Gorillas In My Midst…Part I

15 04 2008

Gorilla 4

Djomba, Zaire


I like warmth and friendliness as much as the next person, but friendly Immigration people always make me nervous.


It’s not that I have an irrational fear of uniforms – although I do tend to stammer and blush even when donating money to the Salvation Army at Christmas – but I’ve long believed that any such pleasantry is the precursor to the smack of latex gloves, a cavity search and quick deportation.


When the Zairean border official greeted me sporting dark glasses, a shiny tracksuit, expensive leather shoes and lots of gold jewellery I was concerned, but when he beamed an enormous smile I knew I was in serious trouble,


We had arrived at the border post of Bunagana at dawn. Sheltering from the already blazing sun, the immigration officer stood beneath a tree beside the dusty road, cigarette in hand, a small boy polishing his shoes. He eagerly beckoned us to a hut furnished with a worn wooden desk, Bakelite telephone, battered electric fan and framed photo of President Mobutu Sese Seko. With a smile he gestured for me to sit down. He enthusiastically opened my passport and flicked through it before noting my visa with evident disappointment. Seemingly dismayed that everything was in order, he hurriedly stamped my documents and dismissed me with a wave, before turning to the next person with renewed optimism.


Outside, children gathered seeking to be our porters for the lengthy trek into the Virunga Mountains. The occasional tourists who passed through were the children’s only source of income and despite feeling uncomfortable hiring someone half our size to carry our day-packs, we soon all had hiking companions. We set off on the trek and our long line straggled through the small town, across farmers’ fields and up towards the jungle-covered mountains in the distance.


Zaire is, and was, one of the poorest nations on earth. The land previously – and now once again – known as the Congo had inspired Stanley’s “The Dark Continent” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Whether under brutal colonial rule, subsequent corrupt dictatorships or intermittent civil war, the people had always suffered and that poverty was very apparent during our trek. Toddlers with distended stomachs waved to us from the doorways of their mud and straw huts while their parents watched shyly from the shadows. We walked on in silence, feeling a distinct guilt that we had travelled halfway around the world to indulge in a luxury that was beyond their comprehension.


By late afternoon, the final stretch of the trek ascended steep terraced fields towards the edge of the forest that marked the park boundary. We were shown to a small wooden hut built some years earlier by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and gazed back down the mountainside over the tranquil hills and fields of Uganda and Rwanda. Black clouds and dense mist rolled in from the mountains and there was soon the crack of thunder and a heavy downpour.


After a simple dinner, a park ranger visited us to explain that there were two groups of gorillas not too far away. He said that we would leave at first light and with luck would find them within four or five hours of hiking.


We spread our sleeping bags on the dusty concrete floor and bunk beds, and settled down for the night. The last paraffin lamps were extinguished and we lay in the darkness serenaded by the pounding of rain on the corrugated roof and the scampering of unseen friends on the floor around us.


To be continued…



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008




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