Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Window into the Center of the Earth!

Greetings Everyone,
We're in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) exploring Virunga National Park. In addition to tracking Mountain Gorillas, the park's other big feature is a climb up Nyiragongo Volcano. Volcanoes have long intrigued us and we've climbed many but this one has a special surprise on top. Our tour began from Mikeno Lodge where we were given a backpack into which we put our things for a night at the top of the mountain: sleeping bag, warm clothes and water. The next morning we were driven to the Kibati Patrol Post at 6525-feet, the start of our hike. To reach the summit at 11,382-feet we'd have to climb 4860 vertical feet, a fact that many tourists ignore. We assembled at the base to fill out paperwork, get a porter each to carry our backpacks and to wait for the other climbers coming from Goma.

Trailhead at Kibati Patrol Post

We were a big group of 13 and along with our porters, guides, armed escorts and cooks we were quite an entourage. Our multinational team was composed of tourists from China, Botswana, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, England and the US. We got a late start around 10:45 and climbed gradually through the forest to our first break spot. 

First Break

Everyone was doing OK but we had to keep together as one group and go at the pace of the slowest member. We were fit having just trekked in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco but it was clear from the outset that others weren't as well prepared. We climbed more steeply through thinning vegetation toward our second break point. A troop of L'Hoest Monkeys crossed our path. We were in the front so got a view but most in our group never saw them. Just past our second rest stop we paused to check out a deep fissure.  Our guide explained that it was through this crack that lava escaped and started flowing down the mountain toward the city of Goma.  On January 17, 2002 the eruption was triggered by tectonic spreading of the Kivu rift causing the ground to fracture and allow lava to flow from ground fissures such as this one out of the crater lava lake at the top. The eruption lasted for one day, destroyed 15% of Goma and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Today vegetation covers most of fissure.  

2002 Fissure

Higher up on the volcano we could see Shaheru Crater which collected the lava during the 2002 eruption and gave the 400,000 people evacuated time to flee into neighboring Rwanda saving many lives.

Shaheru Crater

Nyiragongo has been identified by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior as one of 16 decade volcanoes. A decade volcano is worthy of particular study in light of their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas.


The climb became much steeper as we entered into a new zone of vegetation characterized by heather, heath, giant lobelia and groundsel. We encountered similar vegetation in the Ruwenzori Mountains to the north when we trekked there in 2003. 

Heather, Heath, Giant Lobelia and Groundsel

We reached our third and final break point at an unused shelter before beginning the steep climb to the volcano's rim. We were among the first to arrive and peered over the lip to an awe-inspiring view of the steaming lava lake about 2000-feet below!

On the Crater Rim

The main summit crater of Nyiragongo is a steep-sided pit with terraces marking the former locations of lava lakes.  Almost a mile wide, the summit crater is famous for the frequent presence of active lava lakes. In February 2016 activity intensified and a new vent opened at the base of the near-vertical crater wall outside the active lava lake on the right side as seen in the photo below.

Crater View

We settled into a tiny shelter just below the rim where we'd spent the night.

Crater Rim Shelters

Nyiragongo's fiery display comes alive after dark when you can see fountains of lava and lake crust being spewed into the air. It was hard to tell the height of these "mini-eruptions" but we guessed hundreds of feet. 

After dinner prepared by our camp cook we donned all of our layers and sat on the rim to enjoy the show. Nyiragongo's lavas are made of an alkali-rich type of volcanic rock whose unusual chemical composition makes the lava very fluid. In fact on January 10, 1977, the crater walls fractured and the lava lake drained in less than an hour. The lava flowed down the flanks of the volcano at speeds of up to 40 mi/hr, the fastest lava flow recorded to date! Tonight, the fluidity of the lava sure made for an impressive display with the ever-changing patterns on the surface of the lake.

Fiery Lava Lake View

Fortunately we brought a pair of binoculars and could really see the violent activity of the lava fountains.

Closeup View of Lava Fountains

It was as if we were peering into the fiery center of the Earth!

Peering into the Fiery Center of the Earth

Nyiragongo Volcano is associated with the Albertine rift, the western arm of the East African Rift Valley. Here the Earth's crust is weakened by tectonic movements that are gradually splitting the Somali Plate away from the rest of the African continent!  Someday a big chunk of East Africa will split away from the continent and become another island like Madagascar to the south.

Albertine Rift (Wikipedia)

We sat in awe until the constant cold winds forced us into our shelter for the night. Early the next morning the lava lake was covered in clouds of steam and we would not get another glimpse of it's immense power. The sun rose over nearby Mount Mikeno creating another awesome scene.

Sunrise Over Mount Mikeno

Around 6:30 it was time to start our long descent. I didn't mind the climb the day before but going down is so much harder on the knees and you're fighting gravity all the way. We proceeded cautiously on the upper slopes to avoid slipping on loose scree and falling.

Steep Descent on Scree

We stopped for a break halfway down for a last look at the summit of Nyiragongo and its steam plume.

Last View of the Steam Plume

We made it down without incident arriving at the patrol post around 11:00. The next group coming in passed us on our way down. We thanked our porters and guides and drove to Goma for lunch. After lunch it was time to leave the DRC and we crossed the border into Rwanda. I'm not sorry about leaving the Congo, the country faces a lot of challenges and it will be some time before tourists feel completely comfortable here. I am happy though that things were stable enough to venture into Virunga National Park to see the largest lava lake in the world!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Long Live Africa's Oldest National Park!

Greetings Everyone,
We're in Bukavu on the southern end of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on our way to Goma on the northern shore. The easiest and safest way to get there is by high speed motorboat. As we were preparing to get underway, fishermen floated past in a wooden boat constructed of three canoes linked together by long poles,  On the front and back of each canoe were more long poles used to connect a very large net. Fishing isn't a big enterprise on the lake these days. Fish stocks are low due to overfishing and the high amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the lake.

Fishing Boat on Lake Kivu

I was a bit nervous about traveling on the lake due to its unusual ecosystem. Lake Kivu is a fresh water lake and along with Cameroon's Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun, is one of three that undergo limnic eruptions. A limnic eruption, also referred to as a lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) suddenly erupts from deep lake waters forming a gas cloud that can suffocate wildlife, livestock, and humans. Such an eruption may also cause tsunamis in the lake as the rising CO2 displaces water.

Lake Kivu Ecosystem (

There's concern that if the DRC and Rwanda go ahead with an agreement to explore for oil, this disturbance could cause the CO2 trapped in the sediment at the bottom of the lake to be released causing a catastrophic explosion. Fortunately during our 2-hour excursion no such eruption occurred and we arrived safely in Goma. Goma is infamous as the staging point of UN peace-keeping forces in the DRC and is the center for many NGO's and aid organizations working in the Congo. Almost every new vehicle had an aid agency logo: UNICEF, UNHCR, FINCA, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam to name a few.

Goma Traffic

After lunch we left Goma and drove for about 2 hours to Bukima Camp in what's known as the "Gorilla Sector" of Virunga National Park. Established in 1925 by the King Albert I of Belgian and originally known as Albert National Park, it is the oldest national park in Africa! The park has had a tumultuous history surviving years of civil war, poaching, the destruction of infrastructure and in 1994 a refugee crisis from the Rwandan genocide. The Kivu War, one of the more recent of Congo’s conflicts, was centered inside the park with rebel forces occupying the park headquarters and evicting the park’s staff. By the end of 2008 it seemed as if Virunga would not survive as a national park. In 2008, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian prince, became the director of the park and things began to improve. He survived an ambush carried out on April 15, 2014 on a road in the park and is still the director today. 

Map of Virunga National Park (

The political situation in the DRC has improved dramatically since then. The park is back in the hands of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and is enjoying the greatest resurgence of tourism and development in its history. We thought it wise to take advantage of this window of calm and visit the park. We arrived at Bukima Camp in the late afternoon and settled into our tent.

Our Tent at Bukima Camp

The next morning we were to visit one of Virunga's habituated groups of Mountain Gorillas named after its chief silverback, Humba. We set off at a brisk pace with our guide, Jean Bosco, a woman from Hungary and two rangers for about 50 minutes until we met the trackers. It was another 10 minutes on a crude path hacked through the jungle to reach the gorillas. We put on surgical masks to prevent disease transmission to the gorillas and one of the juveniles came running out of the vegetation right past us. Jean Bosco grabbed me and pulled me out of the path of the energetic youngster. 

Peggy Getting Pulled Out of the Way

We next encountered 15-year-old Mahindure. He is Humba's son and may very well be the next leader of the group. We were very close, maybe within 8-feet, and I couldn't resist the temptation to have my photo taken with him. 

Peggy and Mahindure

An adult female named Kakule and her 6-month-old baby (yet to be named) were in the vegetation nearby. The baby wanted to play with his half-brother and at one point Mahindure grabbed him by the arm and dropped him at his feet. Kakule was having none of it and quickly retrieved her baby. I was able to get the action on video! 
We moved around to where we could see Kakule and her infant more clearly. Kakule was trying to groom the rambunctious youngster and had to hold him with a firm hand to get the job done.

Kakule Holding Her Infant

Jean Bosco suggested we see Humba, the group's chief silverback, and he was sitting nearby surrounded by his family.

Humba Grooming His Family

Some have asked us about differences we noted between Eastern Lowland Gorillas seen in Kahuzi-Biega National Park a few days ago and today's Mountain Gorillas. Mountain Gorillas have longer fur and a more compact face than Eastern Lowland Gorillas. What do you think?

Eastern Gorilla Comparison

All too soon our hour was up and it was time to head back. When we arrived, I noticed a vehicle in the parking lot with a "Gorilla Doctors" logo on the door. I thought that Dr. Martin Kabuyaya whom we had met in Kahuzi-Biega National Park a few days earlier may be here visiting the gorillas. Just then a man with a " Gorilla Doctors" T-shirt arrived. He was Dr. Eddy Kambale, DRC Head Veterinarian. He was also featured in the 60 Minutes documentary we had seen just prior to leaving on this trip. See our previous post for more information about the Gorilla Doctors and a link to the 60 Minutes documentary. Eddy was collecting vegetation from the forest for Maisha, one of the gorillas at the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage we would be visiting tomorrow in the hopes that he could get her to eat and put on weight. 

Peggy with Dr. Eddy Kambale

The next day we drove from Bukima Camp to Rumangabo where the park's headquarters and Mikeno Lodge are located. We checked into our bungalow and walked a short distance to the Senkwekwe Center. The center is named after the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group who was murdered in 2007 along with three other members of his family by an illegal charcoal mafia. Their motivation was simple: kill the Mountain Gorillas and there will no longer be a reason to protect the park. It is the only facility in the world that cares for Mountain Gorilla orphans. Each of the four gorillas living at the center was victimized by poachers or animal traffickers. In an enclosure were three of the 4 orphaned Mountain Gorillas living here. We went to meet the orphanage's famous director, André Bauma, and he invited us inside. We had to wear surgical masks and clean our shoes before entering. There was one gorilla inside, 9-year-old Ndakasi. Ndakasi was 2-months-old when she was found clinging to her murdered mother during the 2007 Rugendo Massacure. Thanks to the loving care of Andre and the Gorilla Doctors, she survived. Ndakasi has to stay inside while her keeper has lunch because she's a master at escaping the enclosure. The gorillas sleep in this building at night. 

Inside the Senkwekwe Center

It was an honor to meet André and to see first hand the important work he does to save and raise orphaned Mountain Gorillas like Ndakasi and Ndeze. For these two young gorillas, André has become their parent and he refers to them as “his girls.” He was recently featured in an Oscar-nominated film "Virunga". You can watch this inspiring documentary on Netflix. 

Peggy with André Bauma 

The next morning we went tracking for chimps around the lodge. Unfortunately there weren't a lot of fruiting trees in the vicinity and the chimpanzees were nowhere to be found. We did come across some of Mikeno's other resident primates. Olive Baboons were along the road scavenging sugar cane that had fallen from a truck. A female grabbed a stock before scurrying off with a baby on her back.

Olive Baboon and Baby

A handsome Colobus Monkey greeted us as we returned to the lodge easing our disappointment over not finding the chimps.

Colobus Monkey

Blue Monkeys were frequent visitors and we could see them foraging in the trees near the restaurant.

Blue Monkey

On our last afternoon at Mikeno Lodge we went to check out the "Congohounds". Bloodhounds are trained to track poachers in Virunga National Park. They were in a kennel a short distance away.


Tomorrow we leave Mikeno Lodge and head south to our next adventure in Virunga National Park.  It was a privilege to spend time with the rangers, guides, trackers and gorilla doctors who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect the wildlife of the park and to keep it safe for the tourists who come from all over the world to visit.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc


We were deeply saddened to learn that Maisha, one of the Senkwekwe Center’s orphaned Mountain Gorillas, passed away on July 21st after a long illness. We know that André and the Gorilla Doctors did everything in their power to save her. We are grateful that she had 13 years in their loving care after being rescued as an orphan at the age of 3.

Our route map:

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Largest Living Primates!

Greetings Everyone,
On July 13 we crossed the border of Rwanda at Ruzizi and entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have long wanted to come here but civil unrest and security concerns prevented us from visiting. Today there are a few areas safe for tourists and we were on our way to visit one of them, Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Not far from the border post is the town of Bukavu on the southern end of Lake Kivu and the starting point of our visit to Kahuzi-Biega. Bukavu is a chaotic place where street vendors line the pot-holed streets and people move about on motorcycles or in decrepit vans. The contrast to Rwanda couldn't be sharper and it took me a few days to adjust.


Fortunately there was an oasis of tranquility in town, the Orchids Safari Club, where we would spend the next 3 nights.

Orchids Safari Club

The following morning we drove through town along the shore of Lake Kivu before reaching the Tshivanga Visitor Center of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. We were greeted by the head guide Lambert and led into a building for a briefing. Straddling the Albertine Rift and the Congo Basin, Kahuzi-Biega National Park extends over 600,000 hectares of dense lowland rainforests as well as Afro-montaine forests. The park is named after two dormant volcanoes Mounts Kahuzi (3,308 m) and Biega (2,790 m) which are within its limits. Kahuzi-Biega was established in 1970 by the Belgian photographer and conservationist Adrien Deschryver whose grave was just above the parking lot.

The Grave of Adrien Deschryver

Kahuzi-Biega National Park is one of the last refuges of the Eastern Lowland or Grauer's Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), a critically endangered species with fewer than 3800 in the wild as of 2016. Grauer's Gorillas are endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are one of the two species of Eastern Gorilla with Mountain Gorilla being the other species.

Eastern Gorilla Range Map (from Wikipedia)

We arranged to visit one of the Park's habituated groups called Chimanuka after the group's silverback. We drove along a dirt road through the park which is being upgraded by the Chinese contingent of the UN. I'm not sure if this is a good thing as it will improve access to the gorillas and increase the chance of poaching and encroachment into the forest.

UN Road Work

Surprisingly the gorillas were not far from the road and we could see the trees shaking even before we entered the forest! Sitting in a cleared path not more than 50 feet from the road was Mwidja a 29-year-old female.


There were at least two other gorillas in the vegetation that we couldn't see. One may have been her 3-year-old infant, Mwira. We were given masks to avoid transmitting diseases to the gorillas. We climbed steeply down through thick vegetation which our trackers had to hack through with machetes. 

Hacking Through the Jungle

There sitting in the open was Chimanuka, the silverback in the group. He got up and we followed him through the dense vegetation. I can't believe how close we were, maybe within 6 feet. 

Photographing Chimanuka

We followed him back up encountering more of the group, including another female and a young male call Uhuru (Swahili for freedom) taking a snooze. When he yawned he revealed his ferocious-looking canines. 


Being vegetarians, the canines are used for fighting between males. Chimanuka had a gash on his forehead from one such encounter 2 months ago. 


We followed the gorillas high above the road but it was getting difficult to track them so Lambert suggested returning to the road to see if they would cross. We could hear and see one gorilla on the hillside but he didn't come down to cross. It's no wonder as traffic along the road was surprisingly heavy with motorcycles and trucks piled high with people and goods crossing from the interior to Bukavu. 

Road Traffic Through Kahuzi-Biega National Park

We went to Lambert's position where two gorillas, one of which was Uhuru, were high up in the trees. We watched until the gorillas slid down the main trunk of the trees and disappeared into the forest.


We returned to our hotel where I spotted a colorful lizard just outside our room. We sent a photo to our friend Peter Uetz who works for Center for the Study of Biological Complexity based in Virginia. He confirmed the species to be Acanthocercus atricollis kivuensis, a subspecies of the Blue-headed Tree Agama found near Lake Kivu. According to their Agama expert, Philipp Wagner, he doesn't know of any published color photo of this subspecies. We were happy to have this photo posted in the Reptile Database!

Blue-headed Tree Agama

The next day we returned to the park to visit the Chimanuka Group a second time. Again they were quite close to the road and it took only 25 minutes to reach them. Eight members of the group including Chimanuka were foraging high up in a tree. It's amazing that a creature weighing up to 550 lbs. is so agile in the treetops. In fact, Eastern Lowland gorillas are the largest subspecies of gorilla and the largest living primates. He tore off large branches to reach the fruit growing on the end. 

Chimanuka in the Tree

On the ground sat 7-year-old Meteo. One of our trackers, Safari, pointed out that she had lost her left hand in a poacher's snare. Meteo is a poignant reminder of the many threats these gorillas face. Even though the snare may not have been meant for her but for some other animal sought out for the bushmeat trade she was an unfortunate victim. She was able to forage with her right hand and can even climb trees.


I noticed a man with the trackers taking photos. I asked him if he was a researcher. He said "No, I'm a field veterinarian based in the DRC." I asked if he was one of the Gorilla Doctors and he replied "Yes, I'm Dr. Martin Kabuyaya." I couldn't believe it! We had watched a 60 Minutes documentary reported by Lara Logan about the Gorilla Doctors just before leaving on our trip and Martin was one of the vets featured. I told him he was now a movie star and well known in the US.

Dr. Martin Kabuyaya with Peggy

To watch the 60 Minutes documentary click on the following link although you may have to subscribe to CBS news.

To learn more about the Gorilla Doctors and how you can help go to:

Martin provided a lot of information about the group and how it interacts with other groups. Three-year-old Karibu, named after the Swahili greeting, was sitting near Mateo. His mother was taken by the silverback from another group. In fact all the adult females except for Mwidja whom we had seen yesterday had been stolen leaving 35-year-old Chimanuka to care for many juveniles. Some as young as two and still nursing were left without mothers. Somehow under the protection and care of Chimanuka they all survived. Sadly his reign as chief silverback may be coming to an end because of his age. 

Meteo and Karibu

At the base of a tree sat another 3-year old female named Marhale. Her mother, Makali, was killed by a silverback from another group when she refused to go with him. 


All too quickly our 1-hour visit with Chimanuka and his group had come to an end. What a privilege to spend time with them on two consecutive days and to learn so much about them from Dr. Martin Kabuyaya! It was so much more than viewing gorillas but about meeting and learning about individuals and the struggles they face in the Congo. Just as important was meeting some of the rangers, trackers and veterinarians who risk their lives to protect and care for these critically endangered primates. Our sincere gratitude and admiration goes out to them. May they stay safe in protecting the largest living primates in the world!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Marc and Peggy

Our route map: