Volcanoes and mountain gorillas | VailDaily.com

Volcanoes and mountain gorillas

Kelly Hatch
Daily correspondent
Vail CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Mike Valigore

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is usually not the first travel destination that comes to mind for most travelers. The mere mention of the country conjures thoughts of war, rebels, corruption and impenetrable jungles. However, what is hidden in these dense, war-torn jungles is precisely what intrigued us to visit and what eventually became the highlight of our 18-week trip through Sub-Saharan Africa.

We crossed into the DRC through the Rwandan border post in Gisenyi with help from David, a native Congolese and self-proclaimed tour guide. Our first stop was Goma, a refugee town five kilometers from the border. The United Nations presence here was easily recognizable by aid planes and tanker trucks, sand bag bunkers, barbed wire compounds, and international soldiers in high posts. Not surprising, since the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II has been occurring in this part of the Congo for the past 15 years.

As we continued towards the alluring volcanic range of Parc de Virunga, the roads quickly went from bad to worse. Along the road, we passed several small villages built atop black volcanic rock deposited by the 2002 eruption of Nyiragongo Volcano, the same volcano we were about to climb.

A glowing summit

At the base of the volcano we organized our trekking permits and were introduced to our mandatory and well-appreciated armed park rangers, Frederik and Babo. They led us on a steep hike over sharp volcanic rock and through an intense thunderstorm that soaked and chilled us to the bone. With hopes of volcanic heat we scrambled up the last bit of the lava rock towards the glowing 12,000 foot summit of Nyiragongo.

As the purple sky washed overhead, the steam flowed out of the crater in billowing pink and red puffs. Leaning over the edge of the caldera I beheld an unimaginable sight: the largest lava lake on the planet. The lava bubbled, boiled and spit, cooled over and broke apart, only to be swallowed back again into the fiery depths of the Earth’s core. Completely mesmerized, I was unable to take my eyes off of it. As the cold set in, we crawled into our wooden hut perched at the edge of the caldera and hoped today was not the day Hell decided to spill over.

Safely down the slopes of the volcano the following day, we wished Frederik and Babo continued success in protecting this incredibly special national park. Making our way back to Goma, we explored the streets and markets in town for the rest of the afternoon before returning to our hotel in anticipation of the next day’s adventures.

Fighting your instincts

Early the following morning, we departed on a 60-kilometer, three-hour journey into the northern jungles of Parc de Virunga for our trek with the mountain gorillas. As required, our driver met an armed park ranger who accompanied us on his dirt bike ahead of the vehicle. It was another long, rough drive through scattered villages where the locals live off the fertile land and, at the same time, try to protect themselves from the marauding rebel forces that frequent the area.

Our guide, along with several more armed rangers, eagerly greeted us when we arrived at the park’s base camp in the jungle, as we were the only tourists visiting that day. We were assigned to the Rugendo mountain gorilla family. Given this family’s tragic history [seven of the gorillas were murdered in 2007 by rebels to undermine the rangers efforts to stop poaching and protect the park], we were not sure what to expect or how they would react to us, but we were definitely curious.

The jungle floor was a matrix of tangled vines. With the help of our guide and his machete, we worked our way through the jungle in hopes of catching up with the Rugendo family. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest when we first caught sight of the gorillas. Noel, the rambunctious teenager of the family, intuitively sensed my nervous energy and proceeded to mock charge me multiple times to declare dominance and boundary lines for the family. Even though I had been instructed not to turn my back and run, my instincts got the better of me. Fortunately, the guide quickly grabbed my arm and pulled me down so I was hunched over and face-to-face with Noel. I apologized for my natural instincts and stood my ground from then on.

A gorilla’s gaze

Our guides and rangers made grunting noises to establish a form of communication and recognition with the gorillas. The gorillas did the same but much louder and the hollow beating of their chests echoed through the jungle. The earthy smell of the gorillas became stronger as we made our way closer to the family.

It is difficult to describe the enormity of these intelligent animals, especially the silverbacks. Knowing they can crush you in a second makes even the most brave fearful, yet the gorillas have no intention to harm. This is what makes trekking with gorillas such an intriguing and unique experience. Most animals will look away from your stare, but the gorillas hold your gaze; they do not just look at you, but into you.

After becoming habituated to our presence to the point of letting us close to the mother of his 6-month-old baby, Bukima, the Chief Silverback, approached us slowly. He then placed his fist under his chin, as if in a thinking pose, and looked us directly in the eyes. He gazed at each of us in turn with genuine curiosity and deep thought. Looking Bukima in the eyes, we saw an intelligent and reasoning being, something we will never forget.

Although we never felt any personal danger, we did witness first-hand how tenuous the security situation in the Congo still is. On our return from the gorilla trek we witnessed the deadly aftermath of a rebel attack on a park ranger convoy. This painful sight inspired us to research, follow and support the continued efforts of the staff at Parc de Virunga. It is up to us all to protect not only the animals, but also the generous and brave people struggling to survive in one of the world’s greatest and most delicate national parks.

Kelly Hatch is a Avon resident. Her and her boyfriend Michael Valigore recently spent 18 weeks camping in Sub-Saharan Africa. More pictures from this adventure and others can be found at http://www.MichaelValigorePhotography.com.

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