This was an amazing adventure that fulfilled a life’s worth of curiosity and longing to see the Congo. Yes, it is an expensive expedition, but for the expertise, guidance, safety and knowledge from Kwafrika Travel, it is worth every penny. There was no time whatsoever where I worried about my safety. This expedition is for the adventurous-minded traveler. When they say you need a degree of fitness, this is not an understatement. The hiking required for the gorilla trekking and the volcano hike is strenuous, to say the least. I am a very fit 62-year old. I did it, but it wasn’t easy. The payoff for my efforts were spectacles that have changed my life (seriously). My Kwafrika Travel guides were always attentive to any concerns. The rangers who escorted me on the hikes were not only there to protect and to act as guides, but they were also friendly and helpful in all ways. Because this 9-day excursion is by no means a small undertaking, I will write as detailed a review of my experience as possible. I warn you, my review is long. I’ve been to Africa many times prior to this trip, but never to the Congo nor Rwanda. Every single day was eye-opening and revelatory, at least for me. I’ll summarize as best I can.
Traveling to Rwanda was a breeze. Getting in and out of Kigali airport was straightforward and uncomplicated. I had applied for and received my Rwanda tourist visa online. My initial visa application to enter the Congo was handled by Kwafrika prior to my leaving home, so that, as it turns out, was a godsend. Rock, my guide for the eastern Congo leg of my tour, was waiting for me when I arrived at Kigali with Moses, my driver. I stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel, which was kind of spectacular, to be honest. I had booked this hotel myself. The next morning I met Rock and we proceeded on the 4-hour drive through the hills of Rwanda towards Goma and the DRC frontier (or Grande Barriere).
As all travelers should be aware, particularly when traveling to Africa, one needs to be flexible. If you expect a rigid adherence to an itinerary, you will be frustrated. If you are patient, flexible, and willing to improvise, then you’ll have a terrific time. Such was the case on my Congo tour. Crossing the border from Rwanda into Goma, everyone is required to get out of their vehicle and pass through a safety and health check where you wash hands with treated water and your body temperature is checked to make sure you’re not feverish or possibly suffering from an ebola affliction. To be sure, Goma was not affected by the latest ebola outbreak, but the country is extremely diligent in keeping the spread of the virus in check. Once through the border, we were too late for the scheduled lunch. We had to meet the Virunga Park rangers at 2pm for their escort into Virunga National Park or wait another day. No matter, a sumptuous lunch was waiting when we arrived at camp anyway. Saying the road to the camp was “bumpy” is an understatement. Fascinating is that it is heavily populated by by motorcycle riders going to and from market with goods to sell and passengers to deliver. After passing several small markets, we made our way up to the Kibumba Tented Camp, which was very elegant and lived up to the photos on the web. The staff of Kibumba could not have been more gracious nor accommodating. It is a top-notch resort with impeccable service and attention to detail. The tented accommodations were very comfortable and the view towards Nyiragongo on a clear night was spectacular.
In the morning we began our gorilla trek after a short briefing the night before from Augustino, one of the longest tenured rangers in the camp. I was the only guest trekking, so the pace of the expedition was up to me. I made it a point to keep up the pace of the lead rangers, but it was a significant climb through rainy, dense and narrow jungle with quite a bit of elevation gained. I was soaking wet from rain and sweat, but after an hour and forty-five minutes into the bamboo forest, we arrived at the Baraka gorilla family. I was able to maneuver, guided by the rangers, very deftly near and within the gorilla family. I had several cameras and lenses and managed to get a few shot-of-a-lifetime images, IMO. The rangers made sure I was able to photograph at least one member of each group: silverback, mother, adolescent silverbacks, babies. After my hour was up, we headed back down the mountain in the rain and to the lodge. This was a newly habituated gorilla family, but they accepted our presence with no animosity.
The next morning was the hike to the summit of Nyiragongo. I hired two porters at $25 each; one for my camera bag and the other for my duffel bag with warm clothes for once we summited the volcano. You will want to hire a porter. The hike was one of the most challenging accomplishments of my life. I can’t imagine climbing it with a full pack on my back. There were military-trained rangers front and back for myself and my one hiking companion, Beatriz, from Brazil. We were accompanied by porters, cooks, my guide Rock and up to five rangers. It was tougher to the summit than I imagined, and rainy. After getting soaked on the gorilla trek, this time I was prepared, using my rain poncho. We made it to the summit in exactly six hours. My legs hurt, my lungs were screaming “no mas”, but once the mist cleared and the view to the lava lake below opened up, it was all worth it. What a spectacular experience. Rock expertly advised me that even though it would be cold, I should wear shorts and change once I reach the summit. This was excellent advice. Because I was on the Kwafrika Travel tour, my chef Amani traveled up the volcano with an amazing assortment of foods for dinner. He prepared this around a super-warm fire in the cook’s hut, and the same for breakfast in the morning. It was amazing what Amani was able to cook over a fire of hot coals. And the heat from the fire was soothing beyond words. I photographed the lava lake and the volcano in the evening and in the morning. I photographed the sunrise. At 6:30am we began our descent down the volcano. Definitely purchase a walking stick at base camp for $5. It will be a wise investment, particularly on the way down on the slippery lava rocks. A sturdy pair of hiking shoes is a must. Lace them up tight. I slid inside my shoes on the descent and my toes paid the price until I tightened up the laces.
That afternoon we caught a small boat to Tchegera Island, which is part of the Virunga National Park. It’s a tented camp similar to Kibumba, except the tented lodgings are on the beach on a tranquil and beautiful bay on the small island. Once again, the staff were excellent and friendly. Kwafrika Travel had planned a surprise birthday cake and gathering for me, which was completely unexpected. I had a fabulous time sharing cake and stories with the staff, whom I quickly considered friends. It was a wonderful chance to just chill and recuperate from two days of intensive hiking. I wanted to stay longer, it was so peaceful. The next morning we embarked to Goma for a city tour of a city that was devastated by the Nyiragongo volcano eruption in 2002. My guide Rock was a small boy when the volcano erupted. He told stories of sticking sticks into the slow-moving lava as it approached town. There are establishments in town where the basements are full of hardened lava. Parts of town that used to be farmland are now a bed of lava and rock and small business kiosks now populate what used to be corn fields. Personally, this was a new and unique experience I will never forget. I stayed overnight in the Ihusi Hotel on Lake Kivu, which replaced a hotel stay in Kigali. This was an instance of being flexible that paid off. The view of Lake Kivu from the balcony of my hotel suite was fantastic. This concluded the eastern Congo portion of my tour. The next morning I departed for Kinshasa.
For many, Kinshasa may not be a necessary stop on the Congo tour, but for me it was essential. From the time I first read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and learned about Stanley’s exposition to navigate the Congo, I had determined to see this great and historic river. Because Kinshasa is Kinshasa, pending a day on the river was not possible as was promised on my itinerary. I was, however, able to spend a couple of hours on a traditional boat taking a brief tour on the river. For a longer excursion, I’ll have to return some other day.
Kinshasa is a huge, sprawling, bustling African metropolis. Getting around is a challenge due to traffic and other impossible-to-anticipate delays. As in all big cities, you must always be aware of your surroundings. I had no trouble at all, but I spent many years in New York City, so I was always careful. The Hotel Memling where I stayed was top-shelf. All the accommodations for my tour were top-shelf, by the way.
The Bonobos sanctuary was a thrill to visit, although navigating our way through Kinshasa took some time. Terrence, who is from Kinshasa, was more than happy to fill me in on past and present politics of the Congo as we passed presidential palaces and other important landmarks. The Congo is celebrating a newly elected president, Felix Tshisekedi. As we made our way to the sanctuary we listened to his first address to his Parliament. It was in French, but Terrence and my driver, who were having a nice political debate, were happy to translate for me. During my four days in Kinshasa, we visited several museums and lunched at Chez Flore, a restaurant everyone should try when in Kinshasa. I visited the new national museum, which was a green and solar-powered thoroughly modern building. Very impressive. More than anything, I loved learning about the political and colonial history of the Congo from people who actually lived there. Culturally, there was no trading this experience. We visited Laurent Kabila’s grave and I received a greater understanding of the Kabilas and their presidencies. We had a mild debate about Stanley and his contributions, both negative and positive, to the history of the Congo. As a tourist, getting around the Congo can be complicated and daunting. For this alone, it was great that I had Kwafrika Travel on board. Their knowledge of procedures was invaluable, especially entering and leaving the Congo. Could I have done it alone? Maybe. Maybe not. I didn’t want to take the chance, Not part of the tour, but a wonderful surprise, was my visit with the Minister of Tourism of the Congo, Bunkulu Yves. The Minister of Tourism pledged that the new administration was committed to making the Congo a more tourist-friendly place to visit. Maybe by the time I go back, some changes will have occurred.
In summary, this was an incredible tour. Not everything worked out according to schedule, but Kwafrika Travel was always able to make adjustments so that tour was always satisfying and living up to its promise. I would recommend this tour. For the adventurous, you will not be disappointed.