Farewell to DRC

Stephen Quinn
December 5, 2010 share
Artists for Conservation

November 30 - Morning, once again, dawned clear and cold, so we broke camp and packed all our gear in preparation for meeting our porters who were hiking up from the nearest village to help me get my painting equipment off Mt. Mekeno. If it wasn't for these guys I would not have been able to pack my gear up to camp myself, as my altitude sickness became more pronounced when I was hiking with a heavy pack and I had three! Our porters were supermen who could carry great weight at these high elevations, often with bare feet. They were fast on the trail and as friendly and helpful as can be.

Once packed and ready to make our decent with our park rangers, trackers and porters, we took time to have a flag ceremony at Carl Akeley's grave. Of course, the team stood with the Artists for Conservation Foundation flag, the primary sponsoring organization. Next we stood by the grave side with the expedition flag of the American Museum of Natural History, as Carl Akeley worked for most of his professional life with AMNH, and reached his greatest goals, the Mountain Gorilla Sanctuary and Akeley Hall of African Mammals (posthumously) while under it's employ. Finally, I draped the American flag and the Explorers Club flag over his grave. It was a great honor, as a member of the Explorer's Club, to carry our flag and honor Carl Akeley as a past President and the great creative American that he was. He was truly a patriot throughout his life and used his creativity during World War I in the service of his country.

Finally, as all the rest of my party headed back to camp, I remained back to be alone at the grave. The forest has completely reclaimed it and, though I know his remains have been scattered, it was such an honor to be at this special place. I said a prayer that Carl Akeley's spirit lives on in all those who are on the front line of conservation around the world, working against great odds and with little resources for a cause greater than any one of us. The Mountain Gorilla is Carl Akeley's living legacy. Virunga National Park is his great gift to the world and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  His art, the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum in New York, is his great monument to the splendor and majesty of African Wildlife and, as art, has shaped our understanding and appreciation of Africa and it's wildlife heritage. I admire Carl Akeley and hope to live only a fraction of as fruitful and meaningful life as his.  It was a great honor to feel close to him in the mountains he loved.

Once back at camp, we said goodbye to the Congolese and Rwandan poaching patrols, before they departed. These dedicated armed patrols were responsible for driving out the rebel groups who had taken up residents in the meadow we were camping in only a few months earlier. These rebel factions were not only lawless and violent in their tactics, but they are also poachers and are clearing forest in the park for illegal charcoal production. Each day upon their return from their patrols in the remote parts of the park, they would show us the snares that they had collected. They averaged finding about 40 to 80 snares a day.

The hike down was far easier than the hike up and with no adverse attitude effects. We had filtered water from a pond on the top of the mountain and we still had a couple of cans of sardines, half a jar of peanut butter, and a few crackers, so our provisions were adequate. We were happy to have completed our mission and be on our way back to Rwanda. Akeley, on his decent from Mount Mikeno, wrote that his mind was filled with the importance of  saving the last of the Mountain Gorillas and the fear that they might be lost before action was taken. To this end, the creation of a gorilla sanctuary and the first national park in Africa, he dedicated the rest of his life. My own mind, as we hiked down through the trails of magnificent Hagenia forest and dense bamboo, was filled with the hopes that the sketches and photo documentation of the scene in Akeley's  Mountain Gorilla diorama in NY, would, in some way, assist in educating for the need to be vigilant and never-tiring in our efforts to protect wilderness, wherever it  still exist, and nuture the wild things that we share the planet. I could imagine Akeley's thrill of realization and sense of urgency in that epiphany. Walking in his footsteps, I could better understand him as a man.

After our decent and transport back to the town of Goma, our passage through the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo went without incident, as did our entry back into Rwanda. The first on the agenda when returning was to find a cold beer and a shower that supplied hot water. I was lucky. I found both at the Hotel Muhaburu.


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