21st – 23rd July: Caritas Hotel, Goma, Congo
For the first time on this trip, I’ve decided to use an operator. Doing a DIY in Congo, (unless you have contacts) would be folly – no insurance cover, corrupt police expecting bribes, red tape, no maps or road signs and unsafe. I, therefore, used Kivu travel; they came up with reasonable quotes and Laini at Kivu Travel was most helpful and went the extra mile for us. Our itinerary was initially just one night in Goma (the border town of Gisenyi) and close enough to Virunga National Park for the mountain gorillas. We then decided it would not be right to miss out on the Lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Beiga Nat. Park and we also included that in our itinerary.
We were picked up at Inzu Lodge and escorted through the border to Goma, in the Congo. Goma is quite a contrast to sleep Gisenyi in Rwanda. It’s a busy, bustling, colourful and interesting city of 1 million people. There we were met and driven to our hotel, Caritas, on the edge of Lake Kivu. I can’t recommend Caritas, staff were surly and unhelpful and we had no hot water in our room! (we had to use another room for showers). That said, the place was full, probably due to the heavy UN presence and a vast number of NGO’s and charities operating in the area. Considering the poor quality of this hotel, it was grossly overpriced. From my experience, this seems to be the case in most places where there are NGO’s, charities and UN operations i.e. hotels and guesthouses charge excessively as they know there is no other option.
Anyway, we spent the afternoon at the arts centre, Marche des Artes as I’m a sucker for African arts and much of it comes from Congo and West Africa. We picked up some really nice old pieces at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in South Africa, although it did take a fair bit of haggling. The key mode of transporting goods in Goma is the Chikadu – it’s basically a huge scooter (the type you had as a kid) with huge springs that allow them to carry huge amounts of just about everything! I have included a pic of one so you understand.
This is my first time in the Congo. It is full of UN troops, some in armoured vehicles and none of them very friendly looking. It’s a stark reminder that this is volatile area and has been a flash point in recent times. There are high-security UN bases all over Goma. Our driver informs me that the last time Rebels stormed the city, in 2012, the UN did nothing! I don’t wish to give you a history lesson but eastern Congo was the scene of a mass exodus of refugees from the Rwandan genocide; they poured over the border in their hundreds of thousands. This was the catalyst to ignite the mass genocide in Congo. From 1994 to 2004, 4 million people died in fighting. In fact, various factions and rebel groups that escaped from Rwanda are still active and creating fear and instability across eastern Congo……..some are even active in the National Parks, creating a nightmare for conservation, wildlife, and tourism. For me, it seems a twisted irony that Rwanda has miraculously recovered from its genocide, has embraced its conservation efforts, protected its wildlife, built a successful tourist industry, allowing the gorilla population to grow considerably; meanwhile, next door, you have its antithesis! The mess that started with the exodus from Rwanda’s civil war has created a cancer from which it has never recovered. Poverty, instability, lawlessness, crime, extreme violence and fighting have left an irreparable scar on the nation. The Congo has by far the largest and richest National Parks in the region, yet they are off limits for most (due to the above) and tourism has suffered heavily. National Geo and Netflix both recently covered both Virunga and Kahuzi-Beiga and provided a well balanced and informative narrative on the state of play for eco-tourism and wildlife in the region. It’s very sad as it has the potential to be a beacon of eco-tourism with vast areas of prime forest and jungle; to lose it would be an environmental disaster.
It was an early start to get to Bikuma, HQ of Virunga. The road to Virunga was bumpy, to say the least! It’s about a 2-hour drive through villages with homes made from wooden planks, as opposed to the mud we have been used to elsewhere. We passed a few markets en route and what captured my attention was the women dressed in colourful traditional costume, quite a contract from the second-hand western clothes that most Africans wear.
Bikuma is in the south of the Virunga mountains. It’s safe for tourists and the head of the Virungas is doing an incredible job of preserving, creating employment, sharing revenues with the local communities and driving new initiatives, such as hydroelectricity, which will benefit everybody. Rwindi, in the centre of the Virungas, used to be a thriving tourist centre but has been closed since 1994 and now unsafe due to bandits operating in the area. It’s even under threat from oil exploration companies. One such is a UK company, Soco, that has been accused of inciting trouble by arming bandits and further destabilising a fragile ecosystem.
Anyway, we received our briefing from the Rangers and I was most pleased to see that all the groups were full i.e. there are eight habituated gorilla groups and each is assigned four people per group. We were joined by a fun brother and sister couple, Ralph and Kirsten from South Africa. It turned out that Ralph knows a good friend of mine in Johannesburg! It certainly is a small world.
There were few guys looking for a job as porters for the day. We were last chance saloon for one of them, Kai. He asked for a job, I said: “how much?”…….he said, “$10” (although I gave him $15). “OK, you’re on”. He was so elated and totally transformed, it meant so much to him, you’d have thought he’d won the lottery. Emma was touched by all this emotion and almost burst into tears!
Our Ranger Guide was Richard and we were assigned the Munyanga family. It has three Silverbacks. The Boss Man is Mawazo, (lying on his side and close ups) then there is Gasore (he’s the one pictured climbing the tree) and Kadogo (he’s the balding one). There are 11 in total, including a brand new baby of one-month-old. Not a bad a mix!
We skirted the edge of the park, and when we entered it was real Greystoke stuff! Huge trees, vines everywhere, huge ferns, cycads and undergrowth tripping you up every few steps! Oh, and birds singing everywhere. It’s a spectacular wall of tropical vegetation, wherever you look. The hike was tough, we were hacking our way through the jungle on the trail of the gorillas. We reached them after about an hour. My first sighting of a gorilla, through all the vegetation, was this black ball of fur just sitting there on the ground, quite surreal. The Rangers were great, they chopped down the surrounding vegetation so we could get a good view of the whole family and ensured we didn’t get in their way! Mawazo was lying on his side, one of his females grooming him. Nearby was the female with the one-month-old baby, whose hairstyle is like Little Richard (see the pics, I’m not kidding!). They are just such gentle giants and there’s complete harmony across the group. We stayed with them for well over an hour and watched them playing, climbing, grooming, eating and……….farting, sorry but they’re really big farters these gorillas. I was in awe, put me to shame 🙂
There was a one-year-old, swinging from the vines that took exception to us. He stormed at us, beating his chest and baring his teeth (see pics). Everyone, especially the Rangers just burst into laughter, it was a very special moment that I’ll never forget. We got very close to the gorillas but the Rangers instinctively knew when to pull us back, for instance, they knew the path the gorilla wished to take and would make sure it was clear.
I think the photos tell the whole story and save me a lot of words! The time flew by and it was time to say cheerio to the gorillas. Many superlatives have been used to describe the experience and emotion of meeting up with our closest cousins, so I’m not going to repeat them suffice to say – all of them justified.
I was just so pleased that we’d decided to see the lowland gorillas as well. Once simply wasn’t enough – more, please!
For more info, please take a few minutes to read the following……..