Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Mikeno Lodge
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.

 
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.

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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!