A JOURNEY TO THE VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild was a dream of mine since I saw one of them in a local zoo as a kid. The magnificent silverback, huge and scary, was sitting in his cage looking sad and eating leaves (Gorillas are completely vegetarian). Someone behind me made some noise and he suddenly turned around and stared at me. I remember I felt shivers run down my spine as I stared myself at those big lively, intimidating black eyes. These animals are highly intelligent. They have self-awareness and are capable of complex thoughts. He knew who I was, and he knew he was trapped into a cold cage thousands of miles from his homeland. 

There are only three countries where you can see the last mountain gorillas in the wild: Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. When Valeria and I started thinking about a trip to Africa to see them in their natural habitat, we first thought of Rwanda. A country that despite the horrors of the past have recovered well and was certainly the easiest choice.

While researching for our journey, we came across the website of the Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and almost instantly decided to go there. 

The Virunga National Park at 7,800 km2 is the oldest and one of the biggest parks in Africa, established in 1925 by the Belgian Colonialist Government. It is huge and wild and… it had been closed to tourism for almost 25 years because of the civil war. 

At the time of our visit (August 2014), it had just been reopened. There were still huge problems with the remaining guerrilla rebels, poachers and threats of oil exploitations. We could have been exposed to all sorts of serious and potentially dangerous situations. The park warden, Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian prince who now works as a conservationist, was shot in the abdomen three months before and had barely survived. Many rangers were killed trying to defend the park from these threats.

Everything we read about it was clearly telling us “do not go there” so we very a little anxious in beforehand but decided to go despite all of this. 

Not for the adrenaline rush but to support a piece of our earth which is disappearing.

The DRC is not an ordinary country, even by African standards. If you just show up at the border you have no chance of getting a Visa. 

Even if you got a Visa from the embassy of Congo in your country, you can be denied entry, or have to pay a bribe. Fortunately, the park has an agreement by which they can get special Visas, but nothing is granted and things can change suddenly. 

We contacted the park headquarters by email and followed their instructions on how to prepare the documents needed. We then paid a considerable amount of money via bank transfer upfront and waited for instructions. A few days before our departure our contact told us the applications for the Visas had been accepted by the government. Relief. We could go.

The Trip

The alarm clock rang as usual at dawn, at 4.30. We grabbed our backpacks and went to the airport by taxi. The plane left at 6.40. Torino – Amsterdam – Kigali. We arrived in the Rwandan capital at 7.30 pm. The first thing we did was collecting local currency and then we jumped on a taxi to the Hotel “Inside Africa”, located in the hills near the infamous “Hotel Rwanda”. We were tired and my pinky toe was purple lit (I broke it a few days ago, what bad luck). We decided to eat some snacks and a beer for dinner with a view of Kigali in the Hotel’s small garden. Below us were the city lights, above us the starry sky. Once again we were under African skies. Wow.

Fast forward a few days, after roaming the lush Rwandan countryside we arrived in Gisenye, located near the border of the DRC.

We printed the visas, our applications and all sorts of other documents that allowed us, hopefully, to enter the Congo and we dedicated the rest of the day to prepare for the next day’s departure. 

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Tuesday, August 26th, Border of Congo

After reassembling the backpacks and an abundant breakfast by the lakeshore, we took a taxi to the border. There are two crossings: the Petite Barriere (small border) and the Grand Barriere (larger border). Our contact told us to go to the last mentioned. From here on we were alone. 

We got in line for exiting Rwanda. Simple enough. Then we proceeded to the border to Congo on foot. Once we have reached their checkpoint, a new queue awaited us and police officers were far less polite. We tried to keep a low profile. They checked at our documents with suspicion. Then, after a long wait they finally saw the government seal and had to let us go, but the officer looks were nothing reassuring. 

A park jeep was waiting for us. We got to know Eric, the driver that was going to take us to the Park. The roads of Congo immediately told us that we were in another country. Dust, potholes, confusion, poverty, tension, rifles, tanks, soldiers and Monusco’s United Nations trucks were everywhere. We stopped in Goma, next to the office of Vianneh, which was the park’s ranger that helped us to obtain the Visas. We moved on to the suburbs by jeep and stopped by a garrison to pick up two armed park guards who will escort us to the Virunga Headquarters. We left the city along a dusty and bumpy road.

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In the next two hours, we passed through fields of black lava, villages in bad shapes, UN bases and countless army checkpoints placed in the middle of nowhere. Across the mist and the light rain, we saw green fields and battered trucks, dusty shacks, and forests, bright colors, women carrying weights and children, men with machetes and guns and kids without shoes. The poverty was extreme. This is the DRC. The western world has taken everything from this country: minerals, coffee, rubber, oil and much more. What is left are guns and poverty. It’s very sad to experience this first hand.

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Arrival at the Park Headquarters 

After a two and a half hours ride with frequent stops at army checkpoints we got close to the park headquarters. During the rumble through the jungle, we were always in close radio contact with the rangers at the park who were informing us about the situation. On this very road, just three months ago, someone has ambushed the warden/director of Virunga, the exceptional Emmanuel De Merode, shooting him in the abdomen three times. Miraculously he managed to escape and survive the injuries and returned almost immediately to the command of the park.

After passing through a village near the protected area of the Park we arrived at Virunga entrance. The Rangers greeted us not without a surprised look: the park has just reopened after years and not many tourists came here. In fact, we were told that we were the only guests during our 4 days stay! 

Inside the gate, we passed through another village where the Rangers’ families lived. Then we finally got to the Mikeno lodge. The lodge is in fact inside the park headquarter, with a tent camp of the Rangers placed around it. The bungalow we were staying was beautiful, even luxurious, which is a bit disturbing if you compare it to the worn shacks we saw on the way. But the money we paid (it’s not cheap at all) goes directly to the rangers and to sustain the park itself. We can totally live with that.

We were immersed in the forest. Just outside our door was monkeys of various types staring at us and dozens of centipedes as big as sausages crawling in the lawn! 

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Wednesday, August 27th, Meet the Mountain Gorillas 

We woke up at dawn to get ready to leave for the long trek to approach the mountain gorillas. Two hours of jeep ride with Eric and the inevitable armed guard were awaiting us. From a certain point on, we got to a nearly vertical road that leads to the volcano. It was nothing more than a muddy and rocky path that Eric managed to master, using the lowest gears. He is a truly exceptional driver! 

Around us is the forest, tiny villages of three or four houses, fields of red sorghum, red and yellow dressed women at work looking like spots of color on the horizon. We get fast glances of swarms of children suddenly sprouting from the bush, old men sitting smoking on a log at the edge of a field, women carrying tiny babies, barefoot boys dragging cans of water.

We got to the start of the trek and got ready for the departure. On the clearing around the shack/checkpoint were at least forty men of all ages waiting to see if we would hire them to carry our backpacks. Unfortunately, we had a minimal equipment so we did not need any help. The experience was really tough. Valeria had to go through them, escorted by the ranger with the rifle, to go and pee in the latrines. She came back a bit embarrassed by the experience.

The ranger who was going to guide us, along with 4 other armed men, gave us a briefing to explain what we would see. He explained to us the various families of Gorillas in the area that we could meet. He also gave us strict indications of what should and should not be done when in contact with them. Through radio contact with the rangers inside the forest, they informed us that we are going to meet Humba, the silverback alpha male and his family of 26.

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Observing them, breathless

After two hours of walking in a wild and magnificent forest, intricate and humid, we got to a point when the ranger told us to be quiet. Here there were. The experience was really incredible. At this point as we’ve been told we wore protection masks (to avoid the transmission of germs or viruses), we move silently and circumspectly so we could get closer to them: we had only an hour to observe and follow them. 

The gorillas are magnificent. Humba, the silverback, two puppies, another young adult male, and some females… they all looked at us with curiosity. We watched them breathless. The ranger seemed to communicate with them using noises, like saying “they are friends, they are not going to do any harm”. We watched them eating leaves, play and rest.

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Then they moved a few hundred meters and we followed. They were quiet and peaceful even if the size of Humba the alpha male is really impressive. Their looks are very similar to humans. At one point one of the already huge young males showed off a bit, screaming at us and punching his chest. It was scary. The ranger told us not to worry as the animal was just reasserting his role. 

Who knows what they really think of us. We had to go. We left with warmed hearts and breathless. 

These rangers risk their lives every day to protect these creatures, against all odds. We owed them respect.

After another two hours on foot plus two hours of jeep ride, we got to the lodge full of mud, wet and tired. We had a quick shower and then went to have dinner with friends. One of them was Francesca- an Italian engineer who worked there to build a hydroelectric micro plant. The others were the director of Garambe Park and the Parisian twin-engine pilot! At coffee time Emmanuel De Merode showed up too and we had a nice conversation with him. We were really impressed. He could be living in luxury and instead, he sleeps in a tent to pursue the goal of saving these animals from extinction. 

 

We wish Humba good luck, may he live long and peacefully. 

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Thursday, August 28th, Meet the Chimpanzee! 

The next day we trekked to meet a chimpanzee family which the park rangers were trying to approach to accustom them to the presence of man.  Alexis, our guide, and two armed guards were with us. There were always rifles behind or in front of us, which was a bit unnerving but necessary. The walk was really nice. The part of the forest that we crossed was really incredible. 

We saw giant trees, flowers, monkeys, birds surrounded by all the shades of green. After about an hour walk, we got to see the chimpanzee family. Unfortunately, we did not see them as close as the gorillas. We observed them from a couple of meters away. They observed us carefully but did not run away as they usually do.

Alexis was happy. It took him almost a year to approach the chimpanzees. Within his work are many ups and downs. Alexis works tirelessly nights and days driven by his love to the forest.

He is one of the men really connected to Pachamama. Towards the end of the trek, the weather turned bad so we went back to our lodge. The afternoon could only be spend on relaxing in front of a fireplace. We had interesting conversations over a beer and cigarettes.  

Listening to the torrential rain, along with the sounds of the monkeys hopping here and there in search for food and shelter, made us feel like we were still in the forest.

Friday, August 29th, The Congohound

On the last day we decided to spend the morning on meeting and training with the rangers and the dogs of the Congo Hound Project in Virunga Park. Its goal is to train the highly sensitive smell of dogs so they can easily track down poachers who then can be brought to justice.

We reached the camp and met the team of rangers. They were trained to work with dogs. The team was a really valuable tool in the fight against poachers and firearms trafficking. They explained to us the specifics of their work and training.

The guys at the Congo Hound Project were fantastic. After the theoretical part, we were asked to participate in a demonstration. I had to play the part of a poacher. They made me touch a pebble for a few seconds. Then they placed it in a bag and the ranger and I ran and disappeared into the forest to hide. After more than half an hour walking the ranger left me in a shelter in the forest and went back!  The hound sniffed the stone and started the chase. It quickly found its way following the scent and 20 minutes later the dog found me. We were astonished.

On the way back, we did an exercise with another dog looking for ivory and weapons. The guys were really proud to show us their work and were moved and amazed by their devotion.

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Back to Goma and the Rwandan Border

After telling everyone goodbye we went back by jeep with an armed guard.  

We crossed the border to Gysengi again on foot, took a taxi and returned to our guest house, Paradis Malahide.

We took a shower, drank a beer watching at the lake and the fishermen. We were thinking about all our experiences of the last week, with nostalgia.

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Written by Sigfrido & Valeria

Aguaplano Travel

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