Ramble in the Jungle, DR CongoJuly 10, 2017 in DR Congo
Today is the most adventurous day of the trip, mainly because it involves a border crossing into the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the more unstable and corrupt places in Africa. We started early with a 6am departure, knowing that the border crossing may be a lengthy process - and we weren't disappointed when it took over 2 hours!
Arriving at the Rwandan side at 6.10am, we joined our first queue at immigration. After getting the required exit stamps we walked across the rattly wooden bridge (with plenty of slats missing), into the Congo and met the vehicles on the other side. When we arrived, an official asked the drivers to park off the road, so we suspected we were in for a long wait.
After presenting our passports and completing an immigration form, our yellow fever certificates were recorded in a manual ledger. We were told that the supervisor had to approve our access. He told us that another more senior supervisor also needed to approve us, and he contacted the national park we were visiting to confirm our identities. He received verbal confirmation, but had to wait for an email confirmation before we could continue. We finally got the go ahead just after 8.15am. As a side note, our driver paid the first bribe of the day to the border guard who said he'd need to buy some new pens because the driver was using his... so $20 USD should get him a few, and probably got us moving a bit sooner!
The town of Bukavu is huge (population 870,000), but the main steet is mostly dirt with small sections of asphalt among the potholes - the difference between The Congo and Rwanda is like chalk and cheese - Congo has piles of rubbish on the streets, terrible roads and corruption everywhere (our second and third bribes of the day were a $20 fee to enter another district and a $15 "road tax" from a dodgy looking boomgate across the road). Unfortunately we couldn't take any photos in Congo as that requires a permit which was $250 USD per camera!
We reached Kahuzi Biega National Park, 30km from Bukavu around 11am and had a briefing from the head guide before heading out with our convoy of armed trackers/guards/porters - we're not sure if the AK-47s were to protect us from gorillas or guerillas (there is apparently still some unrest in the northern part of the park, but we saw nothing in the southern area). On the way to the trek start point we stopped at another checkpoint where a soldier was collecting cash from vehicles and pedestrians and depositing it in a plastic bag hanging on a post (we didn't see any receipts handed out ☺) - there is a village on the other side of the park and the villagers cut through the park to the local market, an18km journey each way... and pay a fee for the pleasure.
Trekking started with the lead guides hacking a path though the jungle with machetes - there are no defined paths in this park, so the going was quite slow. The terrain varied steeply up and down, from thick undergrowth, through tropical rainforest, bamboo forest, two creek crossings and a swamp, so it was a relief after 90 minutes to spot the first gorilla. These are Eastern Lowland gorillas, and the Congo is the only place in the world to see them. This group is lead by a 36 year old silverback named Chimanuka and has 29 members. We saw about 10, some in the trees, some on the ground, some very close to us - the silverback climbed down the tree and sat in the grass eating about 3 metres from us!
We spent about an hour observing them, then hacked our way back to the road. We arrived back at the rangers station at 3pm, had a meeting with the park director - we are the first large group they have had visit this year, so he was keen to impress us, thank us for making the effort, and appoint us as unofficial ambassadors of his park!
The return journey to Bukavu took longer, but the border crossing was considerably shorter on the Congo side. The Rwandan side took over an hour while we paid another visa entry, then lined up again to get our passports stamped.
We arrived back at the hotel at 7.30pm, exhausted but elated after a long and groundbreaking day. Dinner was again on the deck (pepper steak and pizza), before a very welcome bed!Read more