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Africa Geographic Travel

Crossing into the Congo wasn’t the most comfortable experience we’ve ever had but it was an awe-inspiring adventure to go and meet the majestic mountain gorillas, making a childhood dream come true for Marcus.

Mountain gorilla Virunga National Park Congo
Mountain gorillas are the most endangered of the gorilla subspecies with less than 800 remaining in the wild © Marcus Westberg

Bouncing around in the back of a safari truck, we wound our way through fertile farmland and villages with grass-thatched huts lost in the lush rainforest, raging rivers and a backdrop of breathtaking Virunga volcanoes.

Along the way we saw colourfully-clad women carrying basketfuls of bananas on their heads, men wheeling homemade wooden bicycles piled high with sugar cane and children of all ages running to the roadside and calling out mazungu (white person) as we drove by.

The bumpy, dirt track took us into the heavily forested mountains of Virunga National Park, where the bamboo and rainforest covered slopes are home to nearly a third of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas. We arrived at the campsite covered in dust and sore from the rough ride, but with a growing sense of excitement about seeing the great apes.

We stayed in basic tents at the Bukima patrol post where we met John, a second-generation ranger who has been working with the Virunga gorillas for over 15 years. We slept badly, set off late and scrambled through the thick undergrowth for hours in the pouring rain, squelching through the mud in our gumboots. Trekking deeper into the dense jungle, we struggled to keep up as the trackers hacked through the hanging vines with their machetes.

Virunga National Park Congo
Our tent at the Bukima patrol post was small and simple but the volcano views were outstanding © Marcus Westberg

All of the mud and sweat faded away when we finally came face-to-face with the wild mountain gorillas in their forest home. We spent a magical hour with the Kabirizi family, mesmerised by the young gorillas as they playfully beat their chests and swung through the branches above us. We followed the giant apes as they moved slowly through the forest, resting and feeding on the green, leafy foliage. Losing ourselves in the moment, we marvelled at their human-like movements while keeping an eye on the massive male silverback whose sheer size left us speechless with wonder.

Protecting the park and its mountain gorillas against the ongoing chaos in the country is in the hands of a small group of brave Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens. Virunga struggled to survive but is now attracting more visitors than ever due to unrelenting conservation efforts. Rangers like John face difficult and often dangerous conditions on a daily basis while on patrol or monitoring gorilla families.

Virunga National Park Congo
The gorillas tracking team was made up of our guide John, an armed ranger, two porters and four trackers © Marcus Westberg

It was heartbreaking to hear that not long after we left these gentle giants foraging peacefully for food there was a new outbreak of fighting between rebels and the Congolese Army in the Mikeno Sector where the gorillas live, exposing them to disease and the danger of getting caught in the crossfire.

We can only hope that the conflict in this remote corner of the DR Congo ends as soon as possible so that the critically endangered mountain gorillas are kept safe from harm and can continue to thrive.

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More information about gorilla trekking in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Click here to support the work of Congolese rangers 

Safari interactive magazine articles: 

Read Morgan Trimble’s article on her journey to the summit of one of Africa’s most active volcanoes in the DR Congo, Mount Nyiragongo

Read Sean Messham’s article Overlanding East Africa, where he goes gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Read Simon Espley’s article on his expedition to see Uganda’s gorillas

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Marcus and Kate are a freelance writer/photographer team, contributing stories on travel, conservation and human interest from across east and southern Africa. They just completed a year in Kenya's Masai Mara where they conducted a research project on wildlife tourism and community-based conservation, including working on projects such as Elephant Voices and Living with Lions. They are a Swedish-Australian couple with itchy feet and a love for Africa, adventure and discovery. To see more photos from Marcus and Kate, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

Africa Geographic Travel