Into the Virunga: Mikey's Gorilla and Volcano Safari

 

This is an excerpt from Mikey's diary, about  his recent safari to Congo and Rwanda to see gorillas and the famous Nyragonga volcano.  

On arrival in Kigali, we are greeted by a very efficient and smart customs official. Everything works like a Swiss clock in Rwanda––no time wasting––and soon we are on our way through the immaculate streets of Kigali, dodging the boda boda motorcycles and pedestrians on the way to the market.

Soon we are travelling through a thousand hills, with terraced cultivation, tea, maize and cassavas. There is not a scrap of rubbish to be seen the whole four-hour drive to Goma––the border with DRC.

The transition of crossing the border between Gisenyi and Goma in DRC is similar to being airlifted from Geneva to Calcutta! From and orderly Swiss-watch-precision to absolute chaos: goats, cows, donkeys, matatus, boda bodas and wooden bicycles called chukadus all colliding in a melee of turmoil that once used to be a main road!

From the forested depths of the African Congo, among the last of the mountain gorillas comes Virunga, an incredible true story of idealistic conservationists, armed militia, and the struggle to control Congo's rich natural resources. A new Netflix Original Documentary, Virunga details the brave people risking their lives to build a better future in a part of Africa long since forgotten.

The colour and vibrancy in Goma is fascinating. It is a stunning compilation of eccentric chaos. There is an air of optimism in Goma that is “happening”, however, once you board the ICCN landcruiser (Virunga National Park Vehicle) and travel North towards Rumangabo – as you get further away from Goma it is like the film “back to the future” where you go back in time 40 years. People live in banana-leaf huts, transport all their produce on wooden bicycles (Chukudus).

On the drive, about 45 minutes out of Goma, Nyiragongo rises to the west. This amazing Volcano erupted in January 2002 covering Goma in 2 meters of lava.

To the East of Nyiragongo is the location of the refugee camp from the Rwandan Genocide, where thousands of Tutsi refugees fled and took refuge in Congo. There is not a single tree to be seen (even though you are in Virunga National Park) because during the genocide, the refugees had to build shelters and cut wood from the park for firewood.

As you approach the Virunga Massif, the collection of volcanoes that for the habitat of 90% of the world's mountain gorillas, the vegetation changes from open savannah to tropical forest. We turn east at Kabati and climb a treacherous road that snakes up the mountain. God forbid if there was another car coming in the opposite direction, as there is only room for one vehicle, with a 500 ft. drop below.

The landcruiser creaks and groans as we climb up the volcano and children from the villages jump on the back of the car to catch a ride. An hours ‘massage” in a Landcruiser is enough for us all, and we are greatly relieved to get out of the vehicle.

We have reached Bukima tented camp, which is a brand new camp right next to the forest edge, where the volcanoes of Mikeno, Karasimbe and Visoke provide a theatrical backdrop to the camp. 

In search of gorillas

The trek early the next morning takes you across the potato and millet fields to the forest edge, the contrast between indigenous primary forest and imported eucalyptus trees from Australia could not be starker.

After a briefing and climbing under an electric fence, we are now in the forest, a canopy of ancient trees covered with moss and ferns, interspersed with bamboo.

The going is very easy at first, as we are at the base of the volcano, but that soon changes and we find ourselves climbing and cutting our way up a seasonal river bed, all the river stones are beautifully round and very slippery! With all the latest gear and walking shoes, the porters make us look really clumsy, dressed in very old and thin wellington bootsthey never seem to take a wrong step!

I feel like an early explorer discovering the jungle for the first time. The humidity from the rain the night before and the heat is now getting to us, but luckily the guide takes a deviation out of the “slip and slide’ run into the forest, cutting through ferns, lianas and bamboo. Out of the thick mesh of forest two rangers appear like magic––a relief to our tired legs. We are near the gorillas!

Dumping any unnecessary equipment and food we adorn our facemasks so as not to transmit disease to the Gorillas and follow the guides into the thick forest ahead.

There is a cracking of branches and bamboo ahead, and my heart starts to race with anticipation, and suddenly a juvenile gorilla bounds out of the bamboo above and mock charges, just to show you who is the boss, and then at the last second veers off into the undergrowth and completely vanishes!

The scene that awaits could not be more tranquil. The silverback lying on his back fast asleep, with all the juveniles and females lying around eating and playing in an open glade in the sunshine.

A blackback can be seen eating high in a dombeya in the canopy above whilst another silverback is being harassed by the infants. Eventually, we all put down the cameras and just enjoy this amazing privilege of being able to spend time in the presence of such amazing creatures, so gentle and human-like.

Suddenly the Virunga guide informs us that it is “time”. An hour has passed. It feels like five minutes and we reluctantly have to leave our new friends. We all tear ourselves away, taking one last photo, but we have been changed forever! Something within us has been grounded! 

The drive to Mikeno lodge at the Virunga NP headquarters was a welcome relief. The lodge is a little oasis in a sea of human habitation and cultivation. A wonderful canopy of trees provides refuge for Sykes monkeys, baboons, vervet monkeys and a habituated troop of chimps as well as a variety of birds.

 

These spectacular thatched cottages provide a refuge and a comfortable bed and nice hot bath to clean up after a morning of trekking through the forest.

Up Nyiragongo

After a good nights sleep, we head off again to Nyiragongo to trek up the volcano. We arrange 8 porters and 7 heavily-armed rangers to escort us up the Volcano. 

Each person is given their “load” as well as a meagre bottle of water and a few sweet bread buns, and off we start trekking up the Volcano.

Almost immediately the workout starts: from a treadmill at a low speed, to a treadmill at full incline, to a step machine with very large interval steps. Soon we are sweating profusely…. and in need of a break! We get to an ancient lava flow, which is truly amazing, with old trees and tree trunks sticking out of the lava where they were buried.

The lava screen is like walking on rugged cricket balls. The incline gets steeper as you enter into the rosewood forest, overlooking the crater that engulfed Goma, this then turns into sheer lava rock interspersed with Groundsels and lobelia. As we grapple up the last push to the summit on our hands and knees, the huts on the crater rim never seem to get any closer.

Eventually we make it to the top…. What a relief!

The clouds, mist and smoke fill the inside of the crater below, hiding the bubbling molten mass beneath. As darkness sets in the temperature drops considerably, we are sitting clad in balaclavas and gloves waiting for the view to clear. Suddenly the wind direction changes and the crater clear below- the molten lava bubbles and billows igniting flames and shifting below like huge tectonic plates. A Virunga park ranger gapes into the crater below for the first time.

"It looks like the devils house,” he says. I have never been to hell but this is definitely what one would imagine it would look like.

A tough night ensued…. cold and wet in a pop tent – consequently we did not get too much sleep.

Dawn was a welcome relief…. now for the trek down! 

Mikey Carr-HartleyComment