Smells like Christmas

The first Christmas tree ever is said to have been put up in Riga in 1510 by a group of professional merchants. These merchants were known to celebrate twice-yearly holidays, amongst which decorating and then burning down the Christmas tree. Testament to the oldest writing in the subject, in Riga (the capital of Latvia) the city center still marks the place were the first Christmas tree was put up and decorated for this festive season.

Christmas and traditions go hand in hand with Latvians and this is perhaps why at Christmas I feel more Latvian than some other times of the year. Growing up in a mixed household traditions flew all around. We were Latvian, Italian and Venezuelan.

My grandparents escaped the USSR after the Second World War and returned to Latvia only in the beginning of the 1990s. Since Latvia’s liberation and proclamation as a sovereign nation, I’ve had many family members that have returned to a land they were once forced to flee.

In moving to Venezuela, a country across the world from everything they knew, my grandparents adjusted in a way that has forever marked my own life: to be grateful and to embrace the cultures of the country you live in, even it’s a different one, no matter how much you miss your own. During Christmas this is when I realised this the most.

Christmas is perhaps the time of the year were perhaps the Latvian side was the more prominent one. Lead by my grandmother and then by my mother and my aunt (only because they became too bossy) and eventually by me (I am my mother’s daughter after all), the beginning of the month of December always signalled a time that smelled like pine trees, tasted like pirags and was embraced by family.

As soon as the school holidays started an endless affair of baking began at Omi’s house. She had the biggest kitchen that would fit all grandchildren and children. When we were little we were allowed to participate only in doing the fun bits, playing with the dough, pouring the flour, using the pastry brush for the egg wash before being pushed to “go outside and play” – no doubt more to the adults benefit than our own.

Growing up I remember Pumperniks were always the first set of cookies we tackled. To this day, these are the best raw cookie dough there has ever been made on the face of the planet – so much that my mom had to bat us off the dough to be able to prepare it. I remember how successful and modern we felt when we convinced Omi to change the raisins for chocolate chip in our pumperniks. We could never completely eliminate the raisin option, but chocolate chips are to this day a win.

After the pumperniks we always made the Mandeļu radziņi– forever my least favourite ones. An almond base cookie dusted in icing sugar. My mom’s forever favourite that we are never allowed to take off the menu.

If two cookie recipes weren’t enough, we also made an endless supply of the ones that became my favourites: the piparkukas. The “pepper” cookies were always a favourite of mine after discussing with my aunt one day how such a strange recipe we so many different ingredients came to be: 

“We always used to joke that perhaps during the war someone stumbled in the pantry and knocked everything down; because you wouldn’t through anything away someone started mixing things until something edible came out”

The piparkukas always took the longest to cook as Latvian quantities are always meant for a feast of giants. We would decorate the first hundred (like gingerbread cookies) but give up with the ensuing 300. When the food crisis hit Venezuela, this was one of the recipes that became optional, as we couldn’t always find all the ingredients.

Mandeļu radziņi

Pirags were without the doubt the highlight of the Christmas preparations. On the pirag baking day everyone would come around during lunchtime in fear of everyone else finishing them all before having a chance to eat at least 10. Pirags are little breads that are filled with a mixture of smoked ham and bacon and they are everyone’s favourites. Tico and Vilis caribbea-nized them by instituting the tradition of having them with “guasacaca” (the Venezuela guacamole). There were no complaints on the Latvian side as avocado is one of the best things Venezuela offered.

After pirags came the longest and most daunting task of them all: making hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan traditional Christmas dish. True to the Venezuelan culture, the hallaca is a mix of many different things. The hallaca includes elements of the European culture (such as raisins and olives) indigenous ingredients (such as the corn meal colored with annatto seeds), and African ingredients (the smoked plantain leaves used for wrapping and cooking). The broth of the hallaca was the first step of the process, one that I always stayed clear of as a bad broth could ruin the quality of the hallaca. The making of the hallaca on the other hand was a process that saw us lose a number of shirts and pants; the annatto used to color the white cornflour is powerful enough to ruin any cleaning will. As I got older the hallacas became a tradition of us women of the family. It was a nightmare to cook as it was long, but no self-respecting Venezuelan household would serve anything else to guests during a december dinner party or have anything else for Christmas dinner. I first learned how to squash the dough on the plantain leaf, add the broth, “forget” the raising when no one was watching, and add an extra piece of ham. I felt I had been accepted into the next level of womanhood when I was allowed to started wrapping my own hallacas in the plantains leaves and then tying them with the string before boiling them.

It was always a long affair that lasted a good full day, we always made arepas while enjoying some good eggnog “Ponche Crema” which became my favourite Christmas drink (because in Venezuela we make proper rum).

Venezuelan Hallacas made by Arepa & Co in the UK

Christmas in Venezuela always felt like a rush of baking, cooking and celebrating the so called “Christmas spirit” during the month of December. There was a chill in the air (Pacheco) that lingered on the houses every night, that made Caracas an even more pleasant city to be in, even as the city itself emptied out leaving only a few of us behind.

To this day I only truly feel like Christmas when the smells of that Astral kitchen come to me. I may live far away, my family scattered across the globe, but they taught me that the traditions you are brought up with will always live in your heart and it’s up to us to keep them alive. Because of this every year I try to bake a little bit more of what feels like home.

In the forest’s footsteps

I have never been a person of small and closed spaces. Although I enjoy trees immensely, the rainforest can easily take over and become somewhat overwhelming as walls of green are constantly surrounding you.
“I am a man of the forest” said our guide Alon with his long beard “I’m never going back to the savannah”
As he said this I smiled for myself, I know the essence of my being is his opposite.
The second stop of our Odzala adventure was a camp about 2 hours away called Lango.
 Lango is famous as it sits in a stunning “bai” that greets you as soon as you walk into the main area of the camp. The view is breath-taking and a welcome reprieve from the mysterious forest. “Bai” is the word used to describe the pockets of savannah that dot the forest cover. More formally a “bai” is a forest clearing where animals congregate to drink, socialise, eat and look for minerals. It was because of these bais that we had hopes in this area to come across elephants, bongos, sitatungas, buffalos and so many more creatures.
The view on arrival
This place had our hearts almost immediately. It’s hard to beat the feeling of coming into this open pocket of green and being greeted by a big heard of forest buffalo – a new species in the books for us! Later that evening as we all sat on the viewing deck, we were graced by the presence of a forest elephant who came down for a drink. Its quiet spell was immediately upon us. To come face to face with one of these giants had been on the top of our list. How different these elephants are from their savannah cousins! There is something mysterious about them, perhaps it’s the essence of their secret forest life.
After such a welcome it’s easy to understand why we were immediately captivated by Lango and why we decided to extend our stay here by one night and cut it short at the next camp. Although wildlife is all around the camp, Lango isn’t  a game “viewing” destination. Game drives are futile in the long grass of the savannah and the forest is impenetrable with a vehicle. The best way to explore Lango and its surroundings is either by boat, kayak or– my personal favourite – on foot. Lango provides endless opportunities to explore the forest and the bai through the myriad of walking routes in the swamps, the bais and the forest.
As close as we got to the Cong’s Bongos
Although wildlife is often around, it is finding their tracks and signs in the thick of forest that captured me the most. As a walking guide I felt out of my depth in a new and exciting way; approaching wildlife here in the forest is a much different experience.
Bubbling with excitement, the thing we looked forward to the most was to partake in a “long walk”. It’s a walk like no other. You don’t keep dry, you walk in the footsteps of forest elephants, encounter a buffalo or two and walk through some of the most spectacular swamps and patches of forest you could ever dream of.
The start of our walk
This walk was the moment we had been waiting for; I couldn’t wait to put on my battered pair of faithful yet sacrificial vans (shoes that wouldn’t make the trek back home).
Our walk (go team girl!) started early morning, wet and broken shoes, dry bags and cameras ready we set out to the river deck to start our journey. The boys had done their walk the day before (smaller groups are preferred when walking) and now it was our turn to explore the bai and the surrounding rainforest.
I have always found it strange how as humans we find pleasure in exploring, in wanderingthru different lands just trying to grasp the moment; trying to be present and let ourselves “be” in the moment while attempting to absorb everything we see, everything we feel as we attempt to store it on our memory bank.
The swamps hidden treasures
The long walk at Lango was a bit like that for me. With every step we took into the forest, the more I felt like a child on Christmas morning. Beauty and life were all around us. From the tracks of the elusive bongo, to the enormous flocks of African grey parrots, to the herds of forest buffalo grazing on the banks of the river, we could only feel honoured to explore such an ancient place.
True to any safari experience we had a coffee break halfway through our walk. Because we even had coffee cups from the lodge, we indulged in what Vicki aptly called “the civilized interlude during our rough and tumble”. Seeing our guide had gone through such effort of making the coffee and bringing the cups and muffin, we couldn’t say no.  Nicki was also lucky enough to find a nearby mandarin tree (traces of ancient trades that went through the Congo basin) and she indulged some more, packing her pockets full of this flavourful and exotic fruit.
The part we had been looking forward to the most was “the deep crossing”. With the water waist, this was the last patch of water we would cross before making our way through the dry forest back to the camp. Here of course we bumped into a buffalo who was happily wallowing and wasn’t too happy on moving on. It all resolved in a happy ending (more for us as the buffalo had to leave his spot) and we left the wet patch of the forest behind, heading deeply into the dry areas. We made it to the areas where ancient trees towered upon us and where elephant had left their tusk marks. You walk quietly in the forest, the leaves muffle any sound and you might be surprised at close quarters by any of the inhabitants of this place, from chimps, to elephants, to buffalo, to the odd bongo.
The “deep” crossing
Walking the rainforest of the Congo felt like walking in the land of some older spirit as we came across some naturally beautiful patches that would belong in some of the most curated and acclaimed botanical gardens, making me wonder if fairies were actually real. Although sometimes the forest looks empty, you never feel alone; there is always some secret being watching.
On the dry forest
Being able to explore this part of the world on foot, wading through water and land has been so far an insurmountable experience. One of the highlights of this year coming to an end, and one that I look forward to repeating in the near future!

The second Trek

Sometimes when you travel to remote lands you are exposed multiple times to the same experience. Experiencing a highlight more than once is perhaps the hook that beats the “you are crazy to go there” judgements from those who stay behind. This was the case with the gorilla treks. We were meant to have two and because they’re not as expensive as the permits in other parts of Africa, it was a big draw in for ape aficionados. While I was happy with the first experience we had had, and would have been happy with just one trek, it’s such an overwhelming experience that being able to experience it twice in the same area was definitely one of the best recommendations from Odzala Discovery Camps, as many things go unnoticed if you only do only one trek.

Our second trek started with us meeting Zepherin, the master tracker of the rainforest who has been working with Magda Bermejo (the leading researcher) for over 20 years. Having met, seen and worked with trackers for years in the savannah environment, this second trek allowed us the possibility of focusing our attention on how to track gorillas in a sea of green – a skill which Zepherin excels at.

Zepherin

We left camp and headed towards the trails that have been made and are maintained solely to track gorillas. We had a head start as Zepherin was leading us to the last spot where he had left them the previous night, which wasn’t too far from the camp. Upon reaching this point, we would then start looking for clues – broken branches, tracks, sounds, smells – as to the direction in which the gorillas had headed since Zepherin had last seen them. This was a very different walk from our first trek, we were deep in the undulating forest, thick walls of marantaceae siding us all along the way and a sense or urgency to find them.

Zepherin pointed to the side – this is where he left them last night. We were now on their trail and through years of skills he determined the direction in which it seemed they were headed into. We carried on walking before we coming across what looked like a tunnel through the forest – we followed it an discover a patch where the marantaceae has been squashed. They had nested here.

Gorilla clues in the forest

Zepherin hesitated – wait here. He came around after exploring a different path, they seemed to have been headed in a different direction and so we head back to the same trail. He cut a maratanceae stem and put it across the tunnel entry to signal we had already been there, we have already checked this spot.

All of a sudden we stopped. It sounded like a gorilla but we are not certain. We could feel the tension in the air. Zephering stopping more often and listening for clues. He look on the ground for tracks, on the trees for dark shapes and to the marantaceae for any signs, any clues that might reveal the gorillas.

What does a gorilla chest beating sound like? Well to me, like an elephant farting.

We reached the top of a hill, the forest extending beneath us. Zepeherin bid us to wait, he wanted to check the bottom of the valley. He believed we were nearing them and that they were probably settling for the morning.

All of a sudden someone points to the leaves moving in the valley beneath us.

“There”

Yes of course… I also saw nothing.

We waited for Zepherin to come back while we put on our face-masks on. When he returned and saw them down below I am almost certain I saw him smirking. Gorillas had played him today. We followed his cautious movements to approach the young males who were playing not to far from us. Our guide asks us to stay put while Zepherin works around with his secateurs.

As if by magic, a young male gorilla appears in front of us. He has been playing and lying around for the last while but he seems he’s ready for a good forest siesta.

“Hustle makes muscle” – I remind myself while trying to hold my camera as steady as possible and capture something I doubt I will be able to explain.

As if taken out of Disney’s Tarzan, I realize I’m about to witness something truly spectacular that sent Jane and her Dad into hysterics: a gorilla making his nest.

In a very lazy manner he started pulling leaves, entire marantaceae plants to create a nice comfortable bed. He pulled the leaves down and clumped them together in a movie like manner.
Out of everything I had ever heard about gorillas, this was the defining moment for me. Such a small act, seeing this male make its nest. As he ripped down the leaves and piled them up to make a comfortable bed, he lied down in the typical nonchalant male-way that young boys do (I have two brothers and I can tell you their poses didn’t differ all too much from this male); this act and his attitude really hit my core. When it laid down, hand resting on top of him, I took in all those details. The pose, the energy, the feel, the comfort, his nature.

Are we really that different from them?

As absorbed I was in this philosophical trance, I failed to realised all the young gorillas having the best time up and down the trees. It wasn’t until Tristan nudged me in that direction that I broke out of it and focused my attention (and hustle) on the little ones going up and down the trees, hanging by one arm and chest beating like big scary creatures. They put on such an impressive show that it made us forget we had to put on bee-nets around our faces to keep the sweat bees (who are stingless) from out nostrils, eyes and faces.


After our hour with Jupiter’s family came to and, we followed Zepherin back to the camp using the same trails to get in and I finally mustered the courage to ask him for a photograph; if only to remember the face of the man who through skill, dedication and hardwork had change my perception of life a little bit more.

To him, I say thank you, because in my wildest dreams I had never expected to feel enlightened in the middle of the Congo rainforest.

Gorilla gorilla gorilla trekking

Like many things this year, our first gorilla trekking started with… rain. We were after all in a rainforest at the beginning of the rainy season. Waking up at 4am and hearing the pitter patter on the leaves, the roofs, and the wooden boardwalk however doesn’t make it any easier.

“We will leave half an hour later, let’s see if it stops” our guide informed us.

As a guide of African savannahs’, I found that I had many questions about what the correct procedure is in the forest. This constant comparison on how to look and approach animals was without a doubt one of the things that I found most humbling about this expedition. The in-depth knowledge of an environment, and following those who know how to manoeuvre around it is always key. It would be arrogant and unwise to pretend otherwise.

The rain did subside and following the previous nights’ instruction we split into two different groups. We were to get on the car for a short ride to the last known location of the Neptuno group and start walking from there. Once we arrived to the spot we prepared ourselves to what could have been a potentially long walk, we were warned the previous treks had been long. The trees weren’t fruiting and gorilla movements ranged over longer distances to find food.

The start

Calvin, our skilled tracker, stood at the head of the line with our guide Alon second. Calvin was leading us to the last place where he had left the gorillas the previous day, which would be the first place for us to start looking for them.

As we walked in the thick forest, with the marantaceae leaves towering over our heads we heard it. An unmistakable bark, that clear alarm wildlife gives when something unusual is spotted

In hushed voices they whispered “Neptuno saw us, they know we are here, put your face masks on”.

As if to signal who we were Calvin snapped his secateurs a few time, pruned a few leaves. This small signal has become the way humans announce their presence to the gorillas. We heard them chest beat in return.

Excited, nervous, we walked as the forest hid all its secrets from us.
The noises, that’s what gave them away. We used our hearing to find them, to figure out where they were coming from when the big walls of green camouflaged them. Suddenly someone pointed up to the canopy of the trees.

“There”

A dark silhouette was moving in the tree tops, balancing meters above the ground and displaying an uncanny resemblance to a human.

“Keep moving, come this way”

It felt surreal. I had just seen my first great ape, and my first free-roaming wild gorilla. All this information wouldn’t settle into my brain until long after this experience was done. The forest, the sounds, the smells, the experience, it all becomes overwhelming and so I chose to focus on the task. Keep moving, follow Calvin, scan the forest.

We kept retreating, moving away from their path, as we didn’t want to impact on their morning wander. As they moved we had glimpses of them moving through the forest, on the ground, in the trees.

“There, at the end of the path”
“There, on top of the trees”

Jumping around in the tree canopies (I know, noisy but it’s as far as my camera would go)

Neptuno and his family weren’t stopping and so we had to keep on moving, going around their way just to see them cross and carry on moving. Even though we tried to stay clear or their paths a cheeky young male, who we learned afterwards was named Caco, came to inspect us as he was no doubt curious of us, as we were of them.

And there we were, face to face with a great ape.

Caco came to greet us and as the adrenaline of the sighting rushed through us, all I remember thinking was “he has the strength to rip me apart”. He didn’t display any aggressive signs whatsoever but seeing a “young” male gorilla face to face, does remind you how small and weak we can be a species when compared to the creatures that roam the wilds of Africa.

As Caco and the rest of the family carry on with their movements, we were signalled to follow Calvin back towards the road, towards the edge of the forest.

Restricted, as we weren’t to speak in case we disturbed them, we stood on the road waiting for further instructions.

“There is a chance they might cross the road. Do you want to wait for them?”

“Yes, let’s give it a chance”. The decision was unanimous. We kept our voices to a minimum and waited for the gorillas to cross the road.

After a short wait out in the open, one by one the gorillas walked across and let themselves be swallowed once more by the green forest that awaited them on the other side. Females, young males and Neptuno himself.

Caco

Once they disappeared into the sea of green that is the rainforest, and with our emotions bubbling, we then turned to our guide.

“Let us know when we can start asking you questions”.

We drove away trying to put some distance between the sweat bees and our faces and then when our guide gave us the green light, and endless flow of questions erupted from us

“What is their social structure?”
“Are they territorial?”
“What’s their feeding behaviour?”
“What is a rooting site?”
“What is their mortality rate?”
“What is their population estimate?”
“Why do the locals protect them”
“What happens when two groups come across each other?”
“How is the research done?”
“How do you recognise individuals”

We spent a good 45 minutes grilling Alon with questions about the Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the research that is being done at Ngaga before we decided to head back the camp to sort through our emotions of the day.

We joined the others for lunch and shared our experiences over lunch while preparing for the afternoon’s excursion. Gorillas are the draw in but Ngaga and the forest have s much more to offer, little did we know that that same afternoon we would conclude our short walk to have gin and tonic – spiced with forest ginger, on the river deck and walk back to camp barefoot.

All this in the space of day. My word of choice? Sublime.

Sundowner in the Congo

Ngaga Camp

It’s very hard to even begin to wrap all the thoughts, feelings, ideas, effort and sensory cues that are involved in gorilla trekking. How do you even begin to describe an experience that can provoke so many reactions in people? It’s not an easy task and it’s perhaps the reason why I’ve been putting this off for so long. I doubt anything I say or write will do it justice. How do you explain the luck that is to be able to find a habituated family of gorillas in a rainforest? How do I even begin to explain the crucial role of the communities in their conservation? How do I highlight that it is a set of circumstances that involve a Spanish researcher and her husband the reason why viewing them is even possible?

The Gorilla trekking experience is defined by the camp as: “(an experience) led by skilled local trackers, and with expert guides to interpret the sights and sounds of the forest, you will use the network of forest trails to get close to some of our nearest living relatives in the wild, and observe their behaviour as they go about the daily business of being a gorilla” (Odzala Discovery Camps, 2018).

Although a great short explanation, I have so many more thoughts, so many more words to add.

I suppose I can only start by telling the story of Ngaga Camp and Dr. Madga Bermejo, in order to explain the immense task that it was to establish and now maintain the “Gorilla trekking experience”.

Marantaceae leaves that dominate the forest

Ngaga is a small camp nestled in the middle of the thick marantaceae (arrow-root) forest, a primary food source for the gorillas. Ironically the camp is located outside the borders of the park, about 7 miles from the Mbomo Village and about a 2.5 hour transfer from the closest airstrip. Built from local, sustainable materials and inspired by the designs of the Ba’Aka Pygmy groups, the camp was built in 2013 as an eco-luxury camp with the lightest possible environmental impact to the surrounding forest; perhaps the reason why it feels in harmony with the forest. The main area is posed just above the tree line giving a welcomed breath from the walls of green that is the rainforest and from the camp theres a network of small trails that allow you te explore the vicinity.

Such stunning camp only exists because of a courageous Spanish woman, that at 22 decided to come to the Congo Basin to study primates; two decades later Dr. Magda Bermejo has become one of the world’s leading experts on Western Lowland Gorillas and heads the research team at Ngaga. Indeed initially defined as the “Ngaga Research station” the camp only came to existence thanks to Magda’s research, her team, and their efforts in gorilla habituation and conservation. Not even the trackers for work the lodge, they work for Madga and her research.

“If Magda leaves, we all leave” – were some of the jokes we heard from our guides.

Magda came into the area only in 2009, after having led some of her work in Senegal, DRC and the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in the Congo. It was the Ebola outbreak and the death of about 90% of her study group in Lossi that lead the search into a new study area. Besides the Ndzehi concession carrying high density of gorillas, it was the attitude of the people at the Mbomo and Ombo villages that became the game changer and what made Magda decide to set up her new base in this part of the Congo. In this part of the Congo Basin gorillas are venerated for their resemblance to humans and protected. Unlike some other areas, here in these villages they’re not sought after for meat, their killing is almost considered taboo – perhaps due local stories talking of gorillas turning into people.

“At Mbomo gorillas are respected as they are considered very close to humans” our guide Alon explained “They don’t kill them, they don’t eat them here”.

 “I was amazed at how protected these gorillas were when very little kept them from the village,” Magda remembers. “But the elders had decided to defend them. One day a gorilla was sitting in the middle of that road, and a village woman was scared. So I sent a tracker to help her cross, and when she got to the other side, she turned and waved to the ape. That’s when I knew this was the right place to establish the new camp” (James Sturz, 2013).

 

Although the project has been running since 2009, Magda and her husband had a tough time to gain access to the gorillas– there are no fairy tales in conservation research. When they first came into the area and made their intentions known, the local community tested their interests and perseverance. Many times had foreigners come with empty promises only to hunt, trade and sell their gorillas to zoos.

“When Magda and German first arrived they made them walk in circles for days without seeing on single gorilla. Can you imagine what it was must have been like?”

Some of these stories are now laughable and regarded almost as an initiation ritual, but were a critical part in establishing the pureness of their intentions. Once these were established, the research began, the research station was developed and the habituating process started. Magda and her husband German were the first people to habituate western lowland gorillas to human presence in Lossi; a slow and demanding process that requires daily human “interaction” (by this I only mean of people approaching and viewing them, not interacting/touching the gorillas in any way). In 2009 this process started again just outside Odzala, not far from the Mbomo village as the key step in the research process – because, how can you study an animal without being able to see it?

In the thick marantaceae forest, this is no easy task. A network of forest trails divides the area into blocks that allows us, humans, to navigate through the forest and gain access to the gorillas. Western lowland gorillas have no problem navigating through the forest’s canopy and undergrowth. Much smaller than the mountain gorillas (their Ugandan and Rwandan cousins), they take to the trees and are often referred to as to be “swimming” through the forest.

Constant human presence is then required for gorillas to accept “observers” (and tourists) and it can take up to three years of daily interaction for a family of gorillas to become comfortable with our presence.

It takes three years (1095 days) of daily hard work, glimpses of them and small victories to create a new “normal”.

Just let that sink in. Three years. Every day. All year long.

Because of the immense pull viewing gorillas in the wild has, itineraries to explore the rainforest begin at Ngaga Camp and the gorilla trekking experience. Odzala Discovery Camps and SPAC believe that the pull of the gorillas is enough to get tourists focused on the rainforest they live in; once you see the gorillas you will be more interested in taking an interest in the conservation of the rainforest that houses them.

The stunning main deck

To me, it was the pull of the forest that made take an interest in gorillas. But I recognize I am biased to anything green.

When we arrived at Ngaga camp in the late evening, and as we sat around to have a glass of wine, the very same Dr. Bermejo came to greet us and speak to us about the gorilla trek experience. Although one the main interests of the current research project is to investigate the outcomes of human-gorilla interaction and any potential human-wildlife conflict and its implications for conservation, Magda was also interested in assessing our gorilla trekking expectations for tourism purposes. She was keen to hear the expectations of those who had never gone gorilla trekking before, and the expectations of those who had seen other species of gorillas and already had a trekking experience.

In house decor

After hearing some of the horror stories of the treks done by friends in Uganda or Rwanda, all I expected was long hours of walking in the forest.

“You will be divided into 2 groups of 4, plus a guide and a tracker. One of you will go to the Neptuno group, the other to Jupiter. Eat well for breakfast, as there is not telling in how long your trek will last. We’ve had some difficult treks lately. The trackers will meet you at 630am sharp to depart.”

“If you’re not ready on time they will cut our head off with their machetes” –added our guide.

It is the passion and dedication of Magda and her husband German, combined with the inherent respect of the villagers of Mbomo for gorillas, and the pioneering views of a German philanthropist, that unlocked a set of circumstances that made the birth of Ngaga camp possible and that allowed us the opportunity go in search and spend time with an animal species that is considered Critically endangered – next classification on the Red List is “Extinct in the Wild”.

Almost 5 years after the birth of this camp, we sat around a dinner table listening to the sounds of the forest, envisioning what was to come the next day. Come the morning we would consummate years of hard work in just one hour, thanks to the work of all kinds of people that thought there was something valuable and worth protecting in this rainforest. As for me, I didn’t know what to expect when facing the first big ape I would have ever seen.