The speedboat service from Goma to Bukavu covers the distance in 3 hours and costs $50 for non-nationals, a better alternative to the 6-hour trip with the normal boat. The port was very busy but not noisy. We had to check in with our passports, quite odd as we did not cross any borders, but then again the situation in this part of the country is quite turbulent and sometimes violent. Except ourselves, Michael – who seemed to be following our itinerary – and three Germans, the rest of the people on the boat were locals. The service included a big screen LCD TV playing Mission Impossible and free sandwich and soda. I removed my shoes, ignored the movie and tried to get some rest after the exhausting four hour descent from Nyiragongo.
Upon arrival at the equally busy port of Bukaku, we were greeted by our driver, a computer engineer in his thirties with a very difficult name. He drives tourists for a better income than what the IT industry can nowadays offer in DRC. He learned English in Kampala during a one year stay, but it was really basic so we resorted to French.
It had been raining heavily for the entire day so the sidewalks had turned to lakes. The main road from the ferry port to the town were full of street merchants and shoppers that were trying hopelessly to navigate between the mud holes. Despite the difficult situation caused by the rain, the city looked a lot more advanced economically than Goma. There was tarmac ron most of the roads and the cars seemed to be in much better condition. Here, unlike most African towns I’ve visited, there were sidewalks and signs of industrial activity: a beer factory and a medical plant producing quinine. The city is built at the south end of lake Kivu, with colorful two storey buildings on the surrounding hills. The city is not beautiful by western standards, but it is a far cry from the ugly African town stereotype. As the daylight faded, I noticed a power outage. The driver said that it Is common to have electricity only for one or two days a week.
Our hotel was situated on one of the hills overlooking the gulf. A mixture of foreigners and locals were enjoying a good european cuisine, served waiters in bow-ties. Only the service was really bad. Somehow Congolese waiters in this establishment have developed the manners of their Parisian colleagues.
We woke up early, still sore by the Nyiragongo trekking and headed to the Kahusi-Biega national Park, one hour drive from the city, passing through local villages and farmland. I have spent quite some time in Africa in many different places but I cannot stop being impressed by the number of children you see in the countryside.
After a very basic briefing at the ranger’s post, we drove for fifteen minutes to reach the path that would lead as to the lowland gorillas. Fortunately it was a short one hour trek through very dense vegetation.
When we arrived, the whole group was up on the trees, savouring their favourite bamboos. We waited for about 40 minutes before they decided they had enough and started getting back on the ground. Eastern lowland gorillas are different than their mountain cousins in both appearance and behaviour. Supposedly they are larger, but the ones we saw actually looked smaller. They have a more elongated head and much shorter fur, unlike the thick long fur of the mountain gorillas that have to cope with lower temperatures. Each group has a single silverback, since lowland silverbacks do not tolerate any potential rivals in their group.
Chimanuka is an imposing silverback, a gentle patriarch that takes good care of his twenty-something member family. He spent most of his time eating bamboos but he was always watching over the young ones. On a couple of occasions he approached to less than 2 meters, as it was really difficult for me to back off quickly, because of the steep slope and dense vegetation. The youngsters were very shy and never came close or made eye contact, in contrast to the curious and playful mountain gorilla babies. It might have to do with the incomplete habituation process or it might simply be the way they are.
Between Virunga and Kahusi-Biega, I cannot really say which gorilla experience was better. Different species, different observation conditions and landscape, but both were superb. I think that watching the gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a very authentic experience, much better than in Uganda or Rwanda, but the parks need to take additional measures in training the rangers to avoid any potential safety hazards for the animals and the visitors. This was my third time watching gorillas in the wild and I do not think that they will ever stop to amaze me.
Next: Tchegera Island.