Tyler and Shannon head into the Heart of Darkness, yes, the DRC, to spend a few hours with some distant relatives
1925. That’s the year Africa’s first National Park was founded. Any guesses? It’s almost certainly not where you’d think. It’s not Kenya or Tanzania. It’s not even South Africa.
It’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yep, that Congo – the one you’ve probably heard nary a good snippet of news about in your lifetime. Heart of Darkness and all that. You’re probably thinking ‘OK, but that park must have vanished by now – and even if it does still exist, surely no tourists go there?
Well . . . no, it hasn’t; and yes, they do. We did.
I’ll spare you the historical details (there’s Wikipedia for that), and instead dive straight into our adventures in the Virunga National Park. Joined by friends Henry and Hattie (managers at Mara Plains), and Jeremy and Nikki (Conservation Project Managers of the Big Life Foundation, based at Ol Donyo Lodge), we began our adventure with back-to-back days of gorilla trekking, using the delightful Bukima Tented Camp as our base.
Well before sunrise, I awoke to a noise I’d never before heard, but immediately identified: the rapid pop! pop! pop! pop! of a silverback gorilla beating his chest. Somewhere in the dense forest behind our camp, which bordered the Park, a gorilla family was waking up as we were. This staccato alarm clock, sporadically piercing the pre-dawn’s silence, is a sound I won’t soon forget.
And while we were indeed here in search of mountain gorillas, tracking the family behind our camp, on our first morning’s outing, would be far too easy. Instead we set off on a 3-hour trek (one-way), passing through sorghum and maize fields, before ducking under a fence and starting up a moderately steep, narrow, and (mostly) dry riverbed surrounded by dense jungle to find our designated family. But our hard work was well rewarded, and our sweaty slog was soon forgotten as we rounded a corner and found ourselves meeting the steady gaze of a huge mountain gorilla.
This much is certain: on a gorilla trek, about which you have dreamed for years, and during which you are expecting to find gorillas and so have them pictured in your mind’s eye, you will not be prepared for the moment you finally see one. No matter how prepared you imagine yourself to be, your first thought is “Holy $#!%! What IS that?” before you remember where you are and what you’re doing.
After that initial contact, it was as if we became invisible. The gorilla family continued about their daily routine, serenely foraging for leaves and shoots, while we followed closely yet unobtrusively. I would try, but I simply cannot do justice in describing what it’s like to be an accepted part of a gorilla’s environment as it goes about its life mere feet from you, ignoring your presence. All I can say is that it is National Geographic come to life, in the most immersive and surreal way imaginable.
Our trek the next day proved equally memorable, if a very different experience. After an hour’s hike in the opposite direction, we found a different gorilla family no more than 50 metres within the park’s boundary. After thoroughly enjoying the antics of two youngsters wrestling and twirling through the trees, I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to watch the family melt through the boundary fence, and into the surrounding farmland on a sorghum raid.
While fascinating to witness, it was a sobering reminder of the increasing threat of human encroachment these animals and their habitat constantly face. There are no buffer zones here; the transition from agriculture to primary equatorial montane forest is stark, as is the reality of this species’ endangered status.
Though walking with gorillas is an unforgettable experience, and reason enough to visit the Virunga National Park, the fact is that there is so much more to discover here. Stand by for Part Two next week.
Note from the Editor: This is our third story on the mountain gorillas living on The Virunga Massif (sometimes referred to as the Virunga Volcanoes Range or the Virunga Volcanoes Region), an area spanning 450 km2 and bordering eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), northwestern Rwanda and southwestern Uganda. The first was about the gorilla trekking in Rwanda and the second was about the charming naming ceremony of the baby gorillas, also in Rwanda. This story is by far the most important – the protection of the mountains gorillas in the DRC depends on visitors coming to see them. Please go.
TAGGED WITH: Angama Team, Walking Safari, Mountain Gorillas, Travel East Africa, Gorillas, Virunga Massif, Democratic Republic of Congo