Greystoke Mahale

The Original Mahale Camp

Greystoke Mahale is nestled on a white sand beach in Lake Tanganyika. Towering behind the lodge are the Mahale Mountains, home to one of the largest known populations of wild Chimpanzees left on our planet.

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Wed, May 10, 2017

Greystoke guides bongo in the Congo

The moment the camp closed for the season, Greystoke guides Butati and Mathias set off to sort out their visas and vaccinations for what would be a big adventure. Senior guide and partner-in-mischief, Mwiga, would soon be on his way back from a sales trip to the US and would meet them in Kigali. A week later and they were ready to hit the road.

Butati & Mathias hit the road to Rwanda.

Their journey took them first by bus to Bujumbura where they immediately noticed the change in language, culture and time. Hawkers lined the streets selling goat skewers and a traditional cassava dish. Canny cyclists hitched lifts by hanging onto the back of huge tankers and trucks. Drinking alcohol before 6pm is prohibited, but as the sun lowered, people emerged to sit outside their houses and enjoy a drink and a neighbourly chat. 

Greystoke Mahale Guides reunited

The three lads were reunited in Kigali the following day amid great excitement – the adventure had now begun in earnest.  The next morning saw them board a bus to Gisenyi in Rwanda. As they climbed through the cold air, fog gave way to spectacular views of the mountainous landscapes that the country is known for. At the border, the team was met by Eric Rwimo, who they at first mistook for a guide, so knowledgeable and personable was he, but found out later is a driver for the Virunga Park.

Greystoke Guides with their new friend, Eric.

As they drove through Goma, Eric pointed out the chikudu wooden bicycles and spoke of the lava flow that damaged so much of the town after the 2002 eruption of Mt Nyiragongo. The team immediately warmed to Eric’s charm and they became friends.

The chikudu - Congolese wooden bicycle.

Soon the group, accompanied by armed rangers, reached Mikeno Lodge – their base for a couple of days. Besides the treat of the beautiful lodge, the guides were delighted to be reunited with Kate and Cam, good friends and previous managers of Greystoke Mahale, now working in the Congo. They planned their activities and startled the trackers and guests with their all-too realistic pant-hoot, causing one of the waiters to seriously consider diving under a table.

Once again reunited with previous Greystoke Managers, Cameron & Kate, now working in Virunga.

The next morning saw a successful trek in search of chimps, spotted at a distance through binoculars, but still thrilling. In the afternoon, Cam and Kate took the group to Semkwekwe – a sanctuary for gorillas orphaned by the illegal charcoal trade, which had brought them into conflict with this family. Excitement at seeing the first gorilla was tinged with regret for the group’s traumatic past.

Semkwekwe Gorilla Sanctuary - first encounter.

The following day, the team eagerly grabbed a quick breakfast and hit the road to Bukima to start their trek. After a thorough briefing, they set out on foot in search of the gorillas accompanied by the rangers and some other guests. This was an opportunity for the Greystoke guides to observe their Congolese counterparts in action for a session together later when they would share constructive input as part of this exchange. The group split in search of the Humba and Nyakamwe families and as Butati said: “I can't explain how exciting it was for us to have our first taste of the gorillas in the wild. It was a breathtaking moment and we were all overwhelmed with joy. The things were damn big!”

A silverback with presence!

Later in the day, the Greystoke guides and Virunga Rangers met for several hours and talked through the trek, our lads giving some pointers about the briefing and how to better lead groups and take care of guests. They discussed the challenges faced by the Rangers and considered ways to tackle them. There is no formal guide training in the Congolese Park and the Rangers really appreciated the input. The following day, the Greystoke guides led the trek by way of a practical example, handing over when they reached the gorilla groups. This trek yielded a particularly exhilarating sighting and the mettle of the guides was tested in the face of a huge charging silverback, which halted just a meter away. What a finale!

Greystoke guides and Virunga Rangers

On the last day in Virunga, the group got to climb to the summit of Mt Nyiragongo. A taxing 8km hike with a number of stops saw them arrive at the cold summit of the volcano, devoid of vegetation from the frequent eruptions. They peered into the crater from the edge and took in the mesmerizing sight - the rumbling sound of the boiling lava, smoke full of sulphur gas and the glow of the lava lake. It was breathtaking. A cold but happy night’s sleep later, they woke to fog, unable to see 2m ahead, but descended quickly and headed back to Goma and on to Lake Kivu Lodge for a final lunch and goodbye to Kate and Cam.

The bubbling heart of Mt Nyiragongo

The last part of the adventure was by a fast boat (which took 3 hours) to Lwiro Primate Sanctuary.  They first toured the beautifully designed and richly stocked library, built in 1953, and the natural history museum, which is an unexpected marvel of scientific records and specimens. The guides then met the community of captive chimpanzees, all there because the illegal pet trade had decimated their families. Despite that they are well protected and cared for here, it was striking and saddening how dysfunctional this society of chimpanzees was compared to the wild M-Group at Mahale. The Greystoke gang chatted to Itsaso, the Spanish primatologist based at the Sanctuary, about the challenges faced by conservation the world over.

The boat trip to Lwiro.

The adventure was at an end. All that was left was for the group to make their way back to Kigali to catch their flight home to Tanzania. It had been an exhilarating, informative and thoroughly fun trip. We look forward to welcoming the Rangers of Virunga to Tanzania later this year.

Thanks to Butati, Mwiga and Mathias for a great trip report and photos, and also to Kate and Cam for photos and for helping organise the trip.

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