Return to the Congo

Will Bolsover

05 Oct 2016

PART ONE - Eastern DRC

24hrs of travel, two planes, one 4x4 and one boat. London - Nairobi - Kigali - Goma - Bukavu. It has to be said, you can do the journey much more comfortably, but I'm short of time on this visit. I've been meaning to access Eastern DRC for a while now, the last time I was here was about 12 years ago and it has to be said this is one of my favourite corners of Africa. This is the heartland, this is where it all emanates from, this is the Rift, the Congo Basin, the oldest National Park, the most ravaged region. DRC at the same time has it all to offer and nothing at all. Insecurity has bled this region dry, through mineral exploitation, through militia, through politics and through colonialism. My hope on this visit is that I can make some sense of this heart of Africa.

As border crossings go, this was remarkably simple. My fixer (in fact two turn up to help!), has me through from Rwanda into DRC in less than 20 minutes. A quick stop in Goma and then to the 'port' where I meet the fast boat to take me south across Lake Kivu to Bukavu and the region of South Kivu. 

Fully equipped with brand new life jackets, a sandwich and soda provided, this is not the DRC I remember!

Three hours later, I arrive into Bukavu and am met by my fixer. Whisked away through the chaos of the city (population of 1 million), we dodge our way through the myriad of people, cars, cattle and more, to the tranquility of the Orchids Hotel, situated looking out over the calm waters of Lake Kivu. Set up decades ago, Orchids is an institution in itself, meeting place to local officials, home to NGOs, safe haven to adventurous travellers, the walls of the Orchid have seen it all, as have their owner a Belgian gentleman named Mark, who now sadly due to ill health, is no longer running the show.

An early start and we set off at 0730hrs westwards to the park of Kahuzi-Biega. One and a half hours later we arrive at the park HQ having passed numerous UN vehicles, a UN outpost and the everyday goings on of the happy people of Congo. The last twenty four hours have been remarkably peaceful, with no hassle, no feeling of insecurity and no threat of problems.

A pleasant welcome and briefing with Lambert the head of tourism for the park - it turns out we remember each other from my visit 12 years ago - I set off on my first tracking of the endangered Eastern Lowland Gorilla. Remarkably (or maybe not so remarkable considering I am in Eastern DRC), I am the only person to track the gorillas that day. If these amiable primates were anywhere else, the permits to track them would be twice the price and you would be waiting a year to secure availability. The reputation of the DRC precedes it however and I am fortunate to have the day to myself.

Accompanied by my guide and an armed ranger (there are still poachers in the region whilst most militia are further west these days), we set off at a pace through the forest. I have to say, I couldn't think if anything better. It is a long time since I trekked through rainforests, but this is where it all started for me really, a couple of borders away on the opposite side of the Congo Basin in the forests of Gabon.

Three quarters of an hour later and we meet with the trackers who have set off early that morning to gauge the location of the gorillas. 

WITHIN MINUTES I AM STANDING ONLY A FEW METRES AWAY FROM A 250KG SILVERBACK NAMED CHIMANUKA. 

His family consists of 25 individuals who slowly emerge from the bamboo thickets and trees around me to investigate who we are. Last time I saw Chiminuka was 12 years ago when he wasn't quite so relaxed in the presence of humans, this time however he doesn't give us a second glance. We have caught them during their morning grazing so they are on the move, eating fresh young bamboo shoots along the way, leaving a path of freshly chewed shoots in their wake.

As it turns out, gorillas vary their diet more than I realised. January to May they focus on the fresh young leaves that the forest provides, June to mid-August fruiting trees take the brunt of their rumbling tummies, and come September to December, it is the turn of the juicy fresh bamboo shoots that we now encounter strewn about the forest.

Our hour with these gentle giants is over much too soon. An hour that I have spent all alone with some of the most rare and endangered primates left on our planet. No other tourists, just me and my trackers. It may sound like nothing, but this is such a privilege. Name me one other endangered species that you could spend time with with no other tourists in tow in today's world ... believe me, you will struggle.

TO TRACK AND SPEND TIME WITH NATURE'S MOST HUMBLE SERVANTS IN A WORLD THAT IS NOW OVERLY ACCESSIBLE, IS UNHEARD OF. 

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla that can be found in South Kivu is the only population in existence in the world. It is found nowhere else. With 3 habituated families in this park, the rangers and park authorities have their work cut out for themselves. They are under pressure from the local population, from mining, and to a certain extent from militia. The focus for years now has been on their cousins the mountain gorillas found in Northern Kivu, Uganda and Rwanda; their population has grown. The Eastern Lowland gorilla population has been decimated with hardly anyone batting an eyelid. When I visited last there were estimated to be at least 10,000-15,000 of these individuals left. Now, approximate estimates lie in the region of 3,000. The most protected area remains the 'haut' (high) area of the park where you find 12 monitored gorilla families, with 3 of those being habituated to the presence of tourists. It is thought that this area is home to approximately 700 individuals. The remainder occupy the Bas (low) region of the park. A region that is more exposed to mineral exploitation and where the local population are still to truly understand the benefits of the park and its inhabitants.

From here we continue on further west to a primate sanctuary named Lwiro. Established in 2003, this sanctuary is home to primates that have been taken by poachers, that have been caught in traps or that are being traded for 'goods'. Set in the middle of nowhere, Lwiro appears to be doing remarkable work. I am told they rescue upwards of 6 primates each month and rehabilitate them in the sanctuary to then be returned to the wild. Lwiro is now home to to approx 64 chimpanzees, plus baboons, Matisse monkeys, vervets and more. At a cost of $54/month to feed one chimpanzee alone, Lwiro is in dire need of support, something that with only a trickle of tourists, will help hugely.

Returning along the lake shore, we make our way back to the welcoming chaos of Bukavu. A quick beer on the terrace overlooking the lake, food and bed. Tomorrow it's a 0500hrs start and a boat back north to Goma and the next stage of my journey.

Part Two - Goma

0530hrs start and a three hour boat journey back up the lake to north Kivu and Goma. I'm met on arrival by the ever faithful Chide (local fixer) and his boss (to chat business). We stop for a coffee in the maybe overly confidently named 'port' and then I set off with Chide for a tour of the town.

If you haven't ever visited Goma before it is hard to describe. This town has a population of over 1 million, is located in one of the most stunning locations alongside beautiful lake Kivu and is towered over by the ever present live volcano Nyiragongo. The town itself has been ravaged by numerous wars and militias and has paid the price for being located in reach of Nyiragongo when the 2002 eruption ripped through the town.

The lava flow now forms the foundation of multiple houses and shops creating a uniquely bizarre backdrop to what would usually be a hugely successful tourist hotspot.

I have to confess to feeling a little more twitchy in Goma than Bukavu. There is a huge UN presence here (the largest deployment in the world), and large wealthy houses located along the lake-shore are enshrined in rolls of barbed wire. Locals go about their business happily, however they have seen years of brutality in many forms. Whilst all reports speak of a calmer period for the moment, Goma is sadly an epicentre of corruption in the form of western foreign aid, military presence and political interest.

Enjoying a lunch in the lovely Lake Kivu Hotel I then catch a quick boat provided by Virunga Park to their newly appointed camp on Tchegera Island. A short 20 minute hop later, passing by the lakeside mansions of the wealthy and the essential President's lakeside retreat, I am warmly welcomed at Tchegera.

My few hours of free time are spent exploring this quiet retreat which turns out to only be 1.5kms long with its horse shoe shape stance looking out to Mt Nyiragongo in the distance.

As the night comes, the clouds clear and we are lucky enough to see the orange glow of the lava lake below the crater rim, and plumes of smoke slowly drifting skyward. Tomorrow I climb to the top!

An early start and boat ride back to Goma where we pick up some provisions - staff, food, chocolate croissants from the bizarrely good local bakery - and then set off out of town making our way north. Picking up our warden along the way who ensures our safe passage, we soon arrive at Kabite the starting point for our climb. Two fellow climbers are already there and following a quick bag reshuffle and equipment check we set off up into the tree line. The climb is relatively easy (but does get your legs after a while) as we wend our way through volcanic forest, up lava flows and through giant lobelia fields. Our guides point out to us along the way the various pressure points where the lava erupted in 2002 and then disappeared back underground again, only reappearing on the surface as it entered Goma town miles away.

A relatively easy climb of four and a half hours brings us to the summit and the huts which will be our home for the night. In eager anticipation we make our way the extra 15 metres to the crater rim and look down into...a lot of fog! Okay, not the mind blowing experience I was expecting. Our false dawn is soon alleviated though as the wind blows through and we get glimpses of the lava lake below, and then it clears. A huge pool of bubbling lava reveals itself to us in the crater floor, popping and hissing as it seemingly gasps for air in its own molten cauldron. On closer inspection you can see lava waterfalls spewing from the rim, mini explosions bubbling to the surface, veins of lava cracking their way across the encrusted lake. The show only increases in intensity when we return to the crater rim following a storm accompanied dinner. Now engulfed by the pitch black night, the lava lake takes on a menacing presence, bubbling and spewing away, flicking molten rock into the air struggling to contain itself.

It's a remarkable living breathing thing that perfectly embodies the power of our natural world.

I write this as it approaches midnight - I've already been in bed for hours - perched in my hut on the crater rim with the rain falling down and the occasional pop of thunder in the distance. Stepping outside for some fresh air (and a quick toilet break) I look up, captivated by the orange glow of the furnace to my right ... and wee on my foot. Night!

Part three - Rumangabo

0520hrs and Maradonna my cook and confidante for the period of the climb wakes me with a knock on my hut door. I pull on some warm clothes and my well worn boots and emerge into the fog filled sky of Nyirangongo. I'm welcomed in the cooking hut by a warm mug of tea and an omelette having already made my way to the toilet which is accessed by a 45 degree slope with a rope attached securely so you can semi abseil your way to one of the best loo views in Africa.

By 0620hrs we have already set off back down the path towards Kibate and our awaiting vehicle. A much quicker three hour descent means by mid-morning we are already bumping our way further north along the road to Rumangabo and the principal Ranger Post HQ for Virunga Park. Whilst the town of Goma still permits some glimpses of wealth, our roadside view for the next hour is of a people that have seen it all. Houses become less robust, children become less dressed and the Congolese military become an even more regular interruption of our journey. Even though this region has been beset by unrest for decades, the people are remarkably resilient and continue to go about their day with a smile on their face.

Rumangabo Ranger post is large, much larger than one would imagine. You enter into this compound and at once feel secure. Winding your way past rangers at work, past garages of park vehicles, houses of staff, the central office, the canine unit and more, you eventually arrive at the peaceful setting of Mikeno Lodge. Set amongst the trees with views out over the forest below, Mikeno is a veritable oasis in the chaos of this region. It is from here that it all happens - a visit to the gorilla orphanage, a display by the canine unit, a trek to see the gorillas or a climb of the volcano.

Rumangabo is the beating heart of this region and the future of tourism for Congo.

My afternoon is spent firstly with the widows of the fallen rangers who are now setting up a cooperative sewing clothes and uniforms firstly for the local staff with the hope of later developing this into a profitable enterprise. Later I visit the canine unit, where I am treated to the sensory powers of the bloodhounds and springer spaniels that are trained to track down ivory, bullets, poachers and more. Only slowly do you begin to see the vastness of this operation that whilst wanting to bring stability to a National Park, is now vested in everything from local cooperatives and tracker dogs to security and tourism.

The next morning is another early rise as I set off for my gorilla tracking at Bukima. A one hour drive east and then north brings you into the park as you wind your way into the foothills of the Virunga Volcanoes. Briefed on the plan for the next few hours, we set off firstly across thickly farmed fields and then into the dense forest of the Virunga Volcanoes. A three hour trek brings us to within reach of our family for the day. Donning our face masks (to prevent the spread of disease), we meander our way the last few metres through thick vegetation to the feet of a huge silverback who is lying prostrate, hand over his eyes, having a snooze in the mid-morning heat.

The next hour is spent following the family of approximately 15 individuals as they play, eat and snooze their way through the jungle.

Two silverbacks provide the focus for the group, but the star is a playful toddler who curiously peeks his head round vines and tumbles off his mothers back as he seemingly shows off to his new found admirers.

As with all these visits, the hour is up too quickly and we wend our way back through the forest and patchwork fields to our waiting vehicle and escort back home.

The remainder of the day is spent at the gorilla orphanage with Andre, a man of recent fame since the release of the documentary film Virunga. We chat through the issues that he faces raising orphaned mountain gorillas in a caged environment that they do not traditionally survive. We watch as his orphans play mischievously seeking the attention of their human friend. Like Lwiro that I visited earlier in the week, this sanctuary is a welcome safety net for some of the regions endangered primates. I just hope that as Virunga continues it's good work, there is less need for these institutes rather than more.

Part Four - Lulimbi

Another early start...but this time, I hop on a small Cessna and am flown 30 minutes northwards to the open plains of Lulimbi. Located only 5-10 kms further north than the Ishasha Wilderness Camp on the Ugandan side, I am intrigued to see what this area has to offer. Tourism in 'modern' DRC revolves around the mountain gorillas and rainforest, so to be one of the first people to experience a more traditional safari experience in DRC is quite exciting in itself.

Return to the Congo by Will Bolsover


The area itself has been heavily patrolled for the last six years or so now. Whilst the road is still not safe to travel, the plains have started to fill with savannah game, from Topi and Ugandan kob, to herds of buffalo and, if you are lucky, some magnificent elephants. Lulimbi Camp is located on the bend of the fast flowing Ishasha River (the far bank of the river is Uganda) consisting of eight en-suite tents and a comfortable mess area, affording views out over pods of twenty plus hippo dotted along the rivers winding course.

My afternoon is spent out on the plateau with Chris, the Camp Manager. A picturesque plain with views down over the floodplain of the Ishasha River and over into Uganda, we bump our way round this forgotten corner of Africa. I'm pleasantly surprised by our findings as whilst not the same standard of the likes of the Mara or Serengeti, Lulimbi offers the beginnings of something truly extraordinary. Our afternoon is topped as we round the last corner back to Camp, to find a lioness with four cubs lying peacefully out on the edge of the open grassland, casting a watchful eye over a herd of unsuspecting waterbuck. With this only being the second sighting of lions in the last six months, this bodes well for the future of Lulimbi.

My next morning whilst waiting for my flight back to Rumangabo, I settle on my veranda and watch the hippos go about their business. Black and white colobus monkeys play in the trees that line the opposite bank of the river.

Just as I think it can't get any better, a herd of elephants emerges from the forest down river, wading through the flooded muddy waters, up the opposite bank, and away into the forests of Uganda.

My return flight to Rumangabo is short and sweet, being flown by the Chief Park Warden Emmanuel himself. The last time we had met was approximately 16yrs ago, in the forests of Gabon whilst habituating Lowland Gorillas. Times have changed however and Emmanuel is now the vital cog in the machinery of Virunga National Park, bringing a park teetering on the brink back into the fold.

Return to the Congo

Follow Will's trip and see additional images on his own Instagram channel. Get in touch with us if you would like advice on planning your own pioneering safari adventure.

Other Trip Diaries By Will

Comments

CARINA @ NATURAL WORLD SAFARIS

10/10/2016 9:38 AM

Thanks for sharing this compelling and evocative telling of your journey,

Sam Tibbetts

8/10/2016 7:17 PM

Visceral, heartbreaking, breathtaking. In boxing terms, the DRC is pound for pound my best travel experience. Your blog wonderfully captures the experience, including the initial feeling of "oh that was not in the pictures" in respect of the fog at Nyiragongo followed by the slow and dramatic unveiling. However, I noted that you omitted the, let's say, punchy aroma of the gorillas!

Arabella @ Natural World Safaris

8/10/2016 10:18 AM

A wonderfully written account, really enjoyed reading it and can't wait for more!

Rachel @ Natural World Safaris

6/10/2016 3:03 PM

Great read, thanks Will!

Sherrie Jahedian

6/10/2016 3:01 PM

What a wonderful insight into your trip Will - never thought you would bring a tear to my eye! Happy travels.

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