At first sight the contrast entering the Democratic Republic of Congo from Rwanda could hardly have been starker. Crossing the rickety Bailey bridge that divides the two countries at the border town of Bukavu saw the world change from one of good governance and fast-growing economy, to one of chronic neglect, corruption and political upheavals.
Gone were the asphalt roads, replaced by potholes and mud. Gone were the colourfully painted shops stocked with modern consumables, replaced by broken-down, roadside shacks. And back was the litter, lots of it, trampled into the African earth. As a microcosm of all that is good and bad in Africa this exact spot probably says it all. Where Rwanda is a shining light of much of what is positive and possible, so the DRC represents the continents dark heart. As a traveller, it felt edgy and exciting.
And not all is lost in this forgotten land. I am travelling here with broadcaster Kate Humble to visit a man doing his best to change the negative perception of his homeland and put this part of the DRC back on the tourist map. John Kehekwa is a local primatologist and conservationist who has spent most of his life looking after the Eastern Lowland Gorillas that live in the dense forest of the Kehuzi-Biéga National Park just a few kilometres over the border. An instantly likeable man, greeting us not with a stiff handshake but a warm hug and explosive smile.
John runs the Pole Pole Foundation which helps educate people into the benefits of the forest and the wildlife that lives within it and helps provide practical alternatives through reforestation and training former poachers as guides. He greets us and drives us to our lodging and at once the perceptions start to change.
Set on the eastern bank of the spectacular Lake Kivu, the Orchard Safari Club is a wonderful place to stay. Having checked into our very comfortable rooms we meet over a cup of coffee in the lounge, overlooking the sumptuous tropical garden, to discuss the next 3 days. Any apprehension we may have felt about the safety of our stay in the DRC was quickly allayed by the considerable number of western guests also staying in the hotel. We imagined many of them would have been aid workers based in the country but it made the restaurant and bar seem more like a coffee shop than a hotel in rural Congo.
Early the next morning we head off for the gorilla trek. A charming man called Juvenile gives us a fascinating briefing regarding the geography of the park and the family of gorillas we are trekking to. Then Lambert, the park's main tracker, and John lead us through the forest. Although in places the foliage was dense, it isn’t a long trek and had we not been filming would have only taken 25 minutes to locate the troop, lying as they are conveniently on a clear patch of grass surrounded by thick bamboo.
There are four habituated families in this part of the forest. The group we are with is called Chimanuka, named after the large silverback alpha male, boss of the group – lying on his back, scratching his belly – and 18 other gorillas with, very unusually, only one female and 17 young males. Wearing facemasks so as not to pass any germs between us, we sit and watch mesmerised as they feed, groom each other and just bask in the sun. Some of the younger ones are so inquisitive they come to within touching distance of us. Others play fight. One jumps up and beats his chest, as if to say don’t forget about me. It’s hard to describe what a thrill this is.
I am not as a rule overly excited by wildlife, preferring my travels to focus on the people of the region. But I have to say I was very moved to be this close to animals that are so closely linked to us. We stayed for an hour before a brief shower disturbed their rest and sent most back into the forest.
Back in the 80s and early 90s, before the Rwandan genocide blew the region apart, the Kehuzi Biéga National Park was on the overland route between Europe and East Africa and thousands of tourists a year would visit the park. Before leaving we were asked to sign a visitors book where I counted only 75 entries this year, most were the aid workers stationed in Bukavu.
The following day we joined John at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Pole Pole Foundation. We sat with young children in a school built by them and watched as the headmaster explained the importance of the forest and the animals that live there to the local community. We took part in a tree planting ceremony adding a few more saplings to the thousands of trees Pole Pole have planted in an effort to prevent people for destroying the forest for firewood. And we met a former poacher who is now trained as a gorilla tracker.
With our history of bringing tourism to the more challenging parts of the world, places that have suffered years of conflict or political isolation, it was not surprising that John asked us to partner with him in trying to restore tourism to this part of the Congo. Having spoken to John by phone from the UK, I was at once taken by his passion. Having now been here, I am more convinced than ever that there is something exciting happening in this forgotten part of Africa and can’t wait to start helping others discover it.
Through no fault of their own the people of the Congo have suffered hugely in recent times. Corrupt officials, indifferent international geopolitics and ruthless multinationals and their desire for specialist minerals, have all played a part in creating the country's current situation. It’s good to know a glimmer of light is starting to shine and it feels good to be a part of it.