August 12, 2017
Up VERY early to go see the Gorillas in Virunga National Park…Breakfast was simple and tasty and the view of Lake Kivu lovely…There I met a British Couple who, it would turn out, would be driving with me…We discovered on the way to Burkima that we had a similar itinerary through the Volcano trek and are all traveling with Inspired Journeys. Once settled in the Safari Van, we drove through the dreary weather through Goma to head into Virunga National Park. We stopped, briefly, in Goma to pick up an armed Park Ranger who would drive with us to Burkima, the tent camp where we will start our Gorilla Trek today and tomorrow… a type of Glamping Camp where we will stay for the night. The Park Rangers are the true Heroes here. They work feverishly to protect the Gorillas and all wildlife in Virunga. As many as 170 have been killed in recent years…Just 3 weeks ago, 5 angers were killed in another park just north of Virunga while protecting a documentary film crew…An American Producer and her Dutch Crew narrowly escaped separately in the Jungle by hiding for over 18 hours! Being a Park Ranger is tantamount to being Military.
Virunga is the oldest National Park in all of Africa. It was established back in 1925 for the sole protection of the Gorilla. The Mountain Gorilla had been discovered in 1902 by a German Scientist and quickly thereafter many would come to Congo just to bring back a prized Gorilla. By 1921 the Gorillas were decimated. And by 1925 they were Protected…In 1925 an American named Carl Akely convinced King Albert of Belgium to designate a section around the Virungas to protect the Gorilla. Without this, there is belief the Mountain Gorilla would be extinct…There are around 800 left in the world and they all live in the wild. All are in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo…Throughout their known history, poachers and others have killed the Gorillas for reasons beyond me. 2007 proved to be one of the deadliest years. That is when 9 Silverbacks were murdered. The people reacted so dramatically by this slaughter that they created a cemetery at Mikeno at the main Ranger Station…They carried each gorilla out and built them coffins and had proper funerals…Villagers from far came to pay their respect as if they lost a parent…There were 3 young Juveniles who lost both parents and were taken to the Orphanage….Since the killings, these countries have begun to spotlight the Gorilla and their plight with Gorilla Tourism. Most of the money used for the Gorilla Permits are used specifically for the Gorilla and the rest is used for Rangers to protect them. Today, many ex-poachers have been hired as trackers and porters etc in order to show them that they can make a good living with Gorilla tourism …and showing them the importance of protecting them.
There are incredibly strict rules to seeing the Gorillas and there can’t be more than 6-8 people at a time to visit a family…and it is only allowed for 1 hour. You must also have your temperature taken to show you are not sick. Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases so we also need to wear surgical masks when near them. The Trackers go out very early in the morning to see which families they can find. They report back to the Rangers who they found and their location. The Rangers then decide based on the amount of tourists and distance to hike which families are able to be visited…Then Rangers, Guides get us to a particular family, where we meet the Trackers they all help us enjoy watching them. But while prepping to see them, the Ranger speaks to us about the potential dangers if a Silverback decides to charge…It’s rare but it can happen. Sometimes the Gorillas, especially the young try to get too close and the tracker or Ranger will stop that from happening. The entire Virunga Gorilla tourism community is really here to protect the Gorilla…and THAT is the only reason we tourists are allowed…It’s another way to help save the habitat…So there are no clear trails in and out of the jungles…The trackers use machetes to lead the way…This way the jungle stays wild for the Gorillas.
Back to my adventure to get to Virunga…As we were driving through Goma, there were Congolese jogging boot camp style throughout…The town looked a little post-apocalyptic at that moment…the darkness of the clouds and rain coupled with the men chanting and some of the buildings still showing the Volcano damage was a bit dark and foreboding. But as we got out of Goma, the small towns along the way were filled with women dressed in bright colored Sari type dresses…some walking with children and others on a mission with assorted things atop their heads…There were smiling kids running to wave at us and yelling for “bottles” and then also some yelled out a Rwandan term, “Muzungu” that translates to “White Person””…This term is to represent all travelers. Back in Kigali, Seema had given us a Rwandan phrase sheet and as we went through it, we reached a word for White Person. He asked me and the other 2 travelers on the walking tour to “please not be offended” because it really meant traveler or tourist. We smiled an assured him we were not offended. It had not dawned on me why this term would be used for Tourist until I drove with Sonia and asked her if there were any Black Tourists? I had not seen anyone who was not white traveling…She said she had never transported a Black Tourist…ergo the phrase…No one could answer me why there are so few or no Black tourists in Rwanda and Congo or much of Africa for that matter.
As we drove along what could only be described as a road that would guarantee my Chiropractor good income for much time to come, bumpy does not come close to describing the stomach jarring jolts that would go on for at least 3 hours. The locals call it an “African Massage”. What amazed me were those riding motorbikes…These were not ordinary potholes. At one point. I looked out the window to see a family of four bouncing around without a care in the world. As we continued on, I saw field after field of various crops. I later would come to learn that this was a bone of contention with maintaining the Conservation of the Jungles. The people are big into slash and burn in order to create more fields for crops whereas those wanting to maintain the habitat for the Gorilla are trying desperately to find a balance with the people in order to save the Gorilla habitat. This region is exceptionally fertile and the locals want to grow and sell as much as possible to survive. But this is in direct conflict as you get nearer to Virunga.
Finally, we arrived at Burkima and the fun was about to begin.