Sunday, 2 August 2015

Mountain Gorilla Trek, Virunga National Park, DR Congo (19 April 2015)

While living in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo is not everyone’s idea of the place to be there are some fantastic benefits like nice climate, being beside a lake (admittedly one we cannot swim in due to methane pockets having the unfortunate effect of rendering swimmers unconscious). All of this is set to a backdrop of a couple of volcanos, including Mount Nyiragongo which last erupted in 2002 causing devastation to Goma and multiple deaths. The volcano has one of the largest lava lakes in the world and the lava levels are increasing at a surprisingly rapid rate. Also it is right near the Virunga National Park which is one of the few places in the world where you can see Mountain Gorillas in the wild.
Several of my work colleagues were keen so we decided to go Gorilla Trekking. When booking we were quoted an amazing 180 US Dollar each for transport on a journey which would be between 45 minutes to 2 hours. While use to being ripped off on a regular occurrence we thought that was a little steep and luckily our work just happened to have some very good four wheel drive vehicles and a boss keen for us to explore out of Goma.

We left early in the morning and drove for nearly an hour covering a massive 30 km on the typical rough roads. At a village we picked up the armed National Park Guards and drove to the Ranger Station. I was very glad we had capable 4WD vehicles as it was a rough road and very muddy in bits. I was driving the front vehicle and needed to use all of my cross country driving skills to keep going. Unfortunately for the driver of the vehicle behind they didn’t have quite as much grip on their tyres and had to have a couple of attempts to get through some of the obstacles. In one mud patch there was no shortage of volunteers willing to help push the vehile out – for a price of course. Eventually we got to a very rough hill and I had to admit defeat so we parked up and walked up the hill the rest of the way to the Ranger Station. Along the way we passed fields full of different types of crops and had a great view of the two volcanoes that shadow Goma Mt Nyiragongo and Mt Nyamuragira.
Very strong ladies with huge loads. We provided entertainment for them by slipping in the mud in front of them

Different types of crops going all the way up the hill in the distance

Thankfully we did not have to climb this hill in front.

Smoke from the volcano Mt Nyiragongo

Slippery and steep
At the ranger station we all filled in our details on the visitor log and were briefed by our guide – in French. This was translated for the two of us that don’t speak much French and we were on our way.

Filling in the register at a Virunga National Park Ranger Station
We walked down a path and then through fields of crops for 30 minutes to get to the jungle edge where we waited while our guide got a location update from the Park Rangers who shadow the gorillas providing protection from the ever present threat of poachers.  
Heading towards the jungle through the crops

Thick mud claims a shoe
Then we were off following a faint path over a steam and then up into the hills. We were fortunate the Gorillas were near the edge so it was only another 30 minutes before we reached the Gorilla Troop. 
Loving the walk through the jungle

Security - whether from animals or the many armed groups, still nice to have some protection

There is a path - sort of, more just trampled bushes
 Here we dropped our bags and donned face masks to protect the Gorillas from catching any sickness or colds from us. I didn’t have to do this when I saw the Gorillas in Rwanda but was more than happy to do this and appreciated the measures they were going to prevent tourism effecting the gorillas too much.

We then walked forwards and enjoyed the next hour watching the family going about their business of eating, sleeping and playing. There was a wide range of ages from very young baby up to the 17 year old Silver Back who was huge. There were a couple of juveniles who were curious and had to keep getting shoed away by the Park Guide. They seemed to think this was a game and would play rough and tumble pretending not to notice us until they got really close and were shoed away again. A different juvenile made a couple of attempts to get closer and seemed frustrated he wasn’t allowed to touch us.

Park Ranger keeping the juvenile away from us



The hour flew by and the Guide led us back to the jungle edge and through the crop fields but we took a different route to get back to the car. This led us through a village and before long we had a group of curious children following us.

Heading back to the car

One of many children curious about us
Back at the car is was a much easier downhill drive back to the road where we dropped off our National Park Guards and we were back home by lunch time.

The epilogue to this is only 2 days later that same road that we drove on had an anti tank mine deliberately laid on it and the team sent to investigate was kidnapped (and later released unharmed). It was a reminder that there is a reason we (the United Nations) are working there and while it is fun doing these excursions we have a way to go to get DR Congo to a state where tourism can be safely developed and bring much needed income to the people.

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