From Pili Pili Purusi to Giant Guhondo: adventures in Congo – Rwanda – Uganda

Our visits to the giant lands of the Congo have spanned four decades, and its thrall has never diminished. There’s still a palpable burble of excitement in my stomach when one of our guests asks about a safari into the land that Joseph Conrad named the Heart of Darkness. Not because there’s a certain risk to the whole venture, but because of the myriad opportunities for life-changing experiences that always leave the axis of my world just a little adjusted – perhaps just by a 100th of a degree at a time.

And this is ultimately why I love being in travel; for it is the most transformational of life’s activities.

When Dad first went in 1971, he was on a reconnaissance safari with Geoff Kent of A&K; first visiting the Ituri Forest and the Royal Albert National Park (now Virunga National Park) on back jarring roads that warranted second gear the whole way. Their guide in Virunga was Adrien Deschryver, a pioneer in habituating eastern Lowland Gorillas gorilla beringai graueri). During the ‘70’s, this region of the Congo was still badly scarred by civil war – and in fact when we went in 2011 we found not much had changed; it is a place of constant upheaval and vicious fighting over the precious natural resources.

The Belgian planter turned mercenary, Col Jean “Black Jack” de Schramme had conquered Bukavu in 1967 where he based for 7 weeks before being forced to retreat back to Rwanda with his surviving rebel militia. The signs of battle, when Dad was there, were evident everywhere in this beleaguered town – bullet pocked walls, mortar holes in the pavement and nearby a skeletal DC-3 lay at odd angles against the tarmac of the airfield. Even the hotel in which Dad stayed was seriously damaged, but after a peaceful night Adrien collected them and drove into the forest to meet his Pygmy trackers, Pili Pili Purusi and Mishibera Patrice.

Before long, they made contact with a family of gorillas, headed by a formidable silverback. Dad always said this was the most extraordinary experience; coming face to face with our ancient ancestors.

Not long after this reconnaissance trip, Dad was asked by Geoff Kent to guide a safari for George Staempfli of the same named art gallery in New York, and his wife Florence. They were keen for a gorilla stalk, and were also on the hunt for ivory artifacts. Florence had insisted on bringing her clarinet, which baffled Dad!

On the first day of their trek, there was a sudden parting of bush and not more than 15 feet away was a 6 foot tall silverback; beating his chest in a manner of dominance. They froze. Would Adrien have to use his rifle? He looked as calm as ever, and Casmir, the silverback, returned to his wives. They crept forward again, and found themselves on a gentle rise looking into a forest glade, in which a dozen females were quietly feeding on the forest floor whilst their young frolicked amongst the creepers. Casmir did not let us out of his sight. Once everyone had settled down, Florence carefully assembled her clarinet, and began playing Handle’s “Arrival of The Queen of Sheba”. The acoustics in the forest canopy seemed to accentuate the sounds, the gorillas all stopped feeding and cocked their heads in wonder. The babies were mesmerized, and cautiously they all started to move towards Dad’s group. There was a moment of sheer delight for both parties as they all integrated. At the end of this interaction, Adrien motioned to the party to start backing away, but Casmir crept around to the side to stop them leaving. He wanted them to remain part of his group. They had to remain patient, and calm, until finally Casmir let them slip away.

This was always a story that Dad told with glassy eyes; one of the most memorable days of his safari career.

More recently, in the early 2010’s, Felicia and I went with my sister and a gang of our friends, to explore opportunities after the last rising of M23 and to stay in the newly opened Virunga Park as guests of Emmanuel de Merode – the Belgian prince who has gone a long way off the beaten track to pursue his passion for conservation. The lodge is nestled deep in the forest, with a gorilla sanctuary attached where particularly vulnerable gorillas are looked after by their doting and completely committed carers. We, like Dad on his first trip, were on a reconnaissance, which meant that the first morning saw us head out to look for the chimps. We had a little start when we saw that the vehicle in front was mounted with a machine gun, but soon settled into a real sense of adventure. We walked for miles that day, it was humid and hot, and all our senses were at full volume – both for the chimps and for any more sinister danger. Fortunately the latter was probably more of an over active imagination issue rather than reality, and after a few hours of hard walking we found the chimps. They aren’t easy to see, and move extremely quickly, but we had some good sightings up in the trees. The best part was simply standing still and listening to the noises they make as they call to each other, fight and socialize.

Another day, we trekked out over fields and into the thick nettle-lined forest to look for a group of gorillas. With tired legs from the chimp trek, we counted our lucky stars when the gorillas were sighted just 45 minutes into the walk. Our troop was also guarded by a large male, but there were twin babies who were utterly enchanting to watch. Unlike the 1970s, one is only now allowed to stay in the presence of gorillas for up to an hour, so we soaked up the moment as fully as we could, taking photos, not making too much eye contact and watching these huge relatives of ours undertake the ultimate simple life. They are quiet but awe-inspiring creatures with great big eyes that seem to take you in like you belong. Gently they roll onto their backs and let the babies skitter over their tummies, or sit and pick at tufts of juicy grass as another baby loses its balance and comes crashing down into a clump next to them. Nothing seems to bother them; it’s like the ultimate mindfulness moment.

The next challenge was climbing the still active volcano, Nyiragongo, which stands proud over Goma and Lake Kivu. We travelled there in the back of a huge old Bedford truck, which – if only it could talk – must have seen a myriad human misadventures. The trek was beautiful – up through cool, heavily shadowed forest, and then out onto slightly more tricky terrain with loose rock underfoot. From here, the temperature dropped and we found ourselves on slippery flat rocks as we pulled ourselves up towards the lip of the volcano. This was a health and safety hell, but boy did we feel alive. The wind careened through the air, threatening to push us off our feet. We leaned into the mountain and finally found ourselves near the top, a warm orange glow visible beyond the lip of the crater. We crawled, on our bellies, towards the edge and found ourselves looking down into a 500m drop to a spitting mass of boiling lava. Mesmerizing, and terrifying, we struggled to pull ourselves away. Vertigo and an overwhelming sense of smallness defined the night as we settled into the very makeshift huts that perch on the side of the mountain. My sister, Felicia and I ended up in one shed together, sharing two beds – I’m not quite sure how we did it in the end, but it was always bound to be a restless night at altitude, with the wind relentlessly battering the side of our hut. The morning could not come soon enough, and we were soon hugging mugs of tea and looking back over the edge at the still swirling lava. The descent would have been easier on sleds, but as it was bruised bottoms were the order of the day, and we finally made it down to the Bedford around midday, and on the way home we stopped to try riding a Chukudu (the famous Congolese wooden bikes), and then home to camp and a hot bath.

Now, a decade later, I’m just back from an amazing Gorilla safari again. We visited the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, visiting the home of Dian Fossey who lived and finally met the end of her days at Karisoke in Rwanda. Dian’s extensive work on gorilla behavior started in the mid 1960’s, thanks to early support from Dr Louis Leakey, who had also helped Jane Goodall set herself up researching Chimpanzees. On arrival in Nairobi, on her first safari, Fossey became friends with William Holden, Joan and Alan Root, and a host of mad cap adventurers of the time. When she returned to Africa, she went first to the Congo to study gorillas, but when it became too dangerous, she relocated to Karisoke, still with her sturdy old Land Rover called Lily. For a more detailed insight into this remarkable woman’s life, it is worth sitting down of an evening to watch Gorillas in the Mist, filmed in the 1988.

Today, and in part thanks to Dian’s initial efforts with her work in Rwanda, there are an amazing 1,000 Mountain Gorillas in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda (from a low of about 450 in the mid 1980’s, around the time Dian was killed). These three countries share the Virunga Massif, which includes the Karisimbe, Visoke, Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes.

Our safari included visiting two groups of gorillas – the Agasha and Sabinyo, and amazingly we also saw Guhondo, the oldest (at 49 years) and heaviest Mountain Gorilla ever recorded. His gigantic Silverback stature completely belittled our group, and we felt so humbled seeing him.

I was really heartened to hear that the Rwandan Government have an ambitious plan to increase the Volcanoes National Park by 25% in the next decade; an incredible and visionary plan. But as with all our visits to this part of the world, Dad’s included, I came away feeling like this is a unique and remarkable ecosystem, which we need to contribute to in order for it to be protected. The gorillas, chimpanzees and primates that help us decode our own DNA are key to the great circle of life that inhabits these lush, fertile jungles. And thankfully, the battle between man and beast in these areas is being managed, with both being catered for in the bigger plans laid out by governments and stakeholders in the area.

If you’re thinking about a safari in this region, contact us – we would absolutely love to take you there!

Feature image credit: Dian Fossey Centre, Rwanda