As we continued to travel towards the mountains, a child threw himself at the back of our 4×4. We were concerned for his safety and the driver slowed as we begged him to get off. He was determined not to.
We finally reached the base of Mount Virunga…Child still attached, we got out into a clearing whereby it’s thick jungle. The child was now safely off the back of the vehicle but he obviously wanted a reward for his kamikaze efforts. You are advised not to give money and this is a piece of advice given by all tour operators when you travel abroad. We were permitted to give food.
Before we could give anything to the child, one of the rangers had pointed his gun at the child. Now you might as we did, react in pure horror, but there are two reasons the ranger did this and the latter I was ignorant to.
The first is to deter the children from begging.
The second is the DRC is rife with child soldiers and he was trying to protect us.
To give you an idea on statistics of the latter, children as young as six are routinely recruited by militias and taught to kill. It is estimated that 8-16 year olds make up 60% of combatants in the region. A Unicef report from 2018 confirmed “As the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faces an increasing number of conflicts, children are increasingly becoming victims of violence, and of violations of their rights. UNICEF is particularly preoccupied by the significant number of children who are used as combatants, transports, spies, chefs, or sexual slaves within armed groups and militias, at the centre and to the east of the country.” (https://www.unicef.org/drcongo/en/press-releases/thousands-children-continue-be-used-child-soldiers)
Myself and two of the Australian’s I was travelling with jumped in front of his gun and begged him not to shoot. Stupid, I know, but I have a natural tendency to put others before me and try to protect. I don’t know why, maybe because I am a big sister and I have always had to be responsible, but all I know is it is a natural reflex and one day I may come off worse.
The ranger put his gun down and we gave food to the child who quickly smiled and then ran off. It was now time for to climb the mountain.
I was to have a ranger next to me specifically to ensure I made it to the top as I was still a little breathless from the infection and the air would be getting thinner the higher we climbed.
The climb up Mount Virunga took 2 hours and it was incredibly challenging. It was humid and the further we climbed the cloud cover brought drizzle and you then ended up a little cold and very wet. The rangers had large machetes and hacked away to make a path through the jungle so you can continue through.
Half way up I started to feel a stabbing sensation in my ankle. Initially my ranger thought I was running into breathing difficulties as I was bending over and wheezing a little. Because of the thinning air, I was struggling a little for breath as my lungs were still recovering but also, something which I initially thought a large thorn was causing me a lot of pain in my ankle.
The ranger and I then spot the cause of my pain…
It’s a Siafu!
Siafu is a species of ant. They’re also the only species of ant that could potentially devour you, also known as the African driver or Safari ant. They are not as bad as they are in the movies (Indiana Jones 4), but are known (or at least rumoured) to have killed infants. The issue is that you are not moving, so they can attack you and you can’t do anything. These critters live up to their reputation and are brutal. They are approximately six inches in size and they’re aggressive!
Here I was in the middle of the jungle, wheezing with this Rottweiler of an ant literally chomping away at my ankle through thick socks and I was literally beating the crap out of this thing to get it off and we were considering fire as an option! This thing was determined my ankle was biting material. I hit it with sticks, used my hands, tried tugging it, the ranger is doing the same and we even whacked it with the butt of his machete to remove it and it was only after 15 minutes of our onslaught defence, it finally let go and I was left with a slightly bruised and bloodied ankle! I do not recommend ever meeting one of these ants! They really are vicious.
We pressed on up the mountain and two litres of water later and one sore bloodied ankle, we arrived in the presence of our hosts… The Mountain Gorillas of Virunga…
I was overwhelmed with emotion to be in the presence of these truly magnificent primates. To give you a feel for the atmosphere as words simply won’t do it justice. I have inserted this short clip I took.
Here are a few more facts you may or may not know about Mountain Gorillas and I have already covered we share 98% of our DNA with these magnificent primates. It is estimated only 1,063 remain in the wild according to the latest census results (which come out every 5-10 years). They live in two isolated groups and live at high altitudes (hence my two hour climb up Mount Virunga). This is between, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
They are one of the largest and most powerful primates on the planet and the males can weight up to 30 stone (420 pounds). Most mountain gorillas live in stable family groups of around 10 individuals, with one dominant male and several females. Both males and females in the group care for their infants; hugging, carrying and playing with them.
When they get older, most males and around 60% of females then leave their birth group to join another troop. This helps prevent inbreeding. Going back to my experience.
The mother which you can see with her baby, had initially charged us as a warning to keep our distance and as I had seen the movie Gorillas in the Mist and Dian Fossey documentaries, I did what she had all those years ago and pretended to be one of them, picking up leaves and pretending to eat. The mother relaxed and we spent a few hours with them, not realising how fast this time passed before we had to head back down the mountain.
We didn’t initially see the Silverback until we were about to descend the mountain whereby it was dusk when we reached the bottom. As we embarked on our journey back to the border by vehicle there was a glow in the night sky and unfortunately I was unable to capture this due to us moving and the darkness. In the distance we could see the glow and start of the eruption of Mount Nyamulagira. The orange glow of lava lighting up the night sky in the distance.
We finally reached the border, still filled with the excitement of having the privilege of being in the presence of the Gorillas. This is where my French (which is horrific) had to make a sudden improvement as I was approached by one of the rangers. “Je vous aime beaucoup” He says to me… I look at him a nervously and with suspicion and respond “moi, non parle français!” I proceed to hide behind one of my travel companions..
In the DRC French is the official language and widely used , there are four national languages: Kikongo (Kituba), Lingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba.
We cross back over the border and head to camp in Kisoro to retire for the evening and refresh before heading onto Lake Bunyonyi the following morning…