24.07.2012 - 24.07.2012
GoCongo, my tour company in DRC, has all necessary expertise to arrange gorilla visitation in Virunga National Park, Africa's first national park, just north of the town of Goma. Due to the conflict with the M23 rebels, my tour had to be changed from Virunga to Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. This meant missing the chance to overnight on top of Nyiragongo, an active volcano containing the largest of only five permanent lava lakes in the world (Google it, but only if you are wearing diapers; it looks positively Tolkien). Nyiragongo was what drew me initially to visit the Kivus, but what can I do; war is war, and now I have a reason to come back!
The change to Kahuzi-Biéga included an amendment to my itinerary to visit CRSN, le Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles (monoglot Anglophones should have no problem translating that one), at Lwiro. The visit to this center, which is also home to a chimpanzee sanctuary, was done on a separate day instead of alongside the gorilla visit, as my "scheduled" gorilla trek was "scheduled" for a day when gorilla trekking was not offered. This being Africa, the fault for this could have been anyone’s. It was a terrific mistake, however, as it gave me more time to visit the charming environment of CRSN and talk with the dedicated and under- and often unpaid research center staff.
The center was originally founded in 1947 as part of I.R.S.A.C. (in English, the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa), by Prince Charles of Belgium, son of King Albert. I.R.S.A.C. was comprised of five research centers spread throughout Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi and was devised to be the African extension of the National Foundation of Scientific Research founded in 1928 in Belgium by King Albert. It is now a stand-alone center, but the research work continues, during peace and during war. The grounds are filled with both local and Belgian flora, numerous research departments, animals present and presently dead, and a wondrous library, the oldest or largest (or both) in Central Africa, depending on if my guide or a 1954 Belgian report (or both) is correct. The library was constructed in a local dark wood in a Colonial style. There is an aged card catalog system at the entrance and a lovely redolence which one encounters today only amidst collections of non-disk-based knowledge. The main reading room and the stacks, accessible to researchers, subscribers, and tourists, form a three-storey collection of books, most long since out of print, from around Africa and Europe and from across all disciplines of the natural sciences. A fee is charged per checked out book to fund the perpetual book rebinding efforts on the library's third floor. On the walls outside the library are tusks from an elephant killed in 1943. The sign beneath them states that they hold the world record for their length, ca. 3.5 meters. Only about a meter of these tusks remain, however, as it used to be the custom for tourists to take pieces of the tusks with them as they visited. The tour also included rooms filled with jar-preserved reptiles and amphibians, live snakes kept for humane study and the production of anti-venom, a room dedicated to stuffed local animals and primate skeletons, and an adorable live baby turtle rooming contentedly with a forty years dead desiccated version of itself. We could not, however, visit the chimpanzees! The estate is large and they can be heard throughout, but they were in the process of being transferred into a spacious, protected, natural environment on estate grounds and the Spanish organization funding the project deemed visitations during the transition time to be too distressing to the animals. Instead, we visited some large snakes, caged outside right next to their next meals. In addition, there is a small museum of two rooms which the center is trying to increase to a size more appropriate to the magnitude of their collection. I received a personal, hands-on tour, led by the director of the estate, of cultural artifacts from around the country. The museum rooms included scarification razors, a traditional umbrella (like a woven basket, covering the face and draping down the back), a variety of fétiches, and the museum's true national treasure, a platform used centuries ago to transport the king (of which tribe or area, I do not know).
The day after visiting CRSN and Bukavu's surrounding hills, I awoke early to squeeze in a quick breakfast at the hotel's restaurant (constructed in 1947, about as grand as the library at CRSN, and, as one of the waiters told me, "The most beautiful thing the Belgians left us!"). The omelets were oily and the coffee was tasteless, but sometimes, eating is about the ambience. We arrived at the entrance to Kahuzi-Biéga National Park's visitor center through some of the villages that 30% of the trekking fee goes to support (not bad if you ignore that 50% goes to Joseph Kabila Kabange's government). After shelling out an amount that is almost twice the per capita annual income in the DRC as of 2011, learning a few "gorilla rules", and meeting my three fellow trekkers and the rangers, we left to one of the entry trails into the jungle. July is the dry season in the part of the Congo below the Equator, which includes most of the country, and the gorillas, who do not eat meat, forage for fruit throughout the day. This makes them quite difficult to catch sight of, and the team of rangers already in the park were communicating their changing positions via walkie-talkie. The trail was about half a meter wide at most points and blissfully mostly empty of crawling insects. After about an hour of trekking, we met up with the rangers who were already in the jungle tracking the chosen gorilla family. It was decided that in order to find them, we would have to make a new trail. Soon after the machete came out, the Australian girl in our group politely let me go ahead of her so she could talk to her boyfriend (and I could be the closest to the swinging machete). Thanks again, if you're reading this . Twenty minutes of punishing walking later, we heard the gorillas in the trees. After watching them for a few minutes in the trees and disappointingly far away, each member of the family of 14 (I think it was) came out of the trees and walked right by us to a place where they seemed to have previously patted down the vegetation. We were meant to keep a distance of seven meters at all times. Indeed. As they passed, it was more like one and a half meters maximum. In the patted down area, the gorillas proceeded to lie down, play and rest. Each trekking group gets one hour maximum with an encountered family, so most of our time was spent very close to them, watching them play, rest, snuggle, sneeze, and groom each other. I took numerous pictures and videos throughout the time and I will be posting a movie I've made from them on YouTube as soon as I can get it off of iMovie on my Mac in decent quality. The only version I've been able to upload so far is in two parts and the quality is annoyingly poor. Full screen HD, however, brings tears. The Wagner soundtrack in the last two-thirds of the movie helps, too.
Gorillas are arresting animals.