Planning a Trip To The Congo: Mountain Gorillas, Lava Lakes, and Wooden Bicycles

The Congo. Probably not the first country that comes to mind when you think about future travel destinations. BUT, this largely unexplored part of the world is slowly opening up for tourism and has some truly spectacular things to offer. I just got back from a 4 day/3 night trip to Goma and Virunga National Park, just west across the border from Rwanda, and as I write this, the experience truly feels surreal, as if it all happened in a dream. I went with a group of three friends and we spent the first day trekking to see gorillas in the wild misty mountains, and the second and third day hiking up Mt. Nyiragongo to spend the night on the rim of an active volcano overlooking the world’s largest lava lake. Yes, both experiences were even cooler than they sound if that is even possible and I highly recommend adding this exotic destination to your travel bucket list!

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The start of the trek into the mountains to see a family of mountain gorillas

Here is a bit of information to get you started:

Why The Congo:

First of all, going to the largely unexplored and un-touristy country of DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) is badass in itself, but here are a couple of other reasons if that is not enough for you:

  • Tourism in Goma has been slowly increasing, with (relative) peace and stability in the region for the past few years. Going to Goma for tourism is a great way to support the growing industry, which has the potential to have a huge positive impact on the local economy
  • Because tourism is slowly getting started, is also means that not many people (other tourists) are around. Four of us got to hike to a family of gorillas on our own (out of a total of 9 tourists in the park that day), and only 10 tourists spent the night on Nyiragongo, including our group. Go to Congo for the amazing experience without the crowds of muzungu tourists in khaki and extra zoom camera lens that African National Parks seem to attract. (Note: you are allowed to travel in Africa without wearing khaki, although this seems to be all white people wear when traveling here).
  • It is a cheaper option for seeing gorillas in the wild. The Virunga National Park fee for a day of gorilla trekking is $400USD (which is still pricy I know, but worth it), versus $700USD+ in Rwanda and Uganda. Basically in Congo, you can see the gorillas and hike Nyiragongo for the same price as only doing the gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda
  • The money you spend with the park is going to a very important cause.  The prices are expensive, but the money is going towards protecting, conserving, and maintaining the park and all of the animals and people that live within it.  Poaching, drilling for oil, and an expanding human population all threaten the park and the rare species within it. There’s a great documentary on Netflix about this called Virunga.
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A 100% (including the wheels) wooden bicycle/scooter thing that I have never seen used in Africa until I travelled to Goma.

Things To Do:

  • Gorilla Trekking: Hike up into the misty volcanic mountains of Virunga National Park and spend an hour hanging out with a family of gorillas. You get super close (as in within a few meters), and get to watch the amazing, beautiful, and peaceful creatures hang out and interact in their natural environment. It is impossible to walk away from this experience unmoved.
  • Nyiragongo Volcano: This volcano is seriously cool. It takes about 4-5 hours to hike up, with views of the volcano, Goma, Lake Kivu, and the surrounding volcanoes. Then, once you get to the top ridge, you have a mesmerizing view of a giant crater, with a simmering lake of lava in the centre – the largest lava lake in the world, and it kind of just blows you away. You can spend the night at the top, which I highly recommend because the lava lights up at night, and you can spend hours just watching it change shape. The gorillas were super cool, but I think this would be my favorite thing from the Congo trip.
  • Chimpanzee Treks: Same as the gorilla treks, but with habituated chimpanzee instead, and much less expensive.
  • Tchegera Island: I didn’t go here, but it looks like a beautiful getaway option. Alternatively, plan to spend a couple nights in Gisenyi on Lake Kivu after your Congo trip for some beautiful R&R on Lake Kivu (I highly recommend INZU lodge)
  • Congo Culture: There is a stark difference between the neighboring cities of Goma in the Congo and Gisenyi in Rwanda, separated only by a border. Get your guide to take you on a walk through town and soak up the busy, crazy streets of Goma.
  • Trek the Rwenzoris: I have done it from the Ugandan side, but is also possible to summit Margherita Peak from the Congo and experience the beautiful Rwenzori mountain scenery.
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Pretty much the look on your face when you see the volcano for the first time

Organizing Your Trip:

You’ll want to go with a tour group for this one. There are lots of options listed on the Virunga Park Site. I emailed them all to get quotes and the cheapest option ended up being Okapi Tours, so you can save yourself the hassle if cost is a priority for you. The owner, Emmanuel, was great in helping us to organize the trip, accommodating with paying the deposit, and quick to respond to any questions or issues we had. Our guide in the Congo, Meshak, was one of the smileiest (as in smiling, not smelling) guys I have ever met and helped take care of us each step along the way. You can reach them by email: emmanuelrufubya@yahoo.fr or phone/whatsapp: +243-825-566-810. I highly recommend these guys!

 

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It is amazing watching the gorillas.  You get so close to them and they are so human-like.  Beautiful, peaceful creatures.

 

Costs:

Your costs will obviously depend on what activities you decide to do, whom you book your tour with, and what level of luxury you want. Here’s your budget options, or what I worked out to be the cheapest option for a safe (tour-guided) trip. For our 4-day/3-night tour for four people doing the gorilla trekking and Nyiragongo overnight hike, we ended up paying $1,175USD each. This included everything (including DRC visas), and I basically did not need to convert any of my money to Congolese Francs because everything after crossing the border was taken care of (I stashed some bananas and snacks to cover the supper that wasn’t included in town). This option ended up being less expensive than a do-it-yourself option where you book everything yourself because the transportation prices to get to Virunga are very high if you are booking everything separately on your own (Not to mention the hassle of trying to figure out hotels and meals in a city that is still not quite developed for tourist travel).

Cut down your costs: You can also get further discounts for going as a bigger group. Invite your friends to join! Also, confirm with the tour operator that you want budget accommodation to cut back on costs a bit.

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Nyiragongo at night.  It’s mesmerizing, and you can sit for hours on the rim watching lava bubble and spill over as the crater constantly changes shape.

Visas/Border Crossing Information:

The DRC tourist visa for most nationalities is $105USD, and needs to be organized before your arrival. The tour guide that is organizing your trip will help you apply for this (recommended 2 weeks in advance, but it seems that with some strings pulled/the right people, it can be organized in 1 day if necessary). There is lots of good information about this on the VisitVirunga website.

***Note #1: Make sure to check if your Rwanda/East Africa Tourist Visa (EATV) expires when you leave Rwanda and to sort out visas for getting back into the country in advance. Our EATVs expired, and when we were going back into Rwanda after our visit we had a bit of a challenge/power-struggle with border control who informed us that we could not get a EATV on arrival (even though you can in any border for Uganda and Kenya, and supposedly Rwanda), and that Canadian passport holders need to apply for Rwandan visas at least 3 days in advance. So, we were stuck for a while… Finally, we were issued Rwandan transit visas (good for 72 hours), and luckily, we were all flying out within 3 days, so this worked (I have heard stories about people having to buy flights out of Kigali early to make this work). Also, I would emphasize the benefit of taking the friendly approach (“Oh, so sorry”, “My mistake”, “I was misinformed”) versus the angry approach to dealing with border patrol officers – this seemed to be a lot more effective for us at least.

***Note # 2: You will also need your proof of yellow fever vaccination at the border crossing, which they will carefully check.

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Nearing the top of Nyiragongo.  You can see the huts we stayed in behind us.

Safety

Is it safe? – Yes and No. Yes, it is quite safe if you are with an organized tour and your guide (a local) is with you. No, if you are on your own – you are an easy target for robbery, which is common according to local expats living in Goma. Basically, if you stick to your travel guide you are safe, which is why I would highly recommend (for now at least) booking with a tour group that meets you at the border at the start and drops you off at the border at the end of your trip

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Our ICCN guides leading and keeping us safe on the hike up Nyiragongo.

Getting There and Away

For most organized tours, you will meet at the Rwanda/DRC border, called La Grande Barrier, in on the Gisenyi (Rwanda) side. From Kigali, you can take a public bus from Nyabugogo bus Park (3,000RWF/$5CDN) to Gisenyi, which takes ~3-4 hours. From the bus station in Gisenyi, take a boda boda to the border (Grand Barrière) (300RWF/50cents), and walk across to Goma. It’s basically the same thing in reverse for getting back to Kigali.

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A quick break for the boda boda to fuel up.  A great thing about boda bodas in Rwanda is that there is a law that requires both the drivers and the passengers to wear a helmet, which means all boda drivers carry a spare helmet.  Yay for safety!  In Uganda, the law is supposedly the same, but it is not enforced whatsoever, and the drivers will often only have a helmet for themselves and you are left to hold on tight and hope for the best (sans helmet).

Hope this information helps you to get started on planning your trip! If you have any other questions or want any other information, let me know in the comments!

-Jennifer

 

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