We’v returned from the jungle with minimal ailments and tons of great memories. I know these are the types of pictures you wanted to see when we decided to move to the Congo, so enjoy!
1. Mbeli Bei
A bei is like a swamp in the middle of the jungle. They were only recently discovered by westerners and are a great place to study animals because it is a clear meadow where animals frequent on a regular basis. At Mbeli Bei, the primary research is identifying gorillas, elephants and sitatungas that come to the bei. There have been approximately 600 gorillas and 300 elephants that have been identified over the years. Currently about 150 of each come to the Bei.
At the Bei we met a young research, Janna, who is posted at the Bei to research for one year. Imagine, a year in the forest! Usually, there are four researchers, but for one reason or another, it was just her. This gave us the opportunity to hang out on the research platform (higher that the tourist level) and visit with her. Let me tell you, there is drama at the Bei. Those gorilla groups keep life interesting! Over our 1.5 days viewing the Bei we saw multiple gorillas, elephants, sitatungas, a debrazza monkey, a crocodile and an eagle eat a fish. Pretty busy days.
One more thing…. Matt would like to report that he has named a gorilla. When a new baby is born, the researcher who sees the baby, gets to name it. The day before we arrived, Janna spotted a new baby. Now, there are some rules to naming, which made this one particularly difficult. The new gorilla should follow the theme of the group, this group is hairstyles, i.e. afro, mohawk etc. It should start with the same letter as its mom, “I” in this case, and the first three letters should be unique to the gorilla population. Matt suggested Ibrow (eyebrow). Fitting hey? Janna approved, and after approval from her boss, it will be official that Matt has his own gorilla out in the jungle.
After spending two days at Mbeli Bei, we hiked about 10km into our next camp. The hike was absolutely beautiful. It included wading through a swamp for about 20 minutes. If that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in the jungle, I don’t know what will. As we hiked, I kept my eye out for figs. (Short back story: I’ve never had a fresh fig, but I’m positive I will like them. I read that chimpanzees eat them in the jungle, so I thought this was my chance! It became quite a topic on the trip. From researching in guide books, to asking researchers and cracking open every fruit I could find, I still have not seen a fig.)
This camp was a bit more rustic, but very nice. It was situated on a little creek where you could swim; however, after Matt was nearly swallowed by the most giant leech, I decided the creek was more suitable for washing clothes.
Our main tourist activity at this camp was visiting a group of habituated gorillas. In order for the group to become fully habituated, they must be around people for about 7 years. The trackers at the camp go out and find the groups everyday and spend the day around them so that they are comfortable around people. It is important to remember that the gorillas are still wild animals. You cannot touch them or frighten them because they might attack. Typically, you stay about 7 meters away from the gorillas, but that is still pretty close.
Matt and I followed Buka’s group and the rest of our group observed Kingo’s group. (The pictures are of Kingo’s group because they had a better camera) Since it rained the night before our trek, the gorillas were difficult to find. We got to hike through the jungle with trackers who were literally hacking a path through the thickets. We even came across a viper on the trail! The first gorilla we came across was Mobimba. He is part of Buka’s group, but he is growing up and often goes off on his own. This was a highlight of our trip. We saw him eating, yawning, sleeping and most exciting…chest pounding. It is such a crazy sound. He moved right out into the open, stood up, walked, growled and chest pounded! It was surreal. Then….he climbed a tree and disappeared. After, We joined the researcher to see the rest of Buka’s group. They were also hanging out in the trees, but they eventually came down. It was cool to see big, old Buka swinging down from the tree. We followed him for quite a while as he ate. Over the next couple of hours we saw some female gorillas and a younger gorilla.
Another incredible part of the trip was the skill of the trackers. As we walked they picked up old gorilla food, (it is a stalky plant related to ginger. It smells great!) smelled it and told us it was from that morning. They also showed us a leaf that was bent just so, which signified that a gorilla had passed by. We came across their previous nest and then continued to search for their current location.
We were so lucky to visit these sites before tourism really takes off!
3. Congo Tourism (Or lack of)
I put this at the end, so you would see what fun we had prior to explaining Congo’s shortfalls.
Our trip was booked and organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They encourage tourism on their research sites because it is a second income for the society, as well as increases the human population in the forest, which keeps the poachers at bay (sometimes). That being said, we came across several glitches on our trip, which reminded us that international tourists must constantly be reminded that Congo is still Congo when you are on a vacation. I don’t want you to think that our trip was a bust, but we did start off on a bad note.
– The tourism contact person was virtually non-existent before and during our trip. He barely answered any emails, and failed to pick us up at the bus station. We waited about 4 hours to get picked up, after a 13 hour bus trip. Also, when we asked to pay for the trip, so that we didn’t have to carry around 4.5 million CFA in cash, he asked us to drop it off at the church, rather than deal with it himself. But here is the hitch, he is a pastor in the village, and has worked for WCS for a long time. How do you fire a pastor? You don’t. You just work around him. Lucky for us, his assistant was excellent.
– Military Harassment. To no surprise we encountered 4 police and immigration stops on our journey. Did I mention we didn’t actually leave the country? (Well, we did, but just via hiking a winding trail.) One particular stop, still on our 30 hour journey to camp, was particularly unpleasant. We had to pay and get harassed by a drunk police officer in order to pass through the village. Lucky for WCS, we live in Congo, and are not surprised by such military behaviour, but if we had been international tourists, I think it may have been a different story.
– Poaching. We visited Wali Bei, which is known to be a bei frequented by hundreds of elephants. Cool thing about the bei…if you were to cross the water, you would be in Central African Republic. When we arrived we found out that an elephant had been poached in the water about three weeks before. It was recently cleaned up. Sadly, it smelled terrible. Our tracker said that other elephants can sense the death and probably won’t return to the bei for about a year. Apparently 3 elephants have been poached recently. The sad part in that WCS is pretty certain who is doing it, but the government seems to be either “turn-a-blind-eye” or bribed. We were told that the presence of researchers and tourists helps to keep the poachers at bay, so it is important to keep the park populated.
– That’s all I promise…despite the rant, the trip was wonderful, and we are glad we had the opportunity to visit one of the most untouched places on earth.