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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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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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.
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.