Friday, December 4, 2015

Gorilla Trekking in the DR Congo

My heart was racing as I stood in line at Immigration on the Rwanda side, waiting for my papers to be stamped. It was 5:30 pm on a Friday, and the line to enter Congo before the border closed at 6 pm was easily 60 people long, all equally as impatient as I was to get across. As the minutes passed, the line lengthened,  it became increasingly evident that not everyone would make it through the line and the tension was visible. Several people tried to cut, although angry shouts in Swahili and Kinyarwanda, and sometimes shoves, usually put them back in their place.
            After the immigration officer questioned my intentions to go to Congo, my papers were begrudgingly stamped, and I proceeded across the rickety bridge over the Rusizi River that leads to the second largest country in Africa. Right next to the rickety wooden bridge lies a fancy blue, two-lane, paved bridge that was completed about two years ago, but has never opened to either foot or vehicle traffic. Rumors say that the agreement was for both Congo and Rwanda to refurbish and straighten the roads leading to the bridge on their side of the border. Rwanda, rule-abiding to a T and with signs saying things like “Together We Prevent Corruption!” lining the way to the border, finished their side of the road around the same time as the new bridge was built. Congo has yet to keep up their end of the deal since someone managing the project was rumored to have taken the funds, so the now two-year old bridge remains closed. If only they had more enthusiastic anti-corruption signs lining the road to the border...
            I headed into the Congo immigration office, where several Congolese police officers stood outside smoking cigarettes in faded blue fatigues. Once I entered the small immigration office, a large photo-shopped picture of the Congolese head of state, Joseph Kabila, stared back at me. The immigration officer was surprisingly friendly, and thanked me for coming to visit his country in slightly accented English as he looked through my American passport.
            My friend Lotte met me at the border in a car, and we headed to her home in Muhumba, one of the five fingerlike peninsulas of Bukavu. It was drizzling slightly, and the potholed roads were filled with muddy puddles. I couldn’t help but notice the increased security as the evening light faded, with high brick walls topped with half of yard of barbed wire or electric fences surrounding each house like a fortress. Lotte and I arrived at her house, where elegant crowned cranes strutted about a well-manicured garden. 

Lotte’s parents were visiting from the Netherlands, and I got to know them in between staring at the sun slipping in between the ribbons of sapphire-hued mountains beyond Lake Kivu.

             We ate a satisfying Congolese meal with grilled fish, lenga-lenga (greens), rice, and ugali, as well as some chocolate Lotte had brought back from the Netherlands. I fell asleep on the couch at some point after eating and awoke to the sound of dishes being washed awhile later. I decided to keep sleeping on the couch, but when the sound of mosquitoes buzzing in my ears became too loud for me to sleep, I pitched my tent in the middle of Lotte’s living room and slept inside of it instead.

The Gorillas

The next morning, we all woke up early to head to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a massive forested park just an hour outside of Bukavu. 

The driver picked us up, then we switched drivers, and then proceeded through the crowded streets of Bukavu towards the park.

            The streets were bustling with uniformed schoolchildren, who actually study on Saturdays, various small-goods vendors, and throngs of brightly-painted mini-buses with the convoyeurs standing out of the open doors yelling out the final destination to attract potential passengers. 

We passed the harbor, where fishermen were bringing the night’s catch and where large passenger boats were setting sail for Goma, at the opposite end of the lake.

Our nostrils filled with the smell of fermenting grains as we went by the Congolese Bralima brewery, which provides the area with its supply of the ubiquitous Primus beer, and whose counterpart Bralirwa brews the same beverage on the opposite side of the lake. The walls of the brewery were painted with the rather strange slogan of Primus Bralima, “Toujours Leader”, or “Always Leader.” Our driver stopped the get gas, and I watched as a Chinese truck with an unimaginable number of dirty yellow jerrycans piled high on top of it spewed clouds of black smoke as it sputtered by. The driver said the jerrycans were used in the palm oil trade. The palm oil could be collected from large plantations a few hours from Bukavu, and brought back to the city, where it was sold.

            The road to Kahuzi-Biega followed the lake, and was pretty well paved for most of the trip. We cruised through several small villages and a couple of barricaded police checkpoints, one of which we had to pay a “fee” at to get past. I was speechless at the beauty of the Congolese countryside. One of the things I miss most living in the most densely populated country in Africa is true wilderness. No matter where you are in Rwanda, unless you’re in a National Park, you can always spot people around. The land is parceled out into millions of tiny fields, like a patchwork quilt covering the rolling hills in maize, beans, bananas, and sorghum. I started to get choked up just gazing at the untamed, vast expanses before me.

            At the turnoff to the Parc National Kahuzi-Biega, named for the two highest peaks in the park, the road began to get a bit more rough, although not unmanageable. There was a statue of a gorilla with faded and chipped paint among the few buildings on the compound.

 I took a short walk around, and saw the grave of the Belgian founder of the park, as well as a sign in French designating the park as World Heritage Site, although two of the metal plates making up the insignia were missing.
We went inside to the visitors center, where several men were building the floor. I wasn’t sure what hike I wanted to do (Lotte and her parents had already planned on visiting the mountain gorillas), and inquired about the various options, and eventually decided to stick with my friend for the gorillas hike (which was amazing in and of itself---in Rwanda gorilla trekking permits are around $700, and they usually have to be bought weeks if not months in advance).
I chatted with on of the rangers in French about what I did in Rwanda and how long I’d been there. I mentioned that I first came to Rwanda with Corps de la Paix, and the ranger had a soft look on his face. He said he remembered the days when Peace Corps was in what was then Zaire, and that there was a teacher at his school who was from Peace Corps and that the program was well-respected. He asked how many Peace Corps Volunteers are in Congo now, and I had to tell him that there weren’t any, since the wars in Congo in the 1990s. The ranger asked when we’d return, and I said I couldn’t tell him. It made me feel so proud that he had such a positive experience with Peace Corps, and it made me really sad that I couldn’t assure him that the organization would be back soon.
We had some tea the staff brought to us and some waffles we brought from Lotte’s house for breakfast next to a table full of gorilla skulls. 

We listened to a short briefing from one of the rangers along with three people I knew were Belgians before they told us. The ranger introduced himself in French as “Juvenal, the alive one from Congo and not the dead one from Rwanda“ (a reference to the former president of Rwanda, whose death in an airplane crash prompted the beginning of the Rwandan genocide).

Juvenal gave a short history lesson, showing us a picture of the Belgian founder of the park, and large photo of the first ranger of the park, a man by the name of “Monsieur Pillipilli Pygmee” roughly translated as “Mr Spicy Pygmy.” Juvenal also showed us a massive map of Kahuzi-Biega. All of the trails were concentrated in a smaller area in the southeast; the rest left unexplored. It was astounding.
After the briefing, the seven of us and a couple park rangers piled into a beat-up pick-up truck to drive to the trailhead on a dirt and gravel road with dense rainforest all around it. 

I knew I was no longer in Rwanda when a few motos with passengers and drivers who were not wearing helmets, and up to the three or four people were crammed onto it, passed us on the way to Kisangani (Rwandan law dictates that only two people, the driver and one passenger, can ride a motorcycle, and that both must wear helmets). The motorcycle passengers and drivers seemed shocked to see white people and would crane their necks trying to get a glimpse, and in one case the driver crashed into a ditch because he was trying to see us and wasn’t paying attention to the road.

2 out of 3 passengers with helmets gets a thumbs up from Papa Lambert
After maybe half an hour of driving, the truck stopped. A guide who introduced himself to us as Papa Lambert met us, and although there was no trailhead, we began to hike on a narrow path through the jungle. Papa Lambert walked in front, and a guard wielding an AK-47 walked behind the seven of us. The forest was thick, and the path was occasionally slippery. After we’d walked for forty minutes, Papa Lambert stopped us in a small clearing. His face was somber as he cleared his voice. In French, he said that military groups used to use the clearing as a small base during the Congo Wars in the late 1990s, attacking traffic on the road from Bukavu to Kisangani, and killing both the animals and some of the guards in the park. I had so much respect for the guards and guides of Kahuzi-Biega. Papa Lambert had a sense of pride and dignity about him mixed in with the twinge of sadness in his voice, and I instantly respected him.

We continued on through the rainforest for perhaps an hour and a half total, and finally Papa Lambert turned to us and said we were approaching the family of gorillas. He handed out surgical masks “so we don’t catch the gorillas’ diseases, and they don’t catch ours”, we put dutifully put them on.

There were perhaps twenty gorillas in the family, including a massive silverback and several playful young gorillas. 

There were only seven of us, plus the guards, and we got to be within a few feet of them. It was magical. 

The young gorillas goofed around, swinging from branches and even wrestling each other. 

Some of the parents groomed and picked insects from their young’s hair. And all of them ate bamboo shoots and other plants. 

No pictures and no description does it justice, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

We stayed with the gorilla family for a couple of hours, which seemed to fly by, and then made the trek back to the road, where our truck was waiting. 

More guards came back with us, and the back of the truck was very full. I sat next to one guard who was no more than four and a half feet tall, who wore bubblegum-pink rain boots, and another who was carrying a Kalashnikov with a slightly rotting wooden barrel that was duct-taped together, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his ability to use it, if it was needed.

I sat and stared at that gun as we bumped and bounced down the rough road. I wondered where it was made, who had brought it Congo, when, and how and why. During the Congo Wars? Maybe even when Mobutu was president? I could only guess. I thought about all of the people that might have carried that ancient-looking gun, and tried not to think about the people at the other end of it. I wondered what that gun had seen. 
I was jolted from my thoughts when another large truck carrying hundreds of dirty yellow jerrycans and quite a few passengers piled on top as well came barreling up the road, towards wherever the palm oil was coming from.

We made it back to the main compound, and then Lotte, her parents, and I got back in our car to head back to Bukavu.

 I had my head out the window the whole time, taking in the small villages with little shops and wooden bars, rows of sugarcane lined up against houses, children playing football, clothes drying in the breeze, and then once again, the hustle and bustle of Bukavu as we reached the city’s limits in the late afternoon.

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