Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Photo: Orchids Safari Club
Photo: Orchids Safari Club

There’s no way you’re not related. Remotely—very remotely—but still related. As you stare into the dark brown eyes of the big guy in front of you, you just know that you share some of the same genetic material. He looks you up and down, blinks, and seems to nod his head. He must think the same thing, since he’s welcoming you into his home.

The big guy is an endangered eastern lowland gorilla. He weighs nearly 400 pounds and stands more than five feet tall. He has long arms, a broad chest, and an enormous head. His silvery fur proves he’s one of the elder gorillas of his band. The rest of them must be watching you from the dense forest. While he doesn’t seem to think you’re a threat to him or the others, since he’s casually started munching on the leaves of a tree branch again.

This magnificent primate lives in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Central African country, formerly known as Zaire, isn’t considered a tourist destination. Though flush with natural resources, Africa’s second-largest country has been immersed in civil wars for decades. Much of the DRC isn’t considered safe. But the country’s eastern border, along Lake Kivu and Rwanda, is one of the few areas that still receives tourists. The gorillas are undoubtedly a big reason why.

Photo: Photo MONUSCO / Abel Kavanagh (Flickr: Dawn on lake Kivu) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Photo MONUSCO / Abel Kavanagh (Flickr: Dawn on lake Kivu) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Your morning began with a visit to a tea plantation, where you learned about the leaf-to-cup process. You hiked through the slippery jungle trails in the national park. Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biéga, two dormant volcanoes for which the park was named, tower over the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Your guide pointed out an African forest elephant, two eastern chimpanzees, and a herd of mountain bongo along the way. Then, deep in the forest, you met the silverback and watched the gorillas as long as you possibly could.

Now you’re driving back toward Lake Kivu. You’re heading to Bukavu, a pretty hillside city on the southwestern edge of the lake. It was the ancient territory of the Bushi Kingdom before the Europeans arrived in the 19th century. Stop at Glacier du Résidence for homemade ice cream. Walk around the Belgian colonial buildings and the peninsula along the waterfront as you lick your cone. Eventually, find your hotel, the welcoming Orchids Safari Club, south of the city. From the bar’s terrace, you have a perfect view of the city and the lake.

As you sip a Primus beer, you talk about the gorillas, reliving each and every moment you spent in the rainforest. This hasn’t been the easiest trip, nor has the DRC been the friendliest country. But it was all worth it just to spend a little bit of time with the gorillas.

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