Friend of Intelligent Travel, Molly Feltner, shares this story of sitting face-to-face with a silverback in Congo as one of the first tourists to visit Virunga National Park since tourism reopened in May.
For the first time in nearly two years–following the massacre of seven endangered mountain gorillas and months of occupation by rebel forces–Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is welcoming back tourists for gorilla trekking.
Up until a few months ago, Virunga National Park sat in the eye of a perfect storm of man-made calamities. Rebel fighting, refugee crises, unchecked poaching, and a forest-killing charcoal trade all took their toll and prevented visitors, and even park rangers, from seeing Virunga’s most treasured assets: about 200 of world’s last remaining 700 mountain gorillas.
This past January, however, the main rebel leader was captured and his forces demobilized, allowing rangers to regain control of the area where the gorillas live and take the steps necessary to bring security and tourism back.
Maybe I’m brave or perhaps a fool, but I made up my mind months ago to be one of the very first tourists to go gorilla trekking in Congo once tourism opened. On three previous visits, I’d come to love this hauntingly beautiful but desperate country and wanted a good excuse to go back. So when Emmanuel de Merode, the Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, declared gorilla tourism open on May 7, I called my Congolese guide friend Kennedy Nari to make it happen.
I’d seen gorillas before in Rwanda, but trekking in Congo felt like uncharted territory. After a 4:30 am wakeup call in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, my guide and I faced a 20-mile drive on a bone-rattling road that disintegrated from potholed tarmac to a freshly dug mud track where tree stumps and boulders had yet to be removed. We got stuck three times and at one point nearly caused a mini avalanche when we were forced to drive up a steep slope of broken lava rocks.
The whole way along, the locals, recently returned from refugee camps in Goma, were visibly shocked to see a foreigner heading up to the park and ran from their homes to wave and yell greetings. After a three-hour slog, we reached the starting point for gorilla treks and were welcomed by smiling rangers, who said they were so happy to see me, the first tourist to visit them in 22 months.
Head ranger Jean-Marie Serundori (pictured, left), a 20-year park service veteran, invited me to meet the Rugendo gorilla family, the group which lost some of its members in the 2007 massacre. Since then, he said, the family has added four new members and was doing well, except for having developed a taste for corn and the unfortunate habit of leaving the park to raid farmers’ fields.
It didn’t take us long to find them; the rangers had monitored them all night to make sure they stayed in the park. Through dense vegetation we saw one of the group’s huge silverback males, Bukima, looking right at us. He approached us with great curiosity and began to follow me as I backed away into the nettles, trying to maintain the regulated 21 feet between myself and the gorilla.
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“He hasn’t seen a muzungu (white person) in months and he wants to greet you,” said one of the trackers. I looked into his face, searching for signs of fear or unhappiness at our presence, but he just plopped down, gave a reassuring glace at a female waiting nearby, and began chewing on a stalk of wild celery. Slowly other gorillas in the group came into sight, and went about their business of eating and grooming. These gorillas, who had survived killers and rebels, somehow knew we meant no harm. We spent a peaceful hour in their midst before it was time to leave.
There’s a long way to go before tourism in Virunga is up to the standards set by its sister parks in Rwanda and Uganda. Other rebel groups still lurk in certain corners of the park (but not in the area where the gorillas live) and the infrastructure is basic at best. But the most important part of the park, the gorillas, are magnificent as ever. It will be a hard sell to convince many tourists to see gorillas in Congo, but hopefully, if the security and infrastructure continue to improve, more will come. And the more outsiders come to know and appreciate Congo and Virunga, the better the chances, I think, for creating a lasting peace.
The Facts: Permits to see the gorillas cost $400. You can book permits and arrange transportation to Virunga National Park through the tour company Amahoro Tours.”