Gorillas and volcanoes in the DRC
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Africa’s second largest country, is not often visited by tourists. Most people are put off by the negative travel advice as they assume the whole country is unsafe. But the DRC has some spectacular things on offer, and some of those are safe to visit.
A 6-day long weekend, thanks to some of Tanzania’s public holidays, was enough for us to schedule a trip to the DRC. We really wanted to visit the Eastern lowland gorillas, different to their cousins the mountain gorillas. But as the DRC is blessed with both species, we couldn’t resist trekking to a family of mountain gorillas as well.
The Eastern lowland gorillas can be found in Kahuzi-Biega NP which is located south of lake Kivu, a stunning lake between Rwanda and the east of the DRC. After flying from Kigali (capital of Rwanda) to Kamembe we crossed the border and were soon in Bukavu, DRC. It didn’t feel very different to East Africa, apart from the fact they speak Swahili mixed with French, instead of Swahili with some English thrown in. Even a lot of birds were the same, but we also spotted a few new ones!
Kahuzi-Biega NP is only an hour’s drive from Bukavu and after a great breakfast with a lovely view over Lake Kivu we were driven to the park’s headquarters. We were given a briefing by Lambert, the head guide, before we were assigned our own 4wd from the national park, complete with Safari (our guide), two rangers, and a driver. And we still had to pick up the three trackers at the nearby village. All for just the two of us…
We were visiting Chimanuka and his family. And after more than an hour’s drive we were ready to stretch our legs. It’s slow moving through the forest, but soon we reached last night’s nests. Gorillas make a new nest every night, most are on the ground, although some of the young ones sleep in a tree. From there the trackers got to work and we slowly fought our way through the thick jungle. Easy for us as we just had to follow the path the trackers were hacking with their pangas (machete). Most of the time we were walking on a layer of thick vines that cover large sections of the forest. And then, all of a sudden we were there!
Chimanuka, the silverback, was sitting right in front of us, together with his preferred female Mwinja and a 6 year old orphaned juvenile called Marhale. His old (38 years old) mother died after a fight with Chimanuka, but he has been adopted by Mwinja. A little bundle of energy called Mwira, the 3-year old son of Mwinja and Chimanuka, also joined us. He even mock charged Jude, but quickly ran to his mum afterwards. Very cute!
The rest of the family were all up in the trees and heading out deeper into the forest. But what we didn’t realise is that they were crossing a small, fast flowing river…! Chimanuka was the last to go and after a drink he looked a little puzzled for a minute or so, how was he going to get across? He can climb trees without any trouble, but he was too heavy for the routes his family had taken! Eventually he found some sturdier branches and disappeared across. And what about us? Are we supposed to follow across the same way or is this the end of our time with the gorillas?
Luckily it was neither of those. Our handy trackers spent a few minutes cutting down some trees to get us (and themselves) across. We felt bad, but were told the trackers had to get across the next day again as well to make sure they found the family again, so the bridge was needed. Across we went and then bumped into Nabanga strolling along, going down to a small stream for a drink before laying down for a snooze right next to us, and not far from the tree where Chimanuka had found himself a good spot to relax. Just above him was Karibu, and higher up in the trees we could see Mwira playing and the three blackback brothers Pilipili, Blackback 1 and Uhuru. Pilipili especially was interested in what was happening on the ground as he kept looking down at us. It was super special to spend an hour with them, time went so quickly!
Back in Bukavu at our hotel we went birdwatching and were very lucky to see two Ross’s turacos flying into the bamboo to nest just as we both looked up. The next day before breakfast and heading to the ferry terminal we found one of them again and had a much better look at him (or her?), they are absolutely stunning.
The fast ferry across Lake Kivu is super luxurious, although still quite African with the sound of the (bad) movie at full blast. But with good earplugs the volume levels can be brought back to just loud and we enjoyed the scenery. In Goma we drove straight out to our tented camp with amazing views. Behind us the jagged peak of Mikeno, but the view from the front of the lodge was what it was all about – the Nyiragongo volcano, puffing out it’s plume of smoke rising up from the bubbling lava crater lake. At night you could even see the orange glow reflecting in the rising smoke, very dramatic.
But before we would make our ascent, we still had another visit to another gorilla species planned. This time we would visit a mountain gorilla family in the Virunga NP. It was an hour’s drive to Bukima where we would start the hike. We went with 4 others – Sarah, Francesco & Roberta and a lady working for the UN. Sarah, Francesco and Roberta were also going up to the top of Nyiragongo the next day.
The family we were visiting this time was called Rugendo and just as we were approaching we could hear the screams of a fight, and were told it was most likely between Bukima, the dominant, 26-year old silverback and Congomani, one of the other two 21-year old silverbacks.
It was Congomani we saw first. A stately figure who appeared to be meditating. Wow.
The others were high up in a few trees around him, but after a few minutes they all came down and nearly walked across Jon’s feet. We followed and Jaza, a 28-year old female with a 3-month old baby girl sat down and allowed us to have a good look at her tiny baby with a massive head of curly hair. She was adorable and full of energy!
We then watched Baseka (the other silverback) keeping a close watch on his 2-year old son Bwambale, before mum (Bagambe) joined as well and they shared an extended grooming and bonding session with the three of them.
Jaza then came crashing down from the vines above and nearly landed on Jude. She was nursing the tiny baby girl before Bukima also joined the scene, walking straight past Jude as well to get to his lady. The two small families were right next to each other and we were allowed to share their bonding time. Super special! Just before we had to leave Buzara, a 10-year old female who might be pregnant, also joined the families, as well as Mayani, a 4-year old male.
At night we admired the glow of the volcano from afar again, but the next morning we drove to the foot of the Nyiragongo volcano. The volcano is quite well-known for its large, active lava lake, regularly containing the highest volume of lava in the world. It didn’t disappoint.
After just five hours of hiking we reached the top and could peak over the edge. Down in the crater was a huge, glowing orange, bubbling and spitting, always moving, smoking hot, lava lake. It was mesmerizing, just like watching the dancing flames of a camp fire.
As it was the rainy season we had to be patient. Often the crater would fill with clouds, and sometimes you couldn’t even see the lava lake. But luckily we managed to spent several times watching it when it was super clear. Up at 3470m it was pretty cold and we were happy with the extra layers we had brought, including beanies and gloves.
We spent the night in one of the basic a-framed cabins just underneath the rim and a toilet break from Jude was timed perfectly with another lifting of the clouds. Luckily, as the next morning it didn’t clear and we had to hike down without saying goodbye.
Back down the volcano after only just over 3 hours of hiking, we hopped into the waiting Defender and drove straight to the border. We had started our journey at 4.45am at the top of the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and crossed from Goma into Gisenyi in Rwanda, enjoyed lunch in the gardens of Calafia, drove to Kigali with several bird watching stops along the way, had lunch in Heaven, caught a flight to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and arrived home at the Circus at 3.45am the next morning. We had taken nearly 24 hours to get from 3470m in the DRC to sea level in Tanzania, hopping through another country in the process. We were exhausted, but very happy with our latest adventure and can highly recommend it!
We booked our trip with Inspired Journeys and were very happy with the level of service and incredible level of detail they provided throughout the booking process. They come highly recommended. Check out what they offer here on their Inspired Journeys website. Simone was our contact person and she was very helpful.
Tourist visas for the DRC are arranged by Inspired Journeys and are for 14 days.
The permit for visiting the eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega NP is USD400, the same for the mountain gorillas in the Virunga NP. But, for some reason the Virunga NP offers the permits at half price (only USD200) during the rainy season (roughly March, April and May although we are not sure exactly which period the discount is offered).
We stayed at Kibumba tented camp in the Virunga NP, it’s not only the cheapest option, but we also liked it because it has an excellent view of Nyiragongo. At night you can even see the orange glow reflected in the rising smoke plume.