Are you looking for something new and different? I came across two extraordinary safaris during a recent visit to a country that few tourists visit - the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So why the DRC I hear you ask? Exclusivity! Unlike its neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Uganda, here one can trek gorillas – both mountain and the smaller, rarer western lowland with just yourself and your guide for most of the time.
For anyone wanting to trek gorillas twice and has the interest of comparing both primates, I was easily able to charter an aircraft between the two regions. One can also track the western lowland gorilla in Odzala National Park in the Congo and also in addition have a fabulous cultural experience with people who rarely ever encounter Europeans. Overall, this safari is for somebody looking for something pristine, exclusive, and unspoilt and who are invariably seasoned travellers to Africa.
The first safari offers a fabulous blend of culture and wildlife. You can visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and start your safari by trekking up to the Nyiragongo – the world’s most active volcano and deepest caldera. On reaching the summit, one has views of the world’s largest lava lake. It is so rewarding and exhilarating! The volcano erupts every 5-10 years, so you do have to be lucky to see a lava flow. This is a six mile hike that takes around five hours, walking through forests and fields.
Whilst there is no incline, you do need to be very fit. You can then fly to Virunga National Park which has six gorilla families and on to the Tongo Forest where you will be able to trek chimpanzees. These are not easy animals to see and a trek may well involve 3-4 hours of walking. Part of the thrill as you trek through the forest is listening to them calling, as well as seeing the birdlife and butterflies that abound.
The chimpanzee is man’s closest relative – sharing 98% of our DNA. To observe them is a sight to behold. Visit the Rwindi Plains while there, where you will be able to view wildlife, including huge concentrations of hippo on Lake Edward as well as seeing antelope, elephant and buffalo and then fly over the magnificent Rwenzori Mountains. You can then stay at a gorgeous lodge and track mountain gorillas daily – often with just yourself and your guide. This is one of the greatest wildlife experiences known to man!
Spend an hour with these gentle creatures, watching them interact and communicate with one another. Trek in the forested hillside of the Virunga Mountains and then Overnight at Goma, which is a wonderful town, full of culture and vibrancy and the friendliest people.
Take time to visit the Kahuzi-Biega National Park where you will see the Eastern lowland gorilla which is larger than its cousin, the western lowland gorilla. The Eastern lowland gorilla has the widest altitudinal range of any of the gorilla sub-species. For those looking for something additionally spectacular, you can also experience this safari by helicopter.
The second option is to combine Rwanda with the DRC to see the mountain gorilla in two completely different settings – Rwanda offering a bamboo forest whereas the DRC is in a primary forest. Here one can see chimps as well as mountain gorillas.
Kigali is a well ordered, relatively small African city, with wonderful people. I visited the genocide museum here to gain a deeper understanding into the atrocities which took place here. It is also very worthwhile visiting the local markets.
Another option should you wish, is to start your adventure in Nairobi, before flying to Kigali in Rwanda. Spend time trekking gorillas in the Virunga Mountains here before venturing around five hours to the other side of the Virunga’s in DRC. Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest park is a UNESCO world heritage site and still a relatively undiscovered gem and home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.
Trekking this vast and beautiful rainforest to meet gorillas or to climb one of the many volcanos is perfect for those with an insatiable appetite for the next chapter in their African adventure. The Virunga National Park is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7800 square kilometres (3000 square miles) includes forests, savannahs, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains.
I stayed at a rather luxurious lodge tucked into a forested hillside at Virunga National Park Headquarters which is the perfect base for visiting mountain gorillas or climbing a volcano. The lodge offers beautiful views of the rift valley and Nyiragongo and Mikeno volcanoes. Nature walks and visits to local places of interest were arranged for me while I was there where Blue and Colobus monkeys can be seen swinging through the trees in the forests.
There are two huge advantages of gorilla trekking in the DRC. The first is the chances are it will be just you and your guide. This is a private and phenomenal experience and second, the gorilla permits are much cheaper than either Rwanda or Uganda.
Finally I also found a third alternative, which is to visit the western lowland gorillas in the Congo and then fly to the DRC to see the mountain gorillas. You can also as I did on a previous trek, always start off or end off in Kenya, should you want to include a safari.
For the most rewarding, private, off the beaten track gorilla trekking safari, then consider the DRC!