Archive for August, 2009

07
Aug
09

gorillas

May 2, 2009

I’m standing at the bottom of a slope in Kahuzi-Biega National Park west of Bukavu in the DRC, dirt splattered all over my pants and for the second time in two months I am  witnessing my car flopping around in the mud. I think back to Nyungwe Forest in April when Martina and I drove to Rwanda to see chimps and just to get away from Burundi. We picked up Sarah from Scotland at the Park Ranger station (some foreshadowing perhaps – I had a ticket to Scotland for the following month). On the downhill drive into the park, we had no problems despite it being rainy season. The park’s tourist numbers confirm that April is the least popular month to visit but I highly recommend it if you want to see new landscapes and gorgeous cloud patterns every five minutes.

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Anyway, of course, we didn’t have any issues getting to the park – we just slid downhill on the tire tracks other vehicles had carved into the yellow mud. Coming back uphill was a predictable catastrophe that no one really bothered to think about. The trip had seemed like such a brilliant idea until that point. Then things got cagey. I had run out of candy.

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This was how the exit route looked.

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We tried putting logs into the tracks, we tried piling leaves under the car. I took out my machete to hack and to dig. We tried a lot of pretty silly things but with only the three of us and the Park Ranger, we didn’t move a yard. Finally, we convinced the Ranger to call his buddies and also to send for help from a nearby village. We waited for about 20 “Rwandan minutes,” which we were shocked to discover was only 15 ‘European minutes’. And then help arrived. Boy, did it arrive. Or I should say: boys. Lots and lots of barefoot giggly boys. We got to see chimps in their natural environement, a rainforest. The boys got to see foreigners in their natural environement, helplessly flailing in the mud. Fair enough. Everyone got to go home happy.

More Rangers arrived. Martina marshalled the whole group by shouting encouragements in a language no one really understood (Italian?) until she was laughing too hard to help push. Half the team pushed the car from behind, the other half pulled it by the grill on the front. The team rocked the car back and forth over each bump until it slowly gained enough momentum and traction to get going. But once it did pick up speed, I didn’t want to stop again so Sarah, Martina and our guide piled into the moving vehicle and I didn’t let up on the gas pedal until we were back on pavement. The car looked like hell. Probably the branches I crashed through did also. And then there was the rescue team:

NyungweTeam

All this flashes through my mind as I watch my Land Cruiser get a gentle nudge back up the hill so we can leave it on the drier part of the trail and hike toward the gorillas, the eastern lowland silverback gorillas. I love saying that. We’re a total of six hikers, one guide, and at least six Congolese soldier-turned-rangers. I hear some of the soldiers served under the Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and had been integrated into the Congolese forces. That’s good, I guess, as all reports suggest they are really effective soldiers. In all, there are actually only three civilians – our guide, Carlos, Martina and me. The other four hikers sheepishly identify themselves as “Information Specialists” for the U.S. further north in Goma. I glance sidways at one in a black cap, impenetrable shades, a black tactical vest and menacing (black) boots. “Information? Oh, are you a writer?” Martina asks.

It’s a really refreshing hike. It’s still early in the morning and the Congolese landscape is awesome. The air’s clean, it’s not too hot – the climate isn’t really the problem for this country. We hike for about an hour when all of a sudden, a guerilla!

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Last known photo of the hikers before they see gorillas.

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The guerilla helpfully estimates that we are about several more minutes hike from the gorillas. He also tells us that we should always keep seven to ten meters between ourselves and the male or we might offend him. We learn the guerilla’s teammates have been radioing back and forth on the gorillas’ locations so he has seen them. All we have to do is turn right along the trail and hike a bit further. We take literally five steps after the turn when all of a sudden, gorillas!

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At first, I don’t understand what is happening. I expected more hiking. I also expected more distance than two meters. When we got our pep talk, we must have already been inside seven meters of the gorillas. What I see is a semicircle trained on a small scene, almost like a stage. I’m confused because on the edges of this scene, just inches from a large female and her kids, are two or three rangers hacking away with sharp machetes, stripping the trees of branches and leaves. Then I realize they are clearing the space for us so we could see the gorillas better. Pretty quickly, we ask about the distance and the disturbance we are causing but Carlos explains that the rangers and gorillas are familiar with each other and if the gorillas were irritated by us, they would let us know. Everyone, gorillas and humans, also know that the law here is Chimanuka, the kingly male off to the left. He is essentially tolerating us because if he really wanted to, he could flatten all of us in a heartbeat. We are the ones that have to be totally respectful. At the moment, I am totally respectful of his eating every leaf around him. That’s about as far as our relationship gets. We don’t share a beer or anything, but he does end up tolerating us for more than an hour as we follow him deeper and deeper into the jungle.

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I’ve only uploaded a couple photos of the gorillas because this is ultimately not something I could show you well. Anyone can see images of gorillas anywhere, but there is so much more to it. It’s humbling and majestic and frightening and exciting and even a little sad, all at the same time. I would just muck it up; the experience deserves better than my telling of it. It would be hard to retell the stories we exchange while hiking or describe the flowers we smell. The enormity of Chimanuka’s frame, his fists that are the size of my torso, his commanding grunts. The little ones, interacting with us, dangling from branches, swinging by in the surrounding trees. Putting all of it onto a blog is really not why I went.

What I do support is tourism in the Congo. If you get the chance to visit, I recommend tours led by Carlos from the Co-Co Lodge, located in Bukavu. He has been there for a long time, so he knows the terrain and he knows the people. You can contact him at lodgecoco@kivu-online.com

You might mention Jeff and Martina from Bujumbura said hello, but I can’t be responsible for what happens next. Carlos was the one who had to get my car out of the mud.

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02
Aug
09

prehistoric time travel

I guess the first thing I should mention is that I am, in fact, not dead. Long periods of silence tend to create some outrageous rumors, like the idea that I would actually let myself die here. Humanitarian crisis created by a boneheaded U.N.-led operation? Rampant Interhamwe rebels, Congolese soldiers and militianmen raping, killing, burning and being generally unruly?
Please.

Instead, travel back in time with me to May 2, 2009, when I traveled back in time to 40 million B.C. Co-conspirator Martina and I are in Bukavu in the DRC. We’re at the Hotel de la Roche (the “Roach Hotel”) having some lunch after seeing eastern lowland silverback gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (which I’ll write about separately), when we’re joined by the cast of Disney’s new theatrical production, “Congo.” We are swarmed by a flock of mini-turkeys, something resembling a peacock on cocaine and our favorite, a shoebill. The shoebill is unlike any creature I have ever seen. Its slate-blue beak could keep me mesmerized for hours. It also really does look like a shoe, but the kind of shoe you would wear if you wanted to get beaten up in high school. We respond to this fascinating bird the only way humans know how when confronted by an astonishing creature: we try to hunt him. Martina and I take turns creeping as close as we could to the guy. We first track him and stare, hoping to build up some telepathic rapport. Then we move in for the kill. Here’s a visual narrative of our attempts.

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It takes a little while but I have a good trick for getting right up to the shoebill.
(Photos by Martina)

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Eventually, I lay down right next to him(?). There aren’t any serious objections, just some curious glances (from the hotel staff, too). I think he was completely fooled by my blue camouflage.

Next: Gorillas! And, guerillas!

Still alive, still alive, thanks…