My inspiration for visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo was the Netflicks movie “Virunga.” After finishing the documentary I filed the destination away into the back of my brain as somewhere I wanted to go when the infrastructure improved. Fast forward a few years and Virunga National park now has five different locations to stay at ranging from the spacious and luxurious Bukima Lodge to the relaxing tented camp on Lake Kivu – Tchegera Island camp.
As I starting planning my trip I mostly focused on seeing the gorillas but I quickly realized as I looked at the variety of activities available that Virunga National Park had quite a bit to do. What started as a three day trip quickly grew to 7 days as I added on days so that in addition to the gorilla trekking I could visit the park headquarters, the gorilla sanctuary, trek to view the habituated chimpanzees, and most importantly climb an active volcano and spend the night on the rim.
My husband and I spent two fabulous days trekking the gorillas. The park has on average 10 groups they will visit. Each morning the park rangers bring all trekkers in the headquarters while they discuss the groups, behaviors they have seen, the last known location of each group and then assign you to a group to view based on your physical capabilities. On our first day we trekked to the Rugendo group. We found them not far from the park boundary. The group was in a playful mood. We had several juveniles that were playing on low tree branches alternating between swinging back and forth towards us and pushing each other off the limbs. A young baby entertained us for our hour as it struggled walking amongst the forest floor tripping over the roots every few feet. On our second day we trekked to the Himba group and our hour was spend watching them nap and eat. At one point one of the silverbacks mocked charged another silverback in the group and the forest floor shook with their movement – it was so exciting to watch. It was a perfect two days and we were grateful for the variety of behaviors we witnessed.
One of the big highlights of our trip turned out to be our “down” day. We were up at 500am to trek the chimpanzees. After several hours of walking in the forest we finally found them hanging out in the trees above the park headquarters (1000 feet from where we started.) We spent the rest of the day exploring the park headquarters, visiting the sanctuary where they care for mountain gorilla orphans, meeting the children of surrounding villages, exploring some caves, visiting a coffee plantation and finishing up with a visit to the newly built Rangers widows sewing workshop to provide employment for the spouses of fallen rangers.
Our final two days were spent at the active volcano - Nyiragongo. The five hour climb straight up the side of Nyiragongo Volcano is well worth the reward! After catching my breath and inching my way cautiously to the rim I was rewarded with a view of the World’s largest lava lake lying some 350+ meters below me in the crater. The hot gases exploding and the mosaic pattern created within the lake are stunning to say the least. As night fell and the intensity of color increased I found myself in a hypnotic state watching the glowing cracks in the crusted service of the lake change patterns – it was very difficult to break away to get some sleep.
Photos & text by Suzanne Spencer