Democratic Republic of Congo: Gorillas & Volcanoes of the Virungas
Mountain Gorillas of Virunga National Park; Nyiragongo Volcano, which has the largest active lava lake in the world
**Please note that this photo tour is limited to 3 participants and 1 ORYX Tour Leader. This expedition offers exceptional photo opportunities for Mountain Gorillas as well as of the lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo, however the hike up Nyiragongo is challenging and should only be attempted by those with a very good level of fitness. Furthermore, although accommodations and meals are of a decent standard, they are not the same as can be expected in neighbouring Rwanda, and therefore this expedition to the DRC is recommended for the adventurous traveller only**
Day 1: Arrival in DR Congo
Departing Volcanoes NP in Rwanda, we will drive to Gisenyi, where after we will cross the international border into the Democratic Republic of Congo and the lakeside city of Goma (Goma is located on the northern shore of Lake Kivu). Thereafter, we transfer (a drive of around 50km) to our accommodations at Mikeno Lodge, a beautiful thatch roofed lodge situated at Rumangabo which is also the National Park headquarters. This will be our base from where we will trek the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla in Virunga National Park, which is acclaimed as the oldest national park in Africa.
Day 2: Gorilla Trek 1 – Virunga National Park, and afternoon Gorilla Orphanage visit
This morning we will embark on our first Mountain Gorilla trek in the “Heart of Darkness”, the Democratic Republic of Congo. After a thorough debriefing by our experienced team of local guides, we will begin our Gorilla safari in Congo.
Mountain Gorillas are highly intelligent, good natured, and fascinating to observe when Gorilla trekking in DRC. The silverback’s powerful presence is awe-inspiring, yet his calm demeanour clearly earns him the title “gentle giant”. Take time to also appreciate the tenderness and care that the mothers show their young. These special interactions make for great photographic opportunities. And then, of course, there are the juveniles who spend most of every waking hour at play and never cease to make visitors smile. For many who visit the Mountain Gorillas in Congo, it is truly a life changing experience and not at all uncommon to feel emotionally overwhelmed by the experience.
Family groups are led by a dominant Silverback and to find more than one Silverback in a family is not uncommon at all. Some families have up to four Silverbacks but only the dominant Silverback reserves the right to the females. The females on the other hand do not share this same thought process and are quite promiscuous. Should they find one of the other males more pleasing to the eye, they will quite happily lead him off. To then ensure the offspring do not fall victim to infanticide, they will also mate with the dominant silverback, fooling him in believing that the offspring is his.
The Mountain Gorilla was first discovered in 1902 by Captain Oscar von Beringe. Unfortunately, 43 Mountain Gorillas were captured and killed in the twenty years that followed, all in the name in scientific research. Then in 1921, an American naturalist, Carl Akeley came to the Virungas to partake in the hunt. He himself shot 4 individuals and afterwards felt great remorse for his actions and ended up becoming one of the biggest advocates in the drive to protect this amazing species from any further harm. Akeley had the Virungas declared a National Park in 1925, the first National Park in Africa and the focus was and is still today, to ensure the survival of the Mountain Gorillas and their natural habitat.
In 1966, a young American woman, Dian Fossey, came to the Virungas after pleading to Dr. Louis Leakey for the position as the researcher who was to start an intensive study on the Mountain Gorillas.
Dian faced great resistance and difficulties in her struggles to ensure the survival of this species. Thanks to her relentlessness pursuit and dedication in what she believed in, we are still today privileged enough to trek the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes to view these magnificent animals in their natural habitat. Their numbers have risen from a very concerning 250 individuals back in the mid-eighties, to the official figure of 890 today. Dian was also responsible for the introduction of The Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, now known as Gorilla Doctors. Dian was concerned that the species would not see the turn of the century and had therefore put in a request for a fulltime veterinarian but unfortunately due to her untimely death on Boxing Day in 1985, she never saw this dream materialize (the “Gorilla Doctors” came into being only 6 months later).
Besides the awareness created by Dian for the Mountain Gorillas, one of the major contributing factors to this success story is the incredible dedication and hard work of the Virunga Rangers. This dedicated team of people put their own lives at risk on a daily basis (often under extreme circumstances) to ensure the survival of this species. A number of other organizations also worth mentioning are the AWF (African Wildlife Foundation), IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Project) and the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), and then last but by no means least is the international tourists whose money and donations make an invaluable difference to the protection and future of the Mountain Gorilla as a species.
All Gorilla trekking in DRC is led by experienced park rangers and usually depart from Bukima patrol post. Treks normally require 1-2 hours of hiking in each direction, depending on where the mountain gorillas spent the previous night as well as the difficulty of the terrain. The hike is set at our own comfortable pace. We will enjoy the beautiful surrounds and keep our eyes open for signs of other wildlife that also inhabit the forest. Rushing to the gorillas will leave us exhausted and too tired to fully appreciate our time with them!
To safeguard the health of the Gorillas while Gorilla trekking in DRC, we will be required to wear surgical masks (provided) when in the presence of the Gorillas, as they are susceptible to majority of our respiratory illnesses but lack our natural immunity to fight off even the slightest flu. After our allocated one hour with the Gorillas, we will make our way back to camp for lunch.
In the afternoon, we will visit the Senkwekwe Center (the “Gorilla Orphanage”), which is located at park headquarters in Rumangabo and is the only facility in the the world that cares for Mountain Gorilla orphans. Each of the four gorillas living at the center was victimized by poachers or animal traffickers, and likely witnessed family members being murdered. Thanks to the financial support of individuals around the world – and the loving care provided by their human caregivers – the orphans now lead happy and secure lives in their forested enclosure. The orphans also receive veterinary care from the Gorilla Doctors, arguably the most skilled and experienced gorilla veterinarians in the world.
In early 2009, Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode and park rangers regained control of Virunga, following the arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Shortly after, park staff began raising awareness about the two young orphan mountain gorillas that were in their care. Orphans Ndeze and Ndakasi had been forced by the circumstances of war to live in tiny compound in the capital city of Goma. Unlike their natural environment, Goma was heavily polluted, noisy, and largely built on a lava flow devoid of vegetation.
With the southern sector once again secure, a team set out to raise money to build a care facility at park headquarters in Rumangabo. The site chosen for the facility was perfect: lush forest, teaming with wildlife, expansive – and safe. As 2009 drew to a close, park staff kicked off an intense online campaign, and in a matter of two months, raised $211,000. The World Heritage Organization matched every dollar donated by caring individuals around the world. The Murry Foundation and Howard G. Buffett Foundation also provided critical funding. The “Senkwekwe Center” was soon built and the orphans living in Goma were promptly transferred to their new home. The center is named after the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group, who was murdered in 2007, along with three other members of his family.
At the end of 2010, two more orphan mountain gorillas, Maisha and Koboko, were transferred to the Senkwekwe Center. They came from Rwanda where they had been living in a small facility. The four gorillas settled in nicely and soon became a tightly knit family. Tragically, Koboko died during the latest conflict. Although the official cause of death was attributed to a gastrological infection, the sounds of mortar fire and machine guns severely stressed Koboko, and likely led to the collapse of his immune system. The latest addition to the Senkwekwe Center is Matabishi, a young male that was found alone and outside the park boundary near Bikenge. Poachers who feared they would be arrested by Virunga’s rangers likely released Matabishi. After a 6-month quarantine, Matabishi has joined Ndeze, Ndakasi, and Maisha.
The Senkwekwe Center also plays a critical role in rehabilitating orphan eastern lowland gorillas confiscated from animal traffickers. Once rehabilitated, these gorilla orphans are transferred to the GRACE facility for eastern lowland gorillas.
**Senkwekwe Center information courtesy Virunga.org, the official website for Virunga National Park**
Day 3: Gorilla Trek 2 – Virunga National Park
Another early start will have us embarking on our second Mountain Gorilla trek in Congo. This is a great opportunity to correct the “I should have’s” from the day before or to just sit back and fully appreciate the time with these incredible animals.
After completion of the trek, we will return to our lodge, where will have the afternoon to either relax and enjoy the view, or work on editing photographs from the photography tour.
Day 4: Transfer from Mikeno to Nyiragongo Volcano, and hike to overnight cabins
After a relaxing morning and breakfast, we will depart for Nyiragongo Volcano, which is located about an hour’s drive from Mikeno Lodge.
Nyiragongo is a beautiful Stratovolcano that features the world’s largest lava lake. The volcano’s forested lower slopes are home to a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, monkeys, and bushbuck. Nyiragongo’s summit rim is largely devoid of vegetation and is frequently dusted with snow. From the rim, visitors can peer down into a churning lava lake and see and hear hot gases exploding up though a mosaic of molten lava. Although predictable and therefore safe for tourists, Nyiragongo is greatly feared during eruptions. Because of the high silica content of its lava, Nyiragongo’s lava flows are extremely fluid. During the 2002 eruption, some of Nyiragongo’s lava flows were clocked at 100 km/h (62 mph) and reached all the way to Lake Kivu where it consumed at least 15% of the city of Goma killing an estimated 147 people. Roughly 4,500 buildings were destroyed, leaving about 120,000 people homeless. The eruption was the most destructive effuse eruption in modern history.
Our trek to the summit of Nyiragongo Volcano will begin at the Kibati patrol post, which is less than a one-hour drive from the Mikeno Lodge in Rumangabo. Experienced armed park rangers lead all treks in the National Park, and we will have a porter each to assist with carrying equipment up the volcano.
The time required to reach the summit depends on the average fitness of the group, but typically takes 4 – 6 hours. Altitude sickness can be an issue for some because the climb begins at 1,989m (6,525 ft.) and ascends to 3,470m (11,382ft) in a short time due to the steep incline closer to the summit.
Proper hydration is the best way to adapt to the change in altitude. People prone to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) should speak to their physicians about taking preventative measures before making the climb. We do advise you to bring raincoats and cold weather gear. Rain showers are a common occurrence on the climb up during the rainy season and temperatures at the summit can dip below 0°C/32°F.
The view from Nyiragongo Volcano down onto Goma is eerie, but very alluring.
**Mikeno Lodge will provide us with packed meals and overnight gear for our overnight stay in the Nyiragongo Cabins, although there is still a list of key items you will need to bring along – the ORYX office will send you a comprehensive list upon signing up for this expedition**
Day 5: Nyiragongo descent hike, road transfer to Kibati, boat transfer to Tchegera Island
Following our descend from Nyiragongo, we will road transfer to Kibati, where after we will be transferred by boat to Tchegera Island on Lake Kivu for a relaxing afternoon. The island is home to a surprising number of bird species for you to photograph and enjoy. Tchegera Island is situated on the southernmost tip of the Virunga National Park and offers breath-taking views of the volcanoes and the lake.
Day 6: Depart Tchegera Island, transfer to Gisenyi border, enter Rwanda and head to Kigali International Airport for departure
After a relaxing morning and breakfast, we will cross the border back into Rwanda and transfer to the Kigali International Airport where this amazing Congo Gorilla photography tour sadly comes to an end!