Discovering Virunga

Linda Fox

21 дек 2017

NWS Linda journeys to the drc and Africa's oldest national park

Established in 1925, Virunga National Park was one of the first places inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, back in 1979. Its diverse range of habitats has produced exceptional biodiversity - including one of the last remaining populations of the critically endangered mountain gorilla - as well as an active chain of volcanoes and the world's largest lava lake. Following on from her trip to the Republic of Congo earlier in the year, our resident gorilla expert Linda headed to the DRC to discover what makes Virunga so special.

Day 1

Try not to get too much of a shock as you leave the tarred roads and orderly farms of Rwanda, and cross the border at Goma into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not even 100 metres in, somehow the earth itself looks darker; the mud is dark, almost black. Chaos: bicycles, motorbikes and handmade scooters all race around the pothole-studded surfaces masquerading as roads. Porous, ragged, black volcanic rocks form dry stone walls and are strewn around everywhere here.

Poverty is very present, not even a little masked. A small boy is sheltering from the rain - rather unsuccessfully - against the side of a wall, balancing on the sharp rocks. While I’m waiting for my driver, who has disappeared into the Virunga Ranger Station, the children are getting bolder the longer he takes, the bravest one approaching me and shouting "mzungu, mzungu", before more join in with shouts of "mzungu, biscuits" - they are asking for biscuits! After what seems like an eternity, the driver returns with the two armed rangers who will be accompanying us today, and the children scatter.

The roads here are the worst I've ever seen, with giant potholes. The vehicle I’m in plunges in and out of them, dodging motorbikes and trucks as we rush to get to the camp before dark. We reach Bukima Tented Camp just as the darkness starts to set into the already overcast day, an arrival which comes as a very welcome respite after a very long day. Following a delicious dinner, a hot water bottle and comfortable bed awaits.

Day 2

The mists have cleared and the sun shines on our breakfast table set up in front of the main tent, looking across the magnificent Virunga National Park to the not-so-distant volcanoes, Mikeno and Nyiragongo. After a breakfast of homemade bread, goat butter and omelettes we head to Park Headquarters, only about a five-minute walk away from the camp. Our guide today is Julian, who briefs us on the mountain gorilla families of Virunga as well as what to do and what not to do when we are with the gorillas.

There are nine gorilla families and a total of 123 gorillas in the park. Today, we are tracking the Humba family. We set off on foot through the fields of runner beans and potatoes that have been planted in the black volcanic soil, punctuated by piles of rocks. The children here come running out shouting "mzungu, bottle", and Julian explains that they like to take the empty water bottles, fill them and pretend they are tourists!

To enter the area where the gorillas are we have to climb under a makeshift wire fence before plunging into the dense undergrowth. The paths here are not well-trodden, making our progress slow, as we slip and slide and push our way through the vegetation. Once Julian indicates that we are nearing the gorillas, it's time to put on our facemasks.

The Humba family are sitting in the sunlit undergrowth. This family has two silverbacks, brothers who often fight for control of the family, but one remains dominant and for now all is peaceful as the group go about their daily business of eating, grooming each other and sleeping in the sun. Just being here in their presence is unbelievably moving - their mannerisms and expressions are so similar to our own. The one large male is sitting alone looking pensive and a female is breastfeeding her youngster while keeping a close eye on where we are.

The family moves on through the forest, pulling vines and climbing trees as they go. One large male climbs a tree much too small to hold his weight and the entire tree breaks and crashes into the undergrowth. We follow them as they walk up a narrow rocky gorge. The one young male climbs into a hole in the side of the gorge, and it looks like he is eating something. Julian explains that he is licking the mud there, which is salty. He climbs out of the hole and sits looking back at us, his fat belly giving him an almost Buddha-like pose.

Julian indicates us to move back against the side of the gorge to let the silverback pass, who is bringing up the rear of the family. Passing within only about a metre of us, he follows his family as they disappear into the undergrowth. Very sadly our visit with the Humba family is over, and we have to leave them be to continue their lives in Virunga. The guides and rangers here really do risk their lives to protect these wonderful creatures that we have been privileged to spend time with.

About an hour's drive from Bukima lies the luxurious Mikeno Lodge, its beautiful wide deck looking through the tops of the trees, down the hill and across the misty expanse of Virunga. I’m treated to a really delicious dinner of local ingredients, with plantain, cacao and coconut very present in most dishes. There is great steak on offer but this is also a vegetarian’s paradise thanks to the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Wi-Fi is excellent, and I’m very happy to settle in to a comfortable chair next to a crackling fire and relive the day’s gorilla tracking through my photographs, and share the experience with those around me. Another crackling fire is warming my lovely spacious room. There’s also a huge bathroom with separate bath and shower, with hot and cold running water. What more could anyone possibly need after a day’s gorilla tracking!

Day 3: At Mikeno Lodge

Virunga looks after their own. Within walking distance of Mikeno Lodge are the gorilla orphanage, widow’s workshop and kennels for the anti-poaching Congohound patrol. Not to mention one of the most spectacular market gardens I've ever seen that provides fresh vegetables and fruit to Virunga's lodges, staff and various programs.

There is safety and sanctuary here for all. Gorilla orphans who have been injured by poachers, abandoned by animal traffickers or been lost by their families find refuge at the Senkwekwe Centre, while the widows and children of the rangers who have lost their lives while protecting this very special place are provided for at the widows’ workshop.

The workshop is a happy place - the ladies here laugh and joke together while they make all the clothing and sewn items you find in the curio shop, while their children play and sleep around them or on the wide patio. The walls of the workshop are covered with stars, each with a name written on it that marks a ranger who has fallen, one of the ladies’ husbands.

The Congohounds project is also based here, a team of bloodhounds who are being trained by Dr. Marlene Zähner to be Congo’s first man-trailing programme in Virunga National Park. This is an amazing project to help protect the gorillas and local injured rangers quicker. They offer demonstrations, and as the dogs are nearing the end of their formal training we look forward to getting updates soon from Virunga about their progress.

Day 4: Second Gorilla Trek

I’m heading back to Bukima this morning for my second gorilla trek! Kabirizi is the family we are tracking today and Jean-Bosco is our guide.

Kabirizi has three silverbacks, four adult females, seven sub-adults, one juvenile and three babies, a total of 18 individuals. Jean-Bosco and our rangers lead us out through the fertile fields once again, between the homesteads where there children are asking for bottles, to the forest edge.

The Kabirizi family is very near, only a 15-minute walk into the forest from Bukima. Jean-Bosco stops us in our tracks and gets us to very quickly mask up. There is a juvenile in some dense foliage less than 2 metres away. We are guided past quickly and quietly into an open clearing where a slightly older baby is twirling around in the sunlight, showing off and then running back to the adult females sitting in some nearby shade. The baby is feeling bold and again rushes forward and up a tree right next to us, where he has a good vantage point to look down on us.

We search for the rest of the family and find a silverback lying in a tree hammock of vines and leaves, only his face visible, looking a little disdainfully at us. Leaving him to his slumber, we push through some thicker bush and find another group of the family with a baby eating some young shoots of bamboo. The baby is watching us as much as we are watching him - he shows off a little by beating his chest before continuing his lunch.

Sadly our time is up and we need to now leave the family in peace.

Day 5: Ascent of Mount Nyiragongo

Waking early at Kibumba and sitting looking at the volcano I'm going to be climbing today over morning coffee... not at all intimidating...

At the trailhead are the makeshift offices, shared by goats looking for shelter from the sun, where you sign in, give your permit number and meet the rest of the group. The porters for this trail cost US$24 per porter and unless you are seriously super fit, this is the best $24 ever spent.

Our little group is quite a mixed crew, ages ranging from very early 20s to mid-60s, and all with varying levels of fitness. I was middle of the age range but at the lower end of the fitness levels…

This is a tough trek and steep, but you go as slow as the slowest person in the group, “pole pole” - slowly slowly, as they say in Swahili - and have a lot of stops on the way. The scenery and volcano itself is fascinating en-route, as you move from the hot and humid forests of the lower slopes where sweat flies are buzzing around, climbing slowly up to where the vegetation gets shorter and shorter. Our path is the hardened, black and brown lava flows created during the 2002 eruption, swirls and eddies frozen in time under our feet. That we are climbing an active volcano and not a regular mountain starts to become a reality.

The climb continues to get steeper and the vegetation is becoming more scrub, with everlasting flowers between the rocks. The lava flow is older here and the porous rock is crumbling, making the climb a scramble over loose rocks. The huts we will be staying in tonight seem very far away, hanging on the rim of the towering volcano.

We take almost the full six hours to reach to rim of the volcano, and before I even get there, I can feel the heat from the lava lake emanating from over the edge, the sound of the roaring lava filling my ears. This is as close to “here be dragons” as I have ever come: It sounds like a giant engine down below, roaring and moving and changing constantly. The smoke moves around with the wind, occasionally enveloping us. To say this is a moving experience would be a serious understatement, it’s emotional on so many levels. Just to be this close to lava!

Before it gets dark we take a moment to settle into our huts (there is no electricity or running water and headlamps are very advisable). There are camping mattresses and pillows covered with thick plastic to protect them but the huts are a very welcome shelter from the wind which is getting very chilly. Dinner is cooked for us in the mess hut (meals must be pre-arranged), with us all gathered around a bowl of hot coals upon which rests the cooking pot. A dinner of vegetable soup and pasta is very welcome, and we spend some time warming up and exchanging stories in the hut.

It’s dark now, so the glow from the caldera is stronger, and we head back to the ragged edge of the crater to watch the lava glowing in the dark and take some nighttime photographs of what to me looks like the exposed pulsing heart of the earth.

Back to the huts now to snuggle into a warm sleeping bag and get some sleep in preparation for tomorrow’s decent.

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