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A Dirty Weekend in the Congo

Do you like being damp for several hours, people touching your butt and grabbing you, until you find yourself eye to eye with a most magnificently handsome male?
 

“Fancy a dirty weekend in the Congo?” he asked. “I have an extra space if you want to join me. I know you’ll be in Bwindi next week so you can pop across the border with me as there is space on the charter”.

I couldn’t believe what I was being offered. “Errr… Yes! Please!” was pretty much all I could stammer.

So there I was a week later, walking through cultivated fields of endless green, dark damp dirt underfoot, sticking to and weighing down my boots. The air was filled with the scent of turned soil, so rich and fertile, and the sweet sound of women singing as they tended their fields, interspersed with shouts and laughter of children playing. As I looked around I saw every shade of green imaginable until great clouds of butterflies rose up from the puddles on the pathway, left by the last night's rain. For a moment, the green turned to shades of russet orange until they settled back down after we passed. We moved on, through clumps of elephant grass and dark, thick bamboo. The air was cool and inviting after the harsh sun. Bird song filled the space, sounds of birds I was unfamiliar with. The path got steeper as the forest took over, dense undergrowth of giant ferns and orchids in the trees. I wanted to stop and look at them but our little group kept on moving, onwards and upwards. The path ahead being cut with a machete, it was wet and slippery and muddy, in places you had to use all fours. Several times I lost my footing only to feel a pair of hands catch me, pushing me up by my backside as I grabbed at roots and branches and whatever else I could get a hold on, ever grateful for the gloves he had handed me the day before.

Monkeys leapt about in the trees above us, I didn’t look up to see what type, I know those little monsters' tricks all too well and didn’t fancy getting a baptism of monkey pee and poop on my face. In the distance chimpanzees were squabbling and calling each other. Their rather eerie cries are quite alarming, even when you know what they are. Others in the group paused until they were reassured as to the origin of the sounds.

Tantalizing clues made my heart beat hard with excitement; fresh droppings, broken branches and chewed bamboo were all around us now. The man at the head of the group gestured for us to walk slowly, to lower ourselves, to be very quiet. The hands behind me had now become all too familiar and guided me out of a path of angry safari ants, disturbed by the boots in front of us. Safari ants have an uncanny way of crawling up inside ones trouser legs only to sink their pincers into the most inconvenient of places. I was relieved they wouldn’t be finding their way into my knickers.

I heard a sharp intake of breath from someone in front of me and looking round the side of them I caught a glimpse of a wet black mass. As the ranger directed people to move to the sides, I got my first ever glimpse of a mountain Gorilla.

There is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the intensity of that encounter. My heart was racing, my hands were shaking, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was beaming from ear to ear and felt tears running down my cheeks. It is mind blowing and humbling all at the same time.

So there I was, crouched down in the wet rain forest in central Africa. So different from the aridness I am used to back home in Kenya, watching these phenomenal creatures. They say never make eye contact with a silverback, but it was hard not to. I couldn’t tear mine away. He looked directly at me, his red orange eyes looking straight into my soul as he lazily munched on leaves. Those searching intelligent eyes were mesmerizing. I fell in love again that day. My camera was forgotten about, I wanted to live the moment, not see it through a lens.

The little family of gorillas got on with life as though we were not there, except for a couple of babies who kept coming close, inquisitive about these strange hairless creatures watching them. They wobbled from side to side as they moved, their eyes massive and staring. Their mothers pulled them back as if to say “don’t go there”. I didn’t know where to look, so much was going on around us. The world's largest and highly endangered apes were playing and eating just a few meters from me. Boisterous youngsters tumbled around, their thick black coats covered with bits of sticks and leaves. Others munched quietly minding their own business. The dominant silver back watched over his family whilst also keeping an eye on us. He is a sight to behold, handsome and dignified with his massive size and his silver back. A tap on my arm and a pointed finger drew my attention to an adolescent, hanging from a vine by his leg, trying to get the attention of the one below who was draped over a long dead, rotting tree trunk, pot belly protruding as he lounged back with the laziness of a teenager, chewing leaves with his mouth open. Their table manners are certainly lacking.

Something amazing was happening everywhere I looked, but all too soon your privileged hour with them is over. The window into their world, the tight knit family that they are, the gentleness and love they have for one another closes and it’s time to leave. I didn’t want to go, it was a wrench to do as I had been instructed to do before we started trekking that morning; move backwards and be absorbed back into the forest. It is only an hour but it is an hour that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

As we made our way back down the mountain I turned to the man behind me and, smiling, said, “You can take me away for a dirty weekend anytime!”

 

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