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The Legend of Tarzan

Infant gorilla portrait, Volcanoes National Park, Virunga National Park, Rwanda (credit Pat McKillen)

The tale of the white British aristocrat who is Africa’s most famous son and saviour sits awkwardly with contemporary mores. Yet Tarzan, the original superhero inspiring the creators of Superman and Batman, and his tale of noble humanity in savage equatorial depths continues to grip popular imaginations, with a brand now worth millions. Audiences still crave his cinematic superhero thrills.

Tarzan’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, never set foot in Africa in his life. A youthful drifter and US Army reject and failed businessman, Burroughs began writing in desperation to pay his bills. Tarzan was first published in 1912 and Burroughs would go on to sell more than 100 million books. When Tarzan Of The Apes debuted in cinemas in 1918, it became the first film ever to earn $1million. Since then Tarzan has been adapted many times for radio, television, stage and cinema – it has been adapted for the latter more times than any book except Dracula.

Yet the real heroes of the African forests are unsung. Little is heard of the Gorilla Doctors dedicated to conserving mountain and eastern lowland gorillas through life-saving veterinary medicine. Even less of the rangers who protect parks and forest. Unlike Tarzan, the threat of death for a ranger is high. Yet a ranger’s greatest fear is not losing his life, but the impact his death will have on family members left behind. Theirs is a legend we should not forget

 

Read about World Ranger Day here and get in touch with us to see how you make a difference on your travels, email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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Nyiragongo: Mountains of Fire in the DRC

Nyiragongo lava lake

“Do you not have volcanoes like this in England?” A straightforward enough question from my guide, whose home – Ibirunga – is literally translated as “mountains on fire”, but I shake my head slowly. 3,400 metres high, on the summit of Nyiragongo – Africa’s most active volcano, standing on the edge of the world’s largest lava lake, I am in awe.

Virunga – as it is known to outsiders – is the oldest park in Africa. Found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is home to half of all biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa. It has been barely explored due to a violent and troubled past. But ceasefires and pioneering conservation initiatives mean there is now a chance to explore the region – home to primates and volcanoes.

Final ascent on Nyiragongo Earlier that day, I left Goma, through a spectacular landscape of rolling green hills, where maize and banana plantations abound. The richness of the volcanic soil and the sheer number of people living here, mean every inch of countryside is given over to growing food. It is a sad irony that this region, which is so fertile and full of life, lies within a country associated with so much destruction.

The farther from town we travel, the more relaxed the atmosphere. Women’s colourful pagne wraps (known as kikois and kangas elsewhere) stand in stark contrast to the lush, green vegetation. They stop and wave as I pass, children playing at their feet. It is an idyllic scene and one that is hard to reconcile with the images of the DRC I am used to, but the UN bases and decaying anti-aircraft guns I pass are a stark reminder of the fragile peace that exists.

Arriving at Nyiragongo Headquarters, later that same morning, we are welcomed by the head ranger, who asks for our official permits and passports before we sign in. We are then given a backpack filled with brand new equipment, courtesy of the park. There are excellent quality sleeping bags, a whole outfit of merino-wool layers, waterproofs and down jackets – all so good that I leave my own gear behind.

Climbing through vegetation on Nyiragongo

After a briefing in French, we are about to begin our ascent, but – almost falling down the path – come two fellow travellers. Returning from a night on the summit, they look in bad shape. Seeing our worried looks, they turn to us in passing and say simply: “It’s tough.” Before collapsing into the back of a waiting 4WD, and promptly falling asleep.

Undeterred, our small group head out, following the path through the lower levels of the park, over a challenging terrain of loose, volcanic rock. The scenery changes from high forests, mountain meadows and gnarled trees, through to Afro-alpine vegetation, dotted with yellow and pink flowers.

Huts on Nyiragongo

After a number of stops, to take on water and eat our (delicious) packed lunch, we reach our last resting point before the final 200-metre ascent. Looking back out across the valley is spectacular, a prehistoric land of forest and river, dotted with villages. Goma is being swallowed up by the vegetation that surrounds it, with Lake Kivu glowing orange in the afternoon sun.

The final push is tough, a steep hike across solid rock, devoid of any vegetation, providing little shade or comfort and hard under our aching feet. With the summit in sight and steam billowing from the top, we find reserves of strength and race up to the lip of the caldera. Breathing hard, we peer over the edge.

We can hear the lava, like a distant storm, but can see nothing. Thick cloud and steam obscure the view. As the wind blows, we catch a tantalising glimpse of the glow, but the clouds are rolling in for the night, the sun setting and the temperature beginning to drop.

Feeling somewhat deflated, suddenly hungry and tired, we retreat to our mountain huts, where a hot tea sates our thirst and a pot of stew boiling over a small coal fire makes our stomachs rumble. After dinner itself, we huddle around the fire for warmth. Head torches are adjusted, hats and gloves pulled out and the mists began to clear.

Hoping for a better viewing, we scramble over the path, the moon casting shadows on the jagged rocks, and tentatively walk to the edge. The sight is dizzying. We look down into a two-kilometre-wide crater. Hundreds of metres below is a 300-metre-wide sea of glowing lava.

The surface of the lake is a kaleidoscope of black plates. Boiling and rolling, they split into jagged cracks of orange, liquid rock crashing against the caldera walls, sending bright orange geysers shooting into the air. It is mesmerising. For almost two hours, we watch the ever-changing lake, the glow reflecting on the volcano walls. Finally, we retreat to our huts for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

Get in touch to learn more about our D.R.C. holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

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DRC – Gorilla Trekking in Kahuzi Biega

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 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.

Get in touch with me for more information on gorilla trekking or your Democratic Republic of Congo holiday with Steppes, call me on 01258 787 560 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Nyiragongo in The DRC – Climbing the Mountain of Fire

Justin Wateridge at Nyringongo

The volcanoes of the Virunga Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo are without doubt one of its best known features, indeed Virungas is a Kinyarwanda word that means volcanoes. Chief among the Virunga volcanoes is Nyiragongo, not on account of its height – that mantle goes to Karisimbi and its 4,507 metres – but rather its nature.

“What does Nyiragongo mean?” I ask

“Mountain of Fire” was my guide’s matter-of-fact reply.

The volcano, which contains the largest active lava lake in the world, is well named. It was the chance of glimpsing this fiery furnace that brought me to the region and is the big draw card for many tourists. Yet, whilst a tourist attraction, Nyiragongo and the other volcanoes are a mixed blessing for people living nearby. They bring both riches and ruin. On the one hand the volcanic soil is rich and fertile and hence the density of the population. On the other hand they destroy. In its last eruption of January 2002, the lava flows of Nyiragongo invaded villages and obliterated some 20% of the nearby town of Goma, leaving 120,000 people homeless. The population evacuated the town but fortunately the flows invading the town were slow-moving and there were only around 40 direct victims of the eruption.

Between November 2002 and November 2004, Nyiragongo alone emitted as much sulphur as all the other volcanoes in the world put together. This had an important impact on the environment: in a four kilometre radius around the crater, the vegetation was destroyed by acidic gases.

More recently the volcano has been stable and also, significantly, so too the region. After years of fighting, the area is now opening up to tourists although accompanied by an armed ranger throughout. Importantly for the local populace it means that they can get on with their lives.

Driving to the start of the climb, it is clear that there is so much potential here. There is a latent beauty to the land. In the distance the backdrop of the blue silhouettes and clean lines of rounded hills shorn of trees bar a vestigial crown. The soil is rich like dark chocolate. Everywhere a riot of vegetation. Neat plots proliferate. Banana trees are ubiquitous.

Women walk elegantly along the side of the road, one arm, like a tea pot handle supporting their load. Babies on their backs. Young girls struggle with yellow containers full of water. Motorbikes with several passengers bounce along rutted dirt roads. Children play football with makeshift balls of tied up plastic.

The bush is singing. Music blares out. Horns add to the cacophony of sound.

The houses are built with a bamboo skeleton plastered with mud. On the whole the houses are sturdy but some lean askew, wooden stakes propping them up, preventing the inevitable. Walls of volcanic rock surrounding the plot a sign of pride. Houses of wooden boards with edges painted and corrugated iron roof a sign of wealth.

A wealth of stereotypical images but also the more incongruous. One man in a pink yellow leather jacket, another in a bright orange balaclava. Wooden bikes with wooden wheels and rubber tyres used to ferry loads. There is nothing homogenised about the DRC – it does not bear comparison.

So too climbing Nyiragongo.

White vapour billows from its cone. I gulp ominously, not at the sight of the vapour but the volcano itself. Reaching 3,470 metres, Nyiragongo looks a long way away. It is not so much the distance to the summit – only eight kilometres – but the steepness of the slopes and that we have a climb of some 1,400 metres.

“Malembe, Malembe (the Lingala equivalent of the Swahili ‘pole pole’) is the secret to climbing Nyiragongo,” urges our guide.

We do just that and start slowly through the humidity of the forest. We emerge from the forest onto an ankle-breaking path of small volcanic rocks and eventually onto actual lava flows. We pass the vent from which the lava lake drained in the 2002 eruption. An innocent plume of steam the only remnant of a violent past.

The path begins to climb steeply and the vegetation changes. The temperature drops yet my sweat levels rise. My breathing quickens, my pace slows. After a gruelling six hours we reach the summit, nagged by the question as to whether it was worth it.

The jagged edges of the rim of the volcano plunged into a crater of billowing smoke and cloud. I could see nothing. Where was the lake? How deep was it? How big was the crater? Sensing my disappointment Charles, our guide assured us that it would clear.

Struck by cold and fatigue I was not sure. My only thoughts were to descend a few metres to the refuge of the basic huts and put on some more clothes to keep the biting wind at bay.

Fed and clothed a red glow appeared across the night sky, not just metaphorically but literally. The cloud had cleared and I scrambled quickly back to the crater’s edge. I gasped in awe at the size of the two kilometre crater in front of me. But it was the sight of the crashing and roaring of the boiling lava lake that was truly mesmerising. A cauldron of magma bubbling away and occasionally spurting and frothing. Its red-orange surface riven by red lines as if boundaries on an ever-changing map. Transfixed I stared and stared. Nyiragongo is well named.

Keen to start your adventure? Call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more advice.

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Film Review | Virunga

Virunga film poster

The new Virunga film is getting incredible reviews and is a powerful story of an element often overlooked in conservation – the people.

It manages to shine a light on this desperately complex and beautiful part of Africa. In particular the political, social and economic forces at work in a region that despite the troubled history of the park, shows a handful of inspiring individuals trying to make a difference. Thankfully, it does not preach, but allows the drama and personal tales to speak for themselves, gripping as it is from start to finish.

I have been lucky enough over the years to visit Eastern Congo and the Virunga National Park and as striking as the park and wildlife is, the people are what I remember the most. The hotel owner who has stayed throughout the troubles to ensure a safe haven for travellers, correspondents and members of various NGOs (not to https://www.steppestravel.com/democratic-republic-of-the-congomention his rare collection of orchids, which he guarded with a shotgun, whilst soldiers raided his wine cellar) – he is still there now. The park rangers who worked without pay, taking me and a handful of tourists gorilla trekking in the Virunga Mountains, not knowing if or when they would receive their next salary, staying on for passion for wildlife conservation instilled by their fathers, in whose footsteps there were proudly following. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to meet the then head of UN operations in the Eastern Congo at the UN camp HQ, who gave me a frank and surprisingly honest account of the challenges he and everyone else faced in a region which everyone seems to have an opinion on, but very few people know.

In many ways, the Virunga movie is a continuation of this, a chance to understand more about a region that has long been forgotten and frequently misunderstood and the people fighting every day to make a difference.

Visit the Virunga Mountains and Congo with Steppes Travel who offer a number of gorilla safaris, giving the adventurous the chance to explore one of the wildest regions of Africa. Call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more info.

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Gorilla Trekking – The Facts

Lowland Gorilla

The reason for this blog is to try and help you decide which kind of gorilla trekking is best for you, so I have outlined below the pros and cons of each country to ensure you are getting the most from your trip. Whilst I hope you find this useful, it is still no substitute for getting in touch with me.

Steppes have been offering gorilla safaris since 1997 and put simply, our experience is second to none. We helped to re-establish gorilla trekking in Rwanda when the country re-opened its doors to tourism in the mid 90’s, have been given unique access to the headquarters of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project near Virunga and have also been approached by the Uganda Wildlife Authorities to help habituate a new group of wild gorillas in Bwindi. In addition to this, we were one of the first tour operators in the world to offer pioneering gorilla tours to the Congo and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) having worked with researchers from the W.W.F and the Wildlife Conservation Society (W.C.S.) in these remote areas. All this results in some fantastic and very unique experience for our clients and is what sets our tours apart.

There are currently 4 different countries where we offer gorilla trekking, all of which I have been lucky enough to visit many times – Rwanda, Uganda, C.A.R. and the Republic of Congo (NOT to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I have also visited but that’s another story…!)

Rwanda – Mountain Gorillas

Still the best place to see gorillas if this is the main focus of your tour and time and budget are important. The Parc National des Volcans (sometimes known as Virunga Park or Volcanoes National Park) is easy to reach from the capital, Kigali and offers the chance to see a variety of gorilla groups in a mountain rainforest environment. There is also a great range of accommodation, from luxury lodges to good mid-range hotels.

The forest here is a younger, bamboo forest so (in theory at least!) it is easier to track than in Uganda, with more light coming through the canopy and therefore easier for photography. The park however, is very steep in places although as it is mountainous it is NOT humid. Gorilla permits are currently U$750 per permit, per person.


Uganda – Mountain Gorillas

Excellent option for those looking for a more comprehensive wildlife experience who are more flexible on time and budget. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the only place you can see gorillas, but this is a much older rainforest so the trekking can be a little tougher. However, the diversity of wildlife and the actual setting is much more dramatic than Rwanda, although the park is harder to get to and requires an overnight stop en-route. Like Rwanda, the trekking here is done on steep, muddy paths, but is NOT humid due to the altitude. In addition to the gorillas in Uganda there are also excellent opportunities for chimpanzee trekking, Big 5 game viewing, boat safaris and some of Africa’s best birding. It also has the added benefit of cheaper gorilla permits than Rwanda at U$600 per permit per person.


Central African Republic (C.A.R.) – Lowland Gorillas

Not for the faint-hearted and recommended only for those clients who have already seen gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda, or for those who have travelled in Africa extensively. Access is by charter flight (so is best done as part of a group) and the lodges are very remote – so once you are there, everything is included, which is reflected in the price. You will find lowland gorillas in the Dzanga Sangha National Park (sometimes called Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve) and on our tours you will join wildlife researchers as you track them through thick, dense and very humid tropical lowland forests, wading through streams and plenty of mud! Accommodation is simple, but comfortable and there are other activities such as visiting the Bias (forest clearings) where you find forest elephants, as well as pirogue fides and forest walks with the local Ba’Aka community. A very wild adventure!


Republic of Congo

Almost identical in environment to C.A.R., the lowland tropical forest is home to gorillas in Odzala and Nouabalé-Ndoki national parks and Mbeli Bai. Access is still difficult, but there are now regular charter flights in and out, particularly for trips to Odzala where a new upmarket lodge has been built, but costs still remain high. Ndoki and Mbeli Bai are only really accessible as part of our longer 13 day Congo and C.A.R. tour.

The thing to bear in mind is that travel in the C.A.R. and the Rep. Of Congo is full of challenges – things change at the last minute, flights can be seriously delayed and it is hot, and very sweaty trekking. That aside, it still allows for one of the most thrilling wildlife adventures in the heart of Africa and is not to be missed!