A week in the Virunga is arguably the most diverse safari experience on offer anywhere - particularly now there is access and accommodation in the central savannah area.
THIS TRIP HAS BEEN DESIGNED AFTER YEARS OF ROAD TESTING AND WILL DELIVER AN INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCE - GETTING CLOSE TO THE GORILLAS AND CHIMPS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT AS WELL AS GETTING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN VIRUNGA.
Virunga is Africa's oldest and most diverse National Park and if it didn't lie in the catastrophically troubled Democratic Republic of Congo it would also surely be one of the most visited.
Nowhere else on earth can you see such a variety of wildlife - and then climb an active volcano.
While not for the faint-hearted Virunga irrefutably remains one of Africa's finest parks and its survival through the troubles must give great hope to conservationists everywhere.
The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people.”
ARRIVAL IN VIRUNGA
Road transfer from Kigali to Gisenyi where you'll clear Rwanda immigration before grabbing your kit and walking accross no-man's land to the DR Congo border, Rwanda vehicles being unable to make the crossing.
You'll be met by representatives from ICCN who'll help you with the Congolese border formalities, which is not as terrifying as it sounds - particularly as your entrance visa will have been pre-approved.
Proceed in landrovers though the colourful and busting city of Goma on the shores of Lake Kivu, where you'll see the remenants of the destruction caused by the 2002 volcanic eruption when an 11km wide river of lava steamrolled through the city centre.
At the edge of town you'll stop to pick up an armed contigent of close protection rangers who will be watching out for you for the duration of your stay.
A two hour drive through in to the forested hills will take you to Bukima Camp.
Bukima was a originally a research station at it remains the only place anywhere that you can walk directly out from your camp and straight on to a gorilla trek; no vehicles, no dancers, no gift shop, no faff.
How long you trek will depend on which of the habituated groups you are seeking and where they are - generally there is an advance party of trackers that will have radio communication with yor ranger. However long it takes you to reach the gorillas you will have an hour in their company, be warned it passes very quickly. There is a nominal minimum distance of three metres but if one of these lumbering giants decides to amble right past you and you have nowhere to go you may find yourself a great deal closer.
It's likely that you'll be out for much of the morning and back for a late lunch, In the afternoon you can either kick-back and relax or walk over to an intruiging local cave system for a spot of gentle spelunking.
BACK TO THE FOREST
We'd always recommend at least two gorilla treks - and with the DR Congo permit price around a third of that in Rwanda it is not exhorbitant to do so.
The reason for going twice is two-fold. firstly you'll almost certainly visit a different family of gorillas in which the dynamics are structure will be different. Secondly having been once if you are taking photographs you'll have had some time to review what you captured the first time around and tweak settings accordingly. Gorilla portraiture is surprisngly challenging because although you may be incredibly close to them the light may be limitted and use of flash is forbidden.
From Bukima the next stop is Mikeno - a beautifully appointed lodge set in primary forest. Birds and Primates are both common around the camp and after a coule of days for fairly intense gorilla trekking it's quite liberating to be able to wander around the grounds at your leisure.
Mikeno is set next to the Park HQ and you'll likely be able to meet some of the conservationist who've been protecting the park through thick and thin and hear first-hand some of the challenges that they are facing.
The highly-trained 'Congo-Bloodhounds' are kenneled nearby and a demostration of their tracking skills for anti-poaching patrols is well worth witnessing.
THE SMALLER COUSINS
Mikeno has a nascent chimpanzee tracking program underway and while not as smooth or polished as what you might find in Tanzania, Uganda or Rwanda it's great fun and very worthwhile. Setting out early to try to get to the chimpanzees still in their nests and then follow them out foraging.
Another attraction at Mikeno is the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage - the only facility in the world for orphaned mountain gorilla. Set in a clearing in the forest you can wander down from the lodge unaccompanied and watch the orphans from one of the viewing platforms. If you've seen the documentary film "Virunga" - and you should - the gorilla caregiver André Bauma who features heavily remains part of the team.
Trek to the top of Nyiragongo (3,470m) - an active volcano in which lies an ephemeral lava lake, currently the largest in the world but known to disapear entirely for decades at a time. The climb is pleasant, being largely forested and engaging a porter to carry your pack actively encouraged.
Sleep in the basic shelters on the rim of the crater looking down in to the hypnotic bubbling mass of lava.
HOMEWARD BOUND... FOR A REST
The downhill trek is quicker and easier than the climb and back at the roadhead you'll be met by your vehicle to start the transfer back to Kigali.
A NOTE FROM ROD
INSPIRATION FOR THE TRIP
Back in 1989, fresh out of school and having just completed my first season guiding in the Luangwa, I planned a trip up Lake Tanganyika on the famous WWI steamer MV Liemba - my ultimate goal was Virunga. It didn't happen, instead a group of us headed overland in an ancient Landcruiser to the Skeleton Coast. It was fabulous, Namibia was in the throes of gaining her hard fought independence and the atmosphere was electric, the desert entrancing and the wildlife wonderful. However... as the eighties rolled in to the nineties the situation in Zaire (as it was then) deteriorated dramatically and the window of opportunity to visit Virunga slammed firmly shut. From then on I reserved a special shard of envy for anyone I met who'd made it to this fabled park.
My chance came again in 2016. They say that you shouldn't meet your heros and the same is probably true of long lusted after landscapes, but Virunga didn't disappoint, I am not convinced Virunga could disappoint anyone. In my view the finest single National Park in the world - its variety of habiat and species in what is a relatively small area is truly mind-blowing. An example of this is the bird list, sitting at 706 species it's longer than the country totals of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and the whole of Australia.
In an area as turbulent as the eastern DRC the opportunity to visit will be limited and 'events' may regularly make it impossible; so whenever the window of opportunity does open my advice would be to grab it with both hands - otherwise, like me you could be waiting for over a quarter of a century.
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