Thursday 14th September
So another 7am pick-up by Martin and we were off to KBNP for our second trek.
On our way through town something happened that was to become quite a common occurrence. Martin was flagged down and asked to stop by the police. A female police officer came over to his window and asked for his documents. Martin pulled out a big dog-eared brown envelope and proceeded to pass her various permits and licences and photocopies and all the while they were having a long and fairly heated debate. This was all in a mixture of the local language and French so a bit tricky to follow. After about 15 mins and a lot of tutting and head shaking by the police officer, Martin was given back all his documents and allowed to go.
Martin explained that he had been stopped because his vehicle has Rwandan registered plates but this was just an excuse because all they really want is a bribe and because he wasn’t prepared to pay one he had to go through the time wasting rigmarole of arguing it out and going through his docs. He said this kind of thing was becoming more frequent as the police are paid very badly and that’s when they are paid at all.
“Life is hard in Congo”.
Then just to reinforce this, when we came to the toll road barrier and Martin went into the hut to be passed through there appeared to be another debate going on. This took 20 minutes or so and then he finally came back to the vehicle. The barrier went up and we went through. We asked what had happened. Apparently when you buy the toll permit which is $2.50 each way it is supposed to be valid for 5 days, but even though he paid for it when we went through yesterday they wouldn't accept this and wanted him to pay again. He showed them the stamped permit but they tore it up in front of him and made him pay for a new one.
"Life is hard in Congo".
We reached KBNP without further issue and was again greeted like old friends by Juvenal. There were no other tourists today but there was a researcher from the UK studying Duikers, she was interested in the habitat in KBNP and had come along for a trek. Two vets from the Tchimpounga Primate Sanctuary in Pointe Noire, Congo Brazzaville and a worker from the Lwiro Primate Sanctuary in South Kivu. Lwiro can be visited easily from KBNP and Martin had actually arranged for us to go there yesterday but we ran out of time as the trek took so long. It does very good work mainly with chimpanzees but also other species of monkeys and apparently well worth a visit.
Lambert came to tell us that the Chimanuka group had definitely been found, but a long way away, so we would visit them on our own while the 4 girls would go to see Bonane group as they were situated much closer.
We all set off down the forest road and stopped at the same trailhead as yesterday. We all followed the initial trail then we left with guide Jacques to find Chimanuka and the others went with Lambert. Jacques had almost no English but Lambert had left him with strict instructions to get us to Chimanuka (possibly at all costs judging by some of the terrain we were to go over).
So off we went through some very dense forest.
We walked for nearly 2 hours when we came off the trail completely, we thought we must be close and on the final walk in but instead we think the group must have moved because we were now going down steep hills and crawling through almost impenetrable bamboo tunnels then up hills again. This went on for another hour and was probably the toughest gorilla trek we had ever done. Finally Jacques stopped and gave us masks to put on, we were close!
We saw one female straight away who took a quick look at us but then ambled away.
We couldn’t see any others, we looked at Jacques, he looked up at the trees and pointed. They were up there, including Chimanuka himself. We would have to wait. So we settled down to wait, pleased we had finally found them but desperately hoping they would come down.
Watching and waiting.
Finally after about 20 minutes there was movement. A female slithered her way down and sat at the bottom of the tree watching us. Then she walked past us and another came down, then a youngster and another. One by one they came down the same tree, sat for a few moments then walked by. Not all the group was there but the last to come down was Chimanuka. Quite amazing to see such a huge gorilla climb so easily. However once down he promptly found the nearest vegetation and nestled inside almost out of sight. Jacques and the rangers did their best to pull some of it away so we could see him which was great although photos were still difficult. Then eventually he wandered off and our time was up.
Female at the bottom of the tree she had just climbed down.
Youngster climbing down
Sat with Mum
Video showing some of the gorillas coming down the tree.
Chimanuka looking for somewhere to sit
And off he goes.
But that wasn’t to be the end of our gorilla viewing today.
On the way back, (which thankfully wasn’t as strenuous as the walk in), we could see something was going on as the rangers were looking excited and signalling to each other, then Jacques told us to stop and wait. He whispered ‘Mpungwe group coming’. After a minute a female with a youngster on her back crossed the trail in front of us, then another female and youngster by her side. Then we saw Mpungwe, he was stood on all fours guarding the trail while his group crossed over. He then moved away and we could see a big blackbuck sat behind him. Mpungwe is the only group that has another adult male. He is called Tulia which means calm in Swahili.
Female and youngster crossing
With Mpungwe guarding the trail
So how lucky was that! We managed to see all three habituated gorilla groups in two days.
Group photo at the end of the trek.
We got back to the HQ at around 3pm where Lambert was waiting to congratulate us on finding Chimanuka. He was very pleased we had made it to the group and confirmed that they had indeed started moving again after the trackers had originally found their trail in the morning.
A word on tourist group size here at KBNP. Just like Rwanda and Uganda the maximum number of tourists that can visit any one gorilla group each day is eight. However, in practice you are unlikely to have that many at present. Tourist numbers are just not that high. The park recorded just over 1000 visits last year and many of them may be researchers and aid workers like today’s group as opposed to ‘ordinary’ tourists.
The permit price of $400 is extremely good value especially when compared to the cost in Rwanda of $1500 and particularly when you consider we had one private viewing and only shared the other with two people. It makes a really big difference to the experience.
We very much enjoyed the visits to Kahuzi-Biega and were quite sorry to leave for the last time. The people are wonderful and passionate and very friendly but the Park needs more visitors. For anyone thinking of going to DRC I would definitely recommend combining Kahuzi-Biega with Virunga. It doesn't take that much more effort and is a great way of seeing more of the Eastern region.
Sadly it wasn't Martin's day today. Back into Bukavu town, and we were going round a roundabout when a police officer jumped out in front of him and made him stop. Well there was a lot of hands in the air and shouting 'quoi, quoi'? from Martin but undeterred the policeman came over, then out came the battered brown envelope, documents passed, and again a long and protracted argument entailed. We amused ourselves by watching the buildup of traffic all around us with horns blaring as we were still on the roundabout and holding everything up. Eventually we were let go, with poor old Martin shaking his head.
"Life is hard in Congo".
When he dropped us back at the Orchids we had a little discussion about how our transfer to Virunga was going to work tomorrow.
To get the vehicle up to Goma, Martin was going to start the long drive now and into the night, back across the border and up the lake road on the Rwandan side. I think this takes around 6-7 hours. We were to be met at breakfast in the morning by someone to take us down to the jetty to catch the fast boat to Goma via Lake Kivu. Martin had arranged for this chap to meet us at the hotel now so we knew who would be collecting us in the morning, he also gave us the boat tickets. Then someone called Thierry would meet us off the boat at Goma where Martin would catch up with us again around lunchtime. All sorted!
Just before sunset we left the hotel to walk up the road nearby to get a higher view of the other peninsulas jutting into the lake. At this time of year the air is still very dusty from dry season.
That was Lambert telling us to stop moving back. When Bonane got up he ushered us back a short way then told us to stop. So nothing was upsetting him just us giving him a bit of room in case he wanted to go past us.
Thank you @wilddog, @pault, @COSMIC RHINO
Wilddog... The doctor is not at all concerned about 24 hours of flight time, so I'd imagine an hour flight wouldn't be a problem (but I didn't ask that specific question.) He has severe arthritis in his big toe and all that entails with that; he's having the bone spurs removed and a plate put in.
Pault... what would your recommendation be other than Namiri Plains? (We are leaning heavily towards Saruni and Kenya, though.)