The Climb to Akeley's Grave

Stephen Quinn
December 5, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

November 27,2010 - After a night with little sleep, we headed out for Virunga National Park and our climb up Mount Mikeno. We met Jaques Iyanya, MGVP staff veterinarian, who assisted us in acquiring the food and water and other basic supplies (like toilet paper) for our one night of camping at Kabara (Akeley's old gorilla camp). We rendezvoued with the team who had facilitated our visit to the Park with ICCN, (the DRC National Park Service) Director Emmanuel de Merode. They were Senior Park Wardens Innocent,  and Park Wardens Sekibibi Bareke Desiree, and Sebahame NzaRubara. We had so much gear that we had to hire eight porters, which the park rangers were quick to point out provides much needed revenue for the local village. Once we were organized we started our hike up through beautiful farmland, cheered on by all the kids from the local grammar school. It was a cheering send off that I will never forget!

The mud brick buildings of the villages we passed often featured wonderful hand-rendered scenes of the occupant's family events. One scene of a grand wedding was especially poignant in endearing detail.  As we passed the homes we were greeted by smiles and waves. Once we reached the National Park entrance (a rock wall to prevent Forest Buffalo and elephant from leaving the park to raid local farms), we were met by additional armed park rangers who would chaperone our climb, as rebel troops were just cleared out of the area we were visiting a few months ago. At one point during our ascent, we heard voices in the distance and our rangers halted and listened with concern. We waited and them continued our hike so, I'm assuming, all was OK.

The higher we climbed the sicker I became.  I was surprised that I soon became ill from altitude sickness and I found it was debilitating. I felt like a wimp as it seemed to affect no one else in the party and I was slowing the pace of the accent. I was light-headed, dizzy and vomiting uncontrollably. My stomach muscles were cramping and aching from spasms of retching.  I just had to put my head down and march. On the way up we encountered active poacher's shelters and saw or heard no Mountain Gorillas as they had been driven out of this region of the park due to rebel activity. The poachers are after duiker and bushbuck within the park for food. Other animals, including gorilla and forest buffalo are often ensnared and suffer a slow and horrible death if unaided. It is a terrible dilemma, as the poor people displaced by war and civil unrest are hungry and driven to poach for food for survival. Wildlife and people suffer during times of political and social unrest.

We arrived at Kabara (Akeley's gorilla camp) at sunset, after a full days hike, to find that we were sharing camp with a combined Congolese/Rwandan poacher/rebel patrol. We immediately began to pitch our tents and organize our campsite. To that end the national park rangers came over and wanted to help. They brought us charcoal, helped us get our fire started, and quickly cut saplings and, in minutes, made us two beautiful benches to sit on beside the fire. They were a great bunch of guys and regularly came over to say hi and chat.

After camp was set up, one of the rangers, Desire', asked if we would like to visit Akeley's gravesite. We, of course, said yes and he lead us down a trail toward a slight rise in the meadow. He led us  past the ruined foundation of the dwelling used by George Schaller and Diane Fossey for their early studies of the Mountain Gorilla and, with his panga cleared the way into a tangle of jungle vegetation. Desire pointed to the ground at what was a dark sinkhole in the forest floor. A deep depression in the ground overgrown by the forest. Using my archival photos of the site from AMNH, I was able to verify that we were standing at Carl Akeley's final resting place. I was surprised at how emotional I became.  After years of working at AMNH, hearing and reading of his accomplishment and talents as an artist, the enormity of Akeley as a living person and his passion for the land, the mountains surrounding us, and the animals of Africa that he loved so much, just briefly, flashed through my mind and heart. Though I knew the grave had been ransacked in the Mau Mau years long ago and it's contents scattered, still Akeley's forest and the Virungas he loved  surrounded us - so, I have no doubt, that he is physically and metaphysically part of the national park and country he gave his life for. Desire knelt and drove his machete into the earth to strike the remains of the cement casket at our feet with a metallic chink. As sunset turned to night the temperature rapidly dropped and it started to snow. We returned to camp in the waning light, ate a small part of our rations (sardines, peanut butter and crackers) and then sat around the fire in the darkness and toasted Akeley with a bottle of red wine we had brought for the occasion. It started to flurry snow and after a while sleet which gradually turned to a drizzle so we finished our toast, turned in and tried to get as warm as we could for the night. A hyaena moaned a lullaby off in the distance.


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