The baby gorilla climbs to the top of a flimsy tree and giddily glides down it, his weight bending in half the trunk, which is just a few inches wide. He steps off and the tree catapults back to its original position. Fascinated, the 3-month-old does the same thing again, and again. Until he turns his head and sees something far more interesting — us.
We stare at each other, only a few feet apart, with no barriers between us. For a few seconds, no one makes a move. Then the gorilla breaks the tension by reaching out for a branch and sticking it in his mouth. He munches away, his eyes still on us, and I realize that this is no dream.
For the longest time, visiting the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park has been a fantasy for most people. Unlike in Rwanda, where more than 25,000 tourists go gorilla trekking annually, political instability kept the number of such visitors to neighboring Congo in the 500-1,000 range for the five years before 2012, when war reduced it to zero.
Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa, established by the Belgians in 1925, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It boasts glaciers in the north, tropical rain forests, savanna and active volcanoes and is home to about a quarter of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. But up until last year, it was also occupied by rebel groups that have killed more than 140 rangers in the past decade, a statistic that is less than reassuring for most travelers, no matter how adventurous. Even with the fighting on pause, only the Mikeno region, in an area that covers more than 2 million acres, is easily accessible to tourists.
Before arriving in August, what I knew about war-ravaged Congo (also known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was what anyone with access to the Internet knows: Civil war. Sexual violence. Child soldiers. There’s not a single person who thinks that my visiting this country is a good idea, least of all my family. My mother is worried about the gorillas, my father about the guerrillas and my grandmother thinks that I’ll come back with Ebola — even though at that point, the cases in Nigeria are more than 1,000 miles away. My friends are convinced that I’ll find a nice warlord on Tinder and end up chained to a (non-working) refrigerator.
But once I arrive in Goma, the location of the country’s most recent conflict, what I experience isn’t a sense of danger or hostility. It’s pure chaos. Every road — most unpaved and lined with lava rock from the volcanic eruption in 2002 — is swarming with cars, people, motorcycles and wooden bikes called tsukudus, which are used as expertly balanced wheelbarrows to transport literally anything. I watch my friend Caitlin, who works here with a humanitarian organization, expertly dodge people who dash across the road as if they’re playing real-life Frogger, and seriously admire her nerves of steel.
The outdoor market is a sea of hands as vendors try to direct your attention to the goat meat hanging from the beams in the ceiling, to fresh fruit, vegetables, souvenirs, you name it. Everyone on the street is selling something, whether it’s credit for your cellphone or a colorful coffin. Electricity comes and goes. Warm water is a rare luxury that appears at random times in the day — or not. With almost no infrastructure in place for anything, even the simplest errand quickly turns into a project. In this place, man makes plans, and Congo laughs.
After the chaos of Goma, Mikeno Lodge in Virunga is a welcome reprieve. An hour and a half outside town, the main lodge greets you with absolute silence, apart from the occasional birdcall or the rustle of monkeys overhead. Built with the help of funding from the European Union, Mikeno Lodge has 12 private bungalows with tall ceilings, each with its own fireplace, as well as a bathtub and a shower where hot water is plentiful. The black millipedes that find their way into your room remind you that you’re in the jungle, not a zoo, and the baboons that dash across your front lawn send the same message, only louder.
The lodge is also home to the world’s only orphanage for gorillas that have been targeted by poachers or traffickers. Because Caitlin and I arrive late in the day, the four orphans currently at the lodge are no longer playing outside, so we get a private tour of their cage. We wear surgical masks to protect the animals from germs and stand so close that we can almost touch them. I take a step toward the bars to take more pictures and get a stern warning in French. I don’t understand the words, but the tone is impossible to misinterpret: Stay back.
At sunrise the next day we take off for Bukima, where our gorilla trek will begin. To save $200, Caitlin and I decide to drive our own vehicle and follow the park’s Land Rover. Driving up the hill, we discover that this isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had. The stress of driving up the rocky path — which isn’t so much a road as a set of tire marks on the ground — is made worse by the fact that our car’s continuously pursued by kids from the villages along the trail. They laugh and shriek as they try to touch it. I turn around, my eyes widening when I realize that we’re driving with a young boy clinging to our spare tire. We grind to a halt to yell at the kids, which results in two minutes of reprieve before they’re back. I may be freaking out, but after a week in the Congo, I’ve come to realize that no one here fears mounting a moving vehicle. This country has turned surfing the freeway into a national sport.
Only a few feet before reaching the park gates, our car indicates that it has trekked far enough. We have a flat front tire. Caitlin and I must both look pretty inconsolable, because the rangers do everything they can to reassure us that everything will be fine and offer to change our tire while we do the gorilla trek.
Into the jungle
There are four of us trekking today, and we’re being split up. The two other tourists will trek to see the Humba family, which consists of six individuals, and Caitlin and I will join two rangers up the ridge to see the Kabrizi and Nyakamwe gorillas, who have recently joined forces to form a family of 28. (In Rwanda, similar treks can be made by up to 80 tourists a day, split into groups of 10.)
After a briefing in French about wearing a mask around the gorillas, staying about 20 feet away, stepping back if one approaches and crouching down if we feel threatened, we start making our way through potato fields and cornfields, past villages where the adults greet us with a shy “Jambo,” and their fearless kids bounce up and down, letting out a shrill, “Bolbo! Bolbo!” “Does it mean white person?” I ask our ranger, Oskar.
“It means water bottle,” he smiles. “Don’t give it to them. They’ll just end up fighting each other.”
About an hour after entering the park, we’re at the edge of the jungle. We hike up a riverbed, relying on the kindness of our two rangers to help us leap across puddles that come up to their knees. The gorillas we’re tracking keep moving farther away throughout the morning, and three hours in, we’re still climbing up the hill. But then, we finally meet up with the three rangers who left earlier this morning to track them for us, and they tell us to put our masks on. We follow them past a row of trees, crouch down and follow the direction of their pointed fingers.
At first, it’s hard to make out exactly what we’re seeing. It looks like a hairy black ball with loud grunts emerging from it. It turns out to be two adult gorillas that have each other in a headlock. We just stare. I want to pull out my phone, but I suddenly have no idea what I’m allowed to do. The gorillas continue to wrestle, oblivious to their audience. That 20-foot distance we discussed seems to have become more of a suggestion than an order, but if the gorillas decided to charge us, would it not be over in an instant? The rangers all appear calm. One mimes taking photos, so we whip out our camera phones, frantically snapping picture after picture, as if this experience will somehow make more sense in retrospect.
We move around the wrestling duo to watch the catapulting baby gorilla. His round black eyes stare into mine for what could be three seconds or an hour. Our stalemate ends when he takes a few steps toward us and reaches out his hand like any curious child. This is where you’re supposed to step away. Awkwardly, we back into the heavy brush, where a ranger is already using his machete to whack open another path for us.
Around the macheted bend, we see another six members of the family. Transfixed, we crouch in silence. Even without being told to use your indoor voice near the gorillas, every instinct you have is to be quiet. The 3-month-old is now bouncing on the belly of an older gorilla, but the suspicious little thing is keeping an eye on us. Two other gorillas are picking fleas off a silverback, who’s sprawled out, belly up, like a Roman emperor being tended by his servants.
The adults pay no attention whatsoever to us, yet we can’t take our eyes off them. The silence is occasionally broken by one of the guards grunting “Ahh hrrmmm” to the gorillas. The gorillas grunt back. There’s a relationship there, and a trust built over several years that allows for strangers to safely make this incredible visit. “Ahhh hrmmm,” seems to mean “All well.” And in this moment, it is.
After an hour, it’s time to turn around. We return to our car to disappointing news: The spare tire has a nail in it and won’t make it down the mountain. We’re forced to abandon the vehicle overnight while the tire is repaired. Taking the park’s transportation back, we arrive at Mikeno Lodge for an unplanned second night, deflated, defeated and exhausted. The money we saved by taking our own car was now going to be spent on a second night at the lodge and transportation back to the car the next day. So much for our great economizing.
But at the lodge, we’re met with unanticipated kindness. “We must all take part in this . . . comment dire . . . malheur,” says lodge employee Cyprien, offering us a steep discount for the night. He may have just taken pity on two stranded strangers, but more likely, like everyone else here, he knows what it feels like when the Congo laughs at your plans. All you can do is laugh with it.
So for one last night, as we sit around the roaring fire in Africa’s oldest national park, sipping red wine and recounting the magic of the day’s adventures, we all take part in this so-called “misfortune,” and it suddenly doesn’t seem like much of a punishment at all.
Rizzo is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.themonkeynews.com.
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KLM and Ethiopian Airlines offer one-stop flights from Washington Dulles to Kigali, Rwanda. Several other airlines offer two-stop flights from Dulles. From Kigali, a taxi to Gisenyi, at the Rwanda-Congo border, costs about $100-$120. Once you have walked across the border to Goma, pre-booked transportation to Mikeno Lodge is available for $122-$174 per vehicle through visitvirunga.org/getting-there.
All U.S. citizens require a tourist visa from the Congolese immigration service. With a prepaid gorilla trekking permit or a hotel booking, visas can be applied for online.
Rumangabo, North-Kivu , Congo
011-243-99-128-0312 or 011-243-99-392-6033
Twelve luxury bungalows with lounging area and fireplaces, soaking tubs and stone showers. Meals are served at the main lodge. Rooms for $244 single occupancy or $325 double occupancy. Prices include breakfast.
The lodge will arrange chimpanzee treks, tours of local coffee plantations and visits to the gorilla orphanage.
Virunga National Park
Gorilla Trek, $465 for trekking permit, plus $116-$174 for transportation to Bukima. Treks, accommodation and transportation can all be booked through the Web site.