DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
The Democratic Republic of the Congo…#9 on the list of the least peaceful countries according to the Global Peace Index…
I had mixed emotions about heading to this country. First off, I was extremely excited to go trekking with the Eastern Mountain Gorillas, which are exclusive to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park. On the flipside, I was a little apprehensive about heading to Virunga National Park because there have been several reports of kidnappings in the park; the most recent happening in May 2018.
To arrange this country, I decided to use Explore Rwanda Tours. They handle everything from the visa approval process to the trekking permits to the accommodation. They were fantastic. All I had to do is send them a copy of my passport and a deposit and they handled the rest. I highly recommend using them, if you ever plan to go to DRC or Rwanda!
You have a couple options in regards to transportation. You can either fly into Kigali and drive the four hours to the Rwanda and DRC border or you can fly into Gisenyi, which is a smaller city in the Western Province of Rwanda right on the border of DRC and Rwanda. I chose to fly into Kigali, Rwanda.
I awoke at 06:00 the morning of June 19 to make the drive to the border.
At about 11:00, we arrived at the border crossing into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Leaving Rwanda was a breeze. Entering the DRC wasn’t difficult either but I started crying over the most minuscule hiccup 😂
I don’t know if many people know but I have two valid passports. The US Department of State will issue a second valid passport that is good for four years, if you write a letter explaining that you travel a lot and you need it.
So my Rwandan visa was with my one passport and my DRC visa was with my other passport. Occasionally immigration officers will check for an exit stamp from the country you just came from but usually they don’t.
When I handed the immigration officer my passport and she couldn’t find my Rwandan exit stamp, she got confused and annoyed. I handed her my other passport to prove I had indeed exited Rwanda. Then she started yelling at me in French. I don’t speak French.
I started to cry because I think she is not going to let me into the Congo, plus it had been a stressful couple of days. I try to explain to her that in America you can have two valid passports. Luckily my guide for the Congo is with me and he talks to the lady. She evidently felt bad for me and decided to put the stamp in my Rwandan visa passport even though my visa was approved for my other passport number. Crisis averted.
After getting screened for Ebola, checking to make sure I have my yellow fever vaccination, and registering with the park rangers of Virunga National Park, we were ready to go.
We headed into Goma. Goma was a normal African city. Lots of color. Lots of people. Lots of store fronts. Very crowded. Motorbikes everywhere. I kind of loved it!
We stopped at a restaurant and my guide, Rock, told me it was a buffet. I was like, “are you telling me this because I’m American?” The food was delicious. I ate a whole fish, including its bones, eyes, fins, etc. This local dish is called Sambaza. I didn’t eat anymore. I was not a huge fan of that part.
Afterwards we headed to Virunga National Park and my lodge, Kibumba.
Now Virunga National Park was closed for awhile because two tourists were kidnapped in May 2018. The park reopened in February 2019, but then a guard was killed in March 2019. I believe this is the reason that my Land Cruiser had to be escorted into the park by three trucks full of men with AK47s
We drove along this road called Massage Road for what felt like forever. It wasn’t a good massage. I kind of felt like I was going to throw up after eating a delicious Congolese buffet.
We eventually made it the base of Volcano Nyiragongo where Kibumba Tent Camp is located.
I wasn’t expecting the tent camp to be so nice. When I got to my tent I was pleasantly surprised. This tent was 100 times nicer than a lot of places I have stayed through my travels. I loved it. It had an amazing view of the valley below the volcano right outside of my tent.
On top of that the common area had an amazing fire pit with beautiful views of the Great Rift Valley, as well. I had a glass of wine by the fire and then a delicious three course meal and then called it a night. I had to be up early to trek with the gorillas on my birthday!!
The following day, I awoke at 05:30 to go Gorilla Trekking!! This was the experience I was most excited for out of this whole trip.
After breakfast and a briefing, we left to go trekking.
Now gorilla trekking doesn’t really involve hiking along a marked trail. As hard as the rangers tried, they couldn’t get the gorillas to follow the hiking path...
There was a man with a machete cutting our way through the jungle. It was awesome. I only fell about 903 times. I don’t mind getting muddy but when you only have one outfit for an indefinite period of time, you kind of just have to embrace it (Ethiopian Airlines lost my luggage en route from Addis Ababa to Kigali).
After nearly two hours of trekking through thick vines and underbrush, we finally found gorillas!
How do you find the gorillas, you may ask?? Well gorillas are creatures of habit. Everyday they wake up at 06:00 in their nests that they made the night before. They make their nests at 18:00 every night. The in between hours are spent eating and napping.
They never sleep in the same place two nights in a row because they literally go #2 all over their nests to stay warm. The rangers at the park track them every day so they know exactly where their nests are from the night before. The rangers then follow their trails to locate the gorillas. The gorilla families each own a Five-Square Mile territory at Virunga, so it could be a fair bit of trekking but everyone I have talked to trekked for about 1.5-2 hours before stumbling upon gorillas.
When we found the gorillas, they were eating. This was probably because gorillas spend about eight of their 12 awake hours eating plants. They usually eat 30kg of plants a day!
You are only allowed to spend one hour with the gorillas and the rangers literally time it on their phone. My ranger gave me time updates, “10 minutes!” “5 minutes!” “1 minute!”
It was an hour of amazingness.
After gorilla trekking I went back to the lodge and took a nap.
After my nap, I went and enjoyed the awesome fireplace again before my dinner.
Dinner was delicious! At the end the entire staff of the Kibumba Lodge surprised me with a birthday cake and they sang Happy Birthday to me. It was a great 27th birthday. Explore Rwanda Tours and Kibumba Lodge made me feel so welcome and made my birthday a very special day!
The following day was another early morning, as I awoke at 06:30 to head to the base of Mount Nyiragongo.
I put on the same shirt and pants that I had been wearing for the past two and a half days, packed my backpack, and headed to breakfastAfter my final delicious breakfast at Kibumba Tent Camp, we hopped into the Land Cruiser and headed back down Massage Road to the ranger station where we would begin our hike up Nyiragongo Volcano.
Before we began the hike, we had to go through another briefing. There would be three rangers, two porters, a cook, and my guide joining me on the hike. The hike would be 8km, would take about five hours and there would be four stops along the way.
I love hiking, but I wouldn’t consider myself a frequent hiker. I have climbed Mount Pichinicha in Ecuador, Mount Batur in Indonesia twice, and have done a few other hikes along my travels. I am the type of person that just likes to power through the hike and not take too many breaks. It is not so much that I don’t want to enjoy the climb as it is I want to get to the top before my body can realize how tired it is. But there was no just powering through this hike…
I have never felt more exhausted climbing a mountain than I did in the DR Congo.
After 45 minutes of hiking we made it to the first stop. The first 45 minutes was through the forest and only had a slight incline. I did not really want to stop but my guide insisted. After a five-minute break, we were on our way again. The second leg of the hike started where the lava from the 2002 eruption began. This leg started to get a little steeper but it was still not very difficult.
As we continued up the volcano, the hike got more and more difficult. Usually I can just power through these types of things, but towards the end of the hike, I found myself having to talk myself into taking the next step. My calves and hamstrings were on fire. To add some difficulty to the hike, the lava rocks were extremely unstable so occasionally the rocks would slip out from under my feet, causing me to either fall or slide back a step or two.
As difficult as the hike was, when I made it to the top, I was left dumbfounded by the views. Not only was the view of the Great Rift Valley breathtaking, but you could also see down into the volcano. You could see the giant lava pit bubbling below!
After sitting down and just admiring the inside of the volcano for a bit, I went to set up my tent. The tents were A-frame tents with thin mattresses on the ground. There was no electricity, so I wanted to get everything arranged before it got dark. It was rather chilly at the top of the volcano, so I threw on a fleece jacket and a scarf on top of my sweatshirt.
The remainder of the day was spent relaxing and talking to my guards and guide.
One of the more memorable parts of the volcano was the outhouse. There was no door on the outhouse. Instead it just looked out over the valley. It was kind of a nice place to do your business.
We also did a miniature hike around the rim of the volcano. After our mini hike, we ate dinner and I was in bed by 19:00.
We had to be awake at 05:00 to descend the mountain. After I made it down the mountain, I would have to drive back to the border of DRC and Rwanda, drive back to Kigali, and then fly to Central African Republic via Nairobi, Kenya.
I slept like a rock that night.
The following morning, we headed back down the volcano. Navigating the lava rocks without slipping was a little difficult, but we made it down the volcano in about three hours.
My time in the Democratic Republic of Congo was amazing!
I highly recommend visiting this amazing country and I, especially, recommend doing the Gorilla and Nyiragongo Trekking experience with Explore Rwanda Tours. It will be an unforgettable experience!