Go­rilla Trekking – A True Sa­fari Ad­ven­ture

SLOW Magazine - - Contents - Text: Gareth Hardres-wil­liams Im­ages © Alas­tair Kilpin | Mam­moth Sa­faris & istockphoto.com

Asa­fari to view go­ril­las in cen­tral Africa is one of those jour­neys that the ad­ven­tur­ous and cu­ri­ous trav­eller sim­ply has to com­plete in their life­time. Typ­i­cally, many think of Rwanda and Uganda as the bas­tions of th­ese pri­mate-view­ing sa­faris. While both coun­tries are won­der­ful choices, there is a “new” kid on the block fast be­com­ing a sought af­ter go­rilla trekking and wildlife sa­fari des­ti­na­tion: the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC).

The word “Congo” con­jures up im­ages of misty green swathes of rain­for­est. In th­ese forests are elu­sive an­i­mals rarely seen by hu­mans, gaudy birds more of­ten heard than ac­tu­ally seen, and much else, from gi­ant earth­worms to bush vipers and ex­quis­ite flow­ers. The trees reach to the skies and the lakes plumb the depths of the earth. Add to this the peo­ple of the Congo – friendly and invit­ing, and their gen­tle wel­com­ing made all the more amaz­ing when you con­sider the trauma that has been in­flicted on their coun­try.

The DRC of­fers trav­ellers a breath of fresh air and a new per­spec­tive, and it of­fers all of this while you’re hik­ing up steep vol­ca­noes, glid­ing over enor­mous lakes, and vis­it­ing parts of a con­ti­nent not of­ten seen by too many for­eign­ers to spend time with the en­dan­gered Moun­tain Go­ril­las. This is ex­cit­ing and moving Africa at its most au­then­tic. The rains which fall much of the time add to the am­biance, with the shift­ing clouds and dra­matic land­scapes mak­ing for great pho­to­graphic op­por­tu­ni­ties and un­for­get­table mem­o­ries.

Much of the DRC’S con­ser­va­tion of­fer­ings are not new – the Virunga Na­tional Park, where one can en­joy some ex­cep­tional go­rilla view­ing, is in fact one of Africa’s old­est na­tional parks and home to a healthy and grow­ing go­rilla pop­u­la­tion. This is of course good news for those wish­ing to come face-to-face with a great ape.

The land­locked DRC, Africa’s sec­ond­largest coun­try, is of­ten un­fairly tarred with the brush of be­ing un­wel­com­ing, home to war­lords and in­sur­gents, un­sta­ble, and un­safe. While this can be true for some parts of the coun­try some of the time, the east­ern edge that is home to the Virunga Na­tional Park as well as the Kahuzi-biéga Na­tional Park tends to es­cape the drama. Both of th­ese na­tional parks have achieved the sta­tus of UNESCO World Her­itage Sites.

Al­though there are some flights to Goma on the northern shore of Lake Kivu in the east­ern DRC (th­ese flights are usu­ally via Ad­dis Ababa or Nairobi), the pre­ferred route to ac­cess the re­serve ar­eas of the DRC is via Ki­gali, Rwanda. One is able to ease into the DRC sa­fari pro­gramme from the Rwan­dan side of the bor­der with a fas­ci­nat­ing visit to the Ki­gali geno­cide memo­rial, fol­lowed by the very man­age­able three-hour drive across rolling Rwan­dan coun­try­side to the bor­der post. The Go­ril­las The Moun­tain Go­rilla in the DRC is one of the two sub­species of East­ern Go­rilla and can be found in the Virunga Na­tional Park. The other sub­species, for­merly known as the East­ern Low­land Go­rilla but now re­ferred to as Grauer’s Go­rilla, can be found in the Kahuzi-biéga Na­tional Park on the south-western bank of Lake Kivu. Trekking can be done through­out the year, but dry sea­son makes for eas­ier hik­ing. The rule of thumb with go­rilla trekking is that you have ab­so­lutely no guar­an­tee of ac­tu­ally see­ing the an­i­mals. They move in large, densely forested ar­eas and their move­ments can be er­ratic and un­pre­dictable. That said, the teams on the ground who are tasked with lead­ing the treks and find­ing the go­ril­las are supremely skilled, and have a won­der­ful knack of find­ing th­ese ma­jes­tic an­i­mals.

The suc­cess rate of find­ing ha­bit­u­ated fam­i­lies is high. The Vol­cano of Nyi­ragongo No visit to the DRC will be com­plete with­out at the very least con­sid­er­ing climb­ing the vol­cano of Nyi­ragongo to gaze down on the world’s largest lava lake. The climb up Nyi­ragongo does re­quire a de­cent level of fit­ness how­ever, as you will as­cend 1,500 m in a sin­gle day. With the vol­cano top­ping out at 3,500 m above sea level, there is a small pos­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing al­ti­tude sick­ness which will scup­per the climb, so best do go pre­pared. The first half of the walk is how­ever much slower, with plenty of stops to al­low climbers to ac­cli­ma­tise. It is cold at the sum­mit, de­spite star­ing down at the lava which has melted at 1,200 de­grees Cel­sius. Your moun­tain chef will make de­li­cious hot soups and warm cur­ries to keep you fu­elled while you are on top of the world. Morn­ing views to Mount Mikeno and Karisimbi are spec­tac­u­lar. Ac­com­mo­da­tion While both Uganda and Rwanda have been wel­com­ing tourists for much longer, the DRC is fast catch­ing up to its neigh­bours when it comes to ac­com­mo­da­tion of­fer­ings in the re­serves and sur­round­ing towns. The ac­com­mo­da­tion of­fer­ings are by no means five-star, but there are com­fort­able, clean, and well man­aged op­tions that will en­sure a re­lax­ing and pleas­ant stay in the wilder­ness. More Rea­sons to Visit the DRC Go­rilla per­mits are af­ford­able here. All vis­i­tors are obliged to pur­chase a per­mit for the one-hour ses­sion with the go­ril­las. At time of writ­ing this ar­ti­cle, th­ese per­mits cost $1,500 per per­son in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda (sea­sonal rate), while the DRC per­mit is the most cost-ef­fec­tive at $400 per per­son. This adds fur­ther at­trac­tion to the op­tion of a go­rilla sa­fari in the DRC.

The DRC of­fers the abil­ity to have a won­der­ful lake ex­pe­ri­ence on the mys­ti­cal and some­times tem­pes­tu­ous Lake Kivu, and in­cludes the op­tion of climb­ing Nyi­ragongo vol­cano. All this can be achieved in a fairly short itin­er­ary – as few as three to six days.

Al­though the roads in the DRC aren’t fan­tas­tic, the dis­tances cov­ered from the cities to the parks are rel­a­tively short – one hour from Bukavu to Kahuzi-biéga Na­tional Park, and two hours from Goma to Virunga Na­tional Park.

The lo­cally-brewed Primus beer goes down ex­cep­tion­ally well af­ter a stren­u­ous walk in the for­est.

For more on the ul­ti­mate in ad­ven­ture sa­fari and to ex­pe­ri­ence an an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion sec­ond to none, get in touch with the team from Mam­moth Sa­faris who reg­u­larly guide trips to this part of the world. Their ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence en­sures that trips here be­come un­for­get­table, lifeal­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

For more in­for­ma­tion, please visit mam­moth­sa­faris.com.

Nyi­ragongo vol­cano, Congo © istockphoto.com

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