Democratic Republic of Congo travel guide
Bukavu is Goma’s twin, at the opposite end of Lake Kivu, although it’s a very different kind of place. You’ll still see the occasional UN vehicle, but this is a bustling, messy and very colourful city. There isn’t really anything here in the way of sights, so you’re unlikely to feel the need to stay for very long, but it’s worth a wander to check out the markets or simply observe daily life in urban DRC. It’s also the gateway to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home of the endangered eastern lowland gorillas. Getting here is half the fun – although it’s possible to arrive by road from both Goma and Rwanda, the boat trip from Goma (around 4 hours on a speedboat or slower if you opt for the larger - and potentially unsafe - local ferries) across Lake Kivu is a much more interesting alternative.
Goma may not be much to meet the eye upon first glance, but it has three redeeming features. First, it’s your gateway to eastern DRC, so you’ll pretty much have to go through here. Second, its location could be a lot worse: Lake Kivu on one side, and the Virunga volcanoes on the other. There’s even a beach, used equally for frolicking and laundry by the locals. Finally, everything that happens in eastern DRC – be it rebel uprisings, UN troop movements, NGO initiatives or tourism activities – either starts here or passes through at some point, making it a great place to spend a day or two to soak up the atmosphere and talk to the colourful foreigners and locals who frequent its restaurants and bars. Check out the first couple of chapter's of Ben Rawlence's book Radio Congo for an great account of what goes on here.
Coming face to face with the biggest of the great apes, and one of our closest relatives, is an experience very difficult to put into words, and despite the expense it’s worth every dollar. Choosing DRC over the more conventional gorilla destinations Rwanda and Uganda has both advantages and disadvantages. The two parks in eastern DRC where gorillas are found – mountain gorillas in Virunga, eastern lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega – are more off the beaten track than their cousins in Rwanda and Uganda, although still not more than a few hours drive from the border. Accommodation options are also more limited here, and you’ll be far off the beaten track. On the other hand, you might very well be alone with the gorillas, and unlike Uganda and Rwanda facemasks are mandatory – here, gorilla health and safety come first. Gorilla tracking in DRC not only offers the chance to see two separate species of wild gorillas but a few cute orphans, too: young, rescued mountain gorillas are kept at Senkwekwe at Virunga headquarters.
Most people – even those who have gorilla tracking on their bucket lists – have never heard of Kahuzi-Biega. It’s a real shame, because it’s a beautiful park. Most of it is closed to visitors due to security concerns, but the area around park headquarters is open and safe. This is the only place to get close and personal with eastern lowland gorillas, with terrain varying from thick forest to tea plantations. A nearby primate sanctuary houses chimpanzees and monkeys rescued from captivity, and is an interesting afternoon diversion. Park headquarters are a great place to watch the sun rise, and as this coincides with various ranger exercises and the raising of the Congolese flag, getting up early is well worth the effort. The park is accessed through Bukavu, a lively, messy town on the southern shores of Lake Kivu.
There are four active lava lakes in the world, and Congo has one of them. The majestic Mt Nyiragongo – one of the Virunga volcanoes – has to be one of the natural wonders of the region. From time to time – depending on the security situation as well as weather conditions – it is actually possible to hike up to the rim of the crater and overnight here, with a surreal view of the molten rock below. But even if that’s not possible, or if your fitness level isn't up to the challenge, the nocturnal view of the volcano from Virunga National Park headquarters is mesmerising, its glow and the stars lighting up the night sky.
A small and unassuming horseshoe-shaped island about 20 minutes from Goma, Tchegera is an outpost of Virunga National Park. Its main attraction is, quite frankly, the peace and quiet. Traveling in DRC is incredible, but often very tiring and chaotic, so getting away from the noise can be quite nice. If it's a clear evening, the views of the glowing Nyiragongo are incredible and unimpeded. There's a tented camp, run by the park, and a 15-20 minute walk which takes you along the ridge of the island, as well as opportunities to go kayaking or bird watching. Alternatively, just spread a towel on the grass and enjoy the sunshine...
Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park, Virunga is a true gem – albeit one with a violent recent history. Most of the park is still off-limits to tourists due to rebel activity and illegal charcoal burning, but its mountainous heart is once again open to visitors. The main drawcard here is the park’s mountain gorillas, although the recent habituation of a troop of chimpanzees is a great bonus, as is the glowing lava lake of Mt Nyiragongo. A visit to Virunga is not for the faint-hearted – the terrain is rough, the roads rougher, and this is unchartered territory for any form of mainstream tourism – but that is also part of its charm. Also worth a visit is Senkwekwe, a mountain gorilla orphanage at park headquarters, and its sad but beautiful twin graveyards: one for its murdered gorillas, the other for the rangers that gave their lives to protect them.