Tourism all over Africa is a growing marketing and some areas it has a tremendous positive effect on the local population and the conservations of nature and wildlife.
After seeing the Academy-award-nominated documentary ‘Virunga’, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, about the national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we decided to there and tick of a visit to the mountain gorilla from our bucket list.
Virunga is the oldest national park and wild reserve in Africa. It was established by the Belgian King Albert I in 1925 under the name ‘Park National Albert’ in order to protect the wildlife from the constantly growing local population.
Today it is managed by Belgian Prins Emmanuel de Merode who grew up in Kenya, is a learned anthropologist and was made director of the Virunga National Park in 2008 by the Congolese government. The director works with a team of 680 rangers and together they protect the park against poachers and rebels. After years of problems, they managed to open the park to the public again in 2014 under safe conditions.
Roger, our guide, is waiting for us at the border near Goma, south-eastern park of Cong. He is driving a brand new and squeaky clean grey Land Rover Defender that takes us over some pretty bumpy roads out of town to our first stop in the Virunga Park.
Mikeno Lodge, is surrounded by a lush jungle on the hills in the southern part of the park. The lodge is located close to the headquarters of the Virunga Park. Right now, it is the only ‘lodge’ you’ll find at the Virunga Park. The twelve spacious chalets have all luxury you’re looking for and much more. Due to the height, we’re above 1,800 meters right now, and the humidity, it can get quite cool here at night. Thankfully all rooms have a lovely fireplace that is lit every evening and that welcomes you after dinner.
The lodge can be seen as the hub of activity in the park. You can get everywhere starting from this place and you can even visit the only gorilla orphanage in the world just next to the lodge. If you’re lucky, you can have a conversation with Andre Bauma, the charismatic attendant of the four mountain gorillas in the orphanage who lost their family to rebel poachers a couple of years ago.
Next to the Sekwekwe Center, you can search for a big chimpanzee family and if you want to, you can take a look behind the screens of the Virunga Ranger Team and their tracker dogs.
Gorillas in the sun
Just before the first sunrays shine through the high foliage, we have finished our strong breakfast with even stronger Rwandan coffee. Roger drives us in his Defender over small roads past hundreds of children walking to school. Each and every one of them has a bright smile and a beautiful uniform. You can tell when we pass the school once all children are suddenly walking the other direction and a bit further other children are walking towards another school.
Roger tells us that all the schools and hospitals around the Virunga Park will soon finally get electricity thanks to the support of the Virunga Park. Virunga has an agreement with the government that says that everything that is earned in the region thanks to tourism, can be used as budget for the protection of the animals and the people living in and around the park.
This is the best way to make the local people co-operate in the protection of the park and the animals. Throughout the year, the rivers in Central Africa have a constant and powerful current. This will finally be used as a power source for a new hydro plant.
The Defender is taking us up the mountains, higher and higher, until the villages along the muddy roads cease to exist and we only see huge fields of potatoes, corn and even cows passing by.
Once we get to the height of 2,200 meters, we arrive at Bukima Camp, the base for the Gorilla Sector of the Virunga Park. A real Virunga Ranger is waiting for us and explains how we should behave when near the gorillas. The message is simple “Being calm can save your life!”. We have to move quietly and we can only whisper if we really have to say something. We all get a mouth mask that we have to put on once we come closer to these magnificent creatures. This is a precaution to make sure that we don’t infect each other. They are just like humans.
After listening to a clear briefing, the ranger tells us which one of the six family we’ll visit. They keep track of how many silverbacks (or adult males), young silverbacks, teenagers, mothers, children and babies are part of the family.
The Virunga Rangers almost act as their bodyguards. Whether there are tourists or not, not a single day passes by without the rangers visiting the gorillas. The rangers go into the jungle early in the morning until they find every member of the family. Afterwards, they stay there for a couple of hours so they know that everything is calm and where the gorillas will make their nest for the evening.
After a couple of minutes, we’re climbing over potato fields and follow the ranger into the bush. It’s an entire different world here. In between the gigantic trees, we follow the tracks that the previous rangers left behind during the morning. After a short time, we stop and receive the signal to put our mouth masks on. My heart is beating faster as we go even deeper into the bushes that are being cut with a long machete. Suddenly, I’m just a couple of meters away from an enormous silverback. My first wild gorilla is calmly chewing on a piece of bamboo. He’s so close that I only get his head in the frame when I try to take a photo with my tele-lens.
Once I have taken the first 150 photos of the same silverback, the rangers continue to walk further and we leave the mighty ape behind. His family is actually close by and they also want some attention. His brother, the second silverback in the family, is eating breakfast with the females and teenagers. An adult male easily eats 30 kilograms of plants every day so during the day, eating is what they do the most.
The two youngest kids of this family apparently like our visit because even before we realise it, the oldest is hanging in the trees above us and the youngest is trying hard to stand on his two legs and pound his chest, which makes him fall over instantly.
The one hour we get to spend with these magnificent creatures is over in no time and we return satisfied to Bukima Camp for a delicious lunch and a well-deserved siesta in our tent.
Tonight we’ll sleep here because the next morning, we’ll go back to search for another gorilla family. This is a luxury that can still be done in Congo for a cheap price. Permits in Congo are cheap compared to those in the neighbouring country of Rwanda. We really recommend having a second visit. During the first visit, you’re very nervous and we actually enjoyed our second visit even more and we didn’t take that much photos as during the first visit.
A glimpse at the center of the Earth
Virunga Park isn’t just a must see for its unique nature, the chimpanzees and the gorillas. You can also see the largest lava lake in the world here. It gets even better, this enormous lava lake is located in the crater of the most active volcano in Congo, the Nyiragongo, and the only way to get a glimpse of the lave lake, is taking a hefty walk up to a height of 3,470 meters.
It takes about five hours to reach the summit at twilight. You’ll receive an amazing dinner and a hot cup of soup. This was, for us, the most unique location to eat a spaghetti ever.
Once it gets dark and we’re heated-up, we can see the intense glow of the lava that colours the entire night sky orange. It’s a miracle of nature that we’ll never forget.
Beach holiday at Lake Kivu
After all the climbing in the jungle searching for the gorillas or even to the summit of the Nyiragongo to see the lave lake, we also need some relaxing. Virunga has its own private island called Tchigera Island at the center of Lake Kivu just for this purpose. The island only has stylish safari tents on the beach and they all have their own canvas porch and a lovely view of the lake.
Close to the mess tent a campfire is crackling once the sun sets and people enthusiastically talk about their experiences of the last days. The oil lamps bring a serene atmosphere as we see the glow of the Nyiragongo in the distance and the moon light is reflected on the pitch-black lake.
We’ll definitely come back here one day and visit some of the new areas of Virunga and Congo which are being opened to the public in the future.
Getting there: Air Namibia code-share partner Kenya Airways offers daily flight to Kigila, Rwanda, which is the closest International airport to the Virunga National Park. From here the operator will organise transport by road (3 hours) to the park.
Organisation: This Safari was created by Atelier Africa Safaris – specialised in tailor-made safaris for the discerning traveller. Contact them via firstname.lastname@example.org or www.atelier-africa.com to find out more about traveling to Virunga and the Mountain Gorillas.