August 26th – The 5.30am bus to Kisoro was again more Matatu than Express, so it was mid-morning when we pulled into Kisoro, the nearest town to the DRC border. A throng of motorcycle taxis vied for my custom, and I squeezed past them and chose one on the edge of the pack. Mounting it with my rucksack on my back and placing my camera-bag on the petrol tank, we lurched off to the Mgahinga National Park office.
The man behind the desk seemed a bit bemused when I pulled out a video camera (but there was a YoG poster behind him, so I had to get the shot). He called for a colleague from the back office whose face split into a broad grin when he saw me. We had met eight years before, when I brought the first Discovery Initiatives (a partner of the UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) ) gorilla safari, and left a copy of Eyewitness Gorilla at the park education centre. He gave a smiling YoG interview and I said goodbye, apologising for the brevity of my visit, and crossed the road to the Kisoro Gorilla Organization Resource Centre.
The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, letting me send some urgent emails and offering much-needed tea and biscuits. They told me (and the YoG video) of their respective activities and I was pleased to pass on a copy of the BBC Natural World documentary ‘Titus the Gorilla King’ kindly provided by Tigress Films for such purposes. As a final favour, they told me to pay off my motor-cycle taxi and drove me to the Bunagana border in the elderly but much more comfortable GO vehicle.
Entering the DRC is often a lengthy procedure, and the border officials couldn’t quite understand why, given my interest in gorillas, I was not going to see the gorillas in the Virunga NP (now that tourism has resumed, that is what most white people cross here for on day trips). I explained about the YoG and my mission, and one officer invited me into his office. Here we go, I thought, I wonder how much this is going to cost me… but once he had me seated, he explained he was concerned about the smuggling of endangered species across the border around here, and was there someone who could help him stop it? Wow! “Mais oui, bien sur!” I said, and promised to pass on his name to various colleagues.
Not so Easy Rider
Outside, the driver of the only four-wheeled vehicle in sight said he’d take me to Goma for $200, but a young motorcyclist with wrap-around shades agreed to do it for $20 plus my last few Uganda shillings and Rwandan Francs. “D’accord” I said, and climbed aboard, again with my rucksack on my back but with my camera-bag wedged between us, there being not enough room on the tank. I immediately noticed an important difference between Ugandan and Congolese motorbike taxis. In Uganda, there is usually a large rack or padded seat behind the pillion passenger – very practical. The Congolese love of style, however, means that every bike I saw between Bunagana and Goma (and Goma is now Motorbike City!) had the same swish design with all lines sweeping up to a small curved handle for the pillion passenger to hold.
Never mind that everyone in Africa wants to carry more than a vehicle can cope with – looking cool is more important. I struggled to perch the base of my rucksack on the handle and hang on every time my driver accelerated, but had to shift positions every few minutes as muscles complained at the ridiculous workload they were being asked to do – whilst looking cool and waving at incredulous pedestrians, of course, as we zoomed downhill.
The road was end-stage degraded tarmac – bumpy, with loose gravel, pot-holes and – every time we passed another vehicle or (rarely) were overtaken by one – clouds of dust. To save fuel my driver, Jean-de Dieu, would switch off the engine on the downhill stretches and so sometimes we were almost silently coasting downhill – zero carbon motorcycling – which felt fantastic until jolted by the next pot-hole or lump of volcanic rock! I’d forgotten just how far it is from Bunagana to Goma, and after two hours or so, I felt as if I’d had a serious workout.
Never mind, I thought, it is good cross-training for the Great Gorilla Run I have signed up to do on 26th September. I’d learned about cross-training during my somewhat inept preparations for my one and only marathon five years ago . The GGR is only 7km, but involved hundreds of people running through London in gorilla suits! Please be among the first to sponsor me a ‘Darwin’ or two (note: a £10 note has a portrait of Charles Darwin on it, and in honour of his bicentenary I propose to run inspired by the Victorian cartoon which showed Darwin’s head on an ape body). I plan to knuckle-walk/run for as long as possible, but if that is too much of a Slog4YoG and my back protests, I’ll evolve a bi-pedal stance and Jog4YoG like the other runners – maybe you can place bets on how many km I manage quadrupedally?
The road took us across the now empty green plains of Kibumba. In the mid-1990s there had been a refugee city of several hundred thousand people here and I could hardly believe how it had changed since my last visit during that time. The exodus of so many families fleeing the Rwandan civil war and genocide made this spot an epicentre of human misery in 1994. I was there a few days later with Dieter Steklis of DFGFI and a BBC film crew, looking for friends and colleagues to help them return home; none of us will ever forget the sight of thousands of blue UNHCR canvas shelters in pouring rain, each one housing a family.
On two subsequent visits to bring clothing bundles from kind donors, I was amazed by how industrious people had used jagged volcanic rocks to build semi-permanent homes, weddings were taking place, babies being born – communities making the best of a terrible situation until their repatriation. Now, the land has been reclaimed by ICCN for the Virunga World Heritage Site, and there is little sign of the refugee city – but there is hardly a tree standing either! It will take decades for the forest to re-grow, but it is already green; vegetation here is quick to colonise newly cooled lava flows, so there are lots of pioneer plant species to take root in the cleared ground.
Clinging on with my left hand, I fumbled my video camera out of my jacket pocket and tried to grab a few images to compare with my 1994 photos; unfortunately the jarring was so extreme at this point the camera kept turning itself off to protect the hard-drive (where’s my trusty OM1 when I need it?).
No MOP, no flight
We finally pulled up at the entrance to Goma Airport, guarded by men in blue helmets behind sandbags. Easing my wobbly legs off the bike I paid Jean de Dieu, picked up my kit and tried to walk normally into the busy MONUC departure area. There was a flight to Kinshasa scheduled for 1500 hours and it seemed as though my timing was perfect, except I soon learned I couldn’t board without a MOP, whatever that stands for, and none of the military check-in staff with clip-boards had my name on their list. People were complaining about the flight being over-booked, and I saw army top brass being turned away, so I realised I wasn’t going to Kinshasa that day.
Eventually I was directed to an office behind rolls of razor-wire where a delightful young lady called, appropriately, Santa, found the email from UNEP-CMS, who together with UNEP/GRASP and WAZA is behind the whole Year of the Gorilla campaign, with my flight request, called up someone on high and smiled saying, “You are on the flight first thing tomorrow morning.” Who says that Santa only gives gifts at Christmas?
She printed out my MOP (effectively a MONUC ticket) and I registered it in another office at the airport. I called Tuver (from Gorilla Org.) and he kindly agreed to drive out to the airport and bring me into town (another motorbike ride – aagh!). It was frustrating to lose half a day but pleasant, while waiting for Tuver, to sit quietly on a lump of volcanic rock by the side of the road watching other people bouncing along on motorbikes.
Several people helpfully told me how filthy my face was from the dusty ride and two separate immigration officials just had to come over to check my papers – it being almost unheard of for a lone mzungu to sit on a rock beside the road. The second was more curious than officious, and it turned out he knew many of the conservationists in town, which is how I ended up having supper with Urbain Ngobobo, who works for the Frankfurt Zoological Society project, assisting ICCN in training park guards and trying to control the illegal charcoal trade.
All the way to Goma I’d been passing vehicles – from the ingenious, home-made wooden scooters pushed by boys to huge trucks piled with sacks and topped by passengers – all bringing fuel for the city’s cooking fires. Some of it may be legal, but much of it is illegal and destroying the forests of the Virunga National Park. The trade is estimated to be worth $30 million per year, and unsurprisingly, the organised crime ring behind it is resisting with lethal force attempts to enforce the law– even killing several gorillas in 2007 . To find out more about a project aiming to tackle the threats of charcoal trade and deforestation, click here.
Read Ian’s previous post here!