In Eastern Congo lies Africa's oldest, and likely most fascinating, national park. Virunga National Park lies amongst one of the most populated regions in Africa and it offers an amazing variety of activities and sights. In the same park, you can both hike an active volcano to see the world's largest lava lake and hike the Rwenzori mountains to its glacial peaks. Virunga's rainforest is the home to several endangered species, including the striking okapi and the silverback mountain gorillas, as well as 700 different bird species - twice as many as the whole of Western Europe.
Since Eric and I were in Goma, just near Virunga, for a work conference, we wanted to experience a bit of Virunga and support all the amazing and courageous work of the park rangers and workers. Since our first choice - hiking the active Nyarigongo Volcano - was out of the picture due to temporary security challenges, we decided to dig into our pockets a little further and check an item off our bucket list. The day after the conference, we put on our hiking boots, loaded up our backpack, and trekked into the jungle to visit the mountain gorillas.
After two hours of walking over Congo's lush and rolling fields, into the jungle, and straight up the foothills of Mikeno Volcano, the rangers heard the gruntings of some gorillas. We stopped, trying to peek through the dense brush to get a glimpse, when a spunky baby gorilla came tumbling through the trees to greet us.
Soon, we saw many other members of the Nyakamwe family, 9 in total, and they let us stay with them in their home environment, frequently beating their chests, which we were told is a gesture of welcoming us. We stayed with the gorillas for an hour, watching the mothers and babies interact, and looking in awe at the huge silverback - the male patriarch of the family.
I found myself giggling a lot during our time with the gorillas. It is truly amazing to watch these creatures, who share 99% of our DNA, interact with one another. They are so human-like in their gestures and facial expressions; it was as if you could detect their individual personalities and expressions.
As we wrapped up out time with the Nyakamwe family, the sky started to drizzle, which quickly turned into a downpour. We trekked back down the mountain, slipping and sliding and completely drenched, but so thankful for an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience with the gorillas in Virunga National Park.
To learn more about Virunga and the great efforts they are making to save the park, against so many odds, check out their website: www.virunga.org.
Also, make sure to check out the trailer of the documentary that is soon to be released on Netflix, about the park, its special contribution in the region, its many threats, and the brave rangers who sacrifice so much to keep it alive: http://virungamovie.com/