Friday, 10 February 2017

Is this the world's most life-affirming destination?

Is this the world's most life-affirming destination?

"They look at us with little curiosity – a bunch of tourists in 
masks is not much cop as far as they’re concerned"

In a country long riven by strife, Virunga National Park is a rare success story. It is now one of Africa's most electrifying wildlife destinations, where you can come face to face with Congo's growing population of mountain gorillas 
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo there is more lightning than anywhere else in the world. Of the 10 hotspots most affected by lightning strikes, five are in DRC. It is an apt metaphor for a country that has been riven by civil war and exploitation, but one that is beautiful and spirited and exciting. And there is nothing more life-affirming than sitting on the magnificent wooden balcony of Mikeno Lodge, which overlooks the forest in Virunga National Park, and staring out at a really violent tropical storm.
Actually there are other things that bring home that thrill of mortality – such as spending time with mountain gorillas and camping on the edge of an active volcano. You can do those at Virunga, too.
Congo is one of the biggest and most beautiful countries in Africa, and Virunga is its jewel, the oldest national park on the continent. Established in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, it has the greatest biological diversity of any national park in the world – its 3,000 square miles contain all manner of landscapes and wildlife, including savannah, lakes, mountains, rain­forest, 703 recorded bird species and two seriously active volcanoes.
I have always been fascinated by Congo, but until fairly recently it was not safe to visit. But in the past two years, tourism has picked up fast. This is not a place to see the ‘Big Five’ in a Land Rover convoy with sundowner gin and tonics; it’s a bit more edgy than that.
Anything to do with Congo is edgy; it’s part of its allure. That isn’t to say it’s without royal approval – Virunga enjoys a healthy relationship with the Royal Foundation, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry’s charitable trust, and Virunga’s director, Emmanuel de Merode was a keynote speaker at the Duke of Cambridge’s United for Wildlife launch, in 2014.
The most direct way to get to Virunga is to fly to Kigali in neighbouring Rwanda and make the two-hour drive to the chaotic DRC border, close to the city of Goma, near the northern shore of Lake Kivu. Our guide for this trip is Balemba Balagizi, a thoughtful man who is an assistant conservationist at Virunga. Bukima, in the east of the park, is the base camp for seeing the gorillas, set on a cleared ridge of the forest.
Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002

It has six comfortable tents, and on a clear night you can see the fiery cone of Nyiragongo, which last erupted – catastrophically for Goma – in 2002. Of a world population of about 1,000 mountain gorillas, roughly a third are in Virunga. At 5am, scouts go out to locate them, and after an early breakfast of fruit, French toast and local honey washed down with rich Ugandan tea, we have a briefing from the rangers: put on face masks when encountering the gorillas to spare them the risk of infection; keep seven metres away; don’t use a flash.
There are nine gorilla families around Bukima, and six of them are habituated (meaning expert rangers have accustomed them to humans). We are divided into small groups according to fitness – so the show-off Americans are assigned gorillas living a three-hour uphill trek away, while we make a more sedate journey to visit the Rugendo Humba family (all are named after rangers who have died defending the park), a troupe of nine, including two silverbacks and two babies.
Besieged by butterflies, we are led by a ranger with a machete to battle the thick vegetation. It’s a warm, humid hike along the fertile ground along the edge of the park. After about 90 minutes, he turns and puts his fingers to his lips. We’re very close now.
We put on our masks, and one older man is told to discard his stick – nothing that could be construed as a weapon may be brought into the gorillas’ sector, because although they are used to rangers, they must not become habituated to aggressors.
"I feel not one iota of fear, just a sense of community and 
empathy with them. It is a completely extraordinary

And suddenly there they all are, lolling about, a giant silverback with his chin propped up on his fist like a sullen teenager, his wife sprawled on her back next to him in the dappled sunlight, then climbing over him for a spot of grooming. They look at us with little curiosity – a bunch of tourists in masks is not much cop as far as they’re concerned.
A little one tries to get his parents’ attention, just like a bored toddler – playing with a plastic bag he stole from the army outpost, putting it on his head like a hat. He seems keen to interact with us, but the ranger gently herds him back – this isn’t a petting zoo. When the younger silver­back comes closer, in a faintly challenging way, I feel not one iota of fear, just a sense of community and empathy with them. It is a completely extraordinary experience.
An hour passes quickly. The rangers chat to the gorillas in what seems to be their own language, warning them off if they get close. (Innocent Mburanumwe, the deputy director, teaches this to the rangers – his father was a gorilla habituator.) For this is one of conservation’s great success stories: 10 years ago there were only 75 of the primates in Virunga. Now there are 300.
It was not always a happy story. In 2007, nine gorillas were massacred by bandits wanting to exploit the park for logging and charcoal; their thinking was that if there were no gorillas, then there would be no need to protect it.
It backfired badly: the incident received worldwide press and there was an unprecedented outpouring of grief among the local people and park employees; the corpses of the slain gorillas were borne through the forest like royalty. Seven of the 12-strong Rugendo family of gorillas, beloved by rangers, including their patriarch, Senkwekwe, were killed.
The gorillas are buried at Virunga’s headquarters, in a special burial ground. Wooden signs mark their graves.  
Rumangabo is the HQ of Emmanuel de Merode, who took on the running of the park in 2008, entrusted with protecting the natural resources, bringing stability to the region and prosperity to the local population. Virunga had a golden age in the 25 years preceding the first Congolese civil war – President Mobutu even maintained a camp there – but in the 1990s it was deemed unsafe, and it wasn’t until 2014 that Virunga reopened for tourism.
Emmanuel De Merode director of Virunga National Park

De Merode, who is an anthropologist and conservationist, is really up against it. DRC has a population of more than 75 million and growing – the average family has 10 children – yet there is no basic infrastructure; the country has been called ‘ungovernable’. But it also has huge resources – copper, coltan (for mobile phones), diamonds – and magnificent landscape.
It’s impossible to reduce Congo’s complicated history into heroes and villains, but since Patrice Lumumba, its first democratically elected leader, was executed in 1961, there has been sporadic chaos and a succession of corrupt presidents.
The current incumbent is Joseph Kabila, who came to power in 2001 aged 29, 10 days after his father, Laurent, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Kabila jr snatched a second term in 2011 (after an election tainted by fraud), and was due to step down when his political mandate expired in December, but is still there.
Like many African leaders, he has no exit plan, and now there is predictable unrest as things hang in the balance. His personal fortune has been estimated by Forbes to be $10 billion; the country’s national budget is $6 billion.