Virunga. The oldest national park in Africa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most biodiverse protected area in Africa, and home to 22 species of primates including a quarter of the world's remaining mountain gorillas. I could go on.
You might have noticed how much Virunga has been appearing in the news recently. This is partially the result of the Academy Award nominated documentary by the same name (if you haven't watched it, do. It's on Netflix). It is also because the park re-opened in the summer of 2014 after weathering a period of instability in Eastern DRC. Adventurous travelers who have had their eye on the park for years are now jumping at the chance to go.
If you are an Africa-phile, an active and adventurous traveler, or a repeat safari-goer, then get out your bucket list and add Virunga to it. I'll wait...
Got up close and personal with a gorilla family of 6. By chance we were able to get really close to the gorillas (I took these pictures with my phone!); but what really made the experience special was that I was with only one two other travelers on the trek. In contrast, when I went gorilla trekking in Uganda I was with 7 other people and spent much of my time trying to scoot around a man with a giant camera that kept standing in front of me. Not the case in Virunga!
Went chimpanzee trekking. You can see both mountain gorillas and chimps in Rwanda and Uganda but at Mikeno Lodge in Virunga you can see both while staying at one property! They can be harder to see (and take pictures of) than gorillas because they spend more time in the trees but the experience of having them all around me was quite memorable.
Visited the Senkwekwe Orphan Gorilla Centre. Those of you who have seen Virunga the documentary are salivating right now. The Senkwekwe Centre is home to 4 orphaned mountain gorillas and 1 orphaned lowland gorilla and their amazing caregivers, including Andre Bauma who played a central role in the documentary. It is easy to access as it's right on the Mikeno Lodge property. You don't get to snuggle them but it is very entertaining.
Relaxed and soaked in Virunga's stunning scenery. The views from both Mikeno Lodge and Bukima Tented Camp are fabulous and give you a sense the park's size. On some nights you can even see the red glow coming from the surrounding volcanoes.
What I didn't get to do was hike up and overnight at the top of the Nyiragongo Volcano, home to one of the most active lava lakes in the world. The chance to sleep at the top of a volcano was clearly one of the biggest draws for travelers I met, possibly even more than the gorillas. More than 600 people have summited the volcano since it re-opened to tourists in October 2014. It takes 4-6 hours to hike to the top and then you spend the night in simple 2-person shelters at the top before descending. Sometimes when I need to daydream I like to search #nyiragongo on Instagram - the photos are incredible.
Did you feel safe?
Yes. There is a lot of security. You are accompanied by an armed park ranger anytime you are in a vehicle and on some activities. I got a few less than warm looks from residents and there are parts of the border city of Goma, like the airport, that evidence the past instability, sporting giant barricades and razor wire. All of that said, I did not feel unsafe at any time during my trip. The park staff keeps a close eye on the security situation in the region. They want visitors but they also understand how detrimental it would be for tourism if something happened to a traveler, so they are very transparent about the current security situation.
Where do you stay?
You can stay several places while in Virunga depending on what you want to do. Mikeno Lodge is a lovely property and a hub of activity right at the center of the Virunga park headquarters at Rumangabo. Bukima Tented Camp is the jumping off point for gorilla treks. Both are very comfortable, are incredible value for money and have some of the best mattresses I have ever slept on. The Nyiragongo Summit Shelters are where you spend the night at the top of the volcano and Tchegera Island Camp is a simple camp on the shores of Lake Kivu where you can relax post-volcano adventure.
How do to you get there?
At this point the easiest way to get to Virunga is via Rwanda. The border between Gisenyi, Rwanda and Goma, DRC is a 3-hour drive from Rwanda's capital Kigali on excellent roads. From the border at Goma to Mikeno Lodge or Bukima Tented Camp is a 1.5 to 2-hour drive.
Do you need a visa?
Yes. You need a visa issued by the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature, the Congolese Wildlife Authority) to visit Virunga in addition to permits for gorillas, chimps, and hiking the volcano. Just showing up at the border is not likely to work. Or if it does it will be a stressful process!
A Few Other Tips
Get a sense of how the park and the rangers operate by pre-booking a morning tour of the park headquarters that surround Mikeno Lodge. You'll even get to spend time with the Congo Hounds that are part of the anti-poaching unit. They're amazing (and cute)! (You Can Donate to the Congo Hounds Here)
Bring warm clothes if you want to hike Nyiragongo. It can get below freezing at night at the summit. You can rent sleeping bags, warm jackets, and hiking packs from Mikeno Lodge.
If you don't speak French or Kiswahili consider bringing a private guide. I speak decent Kiswahili and I was relying on it heavily while in Virunga. You don't need a private guide and there are a few people at each property who speak some English. But if you want smooth logistics or to have an in depth conversation with a park ranger or staff member while in Virunga and you only speak English, a private guide can be really helpful. Even if you don't have a private guide you can have someone meet you at the Gisenyi/Goma border crossing to help you navigate immigration.
By traveling to the park you get the trip of a lifetime while also providing essential revenue to the park (to all the national parks in the DRC in fact) and to the community surrounding Virunga. If you can't travel now but want to help you can also donate directly to Virunga here.