Laura's Coolest Thing EVER!!

Trip Start Nov 05, 2006
Trip End Jan 14, 2008

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Flag of Congo - The Dem. Repub.  ,
Friday, June 8, 2007

We awoke at 5:30 a.m.  "It's gorilla day, it's gorilla day!!"  I was so excited, and so were the rest of our travel mates.  We all inhaled our breakfast (with the English travelers still stopping for a proper cup of tea!) and then got on the truck for our illicit border crossing. On our first night together we had all agreed to go gorilla trekking in D.R Congo.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) is still in quite a bit of turmoil.  Civil war and tribal disputes have maintained the worst images of Africa.  We were also told that a tour group was robbed in Congo last month on the way to see the gorillas.  But, given the cost of the other options, and the fact that our tour leader said he had a "good man on the ground who says everything is safe," we all opted for Congo.  The gorillas are located close to the border of Rwanda, Uganda and D.R. Congo.  We stayed in Uganda and on gorilla day made our way to the D.R. Congo border.  By entering D.R. Congo we were officially leaving East Africa.  Therefore, we could be charged for a whole new Uganda visa ($80 U.S.) if our passports were stamped.  However, this is Africa - so we made our way to a "quiet" border crossing, left Uganda without an exit stamp and walked across the border to Congo.  On the way, we all stopped and posed for pictures at a sign stating "You are now entering Zaire."  Ah - the good old days.

It was still pretty early when we got to Congo.  We waited at immigration for about 30 minutes.  We had to grease the skids (yet again) because our passports could not have a Congo entry stamp either, as this would cause problems later.  I think we were all a bit nervous as we waited for our final clearance.

Finally, our passports and yellow fever certificates were handed back to us and we started our venture to the gorillas.  Our "guide" ran a tour company that regularly took groups to see the gorillas.  We separated into two different vans as we made our way to the Burundi National Park.  Each van included two armed "escorts."  Apparently, the robbery caused some concern, since the gorilla permits bring in quite a bit of cash to the area.  The armed escorts are now a regular part of the program.

Our drive to the park was about one hour.  Along the way we drove through a number of villages.  That early in the morning the women and children were out with their big yellow containers walking to the wells to collect their water for the day.  Right away we noticed a big difference between the poverty levels in Uganda and D.R. Congo.  Many of the children had distended stomachs and wore basically rags.  The women all wore scarves around their heads, although many of them were carrying either water or baskets of vegetables on their heads as they walked along the dirt roads.  The children all waved at us as we went by and some of the women smiled shyly.

The drive to the park was gorgeous.  That area of Congo is inhabited by mostly villagers working the land - so the mountains looked like quilts made up of various green patches.  The farm land included sorghum (good for the local brew), rice, sugar cane, potatoes, green beans and egg plant.  Upon arrival at our drop off point, we ventured through the farm land for about 30 minutes before we arrived at the camp where the official gorilla guides would take over.  We were greeted by three small children, a six year old carrying a one year old and a three year old.  They wandered out to greet us, all of them wearing torn up clothes and chewing on sugar cane.  We "talked" to them for a bit, literally rubbing their bare feet to warm them up.  It was pretty cold and rainy still, and the kids were not wearing much.

When the official guides joined us, they briefed us on our day ahead.  We would trek for approximately 2 1/2 hours before we reached the point where the gorillas were the day before.  From there, hopefully, we could find them quickly, but it could be up to six hours before we could locate them.  We needed to turn off any noise and/or lights on our cameras.  We would be allowed to be as close as 7 meters to the gorillas.  The gorilla family we were visiting had 12 members, including a silver back (yea!), 4 young ones, 2 babies and the rest were adult females.

We took off and immediately entered the rain forest.  It was cool and misty, but as we made our way at a pretty brisk pace we were all getting pretty sweaty.  I was so excited to see the gorillas.  One of Paul's "must do" is the Galapagos Islands, but mine has always been the gorillas.  It's a good thing too, because it was a pretty hairy hike.  Luckily, we were all too excited to notice.  We walked along a path for most of the way.  There were two guides in front, one with a rather large machete, literally chopping the path for us.  The other had a large gun, like the third guide at the rear.  The other guide at the rear (for a total of four) also had a machete and he kept chopping away at branches as we walked through, coming very close to Paul's head many times.  It all only added to our anticipation.

While we walked we started to notice very large, round tracks along the way.  Gorilla prints?  No way - too big.  Hmmm - I chose to ignore them.  Finally, we crossed a really fresh (it was still steaming!) and very large pile of droppings when somebody asked - "what is making these tracks and droppings?"  The guides smiled and said we also happen to be tracking a jungle elephant.  We needed to be careful, as the jungle elephants charge.  Twice we had to stop because the guard thought we were coming upon the elephant.  When asked what to do if we did see the elephant the guard said - "We won't."  "But what if we do?"  "Then we run...very quickly."  Alrighty then...

The hike included large bamboo trees, muddy paths, high bush and a few times large colonies of huge red fire ants.  We had to run through the ants, as they latch onto your shoes, crawl up your legs and bite.

After 21/2 hours, we reached the point where the gorillas were the day before.  The guide started to look for evidence of which direction they had gone.  For the next half hour, we slowly made our way as the guides followed tracks and broken branches and lead us hopefully to our gorilla family.  After 30 minutes, we all started to get a bit discouraged.  We just knew we would not see the gorillas.  Most likely, we would all be trampled by the jungle elephant instead.

Finally, at right around hour three, we heard a very loud, robust sound.  We stopped dead in our tracks.  Jungle elephant?  The guide smiled at us and said - "Gorillas!"  It was at that point that I choked up and my eyes started to water.  I could not believe we were actually going to see these amazing beasts cruising around the jungle.  Our group of six (plus the four guides) carefully moved forward.  One by one, we were introduced to the gorillas, first by the site of the back of a female's head (she was sitting down, her back to us, enjoying a snack) and then by the smaller gorillas playing in the trees.  Again, huge lump in my throat.  Oh my God.  This was amazing.  We stopped and looked around.  Three females, and two younger gorillas were all hanging out, eating, playing and enjoying their morning. We were definitely off the path, in a grove of trees and bamboo on a bit of a hillside.  One of the young ones checked us out carefully and then decided to put on a show for us.  He crawled up the tree literally right in front of us, swung around a bit and then turned and looked at us.  He jumped down, about 2 feet in front of us and started beating his chest with his tiny little clenched fists.  Then (I think he laughed) and jumped back on the tree to see what we thought of his show.  We were in awe.  Our cameras were clicking, we were whispering to each other and I just kept saying "This is so freakin' amazing..."  Ah - but where was the silver back?  After about 10 minutes, we heard the growl.  It was much different from the "robust" sound we heard before.  The growl came and my hair stood on end.  The guides turned and realized we were standing between the silver back and his family. 
"Move back," was the order given, which we all did immediately.  The silver back made his way up the mountain toward his family.  He looked a bit peeved - but as he got closer he was able to see the guides.  Once he saw the guides, he relaxed a bit but continued to make his way toward us.  It was really interesting to see how his demeanor changed once he recognized the guides.  He sat right in front of us, next to a female and the two young ones.  The young ones jumped on him and started playing.  I believe we all started breathing again at this point.

We were able to hang out with the gorillas for one hour.  At one point, a female that we had lost track of walked past Paul to join the group and smacked her hand on his leg - just in case he had any question as to who had the right of way.  The silver back sat with us for a while, and then lost interest on his way to lunch.  He cruised up the hill and started dining on some bamboo, while the rest of the pack joined him.  
The little ones played in the trees and the females climbed the branches to eat the leaves.  One of the females was pregnant, and she kept breaking the branches with her weight and had to swing to safety.  The silver back would growl every now and then, just to remind us who was boss.  At one point, the robust sound returned and we realized it was one of the females passing gas.  The entire family was quite gassy and we were greeted by sounds and smells about every ten minutes.  It must have been all that fiber.  Actually, the guides call the gorillas "chicken vegetarians" because although they eat mostly plants, they also eat ants every now and then.

The guides were taking notes and had GPS locators which they use on a daily basis to track the path and nests of the gorillas.  Our guides were great - allowing us to get quite close to the gorillas but ensuring that we were always safe.  I think we could have sat there in the wet jungle all day - as the gorillas, their gas, playing and eating habits are just a fascinating scene to watch.  However, tourists are limited to one hour per day - so after our time was up we started back.

We hiked back for another three hours - this time going a different way to avoid the elephant.  Our last hour was spent making our way through the local farm land.  From high on the mountains we could hear tiny children's voices yelling out "Jambo!  Jambo!" (Hello!)  The locals would nod politely as we passed and some of them would smile brightly and welcome us - "Caribou!"  "Jambo!"

When we got back to the van, we were greeted by the "tour guide." He immediately approached me with a recorder and asked, "So, how was hiking in the D.R. Congo?  It's not a scary place, is it?  How were the gorillas?" Amazing," was what sputtered out of my mouth.  He seemed quite eager to prove DRC was an o.k place to see gorillas.  As we got in the van, Paul took the memory card out of the camera (just in case we did get robbed!) and we made our way back through the villages and farmland.  We arrived at the border at around five, received our unstamped passports and walked across to Uganda.  We paused at the border, as the local Ugandan immigration post was taking down their flag, which required silence and hands at our sides.  After, we were greeted by our driver, Chris, who loaded us onto the truck and took us back to our camp site.  We were all floating on air...we were safe and sound, we had just spent an amazing day watching gorillas play, eat, fart and climb around the jungle in the D.R. Congo.  In my book - it was the coolest thing ever.
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