20 kilometers to the West, on the Congo side of the Rwanda/Congo border lies a small and rather unimportant city, at least for most people: Goma. For me it used to be home, a quarter century ago. This was a couple of years before things went really bad in the Congo and it became the modern day dark heart of Africa. I was only 6 years old back then, but I still remember enough fragments to form a coherent picture, and now that we were coming closer to the border those fragments were starting to multiply and become more vibrant, like a familiar smell that triggers a long forgotten memory. The partially overcast skies, not heavy with rain anymore but still dark enough to signalize that the rainy season just ended; the red earth forming a strong contrast to the green, lush and humid vegetaion, and above it all, the Nyragongono, showing his menacing silhouette in the distance. But nostalgia was not the reason we came here – we came for the gorillas.
Our stay was at Kisoro, right at the Ugandan border. This place used to be very unsafe a couple of years back; there are quite a few Congolese refugee camps nearby and a lot of people were desperate. If was unwise to go out at night, to say the least, and life was worth less than a couple of dollars. But things have improved a lot since then, there are now better integration plans for the refugees and armed guards patrol day and night. We didn’t feel threatened at any point, it was rather the opposite. The plan was to track the mountain gorillas of the Bwindi National Park. There a few reason we chose Bwindi instead of Virunga. First of all it is significantly cheaper (the Virunga is tracked from the Rwanda side), but most importantly, as mentioned before, the Virunga is shared by three borders and unauthorized border crossings are taken very seriously by anyone except the gorillas. This diminishes the chances to see them significantly.
It was a very early rise for us on the day of the hike, as the length of the track is unpredictable. Some people will stumble across the gorillas after two hours of hiking and some will be searching for more than seven hours (the hike out not included). I heard that last year one of the gorilla families was right at the parking lot. What makes this whole endeavour so unpredictable is that those guys are constantly on the move, and unlike us they don’t need machetes to move through the bush. Two of the guides started a couple of hours ahead of us, trying to track one of the groups by following the traces from their last known location. The majority of the hike is on a steep dirt path surrounded by dense vegetation. It is a bit strenuous but nothing too serious – the hard part starts when the vanguard finds the gorillas. From there on it’s a straight line through the bush, and let me tell you this is some serious bush bashing. You will find yourself stepping on layers upon layers of vegetation, treacherous footing that you will lose more often than not, while fighting ants, prickles and mud – obstacles who’s only purpose seem to be to make your life miserable. But then it happens; we found the big apes after 3 and a half hours. Nothing can prepare you for the first time your eyes fall upon the silver back. His mass and sheer size is something that seems to be palpable in the air. We were allowed to spend one hour close to the family, most of the time not further away than a couple of meters. After a while the gorillas stopped moving and the silver back lied down for an afternoon nap. And that is how we spent the rest of our time – apes and man holding a siesta in the jungle of the Bwindi ranges.
On the way back I tried to catch another glimpse of the Nyragongo, but this time the volcano was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds and mist, almost as if it never existed. On the morning of the hike I was making plans to go to the Congolese border with one of the locals, chasing childhood memories long lost, but the gorilla hike took too long and we were leaving the next day. Two days later an armed conflict broke out between Rwanda and the Republic of Congo and most of the fighting was done in Goma. It was time to let go. The Congo of 1986 is a place that only exists in dusty nooks of old memories and on sepia bleached photos.
Goma of 1986