After climbing Virunga’s most famous volcano, I found myself staying in Matebe where Toby lived and worked in the National Park. The newly built power station based in Matebe, which extracted the energy of the nearby river’s flow, was supplying electricity to the homes and businesses that were located in the National Park. At nighttime, gazing outwards towards the mountains showed the progress that had been made. Chains and clusters of dotted light were the newly lit roads and villages, where the landscape would have been smothered in darkness just a few months before.
Despite being far from the situation where the M23 group famously captured the town of Goma in 2012, dozens of groups still operate in isolated pockets across the park. Whilst I was staying, the town of Beni further north in the park was occupied by the Mai Mai rebel group, before being forcefully removed by the Congolese army soon after. The sad reality is how commonplace these situations seem, and the situation garnered only a brief conversation with other staff one evening.
Amongst the relative safety of the guarded power station and Virunga National Park HQ, I was able to enjoy the scenery and plan my next Congolese adventure. Virunga’s most famous draw is the quantity of Gorillas who make home in the dense surrounding jungle. Approximately 900 Mountain Gorillas are left worldwide, with many of those in the jungle split between the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.
One morning, I set off with my expensive permit to be briefed by rangers as what to expect on the Gorilla trek. Rangers leave early every morning to find the families, who move expansively through the park on a daily basis. All we had to was join them.
We started our hike with 30 minutes of easy walking along some lumpy farmland, hugging the jungle’s treeline on our left. A fractured fence was the starting point for entry into the thick forest, and we entered into the shaded wilderness. The temperature remained relatively cool, as the strong sunlight would have to fight its way through the canopy above to reach us. Most of the wildlife was hidden away, with the exception of some pesky ants whose life mission appeared to be finding their way to our legs despite our trousers being tightly tucked into our socks. We followed the freshly hacked path upwards, before steeply climbing up a ridge to find flat ground once again. After two and a half hours, we arrived at a forest of bamboo, which we manoeuvred through before the guide suddenly halted to signal we had arrived. I was full of eager anticipation. A deep grunt suddenly arrived from the other side of a wall of green; they were ready for us.
There’s a rush of seeing a silverback for the first time, as pictures can’t really prepare you for their actual size. No mountain can make you feel smaller than the body of a silverback, simply standing or plodding on all fours to find its next snack. Of course they aren’t really interested in you; they’ve seen us before. These strange humans who appear every now and again, stand around looking slightly startled, and then curiously leave without any explanation. They were much more interested in sedately chewing on various greenery, or maybe having a nap.
The younger gorillas were much more curious. They were endlessly playing, climbing and rolling around. Moments of tenderness between members of the family were frequent. We carefully walked through the thicket, ensuring we wouldn’t step into the path of the occasional movement of the adults. My camera snapped away for a while, trying to capture the thousand different expressions and interactions I witnessed. Then we simply sat and watched the nine members enjoy each others company like a true family.
After an hour, our visit sadly came to an end and we made our way back the way we came towards the treeline. It was an unforgettable and humbling experience, and it was a similar awe that I was left with after seeing Orangutans in Borneo; it only takes a short time to see how amazingly human these great apes are.
After returning from the trek with a big smile, I spent my final few days in The DRC relaxing the various bases in the park that Toby was working at. In the evening, the various British, Belgian and Spanish ex-pats who worked in the park gathered around the fire and enjoyed a few drinks.
On my final day, Toby travelled with me to the border where I was dropped off to make my way through the crossing. Halfway through no man’s land between the two countries, Uganda made its presence immediately known with a sudden clean tarmac road. It was a surprisingly relieving sight after the bruising rocky mess of the Congo. I was certainly a rarity in the Ugandan immigration office. Not many foreigners make their way across the border here, and it took 20 minutes for a the immigration officer’s friend to bring my entry form from his house in the next village.
I took a Boda-Boda (moto-taxi) to Kisoro, the nearest city, where I stayed for a night, before venturing to the capital city, Kampala. The bus arrived in the centre, where I emerged into a swarm of people. The streets are packed with vehicles, with filled minibuses juddering along and motorbikes filling all the gaps in between. Large markets occupy the streets, selling everything from suitcases to fresh fruit.
The big-city energy was pumping all around. A hair-rising Boda-Boda ride took me away from the mad centre and towards my backpackers lodge. In Uganda, you drive on the left hand side, although in Kampala this only a suggestion. Driving head-on towards another vehicle is generally accepted; you just have to assume they have good enough eyesight.
I settled in after the long journey, and made my final preparations for travel to Entebbe. It would be my last stop, before boarding a plane to London. A journey that felt like a lifetime was coming to an end.