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Virunga National Park, DRC Trip Report 12/25/2015

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shinson20c

Trip Report for Virunga National Park, DRC

Dec 25th through Dec 30th 2015

Booking Agent: Inspired Journeys

 

**I've attached a file containing the report but with photos.

 

Virunga, DRC:

There were very few people that thought that my visiting this country was a good idea. My husband worried about the gorillas and the other guerrillas and my colleagues were worried that I would come back with Monkey Pox, or worse. My friends were convinced that I would become the latest reluctant member of a rebel group.

Well, here I am back in the US - happy and healthy. I did see some gorillas just not the kind my husband and friends feared. I didn’t contract monkey pox or any other exotic disease but I did cross paths with few colobus and blue monkeys.

On a serious note, not one time during my 5 day trip did I feel unsafe or unwelcome. There existed a genuine appreciation for our visit and a sincere concern for our happiness and well-being by the entire staff at Mikeno as well as the park rangers and gorilla trekking guides.

Reaching Virunga - We flew into Kigali and overnighted at the Grand Legacy Hotel; which is about 15 minutes from the KGL airport. The next morning we were picked up at 7:30 am in the morning by our ground driver from Inspired Journeys for the 3.5 hour drive to the border crossing at Goma.

We arrived at the border around 11:00 and were met by another driver from Virunga and a rep from Inspired who helped us through immigration and customs. The crossing is simple as long as you have your paperwork in order - Visa and Yellow Fever card.

After crossing the border we load our bags in Virunga's Land Cruiser and make our way to the lodge. Along the way we stop to pick up an armed ranger for safety. The drive to the lodge is a jarring ride on roads that are paved with lava rock and dotted with massive potholes.

After 2 hours we arrive at Mikeno where we were warmly welcomed by Julie and Patience, the lodge managers who went out of there way to make sure we were comfortable and at “home.”

We had lunch on the deck overlooking the massive forest plain and soon any stress or tiredness of the past 2 days of traveling were replaced with the beauty of the lodge and the forest.

After lunch we were taken to our cottage where we have a fireplace, electricity, full bath with shower and very comfortable beds.

In the afternoon we site on our patio drinking coffee while taking in the sights and sounds of all the monkeys and birds that surround our cottage. The lodge is surrounded by dense forest where everything seems to be on steroids - towering trees, bats the size of a small dogs, millipedes that look like snakes, and hundreds of blue monkeys and black and white colobus monkeys that effortlessly flew through the trees above our heads. In addition, the bird, plant and insect life is incredible - thousands of different species inhabit the surrounding forest.

There’s even have a family of chimpanzees that visited the lodge during our stay. We were extremely fortunate to be able to watch them in their natural habitat at a relatively close distance. It’s also home to the world's only refuge for Mountain Gorillas that have been orphaned by poachers or traffickers. Currently, there are 4 young gorillas who are cared for by the staff at Virunga.

At sunrise the next day we take off for Bukima in the park’s Land Rover with 2 other guests, where our gorilla trek began. After about a 90 minute journey we arrived at Bukima.

There were 9 trekkers on this day and we were split up in 2 groups. In my group there were 3 of us and we hiked to see the Humba family, which consists of six individuals - 1 silverback, 2 juveniles and 2 females, and 1 baby. After a briefing in French about wearing a mask around the gorillas, staying 8 meters away, not making eye contact, and crouching down if we feel threatened, we start making our way through dense the forest. Up steep inclines, through marshes, around elephant watering holes and over huge fallen trees.

The gorillas we were tracking kept moving higher up in the forest, and after 2.5 hours we were still climbing with them. But soon thereafter, we met up with the three rangers who left earlier that morning, who tell us to put our masks on. We follow them deeper into the forest when one motions for us to crouch down.

One of the other guards whacks open the dense forest curtain and right before us is an amazing sight- a huge silverback. He stares back at us, lays down and poses for us. We just stare back in silence and amazement.

That 8 meter rule seems to have become more of a suggestion than a rule. The rangers all appear calm. One motions for us to takes photos, so I pull up my camera frantically start shooting. Then, without any warning the silverback gets up, beats his chests, makes a loud noise and charges through the forest to the other family members. We try to move back but the forest behind us is like a concrete barrier, we crouch and stare at the ground and taking in what we just witnessed.

The guards assure us that everything is ok and motion for us to follow behind the silverback. With adrenaline pumping and some caution we follow the silverback to rest of the family.

There’s a juvenile and a baby wrestling and with the other members nearby eating the vegetation. We move in a bit closer to get a better view of the wrestling match and the baby locks eyes with me. His big black eyes stare into mine for what could be three seconds or an hour. Our stalemate ends when he takes a few steps toward us and play charges me. Awkwardly, I back into the heavy brush, and I fall into a hole where the ranger had just used his machete to whack open clearing for us. As my trekking mates and the ranger help me out of the hole the two adult females begin to squabble. The two young gorillas stop wrestling and look seriously worried. The Silverback moves in and the the females take the argument behind some brush. The whole forest is filled with these incredibly intense, loud primal screams. The brush is moving violently and the screams continue. We sit quietly and wonder if we’re going to be charged and how do we escape? The gorillas are in front and on each side. As my heart rate begins to increase the guards begin grunting “Ahh hrrmmm” reassurances to the gorillas . The screams continue for a few more moments and then calm breaks among the family. All is well again.

The baby and juvenile resume the wrestling match. Transfixed, we crouch in silence. Even without being told to use our indoor voice near the gorillas, every instinct we have have is to be quiet. The baby is once again play charges me again and one of the guards lays his machete on the ground to act as a barrier between us. The baby seems to understand and the play charging stops. The silverback watches from a short distance away while one of the females sits next to him. The other female makes her way toward us and sits down directly in front of us. She stares at us while the guards grunt reassurances and she seems to understand as she grunts back. You can literally see the trust the gorillas have in the guards - it’s remarkable and quite special.

The rangers chopped away a clearing behind us so we started to slowly move back watching in awe at her agility as she begins to climb a a very tiny tree to the right of us.

After an hour, it's time to leave and we begin our hike back down the mountain.

The following day I was up at sunrise for another trek to see the gorillas. This time there were a total of 4 hikers and we trekked together in the same group to see a family of 2 silverbacks, 4 babies, 2 juvs, and 3 females.

We hiked through rolling hills, and fertile farmland alongside the lush and emerald green forest. The almost dormant volcanoes were clear that day making for stunning scenery.

After about a hour of hiking we entered the forest where we continued trekking for another 15 minutes or so before we located the guards who took us to the family a short distance away.

On this day, the majority of the family were huddled together in a lounging and grooming session. Two babies were playing with another baby twirling around on a near-by vine.

The babies continued to play only stopping briefly get a closer look at us. The second Silverback was set off from the family and when we located him he was not in the mood for visitors so he climbed a tree and sit atop a branch until we left - watching him go up this tree and balance himself on a small branch was incredible.

The remainder of our time in Virunga was spent exploring the many short hiking trails that surround the lodge, getting to know the staff, watching the orphan gorillas and playing hide and seek with the Congo-hounds

The war and conflict that has plagued this country was evident from the moment I crossed the border at Goma. There is extreme poverty and no real infrastructure of any sort. We passed convoys of UN trucks and other aid organizations and countless numbers of rag-tag soldiers along the roadside and in the villages leading to the lodgeEven with this chaos I found the country and the people to be intriguing and beautiful highly recommend visiting Virunga.

Tips and observations:

1.) We booked our trip through Inspired Journeys and they did an amazing job however it is possible to book directly through Virunga’s website. Virunga’s website allows you to book and pay for lodging, in-country transportation, trekking activities and Visa. They accept all major credit cards and do not charge any service fees.

2.) The gorilla permits cost 450.00 pp but occasionally they discount them to 1/2 price so check with the lodge.

3.) Transportation from Kigali to Goma is expensive. We arranged for a saloon car instead of 4x4. The RT cost for the saloon car was 700.00 vs 1200.00 for a 4x4. The roads are excellent in Rwanda so there’s really no need for a 4x4 unless you have a large group. There are busses and taxis available that may be cheaper.

4.) The hike to see the gorillas can be very difficult due to the terrain, altitude and the humidity and requires some level of fitness. Even if you are fit but have breathing issues such as asma, copd, etc it may be a problem for you. There was one gentleman who went up in another group who became too fatigued to continue the hike and the rangers and the guides had to help him down.

5.) Language - It’s helpful to know some French and/or Swahili as the guides and rangers speak limited English. At Mikeno, the majority of the staff very good English.

6.) Consider a Porter for the trek. It’s a way to support the local community. If you do, make sure the pack is not too heavy and carry a couple of extra bottles of water for the porter.

7.) Camera equipment - The first hike I took two camera bodies and two lens - a 70-200mm / f2.8; and a 24 - 70 mm/f.8. I used one camera for video and one for stills. I took 2 cameras b/c I didn’t want to waist time switching lens however I soon realized that it was too much equipment and on my second trek I took one body and the 70-200 mm lens; which worked just fine.

8.) Essentials:

Hiking Gear - I took one good pair of hiking shoes with excellent traction but I wish I’d taken 2 b/c they got very muddy and I didn’t have time to wash and dry them. I also took a few pairs long socks that I tucked in my pants and a light rain jacket. It got very cold in the mornings when I was there so layering worked well but a puffy jacket would have been nice.

First Aid Kit - antihistamine, antibiotic (eg amoxicillin), astringent, topical antibiotic, and anti-diarrhoeal meds. There are poison plants and thorns on the hike and although the guards and rangers do their best to point them out if you brush them by accident you’ll want something to help with the itch. If you get a thorn stuck in you like I did you’ll want the antibiotic to calm the infection. The thorn that landed in my leg got a bit infected and had to be drained. Thankfully, I had amoxicillin with me.

9.) VISAs and Yellow Fever:

Yellow fever - You must have a Yellow Fever card to enter the DRC. Make sure you fill out the front of the card and sign it - otherwise the nurses at the border may deem it invalid.

DRC VISA - You must purchase your VISA in-advance; which can be done through directly through Virunga or perhaps your booking agent.

Rwanda Visas - I purchased my visa when I arrived in the country. It’s worth noting it’s a single entry Visa so you’ll have to purchase one when you first arrive the country and when you re-enter from the DRC.

Untitled 2.pdf

Edited by shinson20c

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Gregor

Fantastic trip-report of a very fascinating place well off the beaten track. I enjoyed it a lot to read and see the pictures. TFS/ Gregor

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SafariChick

Fabulous report, thanks so much! Your writing was very evocative, really making me feel I was there. Thanks for all the practical logistics information as well.

 

You mentioned briefly you were able to watch the orphans. What kind of interraction did you have with them? Were they in enclosures or outside? Having seen the Virunga documentary, I would love to visit this very special place some day.

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shinson20c

Fabulous report, thanks so much! Your writing was very evocative, really making me feel I was there. Thanks for all the practical logistics information as well.

 

You mentioned briefly you were able to watch the orphans. What kind of interraction did you have with them? Were they in enclosures or outside? Having seen the Virunga documentary, I would love to visit this very special place some day.

Hi,

 

Thank you for the kind words.

 

The day we visited they were outside playing so we watched from an elevated outdoor observatory. There's no real interaction to speak of except when they try to engage you by beating their chest or running at the enclosure. I hope that you get to visit soon. I'll post some pics later today of the orphans and the gorillas that we visited in the wild.

 

By the way, did I read that you're planning a trip to Rwanda in 2017? If so, you will be very close to the border and it could be interesting to do treks in both countries to experience the differences.

 

Shannon

 

Shannon

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Marks

Glad you had such a great time! Your photos are great, especially gorillas - any more to share?

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SafariChick

@@shinson20c thanks for elaborating. Yes, that's right, I will be in Rwanda in 2017 and I was actually thinking the same thing! But I don't think we will do it probably as we are on a tight schedule visiting 3 countries in 12 days! But I will ponder it ....

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bushbaby

great to hear that the logistics are not as bad as it is made out to be...great to also see that you had a very successful trip !..will keep Virunga in my dreams atleast from now one :-)

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Alexander33

Thanks so much for posting this. Your photos are inspiring and, as we are headed to Rwanda in 2017, your tips are incredibly valuable.

 

May I inquire as to why you chose DRC instead of Uganda or Rwanda? Unlike so many of your friends, I am actually impressed and salute you for going there, so my question is really just borne out of curiosity.

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Sangeeta

What a beautifully written report - that first trek so descriptive, it drew me right in with you. Very glad to know that you went to Virunga. That park really needs our help and I am glad to report that we have recently seen a good amount of interest in seeing the gorillas here. Thanks again for sharing!

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shinson20c

great to hear that the logistics are not as bad as it is made out to be...great to also see that you had a very successful trip !..will keep Virunga in my dreams atleast from now one :-)

Hi Bushbaby,

 

I'm glad you found the report helpful. I just browsed your photo gallery and the photos that you have taken are stunning. I just sat starring at the vulture pic for 10 minutes - simply incredible work. Thanks for sharing.

 

Shannon

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shinson20c

Thanks so much for posting this. Your photos are inspiring and, as we are headed to Rwanda in 2017, your tips are incredibly valuable.

 

May I inquire as to why you chose DRC instead of Uganda or Rwanda? Unlike so many of your friends, I am actually impressed and salute you for going there, so my question is really just borne out of curiosity.

Hi Alexander,

 

Thanks and I'm glad you found the report helpful.

 

I never considered Rwanda for this trip so it wasn't that I selected one over the other. The Congo has been on my radar for many years b/c its the only place that I know of where you have both chimps and mountain gorillas and a lava lake. I have read some reports that compare the two and some mention main differences are the number of hikers and cost. The DRC, in generally has less hikers and smaller groups so they say the experience tends to be more intimate and wild. They also say its easier to photograph the gorillas in Rwanda b/c the forest is not so dense. Supposedly the cost of hiking in the DRC is cheaper but Im not so sure about that b/c what you save on the permit you spend on transportation. I hope this helps...

 

Shannon

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nikethana

Great report Shannon. Your description has left me very eager to go visit Virunga NP. Much appreciated!

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nikethana

@@shinson20c Shannon, can you comment on whether the guides during the trek spoke English? I know you mentioned above that they spoke limited English. Do you reckon you'd need a translator or private guide if you don't speak Swahili or French?

Edited by nikethana

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shinson20c

@@shinson20c Shannon, can you comment on whether the guides during the trek spoke English? I know you mentioned above that they spoke limited English. Do you reckon you'd need a translator or private guide if you don't speak Swahili or French?

Hi,

 

Our guides did not speak english but I know a little French so it wasn't a problem.

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shinson20c

Glad you had such a great time! Your photos are great, especially gorillas - any more to share?

Hi,

 

Yes! It took me a while but they are finally organized and uploaded. Here's the link - http://www.switz.pictures/

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Alexander33

Thanks for the link. Great photos!

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Zim Girl

Wonderful pictures

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Marks

 

Glad you had such a great time! Your photos are great, especially gorillas - any more to share?

Hi,

 

Yes! It took me a while but they are finally organized and uploaded. Here's the link - http://www.switz.pictures/

 

Great, thanks! So much detail in your photos, even down to the gorillas' teeth.

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