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.