23 – 25th July: Centre Spiritual Amani, Bukavu, Congo
Next up was the trip to Bukavu at the very south of Lake Kivu, on the Congo side. It’s too dangerous to attempt this trip by road, way too dangerous. Lake Kivu is like glass and the high-speed boat was very comfortable and only took two and half hours. Arriving at Bukavu was an assault to the senses. Big, bustling, vibrant and chaotic. I don’t quite know how to describe the place but if it were a piece of music, it would be a cacophony! It appeared, at least to the superficial eye, extremely chaotic and manic, on a different level to what I’ve seen anywhere else in Africa. It’s city of 1 million people but quite different from Goma. There seemed no order to the place, the wild east! Not the kind of place I’d be going for an evening stroll.
Our driver drove us to our hotel but they had given away our rooms! Great start. We ended up staying at a Convent, Spiritual Amani. The Sisters really looked after us. It was huge place surrounded on 3 sides by the lake, it was a lovely setting and paradoxical to the chaos beyond its gates.
Now for Kahuzi-Beiga. This is a huge National Park that extends right across South Eastern Congo. We only got to see a tiny part but it’s vast (over 6000 sq kms) and is home to all manner of primates, including, of course, Lowland Gorillas. The journey was around 2 hours and quite a comfortable drive with stunning scenery most of the way.
The Lowland Gorillas are different from the Mountain gorillas in a number of ways. They are bigger and weigh up to 250 kgs. They only tolerate one Silverback per family group. They eat fruit. They eat fruit for only 2 months of the year and we were lucky to be present in that period. Following them during this phase is harder as they have to move on frequently in search of fruit.
In 1994 there were four habituated groups. Sadly, they were all slaughtered in the genocide. There is now only one habituated group – Chimanuka, named after the Silverback. They are also working on a second habituated group. This area is really off the tourist track, although the determined and intrepid do make it here. It’s pity as I felt it was especially beautiful and also felt very wild, and of course, they desperately need the tourist $$. To give you an idea, when we signed the book on 24th, the last entry prior to that was the 16th.
The HQ was surprisingly very modern and smart. There we met Lambert, who runs the place. He speaks great English and was most informative and welcoming. I told him that I was a photographer and offered to provide him with any pix that I would be taking. Lambert decided to personally guide us and gave me VIP treatment, getting me into the best positions to take photos of Chimanuka and his family. I hope he likes the results! Chimanuka’s wife left him for another gorilla and left him with their sub year old baby. He has brought up the infant on his own, you can see him with Chimanuka in the pics.
There were only myself and Emma and an American guy, Steve who was on a teaching assignment in Bukavu.
The trek to find the gorillas was quite arduous. We were literally on their scent (dung scent that is!), the Rangers literally hacking their way through the jungle with machetes, we were not following any defined tracks. It was steep ascents and descents, through thick vegetation and slippery slopes. Much harder than the Virungas. We eventually caught up with them. The first sighting I had was a gorilla climbing down a huge tree, arms outstretched. We had a lot of fun watching these gorillas, gentle giants that were so entertaining. They were gorging on the fruit of the forest and seemed to be enjoying every mouthful. The fact that they are fruit eaters made the experience very different from the Virungas, a stroke of luck for us. Again as in the Virungas, the photos say more about what we saw than a million would………and you’ve probably read way too much already!
We met up with a researcher, Amy, from the USA. She works for the Fossey Foundation and was so knowledgeable and informative. I have such respect for people like her, who literally risk their lives trying to preserve and protect the environment and these incredible animals that live within.
On closing, after getting up close and personal with our closest of kin, I haven’t stopped thinking about them and fearing for their safety and future. Kahuzi-Beiga, like the Virungas, is under threat from Rebels and those that want to disband the parks in order to cultivate its slopes. If they could only see how sustainable eco-tourism could change their lives and create huge inward investment and revenue.
Seeing gorillas in the wild does have a profound effect, something quite primal. If we can sit back and watch the destruction of them and their habitat, what future for planet earth? I can only hope and pray that peace and sanity prevail, anything else is unthinkable.