Virunga National Park - DRC
While the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is not on everyone’s bucket list, it was definitely on ours – so we set aside some time to visit to kick off our honeymoon in December 2017. Plagued with years of civil conflict, DRC has had a rough go of things and continue to this day to struggle with stability and peace as battling factions fight over natural resources and international financing.
The most appealing destination in the DRC – prized for its lush environment and relatively undeveloped/protected jungle – is a visit to the Gorillas living in Virunga National Park. Africa’s oldest National Park, Virunga is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the most biodiverse spaces on earth. Home to over 1,000 unique species, including lions, gorillas, and the wonderfully bizarre okapi, Virunga is a once in a lifetime destination that should not be missed if you are visiting East/Southern Africa. We fell in love with Virunga – a place that feels often on the brink of extinction – and highly recommend a visit to anyone with a sense of adventure.
To begin our journey, our friends Shawn, Tammy, Fiona, and Sas and I flew from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda where we joined our guides from Green Hills Ecotours – a super friendly, budget travel company based in Gisenyi, Rwanda on the shores of Lac Kivu. From the airport, the drive to the Rwanda/DRC border takes about 4 hours – a stunning drive winding through the hills of Rwanda on your way to Lake Kivu. We arrived in Gisenyi past dinner and checked into the Paradise Hotel on Lake Kivu – a cozy budget hotel right on the shoreline with cold beer and a pleasant spot for meals overlooking the lake. Gisenyi is very much a tourist town, with well-maintained public spaces and lush accommodations such as a Serena Hotel. Much development money – and money from the government – has been poured into this area, with a recently re-built border checkpoint generously donated from Warren Buffet.
The second day of the journey is jam packed – we made our border crossing into Goma early in the morning, a relatively easy process that was facilitated by our guides. Once across, you enter a world in such contrast to Gisenyi, it takes your breath away. Much like any city stuck in civil conflict, there are dozens of armored UN tanks, militia with RPG’s walking down the sidewalk, barb wire-topped walls, and immense poverty.
Once outside the city of Goma, you quickly drop off the paved roads and quickly are ensconced by vast open spaces with few settlements scattered here and there along the road. Naturally, the road to Virunga is a major transit for troops and militias so every few miles a small encampment of troops appears as if they fell from the sky.
Once entering the park, the heroic Virunga Park rangers briefed us on our visit and then escorted us to a tasty lunch at Bukima Tented Camp to kick off our stay. After lunch, we made our way directly to the climbing base for Nyiragongo Volcano – a climb of 3,470 meters in lush jungle that emerges into craggily extrusive igneous rock. The hike takes about 5-6 hours of non-intensive hiking and the summit is absolutely breathtaking – with the world’s largest active lava lake several hundred meters below you, spewing smoke and bubbling lava constantly. The evening is spent in tiny bungalows on the side of the volcano, an absolute must. The evenings are cold, but after a simple meal of soup and pasta, a visit to the eerie crater edge feels like sitting around a campfire.
The next morning, we sprinted down the volcano in a few hours, and made our way to our much more fashionable accommodations at Mikeno Lodge – a beautiful gathering of stunning bungalows (more like rustic cottages) nestled high above the park within the wooded National Park Headquarters. Don’t be shocked to find a monkey or two trying to sneak in to enjoy you beer if you aren’t careful. The lodge is the perfect respite after a day of draining hiking and a mountain camping, replete with cocktails and a fireplace next to your bed to keep you warm all night.
The following day we made our way back to Bukima Tented Camp where, we met our rangers to begin our Gorilla hike. The hike to the Gorilla’s is stunning, making our way across expansive farmlands nestled amongst lush and spiky hills. Once inside the jungle, local trackers guide you through thick overgrown forest and suddenly, it seems, you are next to a several hundred-pound gorillas taking a nap in the bush. A few machete swipes and suddenly a family appears in front of you, just beyond your reach, all taking a nap and chewing leaves. The experience is breathtaking and takes an entire day. Definitely wear something to keep the fire ants from crawling into your shoes, something that happened as we were standing several feet from a silverback!
Upon return to the lodge, we spent our final waking hours sipping single malt and reminiscing of what was probably one of the greatest experiences of our lives. No words can describe the feeling of being so close to this majestic creature in the wild, with only the brave Virunga Rangers there to protect them from poaching. There are only about 1,000 left in the wild, thanks to extreme poaching and conflict, their future feels doomed. And the small group of individuals tasked with protecting them are in perpetual danger, with over 175 rangers having been killed while protecting these lovely creatures. Please visit www.virunga.org to learn more and share to others interested in preserving this wonderful ecosystem that is under constant threat.
Heaven Restaurant (Kigali) – an honored standby in Kigali, Monty has eaten here multiple times and it never disappoints. The food is solid, the crowd fun and amiable, ad
Meze Fresh (Kigali) – if you are missing Chipotle, this will be the spot for you. Meze Fresh whips up tasty burritos and tacos, with a relaxing vibe – great spot before/after you head across the border into Goma where options are limited.
Inzora Rooftop Café (Kigali) – basically my favorite spot for working with great coffee, but then winding down with a glass of wine at sunset. Open air vibe, with a co-working space next door and a great bookstore, this place is where you spend a lazy day and lose hours.
Brachetto (Kigali) – Best mediterranean food in town, with a stellar wine list. Go to schmooze with politicians and the well-heeled.
Mikeno Lodge (Rumangabo) – Treat Mikeno Lodge as your home base while in Virunga, as the setting is hard to beat. Enjoy a cold Primus in front of their fire pit with expansive views over the valley, and enjoy freshly prepared 3-course meals.
Bukima Tented Camp (Rumangabo) – Absolutely breathtaking views of Nyiragongo Volcano in the distance as you enjoy a freshly prepared lunch of sandwiches and salad in a simple setting just inside the Virunga National Park entrance and next to one of the main trail heads for Gorilla treks.
Mille Collines (Kigali) – If you land in Kigali for your trip, use Mille Collines as a reliable standby for a refreshing night. Some of the rooms at the time of writing haven’t been updated much, other than a basic facelift, so you will be transported a bit to the 70’s heydays prior to the dark times of Kigali. Great views from roof restaurant and decent pool. (Alternates with less character, but more standard amenities, would be either Radisson Blu or Marriot).
Heaven (Kigali) – Most accommodating boutique hotel in town – where expats and locals mingle over great meals.
Mikeno Lodge (Rumangabo) – Adorable private bungalows made of stone and thatch roofs, do not stay anywhere else when in the park – each bungalow comes with a 500 sq ft bathroom (a bit dated but charming nonetheless) and an incredibly comfortable fireplace that will be ablaze upon your return from a long day of hiking.
Inema Arts Center (Kigali) – we are avid contemporary African art collectors and the arts center set up by Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza is the best in town, bringing together plenty of established and up and coming artists (not to mention themselves) with a variety of activities to compliment the paintings and mixed media.
Buy a Virunga National Park t-shirt to support the conservation efforts – plus it’s pretty stylish.