Straight away I am struck by the flamboyance of the women’s clothing, the eccentricity of the buildings and the demonstrative hand gestures of the people. The land of personality. I am in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in particular, the lakeside town of Bukavu on the southern edge of Lake Kivu.
There is a profusion of aid vehicles (“They look and write” is the opinion of all; if only they would look and learn, or better still look and solve). Bustling scenes. Many people and much going on. There is an energy that belies the need for aid, or better still should be harnessed by the development crowd.
Whilst a fascinating city, my interest was not so much in Bukavu per se but that it is the access point to Kahuzi Biega National Park, named after two dormant volcanoes Kahuzi and Biega, which mean the windy place and the rocky place respectively in the local language. The park was gazetted in 1960 to preserve the eastern lowland gorilla (gorilla gorilla graueri).
The eastern lowland gorilla is arguably the most impressive of the gorillas. The silverback can reach a weight of 200 kilograms and a height of just under two metres when upright. Their faces are more elongated and nose, with its compressed nostrils, is narrower than in other subspecies. In Kahuzi Biega there are known to be 140 gorillas – 12 families are tracked on a daily basis by the rangers – and thought to be about 60 more thus a total of 200; a fantastic setting for a gorilla trekking holiday. Only one group, Chiminuka, is habituated. This group consists of one silverback, six adult females and a number of juveniles and babies, the youngest of whom was seven months old.
As we set off from a tea plantation at the edge of the park I quickly realised that the Eastern Lowland Gorilla is a misnomer. Whilst geographically correct, there was nothing lowland about the steepness of the slope that we had to negotiate. To make matters worse the hard earth of the trail caused to slip and slide and lose our footing continuously – the guide’s “un peu glissé” the first and only understatement that I was to come across in the DRC.
After some two hundred metres of climbing and a lot of sweat and effort, we stumbled into the presence of the group. Unphased by this unwarranted intrusion, laid back and unconcerned the group continued to munch on vegetation, stuffing a handful of leaves into their mouths at a time. They calmly and unhurriedly continued to feed and play in front of us.
It is difficult to get over how phlegmatic the group were, how untroubled they were by our presence. At one point I found myself to be the focus of attention of one subadult female. I had been told not to stare at them or to return their gaze but this is easier said than done. Her eyes were unfathomable yet so compelling. Soft and brown they combined elements of enquiry and acceptance.
Chiminuka, the silverback of this eponymous group sat proudly in their midst, the sheer bulk and size of him dwarfing his brood. He glanced nonchalantly across at us, barely registering our presence and continued to sit serenely. The scars on his face evidence of far greater threats to his harem than us.
Suddenly we froze. Chiminuka moved majestically to his haunches, displaying the full breadth of his broad back and why he, the dominant male, is so named. He moved off to find some privacy.
Left behind were four younger much smaller gorillas who, free of parental scrutiny, took the opportunity to play. They took it in turns to rush each other, roll each other over and playfully thump with both hands.