Philippe Rwangano Bitege was born in Kanombe, central Rwanda, in 1958. He is married and has 5 children. He started working in the park as a kitchen worker in 1997. His employer at that time, the Italy Zaire Tourism company, went bust and he was invited to become a Ranger. He once lost his weapon when he was charged and stalked by an angry buffalo. Philippe is very good with the machete when chopping and is a really nice guy. He is not the youngest ranger by any means, but he never slows down when tracking Gorillas.
Martin is one of the 2 Rangers who guided me through the Parc National de Virunga to find the Mountain Gorillas. In fact it was Martin who whispered to me “we have crossed them” to let me know I was about to finally see one of these amazing creatures. Martin is a young Ranger and you may just want to step back a bit from him if he is using the machete to chop through the jungle. He misses sometimes! He is a good photographer though and his photos of me with the virtual Tourist Flag have been featured on the front page of VT.
Martin is from nearby Kibati which has been threatened by active volcanic activity and problems related to armed rebels in the area. He originally wanted to train as a Policeman. His Uncle, a Ranger in the Rwindi area near the Uganda border, convinced him of the importance of protecting wildlife. He became a Ranger on 01 May 2003.
No. You do not get a choice. I have been asked about the mask in my photos. Older photos here on VT will show people near the Mountain Gorillas without any masks. Not any more. There are only 700 Mountain Gorillas in the world and they live here and just over the border in Rwanda and Uganda. While DRC has had an increase, it’s not by much. Only 81 live here in the park and about 130 elsewhere in DRC. Apes (Gorillas) and Chimpanzees are very closely related to humans and diseases can be transmitted between them. The very scary disease, Ebola, has wiped out 1/3 of all gorillas in the last 20 years. Ebola is also sometimes fatal to humans as well. Further, there is a possibility they can catch strains of Flu from us as well.
So that mask is a good idea for protecting the endangered Gorillas here. You will be issued with a new one before you begin any tracking of the Gorillas and the Rangers carry spares. I found out when my pack decided to open and drop my VT Hat and mask. When we found the Gorillas the Rangers ask you to put on your mask. That’s how I know they carry spares.
If you find my VT hat, please let me know !
Would you like to see the Mountain Gorillas? Cheaply and safely? The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a challenging place to visit, but the permits are the cheapest in the world to see the Gorillas and you can use the best guide in the business to guide you past any hassles in DRC.
Kennedy Nari is your man! Kennedy, member kennedyrw on Virtual Tourist, can organise your Gorilla permit, entry to DRC, escort at all times, great accommodation and all transportation. All this at fantastic prices!
Kennedy is Congolese, but was born where DRC, Rwanda and Uganda meet. It is also the location of the rare Mountain Gorillas and the Virunga Volcano National Park. He organised my full day of Gorilla Tracking in the DRC where these photos were taken. He organised everything via email before my arrival in Rwanda and met me personally in Gisenyi, Rwanda. One of his senior guides then escorted me across to DRC and my visit with the Gorillas. He is able to organise any sort of tour you would like and match any budget you have. Throughout my stay in East Africa Kennedy was in touch with me and my guides at all times.
I found him to be very friendly, professional and organised. I would absolutely recommend his tour company to anyone visiting East Africa. His company has a fantastic 12 day tour of Rwanda, Burundi and DRC including the gorillas if you want a super tour. He can also organise a (live) volcanoe tour, viewing of Golden monkeys, safaris in Kenya or Tanzania as well as land transport and accommodation.
You can find Kennedy on Facebook as well.
This is a once in a lifetime experience. It doesnt come cheap - our permit alone was around 300USD....And boy did I feel guilty about spending that money on this trek once I saw the villages we were passing through.
But, it gives locals jobs - so thats all good, and this is an experience that you wouldnt want to miss for anything. I think when we stood there with a baby gorilla at our feet and its parents and brothers and sisters just a little over a metre away from us, we were all emotional - it had been a long trek to get here - it would be a long one back - but for this hour we all just savoured the moment.
You are in the jungle, there are no toilets. You are going to see a family of only 600 individuals left in the world. If you have a cold or are sick you might not be allowed to go. There is no smoking, no eating and no drinking around the gorillas - they dont want our habits.
When you arrive there is only an hour with them - thats its - an hour - and that hour goes oh so quickly! But for obvious reasons human time is limited with these amazing animals.
We sure didnt want to overstay our welcome and so as soon as our hour was up and our guide had stopped making gorills noises (!!???) we quietly left the mountain gorillas in their own habitat - chewing on bamboo in the middle of the jungle - and trekked for 5 hours back to base.
We walked for hours to track the Gorillas, with armed guards through the rainforest/jungle....they had their walkie talkies and they knew roughly where the gorillas had been the day before. These animals can only wander a kilometre a day - not far at all really - but when you consider that you have been walking for 5 hours already its a long way! LOL.
The walk was easy for most part, in other areas though it was steep and slippery, on the way out of the park, we were very late and it had closed, we had to cut across farmland, which was slippery and steep and very wet because at this stage it was lashing it down with rain!
I will always remember driving towards the rainforest where we were to track the gorillas.
We drove through small villages, shacks which were the locals homes up against the potholed muddy road. Men were walking back from the hills with a dead chicken which they had bought home for their family, children were playing barefoot and barely dressed in the roads.
But the thing that made Congo take my heart was a small boy, about 6 I guess, once he saw tourists in the car he ran, he ran as fast as his little legs would take him, he ran for what seemed like an age, he knocked on the car windows - he wanted a pen - he must have run for about 2 miles barefoot on muddy roads for a pen......we gave him a pen - he was so so happy, I know that he will still have that pen - I saw in his eyes how grateful he was and how much he cherished that pen.
As soon as other kids saw that one kid had a pen they all wanted them! More children were running so fast - lucky we had a box of pens!
Experiences like this change you forever. They teach you about whats important. They take you out of your little western bubble.
I cryed for about an hour after the little boy had his pen, I was crying because this is the same world we so selfishly live in in the west - how can that be, how can our kids be squabbling over the newest computer console - how can these kids be delighted because they have a pen.
It changes your perspective, It teaches you whats important - This is what Africa gave to me.
Crossing the border between Uganda and the former Zaire - now DR Congo was an easy experience, we had a bit of a wait for our day visas to be processed but once that had been done the only thing holding us up were ourselves as we were busy chatting to the friendly locals!
I am always amazed at the difference as soon as you cross that invisible line that is a border. Here was no exception - all of a sudden everyone was speaking in French, the money was different, the poverty was like nothing Ive ever seen before in my life. But the people were as they seem to be everywhere in Africa - smiling and as friendly as can be.
We waited 4 days to get our chance to see the Mountain Gorillas. There were two Gorilla families in the area and only 8 people per day could visit each family. The fee was $100.00. After hiking for about 2 hours with our guides, who were armed with unloaded old rifles, we found the family that belonged to Marcel, the Silverback Mountain Gorilla pictured here. We spent the next hour watching the family play and eat. We were instructed not to look the Slilverback in the eye as that would be taken as a challenge, and you don't want to challenge a 400 pound Gorilla. At one point Marcel "stood up," walked to me, and gave me a shove, tumbling me several feet down the hill - all in good fun, I'm sure.
The gorilla trek is the main reason people visit this area.
Don't forget to get to know the locals on the way. It always amazes me how they always have such huge smiles on their faces!!