x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Gorilla tracking in eastern Congo is no walk in the park

The Practical Traveller On the Ugandan side, the road was paved and formalities were orderly. On the other side, the road was dirt and the formalities were confusing.

Getting to the eastern Congo was quite a journey. I had been in Asia the week before, so I travelled to Johannesburg on the long Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong. Then I got on a flight to Nairobi, and a final connection to Kigali, Rwanda - also known as Gorilla Home Base for the expedition I had planned.

I knew that the Democratic Republic of Congo is a massive country, and also a troubled one. Part of the problem may be that the country is simply too big, with a central government in the capital of Kinshasa unable to wield much influence in the outer reaches of the east, more than 2,000 kilometres away. Instead of visiting chaotic Kinshasa, which didn't have the greatest of reputations, I was happy to be going to the more tranquil eastern side.

My guide picked me up at the Hotel Mille Collines, the setting for the film Hotel Rwanda, which depicted the heroic attempt to stave off murderous mobs that came for people hiding in the hotel. These days, the hotel is back to full service and Rwanda itself is an up-and-coming country in the region.

We rode through the day and headed for the first border, the Ugandan one. Getting across required a bit of waiting and a cash payment of US$50 (Dh184), but no hassle. That night, we bunkered down in a small guest house that accommodated travellers like me who were planning a gorilla sightseeing trip. After a dinner of vegetable curry, I settled in to get as much sleep as possible before an early-morning alarm.

The next day, we set out to the second border crossing, this one between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Making our way from one country to another, I noticed an obvious difference: on the Ugandan side, the road was paved and formalities were orderly. On the other side, the road was dirt and the formalities were confusing. We needed one guy to review my papers, another guy to look at my passport, a third guy to stamp the passport, and one final "chief inspector" to approve everything. There was a bit of a wait as the chief had yet to report for duty, but he finally showed up and off we went.

Visitors are required to hike into the park itself, with the wildlife being secluded in an interior section. I met Joseph, another guide, who explained he had been leading treks for nearly a decade. His assistant showed up with a gun in the unlikely event we ran into problems with animals or poachers, and the three of us began a long hike through the jungle.

The hike went on and on and on, with no sign of the gorillas I had come to see. We found signs of a nearby buffalo, and the guides theorised that he had frightened away the gorillas. Another hour passed as we continued hacking and slashing our way through the jungle. I began to suspect we were just going in circles, and I wondered: would this long trek end with no actual gorilla spotting? It was a long way to go with not much to show for it.

Finally, we caught a lucky break. Meeting up with another group of guides, we received a location check on where the gorilla family had been hanging out, presumably hiding from the energetic buffalo. Getting there required another hour-long walk, but at least this time we knew there was hope.

Crossing a corner, I saw my first two gorillas climbing a tree. Was it all worth it? Well, it was fun, but I still wasn't sure. Then we hiked a bit farther and finally found the gorilla motherlode: a male silverback gorilla with six other gorillas sitting or walking around nearby. We had caught them at rest time, which coincided with play time for the younger ones.

We spent half an hour with the gorilla family, taking pictures and watching them climb trees, snack on leaves, and nap. My favourite part was the "rumble in the jungle" that took place as two young gorillas climbed to the top of a small tree, then playfully fought it out to see which one would fall first. This game repeated itself several times with no clear victor.

As the sun was slowly going down, it was time to say farewell and move on. It was a long day, but unfortunately we couldn't teleport out of the park. Instead, we hiked on and on and on, continuing our journey after the guides took a suspicious-looking "shortcut" that seemed to be going the wrong way. Eventually, though, we made it back where we started. I said farewell to Joseph, my jungle guide, and met up with the other guides who would be delivering me back to Rwanda.

I returned to Rwanda the long way: back over the Ugandan border, then back to the Rwandan border for the third overland border crossing of the day. We drove three hours back to Kigali and I took a much needed shower, discarding most of the clothes I had worn during five hours of jungle hiking. I slept well that night, dreaming of gorillas and endless walking through the jungle.

It wasn't cheap: the trek cost $800 (Dh2,940), not including flights or my hotel in Rwanda. Considering that much of this price goes to the park permit, and only a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit each day, I didn't mind paying. I had seen gorillas on film before, and maybe once at the zoo. Visiting their home in the Congo was expensive and time-consuming but extremely rewarding.

I often encourage people to choose adventure over efficiency. The gorilla trek was certainly a choice for adventure: not easy, but definitely worth it.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 175. Next week: reflecting on the year ahead.