Congo II. Mountain Gorillas of Congo

Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback. Phot by Gian Schachenmann

In a country devastated by genocidal colonial rule, torn by kleptocracy, warring militia groups, and swamped with refugees, it is a wonder that Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga National Park, has managed to survive. The more time we spent walking around the headquarters, the more I was impressed by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), headed in Virunga by Emmanuel de Merode. The heavily armed rangers who looked more like soldiers were evidence that not everything is peaceful, yet there was an optimistic air that begged us to bring tourism.

The MAN made for a bumpy but fun ride!
We climbed into the back of the 4wd MAN lorry that the ICCN had converted to transport guests on the horrific roads and slowly crawled up toward Bukima ranger post to begin our gorilla trek. The steep, rocky and sometimes slippery 12km road took us nearly an hour and a half to climb, through fields of bananas, cassava, pole-beans, and arrow-root and again, hundreds of children running out to wave. Whereas in most places in East Africa the adventurous route is a chosen option, the route we were on was the only way up the mountain. Wheels spinning and the massive engine straining, we made the last meters to the edge of the forest.

Without the ceremonial briefings of Rwandan gorilla trekking, after registering our names on a random piece of paper, we set off through the fields of potatoes and tobacco that crept right up to the edge of the forest. Startling us, a child ran whooping towards a patch of potatoes, giving us a glimpse of a couple beautiful l’Hoests monkeys as they scampered for safety in the forest. It was fairly easy walking and within an hour we’d reached the spot that would give us the easiest trek through the rainforest to the Kabirizi group that the trackers were monitoring. Compared to Rwanda, the forest trekking was easier. I don’t know how our ranger found the trackers because his radio battery died, but after only an hour we found ourselves with a very large group of gorillas.
Photo by Gian Schachenmann
Mountain Gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant male- an impressive massive animal weighing upward of 500lbs distinguished by the white-haired saddle on his back that earns him the title of Silverback. The pioneer research on Mountain gorillas was conducted by George Schaller, also a pioneer lion researcher in the Serengeti, but their plight was made famous by Diane Fossey and her book, “Gorillas in the Mist”. 

Donning our surgical masks, a precaution to protect gorillas from the various diseases we potentially carry to which they have no natural immunity, we began the precious hour. Kabirizi, a large and intelligent Silverback, took control of the group in 1998 his predecessor was caught in crossfire between the army and rebels. He acquired more females fighting other silverbacks, and now holds one of the largest groups, nearly 5% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas. We followed the family as they moved through the bamboo forest feeding on shoots and young stems, and we were rewarded with some commanding viewing.


With only 820 Mountain Gorillas left, a human disease would be a disaster.
The next morning we found the Humba group (14 individuals) and again enjoyed their calm company for the hour we were allowed. Although there is a minimum distance from which to observe the gorillas, it is sometimes impossible to get out of the way quickly enough should they walk toward you. At one point, when we were backed up against a bamboo clump, I was thrilled at the trust a female showed. Casually walking past us, her tiny baby clinging to her side, she stopped only a few meters away to pull a piece of Sticky-willy that had stuck to the baby’s hair.

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Congo I: Journey to Congo


There are a few experiences on safari that rate themselves as extra special above others. There’s something about walking through the bush where you become vulnerable, or sitting in the midst of elephants with their intimate social interactions. I highly rate sitting on a hill with a 360 degree view with hundreds of thousands of wildebeest gnu-ing around you, but I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for that 1 hour with a gorilla family.

The 300kg Silverback crosses his arms and stares at you, then scratches his head, while a youngster looks at you and then does a summersault before looking back at you as if he wants to know that you’re still watching, or if you’re going to play.
The Virunga Volcanoes
I knew our trip to see Congo’s gorillas was going to be a real adventure when we crossed the border at Goma. We spoke to the immigration official in Swahili, handing him our passports and photocopies of our visa approval through the window with Expats written over the top. I don’t want to dwell on the pessimistic perspectives of Congo written up in most articles, but the stories of officials confiscating passports and then demanding bribes or “recovery fees” did pass through my mind. He reached to a drawer in his desk and pulled out a cardboard folder with a hand-written piece of paper with a list of names, nationalities, and passport numbers. Our names were all spelled correctly, but the nationalities were jumbled not to mention the passport numbers. It didn’t seem to matter and he nonchalantly ticked our names off and corrected the nationalities. Our passports were passed to another official along with some mutterings in French, while we waited for the $50, 14-day visa, recently negotiated by the conservation body for tourists.

We stopped at the ICCN office to pick up our permits before driving north to the park headquarters and newly built Mikeno Lodge. The excitement was hard to contain. In stark contrast to Rwanda where the roads that tourists see are all paved and clean, and the experience offered a highly polished and organized system that you’d expect in Switzerland, Congo was the opposite.
Like any other town?
Goma itself is a town occupied by the UN- mostly Uruguayan, Indian and South African troops who live in fortified compounds with watchtowers and drive around in jeeps and helicopters spending approximately $3million per day. Congolese soldiers walk around heavily armed with Kalashnikovs, RPD’s and rocket launchers, while pickups with music systems and flags blast political slogans and music, campaigning for the up-coming elections.

Blood hounds being trained to help rangers.


As we drove through the countryside we were astonished at the number of children running out to give thumbs-up and ask for pens and biscuits. As in Rwanda, the volcanic soils are intensively farmed and appear very productive, just less orderly. We remarked how few were the small kiosks selling basic necessities like soap. It is obviously a hard life and everywhere we looked, the scene cried out with a story. As we drove into the headquarters on the edge of the forest, one could not help notice the old grand administrative buildings that spoke of a different era. Yet despite the evidence of deterioration, the result of decades of turmoil, there is an atmosphere of hope and positive change. 
(photos by Gian Schachenmann)

Beautiful rooms at Mikeno Lodge.
A wonderful breakfast before gorilla day.... stay tuned!

Tanzania's Great Rift Valley Lakes & Mountains

As if the dry season is attempting its final life sapping effort to suffocate us before the rains come, an apocalyptic dust storm is sweeping across the southern shore of Lake Natron. Agitated by the dark, threatening thunderstorm, the dust is diffusing the afternoon rays of sun giving Oldonyo Lengai an eerie glow as the dust slowly envelopes the volcano.

Driving from Amboseli to Lake Natron the other day, I took a cross-country route through the plains between four prominent volcanoes. The volcanic dust, like talcum powder enveloped the vehicle billowing into the car through every space possible. Building cumulonimbus clouds inspired graphic dust devils on the barren landscape. Zebra, Fringe-eared oryx, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle and giraffe stood in the shade of the few Acacia trees resting in the heat of the day.

Lake Natron, where we’re headed is the largest of the Great Rift Valley’s soda lakes and is also the most caustic lake in the world. It is extremely shallow, no more than 3 meters deep. Lying at 610m above sea level it also gets extremely warm and water temperatures regularly reach 40C (60C recorded), combined with a pH of 9-10, it’s surprising that life can actually flourish. Microorganisms that love the salt give it amazing shades of red, greens and crystal white.

Lesser Flamingos use this lake as an important breeding ground, protecting their eggs and hatchlings by building little mounds in the water far enough away from the shore that predators have to seriously think about venturing out. They also specialize in feeding on the algae- Spirulina that blooms in these waters. There’s also an endemic fish- the Magadi Tilapia that concentrate in the hot springs that feed into the lake.

A year ago, travelling with Nick Brandt on safari, we drove to Natron in search of calcified birds. We scoured the shores picking up a variety of birds including hornbills, flamingoes, starlings, doves, bee-eaters, mouse-birds, and Quelea that had been mummified by the salts in the water. The small invertebrates, fish, and bats that stood frozen in their death pose were fascinating. Click to see his photos of what we found.

A mixture of Sodium bi-carbonate (baking soda) and Sodium carbonate is called Natron, and is the same substance that was mined in Wadi el Natron in Egypt 5000 years ago by the Egyptians when they began mummifying their pharaohs. The alkali salt loves water and absorbs it, drying whatever it has come in contact with. Its alkalinity is also anti-bacterial which helps to stop bacterial decay.

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A few days after we arrived here, it rained. The dust finally settled, and you could almost hear the animals breathing a sigh of relief. We drove out into the plains in front of Kitumbeine Mountain visiting all the little parasitic craters at the base of Gelai, Kerimasi and Oldonyo Lengai. The green grass already sprouting, we counted hundreds of zebra and wildebeest on the plains and spent some time just sitting and watching. In the evening we drove up Lengai as far as the track goes and sat watching the afternoon light sending moving shadows through the valleys and ridges, reflecting Shompole in the lake.