Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park. “Sporadic but severe outbreaks of violence targeting civilians, including killing, rape, kidnapping, and pillaging, continue” … “A significant number of both confirmed and probable cases of Ebola have been reported”. These are some of the travel advisories for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not exactly reassuring. Not what you would want printed on the travel brochure. I get a tad nervous when I am warned about pillaging or Ebola. It sounds a bit medieval.
But, DRC is a giant country. In fact, the 11th largest country in the world with 80 million people. So is it realistic to paint the entire country with a singular generalization? I have a home in Chicago, which has a reputation for violence and murder. Yet, in my neighborhood I have never witnessed any criminality in 20 years. But, there are some neighborhoods on the south side which I would not visit for safety concerns.
For the intrepid traveler, some use the “back door” of visiting Virunga National Park. You may cross via land into the DRC border town of Goma via Rwanda. Virunga is one of four parks in the world where you can view mountain gorillas. There is also an active and amazing volcano to hike, Mountain Nyiragongo. Tragically, there has been a recent spate of violence in the park, with multiple rangers and staff being gunned down. And last spring of 2018, two British tourists were kidnapped. The park was closed as a result, and just re-opened in February of 2019.
But, there is another option for those country counters, and that is crossing overland from Kamembe in Rwanda to Bukavu in DRC. A ninety-minute drive from Bukavu is the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. At Kahuzi you can also trek gorillas, but the difference is these are lowland gorillas. I planned to visit Kahuzi since Virunga was still closed when I planned my trip at the end of 2018. Goma and Bukavu are separated by Lake Kivu, a three-hour ferry or so.
As noted previously, the US State Department has a travel advisory against traveling to DRC. But I knew I had to peel a layer or two of the onion. I checked the forums at Thorn Tree and Tripadvisor for recent visitors to Kahuzi. I posted and searched in two groups on Facebook, Every Passport Stamp and Backpacking Africa.
And, I contacted Jenna Klotz and Ania Budzinksi, two other travelers who are chasing 193. They had been there recently. I began to form an impression of the security/Ebola situation.
I then found Carlos, the owner of Lodge Coco. Carlos is the type of old-school expat you want to have as a contact. Carlos, a German, had planted his roots in Bukavu over 30 years ago. Carlos is a world traveler in his own right, leaving Germany in a VW Bus exploring the world before settling in DRC.
So, my conclusion, was Bukavu and Kahuzi were stable and safe enough to visit.
The Journey To DRC
I had arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, after crossing overland from Uganda where I trekked for gorillas. I now had to get to Bukavu, which was just over the border from Rwanda. There were three options: driving and flying. A minivan which takes over eight hours. Driving, in a hired car, would take six hours and cost $150. But flying would take 20 minutes and cost $75. Rwanda had a small airport in Kamembe which was in the southwestern corner of the country. I knew what option sounded the most attractive.
Early morning, I made my way to the airport in Kigali to board the brief flight on Rwanda Air, which was nearly empty. I popped out of the airport and several taxis were at my disposal. The taxi driver for less than ten dollars would drive me to the border, only a 15-minute driver.
A small, Rwandan immigration post stood near a compact wooden bridge connecting the countries. A brief wait resulted in my Rwandan exit stamp. I proceeded to the simple bridge, dragging my bag, and the change was sudden and noticeable.
Rwanda had impressed me immediately with its order and cleanliness. I was wowed by its clean streets and sidewalks. As I crossed into DRC, paved streets transitioned into dirt and potholed streets. Trash and poverty appeared ubiquitous.
A series of immigration buildings trailed the side of the street. I found the office that issued visas and placed myself in front of an official at his desk. I held my breath expecting the worse; bribes and corruption. But my negative expectations were hastily wiped away. I presented a letter from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which served as my affirmation to receive a visa on arrival. After several minutes and filling out one form, I was the proud owner of a Democratic Republic of Congo visa for a cool $100. I was in country number 133.
And how did I get this magical piece of paper which allowed my to get my visa on arrival? The Kahuzi-Biega National Park has the ability to issue, paperwork which allows you to get a visa on arrival. The challenge is getting the park to respond. I emailed (email off the website) them several times over the month, and never heard back. Then I got the email of Gloria who works at the park. I emailed her a couple of times, and never heard back. Then, I got Gloria’s phone number and I Whatsapped her. This finally produced the PDF of the letter which I printed. Note, you do not need to prepay for the visa, but bring a new, crisp $100 bill for the visa when you cross the border. (And check in with my friend Jonny Blair who shares with us why you need newer, pristine US currency). So the name of the game, is repeated and polite communications and you should eventually get your letter.
The immigration building was a long structure with a semi-open hallway which traced the length of the building. Next up, was the health office. I then presented my yellow fever certificate. Again, quick and professional.
I dragged my bag a bit further and I had exited the immigration center. I scanned the area and spoke to a taxi driver, Mohammed. We negotiated a $10 ride to my hotel, Lodge Coco, in Bukavu.
In 15 minutes, I had arrived at my hotel. I checked into my room, and while not cheap at $120 a night, it was clean, neat, and secure. And Lodge Coco has its own generators and water system which is required in Bukavu, where the utilities are not dependable. There was a big, open-air restaurant which was quite popular at night with the UN and NGO people.
I took a brief walk on my street which ended at Lake Kivu. The street was filled with the offices of NGOs, consulates, and rich people’s houses. Many of them were fortified with high walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. The reddish clay road was asphalt-less with numerous decaled Land Rovers bouncing by.
In the evening, I placed myself at the restaurant and ordered a wood-fired margarita pizza to fortify myself for the following day’s trek. I met Carlos, the owner, who then arranged for my driver the following morning to the park.
The Day Of The Trek
In darkness, I woke at 6 am. My breakfast sat on the table, waiting for me as well as my packed lunch for the day. I waited for my driver who showed up 15 minutes late at 6:45am to drive me to the park. I slid into the beat-up car. After 90 minutes, traversing awful roads and passing small villages I arrived at the park at the Tshivanga headquarters..
I ambled into the ranger station. This was the polar opposite of the ranger station at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where I had previously gone gorilla trekking. At Bwindi, 80 customers eagerly stood await for the trek with over 100 rangers and support staff. At Kahuzi-Biega National Park, I was the only one there for gorilla trekking. The only one.
I strolled a bit outside of the station, and I noted a grave. The Belgian photographer and conservationist Adrien Deschryver established this park in 1970. And I had learned from Carlos that this was his father-in-law. Carlos had married his daughter. Deschryver, the chief warden, researched the gorillas in the 1960s and was a pioneer, spoken in the same breath as Dian Fossey. Deschryver began the process of habituating the gorillas, which simply means to familiarize themselves with humans.
The park had informed me that I needed to be ready at 8 am, yet there seemed to be little to no concern about beginning the trek. I sat at a table, idly sipping some tea. I began to speculate about my private gorilla trek.
A ranger then shared with me that three Poles had called the park to state that they were nearby and on the way to the park. Nearby turned out to be another hour. I was a bit dismayed at the lack of professionalism. The Poles eventually showed up and we received our briefing. We hopped into a truck and after 10 minutes were dropped off at a path and began our trek. The trek began nearly two hours late.
With out entourage of rangers, guides, and trackers, we started off on a neat, marked path.
The forest was thick and the air even more muggy. Soon after, the machetes were produced, and we were off the path, with the guides chopping a path for us.
Another trekker appeared out of nowhere, met up with our group, and shared with us the gorillas were near. The excitement grew and we followed the new tracker. We then found ourselves in a bog, my boots sank into the ground. I labored with each step with the sun beating down on me. Tall switch grass that towered over me, which occasionally whipped me in my face.
And at last, we arrived. Except there were no gorillas. The rangers never explained what happened. But from what I could gather; two competing gorilla families got in a fight, causing them to leave the area.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity and eastern lowland gorillas. It is named after two dormant volcanos, Mount Kahuzi and Biega and also abuts on Lake Kivu. It is one of the largest national parks in DRC at 6,000 square miles.
We headed back into the bog; my frustration grew. On a gorilla trek, you are allowed one hour with the gorillas. But you do not know how long it will take to find them. It could be one hour to track them, or it could be the entire day. I got a feeling, my trek was going to be closer to the latter.
The guides hacked out a path, we began climbing over steep hills, and fording over streams. The guides would grab their machetes, cut down a tree, and fashion a bridge out of branches, so we could ford the stream.
We came across a small path, and we were told to take a seat on the ground. The rangers disappeared to see if they could find the gorillas. I was thankful for the rest. I munched on a cheese tomatoes sandwich and greedily sipped my water. I had already consumed half of my water and was now a bit concerned I would run out.
The rangers returned, I strapped on my bag again, and we headed out. My clothes were soaked through, the sweat permeating my pores. Within moments, we were off the gentle path and into the dense forest. The trek seemed to get even more difficult. Scurrying over hills, sometimes steep enough where I was on my hands and knees. Branches and plants endeavored to scratch and cut me. Thankfully I was protected with gloves, long pants, and a windbreaker.
And then, the climax. Two gorillas sat comfortably, ensconced in the forest, happily chewing their snack. Their orange eyes came to meet mine. My camera was abruptly produced for my bag. I set my Sony on burst and captured these creatures up close.
Mountain Gorillas v. Lowland Gorillas
As I noted before, mountain gorillas can only be found in three countries in the world; Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC. There are only approximately 1000 mountain gorillas left in the world, and none in captivity. There are two types of lowland gorillas in the world, Eastern and Western. There are approximately 3500 Eastern Lowland Gorillas (some which I saw in DRC) and about 100,000 Western Lowland Gorillas. And for those trivia buffs/gorilla-philes there is also the Cross River Gorilla, which can be found (with great difficulty) near the Cameroon/Nigeria border. (I would like to thank readers and commenters Shawn and Tom for their helpful comments in regard to species/numbers which I edited after receiving their feedback.) Mountain gorillas are known to be larger than the lowland gorillas. After seeing both in the wild, I could not readily notice the difference with my untrained eye. Both species were incredible to witness.
A walkie talkie crackled with one of the rangers answering. The Poles needed to leave immediately since they were attempting to cross the border back to Rwanda before it closed. My hour with the gorillas was unceremoniously clipped by 15 minutes.
The trek back to the ranger station was not an easier. I arrived back to the station, totally spent. But I felt like I had earned it. The previous week I had trekked for gorillas and had found them in less than an hour. I almost felt like I cheated, it was too easy to spot them. Today in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, my trek had lasted seven hours. I was looking forward to a long and hot shower.
The next day, I headed back to Rwanda, successfully completing my trek for gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Flight roundtrip to Kamembe: $150
Taxi to the border: $10
Visa on arrival $100
Taxi to Eco Lodge: $10
Lodge Coco: $120 a night
Gorilla trek: $400
Roundtrip drive to Kahuzi-Biega National Park: $80
Contacts at Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Gloria’s contact info:
085 29 58 652
099 59 44 111
Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park
Trekking Gorillas Kahuzi-Biega National Park
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Very well written and informative article. Thank you for including the prices and logistics.
I’m surprised you didn’t like walking around looking for them. I find that most of the fun. You should try finding completely wild gorillas (non-habituated) if you haven’t already. I was lucky to come across some after 4 days of looking for them in Gabon.
About that. There are 4 species of gorillas. The gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega are Eastern Lowland gorillas of which there are probably less than 5,000 left so they are quite rare. It is their cousin, the Western Lowland gorillas that possibly has up to 100,000 (though their numbers are rapidly plummeting thanks to Ebola and hunting for bushmeat). The rarest of the four species of gorilla is the Cross river gorilla on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria. There are less than 300 left and seeing those is very very difficult. I met a guy who had seen them (a Cameroonian working with the gorilla habituation project in the Central African Republic) who said he saw them briefly after tracking them for a week (while teaching those in the Cross River gorilla area how to track them). Having seen the Western Lowland Gorillas I hope to be able to see their eastern cousins. Your blog post was very helpful. Thank you.
Great feedback and breakdown of the gorillas. I will be heading to West/Central Africa in the next year or so, so hopefully will have the opportunity to see them. Cross river gorilla sounds unique.
Not that I didn’t enjoy, but was getting tired! 😉
Very informative and detailed article!
I visited Kahuzi Biega NP in August 2018 and had a very similar experience. Although I opted to to take the 2.5 hour ferry ride from Goma to Bukavu. I was supposed to see Mountain Gorillas in Virunga NP as well, but as I was awaiting for my visa in May, the hostage taking incident occured in Virunga; I am fortunate enough to have visited Virunga in 2005 to see the Mounain Gorillas as well as having done four separate treks in Uganda to see them. I just wanted to make a slight correction; There are only about 3,500 Eastern Lowland Gorillas left in the world, not 50,000. There is another species of Lowland Gorilla called the Western Lowland Gorilla which is smaller than the Eastern Lowland and Mountain Gorilla. Their numbers are more plentiful and number over 100,000; I did two treks in Central African Republic this past summer and saw them there. Also, Mountain Gorillas are a sub species of the Eastern Gorilla and Eastern Lowland Gorillas are known to be slightly larger, but like yourself, I could not decipher that during my trips (although Cimanuka was a sight to behold!)
Hey Tom … sounds like you have had a lot of great opportunities trekking w gorillas. Sounds like a passion.
Thank you for the edits, I will make some changes to my numbers. Ric
Hey mate, this post has been very helpful. I tried contacting Gloria with the email and their phone numbers but to no response. Any other way that you know of to get this visa/gorilla permit?
Unfortunately not … just keep on dripping on her. It took a month until I finally got a hold of her. Good luck!
[…] crossed overland from Rwanda to DRC to cross one of the bucketlist. I trekked for gorillas and saw this amazing […]
[…] after some research and being so close, I made the plunge. I had another awesome experience and trekked with gorillas one more time. I traveled with G […]
Wow, Ric what a story and post. I loved the details of the how to get there – the fact that your shared Gloria’s contact info is GOLD! The pictures are absolutely stunning. Thanks so much for sharing so much – this is amazing!
It is quite an experience 🙂
You just have to be consistent w Gloria, and you will get that visa!