Raglan couple fly to Congo to aid in fight for rare gorilla

From eco-retreat to eco-warriors deep in the jungle – it’s all been quite an upheaval  for former Solscape owners Phil McCabe and Bernadette Gavin, who for the past week have been in Central Africa on what they describe as a “life-changing” mission.
They were there to help assess the potential for a mini eco lodge in the Congo, staying in a remote village near the conservation area of the threatened eastern lowland gorilla.      

While Bernadette has long wanted to visit Africa for follow-up work of hers in animal rehabilitation, for Phil the experience was very “different” from a recent sailing trip to look at seabed mining in the Pacific and way beyond what he’d ever imagined for himself.
“It was deep Africa and just amazing!” he told the Chronicle from Qatar on Monday before flying on home. But at the same time the once strife-torn Congo (formerly called Zaire), which has a population of 80-odd million really needed outside help, he added.

With time on their hands since passing Solscape – their eco retreat of 17 years – to new owners back in April, the couple have been looking around for other causes “that make a difference” and capitalise on their own eco skills, says Phil.
So they jumped at the chance to visit Central Africa with friend and fellow environmental crusader Peter Eastwood of  Tanglewood Foundation NZ – which provides funding for conservation and education projects around the world – even though it meant leaving teenage daughter Sequoia back home studying for her final exams at Raglan Area School.

As former chair of community-based action group KASM, Phil says he was once grateful for Peter’s help in lodging an appeal against proposed seabed mining along the west coast. “Peter heavily supported KASM in times of need,” he says.
Now the Raglan couple are in turn keen to support his foundation’s initiatives in the Congo, where significant work is underway to protect the gorilla habitat. It’s an isolated area suffering “serious hardship”, but one which is gradually achieving change through the Pole Pole Foundation, a non-governmental organisation created by local inhabitants in and around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Four million trees have been planted as a buffer zone around the national park, Phil explains, to help prevent local rampages for firewood and bush meat.
A school and a spirulina initiative have also been funded to support conservation work in the area, and now on the Pole Pole (meaning ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili) wish-list is an eco lodge to house visitors who come to see the critically endangered subspecies of gorilla.
As Bernadette explains: “Once the villagers understand gorillas are special and bring in money, they’ll value them.”

On the plus side the couple were impressed with environmental achievements in Rwanda, which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Phil describes the country as “the Switzerland of Africa” with a policy of no plastic bags and “phenomenal” whole-country clean-ups undertaken the last Saturday of every month.
“It’s come a long way in 25 years,” he says, referring to the horrors of the Rwandan genocide.

Phil and Bernadette will be back at Solscape next week along with Peter, who will talk about the work in Africa by the Tanglewood Foundation and its travel subsidiary DTours.
“Peter gives people a safe and interesting experience in Africa, with meaning,” Phil insists. “And his trips support good causes.”  Edith Symes

Peter Eastwood’s presentation will be held in conjunction with Solscape’s curry night on Monday November 18, from 6.30pm. Open to all.