  • No eating or drinking

  • Do not stare or point directly at the gorillas

  • NO FLASH photography

  • Follow the guide's instructions/actions.

  • Move slowly and calmly

  • Should the Silverback charge, do not run.

  • Keep behind the guides.

  • No children under 15 in Rwanda, no children under 12 in DRC (non-negotiable)

  • Wear the surgical mask provided by the rangers in the presence of the gorillas.

  • Gorillas are highly susceptible to most human diseases and if you are knowingly carrying a contagious disease (especially flu) please DO NOT attempt to trek. This is because they are so closely related to us: read this awesome article about how close we are.

How fit do I need to be and what if I can’t walk?

This is one of those questions where the ideal fitness and minimum fitness are going to differ greatly. Mountain gorillas are found above 1,800m above sea level (5900ft). The forest paths are uneven and can be slippery- and any given group could be from 500m to more than 10km from the ranger post. Of course it is very unlikely that you will find that all the groups are deep in the forest or far away- the shortest walk I ever did in DRC to see Humba was less than 200m, but I’ve also walked for 3hrs with fit people to get to a group. The rangers will take your fitness or ability to walk into consideration but you should be able to walk a couple miles and be able to deal with some hills. If you are unfit, definitely hire a porter to hold your hand. Remember, a lot of it is in your mind. If for one reason or another you cannot walk, but would like to see the gorillas, it is a great opportunity to inject some cash into the local economy. Many of the villages in DRC are inaccessibly by car so the people have large woven baskets called Kipois that they use to carry people who can’t walk (or royalty) to roads. It costs $250 to be carried to a gorilla group.

What should I wear for the gorilla trek?

The key things to think about when packing for Rwanda or Congo are as follows:

  • There is a high potential that you will encounter wet weather,

  • The trekking can be slippery and steep and you may need to scramble over fallen log.

  • There are stinging nettles in the forest that can be quite uncomfortable when brushed against, and there are safari ants known locally as Siafu that can also be unpleasant.

The essentials to wear:

  • Strong waterproof walking boots

  • Wicking sock liners and hiking socks- it is really useful if you can pull your socks up over your long trousers to prevent ants from crawling up your pants. Gators can be very useful as an option.

  • Long sleeved shirt (or risk nettles)

  • Long trousers/pants helps with nettles.

  • I often just wear my rain-pants over shorts.

  • Sunscreen SPF 30 or more

  • If you need glasses or wear contacts carry an extra pair of glasses

Things to have in your day pack:

  • Warm fleece

  • Rain jacket/ ponch

  • 2 spare batteries & 2 extra memory cards

  • drinking water

  • high-energy/protein snack

  • personal pertinent medication

  • valuables like passport and money

Additional optionals:

  • Insect repellent (Avon Skin So Soft is an effective insect repellent) but there are few biting insects that you will encounter in the forest.

  • Binoculars (not necessary with the gorillas) but if you like birding there are some spectacular birds

  • Garden gloves

What camera lenses should I take?

This is always a little bit of a tricky question to answer because it depends on the type of photo you are looking for. I only use my iPhone which also takes good video but is quite limiting- I can’t get the close up of the eyes etc. If you are a wildlife photographer and you have two camera bodies you’ll want a 24-70mm and a 100-400mm lens. If you can only have one of the above- the 100-400mm lens will be most versatile. The ability to open up the aperture and lets as much light in will also be very useful in the forest which can be quite dark. There is always a chance of rain when you’re with the gorillas so make sure you have a way to keep your cameras and equipment dry. There are some awkward but nifty rain-jackets for cameras that allow you to continue taking photos when it is raining.

You’ll be surprised how many photos you take so make sure you have plenty of memory, spare batteries and a way to back your photos up.

The other thing to consider if you are a serious photographer is that during the one hour you spend with the gorillas, you’ll only have a fraction of the time when the conditions are right for the photo you’re looking for- whether it is light, gorillas posing, or whatever you are trying to capture. This makes it essential to do more than one trek. Furthermore, you’ll often spend the first 30-45 minutes just getting used to the shooting conditions.

What are the difference between visiting the gorillas in Rwanda & DRC?

  • There is no difference in gorilla behaviour between Rwanda and DRC except for the natural difference between individuals and groups.

  • The maximum number of people per trek in Rwanda: 8

  • The maximum number of people per trek in DRC: depends on the gorilla group size- 4 if the group has less than 10 individuals, 6 if the group has more than 10.

  • Minimum age in Rwanda: 15 yrs

  • Minimum age in DRC: 12 yrs

  • Cost of gorilla permit in Rwanda: $1,500

  • Cost of gorilla permit in DRC: $400 high season, $200 low season (contact me for low season dates).

  • Obligatory to wear a surgical mask in DRC for the protection of the gorillas.

  • More accommodation options in Rwanda

  • Rangers speak better English in Rwanda

  • Registration process in Rwanda is done by your driver/guide

  • Registration process in DRC is done by yourself

  • Habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda: 10

  • Habituated gorilla groups in DRC: 8 but only 6 accessible from Bukima

 
The Gorilla Story Part II. A Brief History of the Gorilla Groups in DRC.
 

If we needed a species as an icon to represent the conservation of Virunga National Park, in the DRC, it would be the Mountain Gorilla, or Gorilla beringei beringei, as it is known to taxonomists. In fact, it could be argued that without Mountain gorillas, the National Park, established in 1925 and formerly known as Albert National Park, wouldn’t exist today. Paradoxically, it was two collectors of gorillas for museums that recognized the unsustainable collection of Mountain gorillas. Charles Akeley who collected for the New York Museum of Natural History, and Prince William of Sweden with their prominent connections were able to lobby the Belgian King and gather international support to establish the protection of Mountain gorillas.

The gorilla story in DRC takes us back to 2 legendary silverbacks, Zunguruka and Rugendo who each led a habituated group of gorillas on different ridges in the forest behind Bukima ranger post. Both were habituated in 1986.

A white board in the rangers office at Bukima showing the group make up. Key: SB: Silverback, BB: Blackback, ADF: Adult Female, SUB: Sub-adult, Juv: Juvenile, Beb: Baby.

Current lead Silverbacks in the six groups accessible from Bukima Ranger Post:

Kabirizi group: Kabirizi

Bageni group: Bageni (Kabirizi's son)

Nyakamwe group: Nyakamwe (Humba's brother, son of Rugendo)

Humba group: Humba (Son of Rugendo)

Rugendo group: Bukima

Munyaga group: Mawazo (& Kasole)

Two stories:

Rugendo

Zunguruka

If all of Rugendo’s sons are his, he could potentially be one of the most successful silverbacks to have led a gorilla group. At the time that he led it, it was a large group of 18 individuals. His son's names are highlighted in bold-italic.

Rugendo was tragically assassinated on the 15th July, 2001, in crossfire between warring militias, however, his genetics and legacy live on.

Rugendo had many sons:

  • Mapuwa

    • Left his father’s group in 1998, with two females.

  • Humba

  • Nyakamwe

    • Humba left with his brother Nyakamwe in 1998. In 2014 they interacted and split into two groups.

  • Senkwekwe

    • Senkwekwe took over the group, though as a young silverback he lacked the strength and experience to keep the group intact. Some of the females left, joining his brother’s group Mapuwa. Senkweke was murdered together with five other gorillas in 2007.

  • Bukima

    • (not Rugendo’s son) Is currently the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group. Kongoman and Baseka are both with him.

  • Kongoman

  • Baseka

  • Ruzirabwob a is a solitary silverback.

  • Zunguruka got his name from the habit of walking in circles. He had two sons, Ndungutse and Salamawho took over the family when Zunguruka died of old age.

In 1994, a wild silverback showed up on the scene and fought with Salama and Ndungutse. He did not win, but the wounds he inflicted on Salama eventually killed him leaving Ndungutse as the sole silverback.

The wild silverback was named Kabirizi.

In 1997, Ndungutse was assassinated. His sons Buhaya and Karateka took over the group, and after a series of fights, Karateka ended up as a solitary silverback.

At this point, Kabirizi returned to the scene and killed Buhaya. The females however refused to follow Kabirizi and were led by the oldest female Nsekuye.

At this point Munyaga, a lone silverback entered the scene and took over the group being led by Nsekuye. It wasn’t long before Kabirizi challenged Munyaga, this time winning and taking with him all the females. Munyaga remained with a small group of sub-adult males. Then in 2007 he went missing during a surge in rebel activities. At that time, Mawazo led the group although he was still a Blackback. He eventually matured and was able to acquire females of his own with his brother Kasole.

Kabirizi continued to succesfully lead his group that grew to 36 individuals. Then in 2013 he suffered a blow when his son Bageni, who had grown up to become a formidable Silverback, challenged him taking with him 20 individuals, including his mother, brother, and 2 sisters.

 
A Short Visit to Virunga (Nov 2015)
 

As a guide who spends most of his time in the classic savannahs of Tanzania in some of the world’s most wildlife rich national parks, the DRC offers a very contrasting but equally stimulating experience

A few iphone photos of the incredible vegetation on Nyiragongo.

Among the incredible life forms are these Boulenger's pygmy chameleons. A rare and special find.

There are few places in the world with as spectacular and diverse landscapes, habitats, and wildlife as Virunga National Park. Laid out along 300km of the western arm of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, it spreads from Lake Kivu through volcano fields (two of them still active), past Lake Edward and the equator, past the glacier-covered Mountains of the Moon, and ends eventually in the  Semliki valley to the north. Such diverse geography lends itself naturally to diverse habitats home to an incredible variety of mammals, birdlife, and other lifeforms.

Ascending Nyiragongo.

Getting up at night to watch the lava lake bubble and dawn arrive.

From a geological perspective, Virunga’s features are all very recent additions. 30 million years ago, pressure underneath the African continent caused by a series of plumes of magma forced it to bulge and effectively crack spreading southward from the Red Sea as far as Mozambique. As the rifting spread south, it reached a particularly resistant rock formation known as the Tanganyika Craton where it diverged into two arms forming what is now known as the Albertine (western) Rift and Gregory (eastern) Rift. It wasn’t until 12-13 million years ago that the first volcanoes began erupting in the Virunga region, although the 8 most prominent peaks are all younger than 2.5 million years old. Two of the 8 are still active to this day.  The other six are no longer active and their forested slopes are home to some of the last remaining Mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). These large and gentle primates complete the montage of charismatic African wildlife and complement the East African savannah experience.

This short time lapse of Nyiragongo's lava lake in the morning shows its mesmerizing power.

Critically Endangered, there is an estimated population of 480 individuals and growing found in the three national parks that encompass the Virunga Massif (Bwindi National Park in Uganda is also home to a population of about 300). The area that the Mountain gorillas occupy is a very small range of about 450 km2 in the montane and bamboo forests of the Virungas. At present there are 8 habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park.

All of these photos and videos are on Instagram @tembomdogo and higher quality.

 
Volcanoes, Wildlife & Adventure
 

Standing at 3,470m above sea level staring at the world’s largest lava lake makes you feel quite insignificant. It was cold at 4 a.m. and the precipice we were standing on kept us present, but the lava lake itself was mesmerizing We could feel the heat, generated in the depths of the Earth, the deep orange-red lava expressing itself vehemently, sometimes as explosive fountains and sometimes a moving kaliedescope of constantly shifting black plates. Occasionally the crater would fill with smoke and steam and all you could sense was the sound of the incredible deep rumble of the cauldron.

Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo

Standing at the top of Nyiragongo was one of the highlights of a sixteen-day safari that included two mountain summits and a combination of wildlife experiences. We began the safari by summiting Mt Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain (4568m asl). Climbing through the rich forest, through the heath and moorland vegetation zone, and finally onto the alpine desert gave us opportunities to enjoy a variety of beautiful birds including tacazze sunbirds, bar-tailed trogons, and silvery-cheeked hornbills.

A view of the ash cone in the right bottom corner and Little Meru.

An enchanted forest full of birds.

Incredible natural patterns.

The inner walls of the crater. Mt. Meru was once 5200m high, until the crater collapsed like Mt. St. Helens, in an explosion that was 10 times the magnitude of Mt. St. Helens.

Next up was Tarangire National Park. Tarangire is a classic African savannah complete with red soil, gigantic baobabs, and wildlife concentrations around water. We camped in the thick of it, close enough to a water-hole that we could hear elephants drinking, the water gurgling as it poured down their throats. We could smell the buffalo when they came down to drink, and when the lions roared we instinctively held our breath. Tarangire is also special because a tiny extension of the Somali Maasai Biome brings specialties like lesser kudu, fringe-eared oryx, and gerenuk.

The small fascinating stuff on a walk.

A  lion track.

Our next destination was the Democratic Republic of Congo. To get there, we had to fly to Rwanda, stay a night in Kigali, and then drive three hours to the Gisenyi-Goma border crossing. The process hasn’t changed much since 2011 (read about it here), but by lunchtime we had arrived at Mikeno Lodge. Mikeno was our base for the next couple days, and the morning after arrival we drove up to Bukima Tented Camp to trek for gorillas.

A playful gorilla.

A sniffer dog used to catch poachers.

As you know, I place a lot of emphasis on experiences when I design safaris, often more than the level of luxury or comfort. For this reason, visiting Congo is exciting because that is what it is about. Mikeno Lodge and the new Bukima Tented Camp are very comfortable, but more importantly they are well situated for the experience. Gorillas are known to wander through the camp, and recently a group of chimpanzee moved into the forest around the lodge. Strolling around the lodge you can see beautiful colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, l’hoest’s monkeys if you’re lucky, and, if you get up early and head of with the trackers, chimp viewing.

The operational headquarters of the national park are also next to the lodge so you can get insight into conservation including a visit to the gorilla orphanage or the tracker-dog kennel.

The gorilla trekking rules in Congo are also slightly different to Rwanda and Uganda. A mask is essential to prevent transfer of disease from us to the gorillas, and the number of visitors allowed to a group is smaller. The authorities are also flexible and should you wish, you could actually trek to see two gorilla families in one day.

After completing our two gorilla treks, we returned to Mikeno Lodge to prepare for our Nyiragongo ascent.

The ICCN, who places the safety of tourists paramount, had only opened the volcano to visitors a few days before. We would have been the first visitors up the volcano had a small group of UN peacekeepers based in Goma not jumped at the chance a couple days before us. Like Mt. Meru, the climb takes you through rainforest and a heath and moorland zone. It is beautiful, but also steep. At least half of the climb is on the very uneven exposed surface of the lava flow of 2002.

Incredible plants.

The lava lake at 4 a.m. Nyiragongo.

The lava lake at 5 p.m. Nyiragongo.

We returned to Kigali exhilarated by the climb and tired from the lack of sleep. The next morning, we headed to Rubondo Island in Lake Victoria for a night. We should have included two nights on this beautiful island, but I wanted to spend a good three days in northern Serengeti rounding off the safari.

Elephants in Serengeti.

I had hoped to catch the tail end of the wildebeest migration as they headed south, but their early exodus had also drawn with it the multitude of camps and tourist vehicles leaving us virtually alone. As usual, the wildlife viewing was incredible: the cats including a mother cheetah with her four cubs who we watched hunt an oribi for dinner, lions and lion cubs, and to put the icing on the cake, a black rhino strolling across the plains as we spent our last morning before the return flight to Arusha. 

Cheetah cubs enjoying an Oribi. Serengeti National Park.

Organize a multi-country safari including a trip to Congo through www.inspired-journeys.com

 
Congo III: Volcanoes
 

The new volcano from 350m. Photo by Gian Schachenmann

The day before we boarded the Rwandair flight to Kigali en route to Congo, I received a link from a friend equally passionate about adventure to a youtube clip from Cai Tjeenk Willink (the Director of Tourism). It was breaking news: sometime in the evening, on the 6th of November, a loud bang was heard marking the beginning of a new eruption. We’d planned to climb Nyarigonga, the famous active volcano that in 2002 had sent a river of lava out of a fissure on the southern side, down Goma’s main street and covering a third of the airport runway. The volcano itself, at 3,468m, has a crater just over a km in diameter, and in the middle sits the world’s largest lava lake. Our plan was to sleep in the cabanas on the rim to enjoy the night view of the glowing molten rock. 

Driving around the south-east of Nyarigonga, we couldn’t wait to see the new eruption. As we glimpsed the first ash and lava spraying into the sky, we excitedly stopped the driver and dragged pelicases and tripods onto the bank of the road to get photos. Little did we know that we’d have fantastic views from the lodge at Rumangabo and the gorilla camp at Bukima. Upon arrival at Mikeno Lodge, we immediately wanted to know if we could walk in to see the new volcano. The delegation of heavily armed rangers had not returned yet from their safety assessment of the area, so Sarah was hesitant to commit.

The volcano from Bukima ranger post. by Gian Schachenmann

That evening from the crest of the hill, we watched the earthen firework display light up the sky, and we slept to the sound of the repetitive explosions nearly 15 kilometers away.

Three days later, escorted by 12 rangers, we set off as the first visitors to see the eruption. The path was narrow and overgrown and footing precarious as we picked our way over the lava flows from an eruption that had occurred in 1977. I couldn’t help but notice the prime example of succession; lichens covered the 34 year old rock and in the cracks, moss and ferns had started to grow. Other than that, there were a few pioneer shrubs and small trees that were establishing themselves where enough organic matter had accumulated.

Glowing lava. by Gian Schachenmann

Fountains of lava. By Gian Schachenmann

As we neared the volcano, the explosions became louder and our footfalls began to crunch gravel spread by the eruption. The camp was basic, having been carried in the day before when the volcanologist and head warden had walked into the site.  We dropped our backpacks and hurried closer. 300-400m was close enough and we could feel the warmth on our faces. We sat mostly in silence, mesmerized by the sound and sight of the liquid rock building a new mountain. Already in the few days since we’d first sat on the hill watching, a cone had formed. As darkness approached, the explosions became louder and we were showered with light stones. The ambient light faded, and the light from the volcano intensified. We retreated to camp and slept with our tents open, listening and watching as the fountains of lava lit up the sky.

 
Congo II. Mountain Gorillas of Congo
 

Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback. Phot by Gian Schachenmann

In a country devastated by genocidal colonial rule, torn by kleptocracy, warring militia groups, and swamped with refugees, it is a wonder that Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga National Park, has managed to survive. The more time we spent walking around the headquarters, the more I was impressed by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), headed in Virunga by Emmanuel de Merode. The heavily armed rangers who looked more like soldiers were evidence that not everything is peaceful, yet there was an optimistic air that begged us to bring tourism.

The MAN made for a bumpy but fun ride!

We climbed into the back of the 4wd MAN lorry that the ICCN had converted to transport guests on the horrific roads and slowly crawled up toward Bukima ranger post to begin our gorilla trek. The steep, rocky and sometimes slippery 12km road took us nearly an hour and a half to climb, through fields of bananas, cassava, pole-beans, and arrow-root and again, hundreds of children running out to wave. Whereas in most places in East Africa the adventurous route is a chosen option, the route we were on was the only way up the mountain. Wheels spinning and the massive engine straining, we made the last meters to the edge of the forest.

Without the ceremonial briefings of Rwandan gorilla trekking, after registering our names on a random piece of paper, we set off through the fields of potatoes and tobacco that crept right up to the edge of the forest. Startling us, a child ran whooping towards a patch of potatoes, giving us a glimpse of a couple beautiful l’Hoests monkeys as they scampered for safety in the forest. It was fairly easy walking and within an hour we’d reached the spot that would give us the easiest trek through the rainforest to the Kabirizi group that the trackers were monitoring. Compared to Rwanda, the forest trekking was easier. I don’t know how our ranger found the trackers because his radio battery died, but after only an hour we found ourselves with a very large group of gorillas.

Photo by Gian Schachenmann

Mountain Gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant male- an impressive massive animal weighing upward of 500lbs distinguished by the white-haired saddle on his back that earns him the title of Silverback. The pioneer research on Mountain gorillas was conducted by George Schaller, also a pioneer lion researcher in the Serengeti, but their plight was made famous by Diane Fossey and her book, “Gorillas in the Mist”. 

Donning our surgical masks, a precaution to protect gorillas from the various diseases we potentially carry to which they have no natural immunity, we began the precious hour. Kabirizi, a large and intelligent Silverback, took control of the group in 1998 his predecessor was caught in crossfire between the army and rebels. He acquired more females fighting other silverbacks, and now holds one of the largest groups, nearly 5% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas. We followed the family as they moved through the bamboo forest feeding on shoots and young stems, and we were rewarded with some commanding viewing.

With only 820 Mountain Gorillas left, a human disease would be a disaster.

The next morning we found the Humba group (14 individuals) and again enjoyed their calm company for the hour we were allowed. Although there is a minimum distance from which to observe the gorillas, it is sometimes impossible to get out of the way quickly enough should they walk toward you. At one point, when we were backed up against a bamboo clump, I was thrilled at the trust a female showed. Casually walking past us, her tiny baby clinging to her side, she stopped only a few meters away to pull a piece of Sticky-willy that had stuck to the baby’s hair.

 
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)

Beautiful rooms at Mikeno Lodge.

A wonderful breakfast before gorilla day.... stay tuned!