My love affair with Africa is one I hold incredibly near and dear to my heart and at times it’s one I don’t feel worthy of.
To be honest for the longest time Africa was a non-existent thought in my world. Until my husband got a job flying helicopters in Cameroon, then Burkina Faso and eventually the DRC. All of a sudden Africa became a very frequent and real thought in my world.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that the relationship evolved from acquaintance to lover. Gael (my husband) had to fly his helicopter from the DRC back to South Africa for maintenance. There was a spare seat available for the trip and of course I called dibs. The plan was to spend a day or two trekking the lowland gorillas and then fly back to South Africa through Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
My adventure started with a flight to Rwanda and then a 5 hour taxi ride to cross the boarder into Goma in the DRC.
I was met by an incredible wonder woman who was Gael’s colleague and now good friend. She is like some underground mafia, knows everyone and everything and can make miracles happen – trust me you want someone like this on your side in Africa. Thanks to her we were through boarder security in no time and began the journey to my accommodation for the night.
This turned out to be another colleagues’ apartment on the banks of the incredible lake Kivu. She was away at the time so I was left to fend for myself! This included finding myself dinner.
Easy enough considering the apartment was next to a hotel with a restaurant, except I had to navigate my way through back roads in complete darkness remembering that I can get lost on a straight road! 25 minutes later (should have been 5) I was at a beautiful setting on the banks on lake Kivu about to enjoy a surprisingly delicious prawn risotto.
The next day I met Gael at the airport and we left in the heli to go to Bukavu another gorgeous town in the DRC where we had the privilege of staying the the beautiful Orchid’s hotel, it’s grounds look like what I’d imagine the garden of Eden to be.
We spent the day canoeing on the lake and drinking very cool local beer (because in Africa your choices of beverages are beer, beer or beer).
The following day we drove to Kahuzi Biega national park met the incredible trackers who led us to the vehicle that would take us on a seriously unbeaten path to the start of our trek.
After about an hour walk with the help our expert trackers we rounded a corner and like a movie a adolescent male gorilla came sweeping down from the sky on a branch of a nearby tree. Then one by one the trackers pointed out the rest of the family who were so expertly camouflaged in the shadows of the trees.
Its not very common to trek with the gorillas in Kahuzi Biega as it is obviously a lot harder to get to, compared to Rwanda and Uganda or even Virunga, so we were so incredibly privileged to be by ourselves with 3 trackers and a family of 25 gorillas including a gorgeous 3-month old baby.
We spent the most magical 2 hours just sitting with them. They are the gentlest and profoundly intense creatures. The mom was so human like with her baby allowing us to admire her but when it was enough she gently covered the baby with some branches. The teenagers are hilarious and are ever ready to entertain and impress. The silverback was so majestic and he even walked right in front of me, so close I could have reach out and touched him.
When our time came to an end it was the hardest thing to walk away I could have sat with them forever, I felt so at ease and accepted.
Our second trip with the gorillas was a little different. This time in 2016 we had the incredible opportunity to go to Virunga National Park. I have been in awe of this place and the incredible work they do for years, to experience it was really a dream come true.
My husband is a friend of the resident anti poaching pilot Anthony Caere at the park and honestly one of the bravest and most incredible humans ever. We were so lucky to be able to stay with him and get a real feel of life in the park and the incredible work that the rangers do. Honestly when I think of all the bad there is in this world I think of these rangers and how they work tirelessly, selflessly, fearlessly to protect these creatures and this earth my heart overflows with love and light – these people are the true heroes.
Virunga is a little more accessible than the rest of the DRC as they offer tours and experiences to create awerness and raise money for the park to continue doing the work they do.
We obviously wanted to see more of the gorillas but we also wanted to climb Mt Nyiragongo – a 3,470 meter volcano with the largest active lava lake in the world. This idea was incredibly daunting to me at first but it turned out to be an incredible life changing journey for me and I think I will write a separate post about it.
This time we got to trek with the mountain gorillas. We we in a group of about 6 people and off we went into the dense and relentless jungle. It was a grueling but breathtaking trek. Vicious jungle ants and sweating humidity mixed with uncharted terrain is no joke. After about 3 hours we finally found the Nyakamwe gorilla family. They were such an interactive family with many adolescents who were cautious at first but then started having a blast playing with each other and entertaining us. And yet again a gorgeous silverback walked right passed me, which is probably one of the best highlights of my life to know such a majestic wild creature felt so at ease in my presence.
We also had the privilege of spending time with Andre Bauma who heads the Senkwekwe gorilla orphanage in the park. The orphanage is home to four gorillas who’s families were killed by poachers. Its remarkable to see the work that Andre and the rest of the rangers do and how they have dedicated their lives to protecting these beautiful creatures, the bond they share is incredibly heartwarming and inspiring.
In 2007 poachers killed nine gorillas in one family, the logic was that if they killed the gorillas then there would be no need to protect the park and the land would become fair game. Andre was one of the poachers who found those nine bodies.
There are only about 800 mountain gorillas left in Africa, almost all of them in the Virunga mountians. There are about 600 rangers in Virunga and about 150 have died in the past 10 years protecting the park. Virunga is an extraordinary place, the last of its kind in many ways and it needs all the support it can get.
Fyling through Africa will forever be one of the highlights of my life. It’s the reason I feel that I know Africa in a very intimate way, I don’t know five star safari lodge Africa I know rural villages, animals in the wild, pee in the bush, get lost in the jungle/field, sleep on the floor, share one pot of food Africa and it’s the reason I love her so dearly.
Journey one 2014
We took off in Bukavu and flew leg one all the way to Tabora in central Tanzania where we spent the night at an awesome hotel filled with stray cats and tortoises and a family of meerkats. Day two was a two-part journey the first leg took us to refuel in Mbeya Tanzania we then crossed the incredible Bangweulu swamps to reach Ndola in Zambia where we spent the night. Day 3 took us to Lusaka, Zambia to refuel then we crossed lake Kariba and Matusadona national park to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe where we spent our last night.
Journey two 2016
This time we travelled with Scott Ramsay who is an incredibly talented wildlife photographer, author, and a good friend. We took off from Goma crossed Kahuzi biega national park to get to a tiny village near Ngoy in the middle of nowhere where my husband had managed to store some fuel for us we refueled then crossed Intombwe national park and then flew across lake Tanganyika to Tabora where we slept is our same little hotel. The next three days of the journey was pretty much the same as the first.
These are literally just snippets of our time in wild and wonderful Africa. I know that these places may not be top of your wanderlust list, they certainly weren’t top of mine, but I hope that after reading this you might reconsider. Exploring these rich and diverse countries that are so often forgotten or seen as just news clips on TV, has changed my life in the most profound ways and made me 100 percent proudly African. I hope that this encourages you in some small way to help conserve Africa’s rich heritage, wildlife and wilderness. I know this is just the beginning of my love affair with Africa, a flame has been sparked and I intend to fan the flames.