It was July 1995 – I know that as the dates were printed on the photos – remember those days?
Africa, to me, was always the mysterious continent that was experienced by the lucky few and after a year of planning I was about to head off on an exciting Overland Tour for 5 weeks to see the gorillas in Central Africa.
As a teenager of the 80’s I’d sometimes heard of Africa in the news – but it seemed to be in such a far off land I didn’t pay much attention to it. Little did I know that this trip would open my eyes to so much more of Africa than the gorillas.
It was about 2 weeks into the tour, after travelling from Nairobi through Tanzania and Uganda we arrived in Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Virunga National Park is home to the Bulchema Gorilla – a group of 26 – and we were about to go in search of them.
The trek to see the gorillas was an experience in itself as it involved an overnight hike. With a daypack of essentials we had a strenuous 3.5 hour hike, mainly uphill, to the base hut. It was a beautiful walk through villages and farms. All the locals would wave from their fields and the kids would all run up to us and say ”Jambo”and “bonjour” with great big smiles. The weather was warm and when we made it to the hut at 3.30pm we all collapsed with exhaustion. We had a dinner of dehydrated vegetable curry and pasta whilst listening to tales from Bruce, an English guy who had lived there for 8 years on and off filming and studying the gorillas. It was such a beautiful spot up in the mountains, so serene and quiet with views down the mountains with the farms and crops below.
The next morning, we were up at 6.30am to finally see the gorillas. It was a 2.5 hour hike up, deep into the mountain. It was a very steep and slippery climb, but worth it as the jungle was so beautiful. Really green and damp. The sunlight through the trees was gorgeous and we were headed to the place the gorillas were yesterday – up the 3rd hill – but luckily we came across their tracks from that morning. They had moved down the mountain to the 2nd hill and about 15 minutes after seeing their tracks we came across them. It was amazing! I’d been looking forward to seeing them for so long and it was finally happening. We saw parts of the group in 3 different areas very close to each other. Several males and females with their offspring. The silverback was sitting under a tree just taking it all in.
The younger gorillas would come and play in front of us and hang from vines and spin around. One of the males (9yrs old) would come towards us and then roll on the ground or do a somersault. It was like they were performing for us. After spending a privileged hour with this family, the guide and local trackers lead us down the mountain – a 4.5 hour hike.
The following day, as we left Virunga National Park, we came across the huge camps full of refugees who had escaped the genocide. Up to 2 million people were displaced and to witness the camps firsthand was simply unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it and probably never will again. The camps went on for as far as you could see. Plenty of United Nations and Care Australia vehicles were around which was a relief to see they were getting some assistance. The refugee huts were all covered with tarps and were tiny square boxes. It all seemed quite organised despite the conditions and people were along the roads everywhere carrying belongings.
That night around our campfire, our tour leaders told us all about the refugees and the terrible troubles of this beautiful country. The horrific Rwandan Genocide was from 1993 to 1995 where around 800,000 people were slaughtered and 2 million refugees fled Rwanda to neighbouring Zaire. The images I had seen on the news back home the previous year now had meaning and those images will stay with me forever. Several years later when I watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda” it was clear to me just how small this world really is and how devastating the genocide was.
This 5-week trip was certainly eventful when a toothache in Arusha Tanzania had me at a local dentist. I will never forget the nurse saying “the dentist is not in today so I will check you” as she lowered the chair! This, along with an Ebola outbreak in Zaire, camping near a deserted hotel in Uganda from the Idi Amin era, and having to leave a lunch stop by the side of the road very quickly when a military truck with soldiers and guns turned up made for a very memorable adventure.
28 years later Africa is a much safer destination to travel to, with so many escorted tours out there to take you on your next thrilling adventure. Click that blue ‘contact us’ button to explore touring options or click here to read more about Africa.