The first thing I noticed was the normality.
As I inched a tentative toe across the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I half expected to have a bag thrown over my head by a group of militia rebels, disappearing off the face of the earth until my body was unearthed in a mass grave months later.
“Lauren!” a voice called out, and a guy waved frantically in my direction when I looked up.
That was easy. I’d arranged a pick-up with my hotel in Goma, where I’d be spending my first night in the DRC, and so far, everything seemed to be going smoothly.
I hopped up into the front seat of his truck, and stared out at the chaotic streets of another unfamiliar city.
I wasn’t scared.
I thought I would feel scared.
I was in Goma, a city the British government advises against all but essential travel to, and it felt just as safe as anywhere else I’d visited in the world. Music rang out from car stereos, scooters weaved in and out of traffic, women shopped at bustling markets, and men pushed overpacked chukudus down the streets.
Goma felt normal.
The border crossing had been one of the easiest of my six years of travel: no bribes, no scams, no hassle. Smiling locals had led me from Rwanda to the Congolese immigration desk, insisting that I jump to the front of the queue; welcoming me to the D.R.C. When I wandered off in the wrong direction after receiving my visa, someone jogged after me to show me where to go.
This is one of the most dangerous countries in the world?
I checked in to Lac Kivu Lodge, on the shores of Lake Kivu. It’s the best hotel in the city and a popular hangout for UN workers and expats who are craving a slice of calm in a chaotic city. It’s a peaceful spot with modern rooms, lovely gardens, and a lively restaurant.
Behind its peace, however, there was reason to be nervous. Fun fact: Lake Kivu is currently sitting on top of 300 cubic kilometres of carbon dioxide and 60 cubic kilometres of methane. For now, they’re trapped beneath the water, but if something were to happen — like, say, an eruption of the active Mount Nyiragongo, the gas could be disturbed, rise to the surface, and kill millions of people.
You couldn’t have guessed such danger laid beneath its surface when looking out across it.
And then there’s the danger of Mount Nyiragongo itself. It last erupted in 2002, and the effects are still visible in Goma today: black volcanic rocks are scattered across the city, used to build fences, roads, and homes, making it look like a place that had been built on the moon. Back in 2002, the eruption killed just 150 people, thanks to early warnings and the evacuation of 400,000 people, but 120,000 of those people were left homeless afterwards. Nyiragongo has erupted over 30 times in the last hundred years or so, and it will erupt again sometime soon.
And you can’t forget the ever-present risk from rebel groups in the area, either. Goma was captured by a militia group back in 2012, who fired shells and bullets into the city, and remained in control for just over a week.
In short, the city may have felt safe while I was there, but there are plenty of potential dangers to be aware of.
Always up for to trying a new dish, I opted for sambaza for lunch: fried sardines that have been specifically caught in Lake Kivu and a plate of Goma cheese. They were perfect for snacking and, oh my god, Goma chese is the best cheese ever. Formerly a Belgian colony, the DRC has an unexpected-yet-thriving cheese-making scene that was kicked off by Belgian priests back in the 70s, and man, I’m bummed I won’t be able to buy any while living in Europe. It was seriously good cheese.
My trip to the DRC was off to a smooth and fantastic start, and I had just one afternoon in Goma to relax. Tomorrow, I’d be heading to Bukima to begin my trek to see wild mountain gorillas, and I was itching to get started.
I rose at 6 a.m., grabbed a quick breakfast, and was greeted by someone from Virunga National Park on the streets of Goma.
You wouldn’t expect the Congo to be home to the most efficient national park in the world, but I’m calling it: that’s exactly what Virunga is.
Their website makes independent travel so unbelievably simple that there’s really very little need for you to utilise a tour company in order to visit. On their site, you’ll find a list of accommodation, activities, transportation, and even a section for visas. Add everything you need to your basket, pay at the checkout, and somehow everything falls together without you having to do anything else. Any email enquiries I sent were answered within half an hour.
The booking experience had been seamless, and now that I was here and experiencing the same on the ground, I was naming this one of the tightest-run operations I’ve encountered on my travels.
I jumped up into the truck, and we cruised through a much-calmer Goma to pick up my rangers for the day.
Virunga is all about keeping tourists safe, so every truck comes accompanied with two rangers and their enormous AK-47s. When people ask me if I was being a reckless loon by heading to one of the most dangerous countries in the world, I remind them that no tourists have ever been killed while trekking with gorillas in Virunga, which is the oldest national park in Africa. On top of that, Virunga always closes the park if they sense the visitors will be in any kind of danger. Taking all of that into account, I believe you’d likely be more safe in Virunga than in many other national parks around the world.
I was overjoyed when I learned my two rangers for my trip were women! I’d read a fascinating National Geographic piece about the first women rangers at Virunga National Park (you should read it, too) before I left, so it was badass to now have two of them keeping me safe in the park.
In the DRC, they take gorilla conservation seriously.
In fact, a ranger was killed in the park less than two weeks ago as I write this. Ranger Dudunyabo Machongani Celistin was 30 years old when he was ambushed by militia, and leaves behind his wife and two young children. This is the reality of working the most dangerous wildlife job in the world. Over 150 rangers have now been killed in the line of duty in Virunga National Park, either by poachers or rebels, all while attempting to keep the gorillas safe from harm.
It’s one of the main reasons why I opted to go gorilla trekking in the DRC over Rwanda or Uganda. It’s cheaper than those two countries, of course, but more than that, I wanted to support the incredible work these rangers do, and the risks they take, all in the name of conservation.
My truck pulled up at the departure point, alongside half a dozen other vehicles that had been transporting guests around the park. Virunga doesn’t allow more than six people to visit a single family of gorillas at a time, so our total group of ten was split into six and four.
I was fortunate to be in the smaller group, with three other kickass people, and we were assigned a family of four silverbacks, two babies, and six children/females. After a detailed briefing on what to expect and how to behave around the the gorillas, and a quick check of our temperatures, we were ready to go. In our group, we had a ranger for protection against poachers and a tracker/guide to help us find the gorillas.
It was time to walk.
Of the 800 mountain gorillas that are left in the world, 300 of them are found in the DRC. Being wild animals, there’s little predictability when it comes to where the families will be and thus how long the trek will last.
Our family were on the move on the morning of our walk, so as we made our way across the hills, we had trackers in the jungle relaying information to ours.
We were at 1,500 metres altitude up here, and that combined with the heat, humidity, and long pants, made for a tiring experience. Up and down, up and down we hiked over the rolling hills, in desperate search for a hint of black within the green.
“They’re moving,” was all our tracker could tell us, as we entered hour two of the hike.
After two hours in the corn, our tracker received news of the family’s location, and we veered off-course and deep into the jungle.
We were truly in untouched territory here. There were no tracks to follow; no well-trodden path created by tourists. Instead, one of our guides took an enormous machete to the trees, hacking away at the vines and bushes to create a trail for us to follow.
Inside the jungle, it was cooler, but the walking was tougher. Over and over, I tripped over roots, stumbled over rocks, and got my shoes tangled up in the vines.
Suddenly, everyone was whispering and one of the guides was motioning for us to pull on our surgical masks.
Gorillas are able to catch human viruses and so you have to be incredibly cautious not to transmit any germs while you’re there. You can’t do the hike if you have a temperature, and you need to be wearing a mask when you’re around the animals. When you only have 800 mountain gorillas left on the planet, you don’t take any chances.
We crept into an open clearing and there they were.
There were six mountain gorillas lazing on the forest floor metres from us — two silverbacks, a baby, and three children. One of them sneezed loudly. The baby began somersaulting across the jungle floor towards us.
We shuffled backwards in unison, breaths tightly held and blinking in disbelief.
These were wild animals. They were just behaving how they would be if we weren’t there. And they were so playful. Adults and children alike rolled around on the ground, hugging each other and pushing each other,
To the right of us, a female pummelled one of her babies in the face with her feet.
At our briefing that morning, we’d been told that the silverbacks in the family could charge at us at any time, and it would be for one of two reasons: either they wanted to play with us or they wanted to kill us. The guides would most likely know which one it was and try to keep the gorillas from attacking us.
We were told that in this situation, the best way to react was to slowly and calmly crouch down to the ground in front of the silverback, in order to minimise any threat they may have perceived from us. I’d kept this in mind throughout our trek to get here, but as soon as a giant gorilla started charging towards me, you can bet that I let out a whimper and dived into a nearby bush in terror.
Those guys are fast, huge, and made of muscle.
One of the guides motioned for us to make our way into a second clearing, where we found two gorilla children chasing each other around a tree trunk in excited circles. It was tough to hold in our squeals when they decided to continue their chase up a nearby tree for a few moments before they both came crashing to the ground.
Behind us, another enormous silverback let out a loud fart.
Suddenly, and without warning, the gorillas were on the move, lumbering through the forest and out of our eyesight. Our guides motioned for us to follow, hacking away at the foliage to create a walkable path for us to walk down.
We stumbled upon the family again in a different clearing, but now they were behaving like sulky teenagers, deliberating turning their backs to our cameras, unwilling to turn around to face us.
I couldn’t stop giggling over the scene. It was so humanlike!
After several minutes spent taking photos of the gorillas’ backs, they were on the move once more, leading us to a tiny area where we were within metres of the two silverbacks.
And then, one of the most spectacular-yet-terrifying moments of my life: a giant silverback lumbered slowly towards us, getting closer and closer as we inched backwards into the bushes. Closer, closer, closer, and suddenly it was six inches away from where my hand was trembling. Had it reached out an arm to swipe at us, we could have been seriously injured. But it didn’t. It continued walking away into the jungle, leaving us hyperventilating in its wake.
We took that as our sign to leave. Our hour was up, and it was time for us to drag ourselves away from the gorillas.
This had been the single best animal encounter of my entire life.
What to Know Before You Go
This is what I wish someone had told me before my trip:
- You need a reasonable amount of fitness to do the trek, but you don’t need to be super-athletic or anything. Bear in mind that the gorillas do move around a lot, so you could be walking for 30 minutes to see a family, or you could be heading out for a six hour round-trip. Virunga has a 100% success rate on these treks — they’ve never not seen gorillas, but that does mean you could be walking in the heat in search of them for quite some time.
- There’s no need to worry about luggage during the trek. You can leave all of your luggage at Bukima before you leave, and you’ll finish there afterwards and be able collect it. I left everything there, and took a small 20l daypack with me for carrying everything I’d need on the hike.
- Make sure you print out your confirmation receipt for Virunga before you go. You’ll be asked to show either that or your permits at every trek you do and all accommodation you stay at.
- If you don’t want to stay in Goma before your trek, a great option is Bukima, which is within the park. It’s right where you leave to trek, so means you can wake up later, rather than dealing with the 6 a.m. start I had to drag myself through. It’s also not unheard of for gorillas to wander up into the camp at times, which would be an incredible experience.
- Arrange travel insurance way in advance for your trip, and expect to struggle to find someone to cover you. My usual provider, World Nomads, doesn’t cover travellers for countries with travel advisories, and I struggled to find an alternative. And yes, you do need travel insurance. Battleface is a good option if you’re coming up with nothing, as they’ll insure pretty much anyone for any trip ever.
- You won’t be let into the country unless you have a yellow fever vaccine card that proves you’ve had the vaccine. Make sure you don’t lose this or you’ll be turned away at the border!
- I highly recommend picking up a local SIM card in Rwanda and adding credit for international phone calls. I went with MTN, and paid just under $15 for the SIM card, 7GB of data (you can sometimes connect to Rwandan towers in the DRC), and credit for five international phone calls. If anything goes awry on your trip, you’ll want to be able to contact someone at Virunga, so being able to make phone calls within the DRC is a necessity.
How to Get to Virunga National Park/The Democratic Republic of the Congo
If you’re sensible, you’ll arrange to get your visa for the DRC through Virunga National Park. You can do it all online once you’ve bought your permit, and it was a seamless process from start to finish. My visa was approved within 48 hours and required no paperwork.
With this visa, however, you can only enter the country through the Grand Barrière border crossing between Gisenyi in Rwanda and Goma in the DRC. There are two border crossings in Gisenyi, so make sure you’re at the right one before you leave the country.
You’ll most likely fly into Kigali and then travel to Gisenyi via private car or public transport. The former is usually $100 each way, and the bus is around $15 to Gisenyi, then you’ll need a mototaxi for less than a dollar. It takes four hours to get from Kigali to Gisenyi — the roads are winding, so driving is slow going.
The border crossing was incredibly easy, and no different to any other overland crossing I’ve done. Get stamped out of Rwanda, show your yellow fever card, get your temperature checked, and then get stamped into the DRC. The entire process took five minutes. If you encounter any problems when crossing the border (or anywhere else in the park), you can call Vianney on +243 99 1715401 for assistance.
How to See the Mountain Gorillas on a Budget
Even though the DRC is the cheapest country in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild, it’s not a budget destination by any definition of the word. Permits are $400 (they’re $600 in Uganda and $1500 in Rwanda) and for that price, you’ll be allowed to spend one hour with the gorillas.
On top of that, you’ll need to take into account your visa for the DRC, which Virunga National Park takes care of and is priced at $105. On top of that you’ll potentially need to pay for accommodation in the DRC on either side of your trek. I paid $130 to stay at the excellent Lac Kivu Lodge (prices start at $75 a night for a basic room) before the trek and $316 to stay at Mikeno Lodge the night afterwards.
I wasn’t trying to do this trip on a budget, though, so there are several things you can do to minimise your costs.
Rather than staying in the best guesthouse in Goma, like I did, you could opt to spend the previous night in a more inexpensive guesthouse in the city. Hotel La Versailles Goma is $40 a night for a double room and receives decent enough reviews. If all you want to do in the DRC is trek with the gorillas, you don’t need to spend the night in the DRC after your hike — instead you can arrange for the park to pick you up afterwards and take you straight back to the Rwanda border, where accommodation is inexpensive (in Gisenyi, rooms start from $11 a night).
Additionally, Virunga National Park drops the price of gorilla trek permits if you’re willing to go in the wet season. This year, between 15th March and the 15th May, the permits were half-price: just $200 each. If you’re on a tight budget and happy to risk potentially trekking in the rain (which totally happens in the dry season, too), this is absolutely the option for you.
What to Bring With You on Your Trek
Weather is unpredictable in Virunga National Park, no matter what time of year you visit. You’ll want to make sure you have adequate waterproof gear for your trek because of this. A decent rain jacket that’s made of breathable material is one of the most important items to pack.
My favourite daypack at the moment is the Osprey Tempest 20l pack, which is perfect for hikes like this. It’s small and lightweight, but still has hip straps to keep the weight away from your shoulders. I could fit snacks, a water bottle, my camera, and warm/wet weather clothes inside.
Also important for the hike is long hiking pants. You’re walking through untamed jungle and fields for much of the walk, and the plants are seriously stabby. I even felt them through my pants at time! Definitely don’t wear shorts, and a breathable material is best, as mine got pretty hot and sweaty in the humidity.
Make sure you bring long socks, too, because you’ll want to tuck your pants inside them to protect from ants. This was something all of our guides warned us about, although we were fortunate not to have any ant issues in our group.
When it comes to clothing, dark colours are important. You don’t want to wear anything bright to attract the gorillas’ attention. Additionally, sunglasses are a no-no on this trek, as the gorillas might spot their reflection in them and try to swipe at it.
Sunscreen is an essential, as on our trek we were out in the sun for four hours and I would have definitely burned had I not applied it. For water, my GRAYL bottle was invaluable in Virunga. This water bottle acts like a French press but for removing all the bad stuff from tap water — fill it with water, push the plunger into the bottle, and then you can start drinking. I’ve drank the tap water throughout Mozambique, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with my GRAYL and never got sick. As an additional bonus, you won’t be polluting the environment with plastic bottles when you use a GRAYL, and it’ll help you save money, too.
You’ll obviously want a great camera to capture the experience, although don’t be surprised if you come away with far fewer photos than you’d expected. I was so spellbound by the experience that I deliberately avoided spending all of my time viewing the gorillas from behind the lens. I travel with the Sony A7ii plus 28-70 mm lens, and highly recommend it for travelers. There’s no need to bring a zoom lens on this trek, as you’ll always be within several metres of the gorillas.
Finally, hiking boots are a good option for gorilla trekking in the DRC. Choose some that are comfortable, water-resistant, if not waterproof, and that have been well worn in beforehand.