Disclaimer: The Congo is still in the midst of a brutal war. This blog does not wish to encourage anyone to travel to the Congo during such times.
It is finally safe to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo after many years of brutal war. Poaching and the hunting of animals for bushmeat has caused great ecological disturbance in the area, but we head to Virunga National Park nonetheless.
The park rangers are very gracious and offer to send a guide to help us find the park’s main attraction: mountain gorillas. As we set off into the thick tropical jungle, we are filled with wonder for the wildness of the area that has managed to stay largely intact. We walk for a few hours without seeing any animals, however.
About three hours into the trek, we spot patch of black and white colour through the leaves. It is an okapi. For some time, the okapi was thought to be a myth, but 1901, it was formally classified as its own species. Cryptozoologists around the world still use this as their rallying cry.
Soon after, we see a group of chimpanzees. These chimps are acustomed to humans attacking them, unfortunately, and run off quickly into the thick bush. After this, there are no more animal sightings for the day. We decide to call it a day, and prepare camp. Night falls quickly in the jungle.
After a dark night, we awaken to the sound of rain on our tents. Ugh. Well, it is a rainforest. The forest floor is now a slippery carpet of leaves loosely piled on slick mud: dangerous going. We are climbing Mount Nyiragongo, one of the two active volcanoes the park is built on. Fortunately, volcanologists have not detected any tremors.
It is nearing evening again, and still no gorillas. We fear that we may leave empty handied. But then, our ranger guide raises his hand signalling the group to stop. We see some leaves rustle. We slowly, quietly tiptoe around the foliage to view a clearing. In the clearing, sit a group of mountain gorillas!
The silverback, the dominant male, sits like a king on a mound, munching on a tuber. Little ones play and wrestle on the ground. The others eat peacefully and keep an eye on the kids. These magnificent creatures are currently threatened, mainly due to poaching. In 2007, news broke out of two mountain gorillas shot execution style in the head. They were probably going to be used as bushmeat for rebel soldiers. Thankfully, peaceful times have also come to the gorilla population. We must be downwind of them, as we are fortunate to have a long viewing time, while we all snap photos and watch at the pure, unabashed beauty of this scene.
The gorillas then wander off to bed down for the night. We do the same, happy to have been so privileged to see gorillas in their natural habitat.
Please support the mountain gorillas and the people of the Congo during this terrible time.