Trekking with Mountain Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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When I spent four months backpacking through East Africa in 2018, trekking to see the mountain gorillas in the DRC was at the very top of my bucket list. However, due to security reasons, Virunga National Park closed until early 2019.

So, when I started planning a return trip to Africa in 2019, finally making it to the DRC was at the very top of my travel wish list.

You might wonder why I didn’t just go and see the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, but there are several reasons why I had my heart set on seeing them in the DRC.

Firstly – the cost!

In Uganda, a gorilla trekking permit is $700 USD, and in Rwanda, a permit will set you back a whopping $1500 USD! However, in the DRC, these permits cost as little as $200 USD in the low (rainy) season – making them an absolute bargain for travellers on a budget.

Secondly, all the money spent with the Virunga National Park goes directly into wildlife conservation, the employment and retention of park rangers and the development of sustainable tourism projects within the park. Basically, your money is going towards helping not only the gorillas, but also to all the other wildlife that call Virunga home.

Our journey began on a morning in Kigali. Chelsea and I rose from bed, ate a quick brekkie and checked out of our hotel. We had organised in advance a private driver who would take us from Kigali to the Grande Barriere border crossing – where we would cross into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We had organised to get our visas on arrival with the Virunga National Park. This process took around an hour and overall, was a totally seamless experience. In no time at all, we were the proud owners of Congolese passport stamps! After a few temperature checks and bleach hand washes (there was an active ebola outbreak in the region when we visited) we were officially in the DRC and so excited for our imminent arrival to Virunga.

A very excited, very smiley Elle

After a long and bumpy ride through Goma and beyond, we finally made it to Kibumba Tented Lodge, which is located just next to the national park. It had been a long day of travel, so we wasted no time in indulging in a local Congolese beer!

After a beer (or three) and getting to know the other people who had arrived to Kibumba with us, we set off to settle into our tented rooms.

Now, I will be honest, I had quite low expectations for this accommodation. I expected it to be basic and simple – but Kibumba was SO much more gorgeous than I ever expected. Our tent had two gloriously comfy beds, a shower with never-ending hot water, a thermos next to our bed so that we could have coffee in the morning and even a gorilla shaped soap (that I think I still have stashed somewhere in my house).

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The rest of the lodge was also absolutely beautiful, but the central firepit was my favourite spot. Not only is it the perfect place to warm up on those surprisingly cold Congo nights, but this spot provides gorgeous views of the nearby Mount Nyiragongo.

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We were treated to a lovely meal that evening, and to make the whole experience even better, when I got back to our tent, there was a gloriously lovely hot water bottle tucked under the covers! It was so unexpected and so unbelievably appreciated.

The next morning came and before too long, I was the proud owner of a gorilla trekking permit! We met with the rangers and split into two groups. I was quite lucky to be in the group that wouldn’t have to trek as far, especially as this region of the national park frequently sits at over 3000m elevation, and this lady doesn’t do particularly well at altitude.

We went through the rules of the trek next – basically, wear a face mask when around the gorillas to protect them from human diseases, stay at least 9m away from them at all time (although the gorillas don’t seem to get the memo for that rule), we would only be spending a maximum of one hour with them and we must stay with the group at all times.

In no time, we were off! Just before we entered the park we had a quick temperature check and hand wash to make sure we weren’t carrying any ebola and then, we were officially within the Virunga National Park and on our way to see gorillas!

Finally being on this adventure felt absolutely incredible. I had wanted to do it on my 2018 adventures through Africa, but due to security reasons the park was shut to tourists and visas stopped being issued. I couldn’t afford the permits in Uganda and Rwanda, so it didn’t happen, much to my disappointment.

Finally being on this trek felt like such an accomplishment and I was so unbelievably happy. No amount of bitey ants, talon-esque plants and twisted ankles (it isn’t easy hiking to say the least) could dampen my happiness.

Trekking through the Virunga jungle is like nothing else. It is thick, trails are non-existent and sometimes, the scrub beneath is so dense that you aren’t even touching the ground anymore – you could literally be a metre off of the ground below, suspended by incredible plant life.

On the way, clumsy me slipped and fell through one such section, twisting my ankle in the process. It hurt like a b****, but the promise of gorillas kept me going, and before too long, I heard someone at the front of the group say that they could see them.

For so long I had dreamt of this moment, I had dreamt of seeing and photographing these incredible and critically endangered animals myself. I had dreamt for so long of a gorilla staring down the barrel of my lens, and then just like that, it happened.

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A family of twenty something gorillas and I were breathing the same air. There is only 600 or so of these incredible animals left in the world and I got to be in close proximity to them!

It is, hands down, without a doubt, one of the two most amazing travel experiences of my entire life, and coming from a woman who has seen and done many jaw-dropping things in her life, that is truly saying a lot.

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We had been told to stay at least nine metres away from the gorillas at all times, but they certainly haven’t heard about this rule. Chelsea got within inches of a 200kg silverback (the look on her face was priceless, even through the mask) and a two year old baby came right up to me as if it wanted to play! One of the rangers promptly gave it a gentle growl and it genuinely looked up at us like a toddler who had been chastised.

Masks are briefly allowed off, just for photos, although since Covid-19 happened I imagine this rule might be even more strictly enforced now.
Up close and personal with a gorgeous baby!

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The photographs I captured in my hour with this family are some of the photos that I am most proud of. I am not a professional photographer by any stretch of imagination, but these photos? Not to sound like i am full of myself, but these make me feel like I could sell prints and people might actually want them!

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All too soon, our hour with this gorgeous family was over. It felt like it had gone in the blink of an eye. Part of me felt saddened that it was time to leave, but that part was quickly squashed by the intense elation that this experience, one that I’d dreamt about for years, turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be, and so much more.

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The trek back to camp was much harder than the trek to the gorillas. I had a sore ankle, the climb was uphill and I no longer had gorilla motivation to keep me going.

However, there were no more trips and injuries, mostly thanks to the rangers who held my hand and steadied me through the tricky sections – what angels.

We ended the day watching the activity of Mount Nyiragongo.

It was perfection.

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THE  LOWDOWN

Safety: It is a reality of travelling to the DRC that there will always be a level of risk due to active militia groups and sometimes due to disease. However, I made a calculated risk assessment prior to my visit and felt that for me, the risk was worth the reward. It is worth keeping in mind that the Congo is no stranger to outbreaks of disease (there was an active ebola outbreak while we were there) and that certain militia groups have and do target Virunga. However, the park have no qualms about shutting to visitors if they deem the risk too high, and visitors are with armed rangers at all times. Personally, I never once felt unsafe and absolutely plan to return one day, but this is a choice that each traveller needs to feel comfortable making.
Virunga National Park: We booked our trip directly through the Visit Virunga website. We opted for the Mikeno Mist package, which included two nights at Kibumba Tented Lodge, all meals, gorilla permit, Mount Nyiragongo trekking permit and overnight stay and the DRC visa for around $1200 USD each – which is an absolute bargain! Click here to learn more.
Kibumba Tented Lodge: An absolutely gorgeous lodge, make sure to bring extra cash (in USD or euros) for souvenirs, beers, tips and porter fees
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses
Remember: Even if you are the fittest human on the planet and don’t need a porter for any treks, keep in mind that for some of the local Congolese people, being a porter is a main source of income, so please consider supporting the local economy – it’s just a few dollars to some, but it’s a livelihood for others.

FINAL NOTE

To learn more about Virunga National Park, the documentary on Netflix titled Virunga is an absolutely unforgettable watch. Furthermore, if you have any spare money, please consider donating it to this national park. Your money goes towards conservation, building sustainable sources of income for local economies, preservation of critically endangered wildlife and paying the incomes of the brave park rangers who defend the park. They do an incredible job, and donations really do make a difference.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to drop them in the comments box below!

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20-something year old Australian backpacker writing her way around the world.

62 thoughts on “Trekking with Mountain Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

  1. Awesome post, DRC is one of the countries we’d really like to visit in Africa! So much to see, so little time 🤣 Thanks for checking out our Devil’s Den Hiking Post, too by the way!

    1. Do it! Honestly, took a little bit of patience for me to get there, but it was so unbelievably worth it! Where are you headed next? And it was my pleasure!

      1. That’s awesome, I’m sure it was such a cool experience! We have some blogs coming up soon on the rest of our road trip back through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and we also have a blog on this beautiful lodge we just stayed at that’s nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in Georgia. It had some beautiful hikes with a massivebwaterfall. And then videos for all those, too! We have some local places in North Carolina, and then Savannah, Georgia as well as a potential trip to Costa Rica on the radar, so we’ll see 🤣

      2. That sounds amazing! I have so few plans right now… our border restrictions are changing so frequently that it makes planning near impossible! But hopefully there will be a few international trips on the cards for me next year!

      3. They are very strict, but the worst part is how they go back and forth, we are open and then we are closed and so on, it’s so frustrating!

  2. OMG! You are SO brave, I wish I was more like you! Let alone with Ebola in the mix! But to see those beautiful animals (the male ones look very intimidating!) must’ve been amazing.
    I enjoy reading about your exploits…you write so well and give all the details at the end for peoples information purposes which is very helpful. Im glad I can enjoy it vicariously through your blogs!

    1. Oh Denise it was incredible! Honestly one of the most amazing things I have ever done, there are no words to describe it! Are you planning any trips at the moment?

    1. Thank you! I am honestly so happy and proud of how they turned out – but the gorillas definitely made it easy to shoot!

    1. I hope you get there too! It honestly exceeded every single one of my hopes and dreams for the trip – I cannot recommend the DRC enough!

  3. Ellen, these are fabulous photos! You are so lucky to have been able to see the gorillas. I cannot imagine, but it sure looks like a wonderful experience.

    The pictures are enchanting. You so perfectly captures so many of their expressions, especially the little ones.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    1. Thanks so much Tim. It was a truly epic adventure, and easily one of the most humbling of my life! The little babies were so much like human toddlers, it was incredible to watch them play, interact and then run back to mum and dad!

      Thank you for reading, I have been wanting to share this trip for so long, it’s good to have the writing mojo back.

      1. Well, I should be thanking you. And I am so glad you got your writing mojo back as well. I have always enjoyed your posts so much. Wishing you and yours all the best.

    1. I truly hope you get to visit one day! It was so worth the wait for me, and it was a day that I will never forget. I am hoping to go back again soon!

  4. Dude! Trust me, you are very lucky to see these creatures form so near. I am sure you feel the same. Gorilla trekking one thing I would love to do one day. Thank you for adding one more adventure activity to my list.

    1. Oh I definitely know how lucky I am. It will easily go down as one of the best things I have ever done, I can’t imagine that there is much that will top it!

  5. Oh wow this sounds like a truly fascinating and unique experience! Your pictures are seriously stunning, they make me almost feel like I’m there at the very moment 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, that is truly wonderful to hear <3 I hope you get to experience it for yourself one day!

  6. Your images are fantastic. You are definitely braver than me though. I could never attempt that. My brother-in-law lived in Uganda for a while and he too said the cost for the trek was too high. My husband would love this. I would stay back in the camp :-).

    1. What part are you too scared to attempt? Honestly, I felt no fear at any time, just awe and wonder. Maybe your husband can convince you to try it one day 🙂

  7. Such a fun read and your photos are great. We did this in Uganda (just weeks before the world shut down) and I will never regret the money we spent. Your accommodations looks fantastic – just the kind of place I love. I’m so glad you got to do this. Once in a lifetime.

    1. How did you find it in Uganda? Did it look similar to the DRC? How did you organise it? I know what you mean, no matter how much it cost, it would be worth it to see the gorillas.

  8. Omg, first of all, kudos for going everywhere by yourself, that takes a bit of courage AT LEAST. Secondly, the pictures here are INCREDIBLE. Nature is mesmerizing.

    1. Thank you so much, I am honestly extremely proud of these images, I am so happy to hear that other people are enjoying them too!

  9. Everything about this post is wonderful. This is a dream trip of mine and to travel there via your story and see those incredible photos has filled me with hope that one day I will get there. I raised an eyebrow reading that you were checked for ebola in the event of what we are now dealing with. I was pleased to hear that the entrance visa money was put back into the charity, it really makes you not worry what you pay for the experience if the money is used well.

    1. I truly hope you get to fulfill your dream and experience this adventure one day! As for the ebola, it is worth remembering that this trip report is from a pre-covid era! Although with the masks, hand hygiene and temperature checks, the DRC was certainly ahead of its time!

    1. Thank you so much. I spent so long on this post and I am so happy with how it and the photos turned out <3

  10. This is absolutely FANTASTIC!!! super high on my bucket list, but I was considering to go to Rwanda or Uganda, now you made me consider Congo instead. Your pictures brought tears to my eyes, girrrrrlllllll…they are amazing! I cry any time I see gorillas, they are incredible, and your pictures are some of the most expressive and gorgeous I have ever seen. Amazing job!

    1. YES! I am so so so glad to hear that! I truly hope you do go to the DRC – it was easily one of the best travel experiences of my entire life, and I can guarantee that seeing them in real life will bring tears to your eyes too! Thank you so much <3

  11. I loved reading about your experiences as I had to cancel a trip to Uganda & a gorilla trek last year! Your pictures are amazing & you were so close to the gorillas! I also loved your comments on supporting the local people by hiring a porter. I’ll make sure I do when I finally get back to Uganda. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. That is so lovely to hear – I felt that a lot of people didn’t think about the porters being reliant on income, so felt that it was important to share. I hope you get to Uganda one day very soon <3

  12. What an incredible adventure!! And the the photos you took of the gorillas are absolutely stunning. I am inspired 🙂

    1. I’ll be honest, neither did I! Booking our package online was so much easier than I expected, getting our visas was a seamless process and the accommodation was so much more wonderful than I had ever hoped for – Virunga NP are doing an absolutely incredible job.

  13. WOW! This looks like an incredible trip. I can see why it’s up there in your all-time favourite travel experiences! Love your photos of the gorillas 😍

    1. Thanks so much Sarah. It was a dream come true to photograph these gorgeous gorillas, I can’t speak highly enough of the experience.

  14. Nothing short of incredible, seeing such beautiful creatures in the natural habitat. Your photos and a sore ankle are so worth the joy, that is something I could only imagine. Great insight regarding the costs and choice of provide, location and accommodation. Thanks.

    1. Right?! I was so pleasantly surprised with the accommodation! It was an incredible trip from every aspect <3

    1. Thank you! That is absolutely wonderful to hear – it is easily one of the best experiences of my entire life!

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