Long before I arrived in Africa, I had two things booked: flight from LAX to JNB and a mountain gorilla trek.
The latter took place on November 30th at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. And it was good, but not great. The gorillas were chilling in a tough spot to reach and not very sociable that day. Plus, whenever we were in the vicinity of a gorilla, so was a phone, in the middle of everyone’s field of view. Why? Because one guy in our group just had to get a selfie. And not just any selfie, the perfect selfie, in the jungle, with huge, beautiful, wild animals behind him. By the time our hour was up, he must’ve taken 150 pics of himself not looking at the gorillas and prevented everyone else from enjoying the moment or getting their shots. Brilliant.
We did get a nice certificate at the end of the ordeal and the rains came once we were back at Bwindi Backpackers, so that worked out.
But not nearly as well as my 2nd gorilla trek, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC, for short.
Once I’d settled on going to the DRC to check out the world’s largest lava lake at the Nyiragongo volcano, I figured I might as well see the gorillas while I was there. Especially since the permits were on sale and cost only $200 USD.
After booking, though, I found out getting to the damn gorillas would be almost 200 USD, round trip. So what I initially thought was a steal, became a bit of a nightmare.
I contacted Vianney at Virunga National Park, who was great and very helpful and getting everything sorted out last-minute, but he couldn’t assist in getting me on with a group and did not recommend a moto taxi given the road conditions.
Well, I wasn’t going to pay 200 dollars for 5 hours of road transport. That sum was more than I’d paid to get from the South African border to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania, via Zimbabwe and Zambia. No matter what the road, or what used to be a road in the 70’s, rather, looked like, it seemed far too steep. Besides locals live by the park and I know they’re not paying 100 USD one-way.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way and despite the opposition, I firmly believed that the slender profile of a motorcycle tire would be better suited to dodge pot holes and ravines better than a 4 x 4. And I was right. Otherwise our armed escort to the gorillas would not have been led by….a motorcycle.
Long story short, the armed ranger who was going to lead us told me to forget the moto taxis and offered me a R/T ride for 20 USD. Boom! Win-win.
It was bumpy. And dusty. But awesome, for the 20 minutes it lasted.
Raju and his wife, a recently retired couple living in London but originally from Mombasa, kindly offered me a (much more comfortable) ride in their vehicle. They were great to share the road and trail with.
The road conditions were quite bad, with massive pot holes, rough terrain, and multiple checkpoints. Yet matatus, trucks, and motorcycles were on the very same road. As always, if locals do it, there is almost always an alternative to pricey tourist options. The Chinese will supposedly remedy the road problem over the next year. However, given the minimal progress, I’d venture to say 2 or 3 years. But, I’m a realist, not an engineer or foreign investment expert, so I could be wrong.
Nearly three hours after we’d started driving, we made it to the starting point of the trek. After quick pow wow with the head ranger, who went over the basic rules, were were on our way.
We cut across fields and their workers for the first 45 minutes, before entering park land again and beginning a gradual ascent through a jungle as thick in verdant foliage as it was in humid heat. It was a nice setting for a hike and the rangers were quite helpful to those who needed it…like myself, when I began to experience pain.
A commonality between the two mountain gorilla treks I went on was the recommendation to tuck pants into socks to dissuade black jungle ants from biting. I only have no-shows, so it wasn’t something I could do. I lucked out in Uganda, but paid the price in the DRC. At least until I was getting bitten so much, despite my best efforts, that I was forced to improvise a solution and used my shoe laces to keep the bottom of my pants as tight to my leg as I could.
45 minutes after we got into official Virunga park land, we were told that we were very close and would need to be quiet and get ready by putting on our face masks, and prepping cameras, ensuring the flash was off.
Our trackers were awesome and ensured we got quite close and had clear views. The gorillas were incredibly cooperative and docile for a while, allowing us to be in their presence, as close as 3 feet. The latter didn’t happen often, but at one point we had to go right around a chill female to continue our journey and approach a group.
The final 20 minutes were a complete, and utterly satisfying, bonus that left everyone in awe and thrilled with the experience.
These treks are only supposed to last an hour, but about 299 seconds into our 5-minute warning, the angry silverback put on an intimidating show that made for a fierce finale.
While we were getting a final look at some gorillas, the silverback, hidden by the jungle about 20 meters away, made it clear he was unhappy and began grunting loudly. Then he came into view. And got closer and closer to the group.
The trackers and guides reminded us to stand as still as possible and be quiet as he approached, eventually fisting his way by, about 3 feet from us. The grunts continued and the chest-pounding began. It was incredible. And intimidating.
Having a massive, 22-year-old silverback gorilla clearly establish who the alpha male in the group of biped and quadruped primates is, especially at such close range, was absolutely glorious. I didn’t get a picture because I was thoroughly in awe and completely lost in the magic of the mountain gorilla.
We all left with huge smiles on our faces and the silverback’s show was the topic of conversation for quite some time. The 2nd time was truly the charm as it relates to my gorilla treks and I highly recommend the DRC experience. Smaller groups of people and closer access to the beautiful beasts makes for a more exclusive experience. Though wearing a mask meant foggy glasses at times.
The next day I found out the hard way that because I traveled outside of Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, my East Africa visa was invalidated. I was pissed that the change in policy wasn’t made clear and that the border agent was a jerk. No choice but to drop 30 USD for a single-entry visa. Rut roh. It would not be the last time African bureaucracy would prove inexplicably difficult, but at least I didn’t have to pay for new visas in Uganda and Kenya.
I went back to Kigali for one more long night of Virungas and then headed north for good. An 11-hour bus ride got me from Kigali to Kampala, where, unexpectedly, a birthday party, a wedding, Christmas, and lots of tennis awaited.