Of all my travels around the world, trekking to find the Gorillas deep in the jungle of the Bwindi National Park in Uganda was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. Words can’t describe the feelings you get when you come up and close with these gentle giants, whom we share 98% of our DNA with. I always told myself I had to do it again someday, and that day is now! The Democratic Republic of Congo (The DRC) has the largest population of gorillas in the world and I spent a few days in this beautiful country to once again, trek to the gorillas.
The Virunga National Park is the most popular park in the DRC for gorillas. They are known for its large population of mountain gorillas and the beautiful Nyiragongo volcano. However, as I had already trekked with the mountain gorillas in Uganda, I decided to visit another breed of gorillas, specifically the Eastern Lowland Gorillas which reside solely in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the south Kivu province. This post goes into how I planned my trek, organized my visa/permits, and the trek itself! Unforgettable experience.
Why gorilla trek in the DRC?
The first question most people had for me is why would I ever want to go to the DRC? Eastern DRC is known for its seemingly endless militia violence and outbreaks of Ebola. Perhaps not the first place most people had in mind when it comes to gorilla trekking. This is why Rwanda and Uganda are infinitely more popular.
I’m not saying that the DRC does not have its problems because there’s probably few places in the world that have seen more angst and despair than this country. It’s a country with so much potential but terrible corruption and exploitation has resulted in generations of suffering. However, all the negative media coverage is completely blown out of proportion. The Kahuzi Biega National Park in particular, is completely open for business and I had not a single issue while visiting.
Is the DRC safe to visit?
As a tourist, I did plenty of research beforehand and learned that most of the militia violence happens in the Virunga National Park area and that the Kahuzi-Biega does not see the same problems. Also, from reading whatever I could find online, people highly recommend Bukavu, which is the gateway city to the Kahuzi over Goma, the gateway city to the Virunga. Bukavu was not a beautiful town by any means but it is right on lake Kivu and the views are indeed beautiful.
To sum it up, I felt completely safe on my trip to the Congo. The DRC definitely faces an extensive list of issues, but as a tourist visiting the country for gorilla trekking, I had nothing but a positive experience. I wish I had stayed another night or two as I feel like 3 days was not enough to really get a feel for anything besides visiting the gorillas.
Cost of Gorilla trekking
In addition, gorilla trekking is the cheapest in the DRC. Uganda charges $600, Rwanda charges an outrageous $1,500 for the exact same experience, and finally the DRC is only $400. I think this is just because the DRC is seen as less safe or popular than the other two countries.
This means that you can expect to have few hiking companions and in our case, we were the only two people on the hike! Compared my Uganda gorilla trek which was 8 people, the feeling of being next to the gorillas ourselves was nothing short of amazing. More on that later.
How to prepare for a gorilla trek in Africa
Gorilla trekking is the real deal. You need to be prepared for the day and you need to pack certain things as it can last for 1 hour or 8 hours. You also want to wear the right clothes as trekking through the jungle during a storm can be unforgiving.
The hikes function in exactly the same way in all three of these countries in that the price only includes your entry to the park and a guided tour with rangers. The prices are just different depending on the demand (with Rwanda clearly being the highest).
I cover all the details of how to pack and prepare for a gorilla trek in my previous post while trekking in Uganda. Make sure to read that post as well to know how to prepare yourself.
Way more of an unique experience
I hiked with the mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest many years back. I have fond memories of that experience but I must say that the Congo is something else. It is much more of a rustic and “authentic” African experience if you want to call it that. No one visits the DRC which is a huge shame really because they could use the tourism dollars and the experience is unlike anything else. Because of this, the two of us were the sole trekkers on this day. This means the time we had with the gorillas was all to ourselves. No need to worry about other obnoxious tourists with their cameras chasing away the gorillas.
In Uganda and Rwanda, you will always have 8 people on your hike and you’ll need to book your gorilla permits months in advance to secure a spot. In fact, we signed the park’s guestbook after our hike and the previous hikers from Germany had come a week before us.
Mountain Gorillas vs Eastern Lowland Gorillas
Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as the Grauers gorilla, is a different species compared to their Mountain gorilla cousins. Primarily, the lowland gorillas are larger in size, have a pointier head, and the groups are led by a single Silverback gorillas as opposed to multiple silverbacks in a Mountain gorilla family.
Mountain gorillas are the most popular gorillas to trek with. They are located in the Bwindi National park in Uganda, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and the Virunga National Park in the Congo. As you can imagine by the name, mountain gorillas reside in the jungles high up in the mountains. Lowland gorillas prefer a more flat terrain which is what you’ll find at the Kahuzi-Biega. I didn’t even know there was another type of gorilla, let alone being able to trek to them, until I read a very random blog post a few months back.
Eastern lowland gorillas are not to be confused with the much more abundant Western lowland gorillas that live in forests in the DRC that border Cameroon. Western lowland gorillas are smaller in size. Western lowland gorillas are also the primary gorillas that reside in zoos. Their Eastern cousins are critically endangered and only live in the Kahuzi National Park.
Getting to the Kahuzi National Park
Getting to the Congo and to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a bit of a journey, however much less involved than I had originally planned.
For most people, you’ll fly into Kigali International Airport which is home to flights from all over Europe and Africa. Kigali is really the hub for all gorilla treks nearby (Virunga, Volcanoes, and even the Bwindi can be accessed by Kigali).
Western tourists will have to pay $30 for a single entry visa into Rwanda. Kigali is an amazing city to visit and totally worth a day or two. Make sure to read my travel itinerary for Kigali if you’re planning on one of these gorilla treks!
Flying from Kigali to Cyangugu
The flight from Kigali to the border with the DRC is by far the quickest option. It is less than 30 minutes as compared to the bus that is almost 7 hours. The price is roughly $100 USD for a one way flight. I took this flight on my way back to Kigali just because I didn’t feel like dealing with another 6 hour bus after staying in the Congo for so long. You’ll also be rewarded with some spectacular views from above.
Bus from Kigali to the border
The bus leaves from Kigali multiple times a day from the main bus station. The bus is around 6,000 RWF ($6 USD). This is the method I decided to go with as I wanted to see the Rwandan countryside.
The roads in Rwanda are pristine so it was nothing like my previous overland journeys around Africa where potholes are the norm. Rwanda really has invested in their infrastructure and the bus ride, although not super comfortable, was totally doable. There are two bus companies that make this route, Alpha and Volcano. I went with Volcano as they have bigger and more spacious buses.
We just arrived at the Kigali bus station 20 minutes before departure and bought the tickets on the spot. There were plenty of people there that ask you where you want to go. No need to prebook anything
The Rwandan countryside
The views of the Rwandan landscape is beautiful especially as we passed through the Nyungwe Forest National Park. The 7 hour bus ride passed by quicker than expected even with the few stops we took to have lunch (which consisted of delicious goat kebabs). However, as I traveled in the rainy season, the weather was gloomy and foggy so I couldn’t see the landscape as much as I’d like. If I had to do it again, I’d probably just take the flight.
Arriving at the Rwanda-DRC Border
The bus will drop you right at the Rwanda-DRC border where you can continue on by foot. You’ll first need to exit the Rwandan side of the border. This was relatively straight forward and quick. After we got our exit stamps, we walked across a bridge with fantastic views of Lake Kivu to the DRC side.
We had to wash our hands and get our temperatures checked for Ebola (which would happen numerous times in the Congo) before heading to the immigration office. For the ebola checks, we were required to wash our hands with bleach water and then someone would take our temperatures with a hand held machine. Watch the video below!
There was an office for international visitors and as you can imagine, there were no others so we had VIP treatment of sorts.
Our immigration official was very nice and the process took just 15 minutes or so. We didn’t even have to show a yellow fever certificate (even though this is supposedly required). The immigration official was very happy that we decided to visit the Congo as you could imagine sees very few tourists because of all the negative stereotypes of the country. More details on how to get this visa later.
Entering the DRC
After we crossed the border, we were finally in the Congo! Life goal accomplished. Bukavu is the Congolese town right on the border and where we would stay for the next few nights as we prepared for the trek.
The first and most immediate thing you’ll notice is the absolutely crazy stark contrast between the two countries. Rwanda has immaculate roads that rival most roads in the developed world and everything is clean and orderly. The Congo has perhaps the worst roads I’ve ever seen, and by roads I mean they’re not roads but just dirt paths. There are hardly any paved roads in Bukavu at all. Reminded me a bit of the Taba to Eilat contrast when I crossed into Israel from Egypt.
To amplify the effect, it had rained most of the day and the “roads” were turned into mud and slush which really upped the wow factor when comparing the two places. Here is a video of the action.
I walked a few hundred meters into the city trying to find a taxi but there are no official taxis to speak of. I started walking with two guys on the street (thank god I can speak French), and they helped me flag down a random dude with a car and said he will take you to your lodge. I didn’t have any Congolese Francs on me but the guy was okay with Rwandan francs and only charged us 2000 RWF (~$2) to take us to our lodge which was much less than the $15 I had been quoted by our lodge.
Staying at the Lodge Coco in Bukavu
We spent our time at the Lodge Coco which is run by a Swiss guy named Carlos Schuler. He is a bit of a legend in the area as his father in law (a Belgian guy named Adrien Deschryver) started the Kahuzi Biega National Park in the 1970s. He was the first person to habituate gorillas in the wild. Carlos did extensive work at the park with the gorillas and you can see from the countless photos in the lodge.
The lodge itself is much nicer than I had expected to find in such a non-tourist centric city in Bukavu. The rooms were spacious, clean, and had working toilets and showers. The restaurant was also quite tasty as they have a wood fired oven for pizzas. Don’t expect cheap prices in the Congo if you want any sort of Western standard. We paid $150 a night for a double room and the food was about $10-$20 per dish.
Coco lodge is a bit of a gathering place for all the expats that work at the nearby UN, NGOs, and mining companies. I spent plenty of time talking with Carlos and other folks who also had very interesting stories. It was absolutely fascinating to talk to Carlos as he’s lived in the Congo most of his life. I had endless amounts of questions trying to learn about the Congo and its dark history. I could have spent hours talking to him.
I also met another American guy who founded Upright Africa, an NGO that is doing surgery for local citizens. His story was also fascinating as he’s lived in the Congo since 2015 going to different villages and treating people. We talked for hours on end about his experiences in the Congo and what is happening in the country. Again, just a fascinating individual to talk to.
Unlike most trips people take to Africa where they go to a safari in Kenya to a nice beach in Tanzania, or visiting Cape Town before calling a day, there are some real and everlasting issues in the Congo. Probably why you won’t see Conde Nast’s Instagram highlighting this country any time soon.
Gorilla Trekking in the Kahuzi Biega National Park
And at long last, time to actually talk about the experience of Gorilla trekking to see the Eastern lowland gorillas!
We had an early wake up just like when I was in the Bwindi with breakfast around 6am. Carlos had organized a driver to take us to and from the park for $80.
Driving to the Kahuzi Biega
The drive to the Kahuzi Biega warrants a blog post in itself. I thought the roads in Bukavu were bad but as we exited the city, we passed through the countryside and more remote villages. The rain from the previous days and made whatever dirt trails that existed into mud trails. It was quite an experience watching our driver manuever his way up the mud.
We drove through remote villages where they clearly were not used to seeing foreigners. The amount of stares I received were incredible. Every villager; man, woman, child, stared at us like we were aliens. Stares of outright curiosity and what two “muzungos” would want to do in their village. I’ve traveled extensively around Africa and are used to these stares but the Congo was at another level.
Everyone was staring at our car. Literally EVERYONE.
What do you do when everyone stares at you like aliens? Wave endlessly. We waived at everyone, especially the little kids who sometimes ran after our car. My arms were tired at the end as I had just waived and given thumbs up signs with no end. People all waived back and smiled at us. To be honest, just the journey to the park was more memorable than many other trips I’ve done.
Arriving at the Park
After arriving at the park about 1.5 hours after departing from Bukavu, we were greeted by the head ranger and tourism manager. We waited around a bit for people to get ready as they were having some ranger training exercises when we arrived.
No one was in a rush especially as we were the only two people trekking that day. We walked around the camp and turns out they have lodges that you can stay in as well which I had no idea. Definitely something to do for the next visit!
Eventually, the head ranger came in to give a briefing explaining to us the history of the park, the Eastern lowland gorillas, what to expect with the hike, and how to behave. These are all similar to the briefings I had before my trek in Uganda.
After our briefing, we loaded up onto a truck and drove into the park. The roads here were equally as challenging but I opted to stand in the trunk and watch the scenery around me making for a lovely experience.
Trekking to the Bonane family
There are 9 habituated gorilla families in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. On this day, they chose the Bonuboo family for our trek. The silverback in this family is the son of the famous Chimanuka silverback. Chimanuka is the oldest and largest of the silverbacks in the forest. He has a huge family of 20+ gorillas.
Like gorilla trekking in all the national parks, rangers will look for the gorillas early in the morning and locate them before we embarked on our trek.
Trekking for the Eastern Lowland gorillas
The day began with a drive in a 4×4 truck. We drove through very tight muddy roads making it feel like we were in Jurassic Park or something. After 20 minutes driving in the truck, we finally reached our starting point!
I was super excited to start the trek. Immediately, it brought back memories of looking for the gorillas in the Bwindi National Park. Although not as high in elevation, the Kahuzi Biega National Park is considerably more dense than the Bwindi. As soon as we started walking into the park, our rangers had to start clearing a path with their machetes.
Compared to the Bwindi, it was way more dense in the Kahuzi-Biega and I really felt like I was trekking through thick jungle. The experience was wild.
First sighting of the gorillas
After roughly one hour of trekking through the jungle, we were finally greeted by the first gorilla sighting! We stumbled right upon the family relaxing under the cloudy sky. Bonane’s family consists of 4 females and 3 babies. One of his babies was just born. The experience really brought back super happy memories of my last gorilla trek in the Bwindi and the adrenaline was on to snap as many photos as possible.
I think we must have startled them initially as the family quickly picked up and started walking away. We followed them to the trees where they quickly climbed the trees and started having lunch. At this point, we couldn’t really see them through the dense trees. We sat down and waited for them to finish eating as the rangers told us they would come down after they’d finish eating.
The next 30 minutes consisted of us waiting and watching whatever angle we could find. They didn’t seem to be in a rush just chowing and farting. Finally, they were done eating and they slowly made their way down the tree.
A mother and her child gorilla
The first up was one of the females with a newborn baby. She came down slowly and walked a few meters to another bush where she proceeded to showcase as much love as possible to her child. We got very close to her and her baby and they didn’t seem to mind at all. She spent many minutes hugging and kissing the baby to death. It was so human-like that I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Absolutely adorable.
And more pictures because this is too adorable not to.
Bonane, the Silverback
Eventually, Bonane made his way down the tree. He’s a big boy and seemed to be quite used to humans. We were only a few meters from him coming down the tree. He looked at me as he was coming down, pooped, and didn’t seem at all impressed by us! The three other females followed suit with their babies. This was the highlight of our trekking for sure.
And a video of the Silverback here.
We thought this was the end of it but then we heard some more gorilla screams in the distance and 3 new gorillas appear about 50 meters away from us. The rangers got really excited and said another family was nearby. There would be a chance that Bonane and the silverback of the other family could fight!
Eastern lowland gorillas primarily fight for territory and females and we could be seeing some of this happen! Some of the rangers ran off to survey the scene and we waited, watching Bonane and his females waiting for something to happen.
In the end, the fight never happened and the family walked away to another tree to resume their daily life. All in all, what an incredible experience. Words can only do so much to describe an encounter with gorillas and my mental thesaurus is lacking. Here are many many videos and pictures to let you know what to expect!
After our epic experience, we hiked the hour back and was back at the campsite by around 2pm. Our driver was waiting for us and we drove back to Bukavu while stopping to take many amazing photos of the Congolese scenery. We arrived back at Lodge Coco around 4pm.
Organizing Gorilla Permits and DRC Visa
Like gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda, you must pre-arrange your gorilla trek permits in advance. You cannot just show up to the park the day of. In Rwanda and Uganda, it is so popular you need to buy these permits well in advance.
The Kahuzi Biega and the Virunga National parks in the DRC are far far less touristy so you won’t have a problem getting permits but you still need to do it in advance. For the Kahuzi Biega, there was almost no information online of how to properly book this, and almost no travel agencies to speak of in Rwanda or in the DRC.
I tried numerous emails that were never answered because the wrong information was put online! I ended up Twitter messaging a lady named Gloria who manages the park and finally getting the right information. I’ll save you the trouble. Simply email Info@Kahuzi-Biega.org with your planned dates.
Getting a visa for the DRC
Unlike Rwanda and Uganda where you can pay in cash upon arrival, you’ll need to organize your visa in advance. It used to be much more difficult but I’m here to say that as of 2020, the entry process is quite straight forward. The Kahuzi Biega National park will send you an invitation letter (The Virunga National Park will do the same thing). Simply bring this letter with you to the immigration office in the DRC, along with $100 USD in cash and they’ll give you a tourist visa for 14 days.
Note that this visa is specifically for the North/South Kivu areas for people that want to visit the Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National parks. You cannot take a flight to Kinshaasa for example.
Total cost for the trip
Gorilla trekking in the Congo is not only an unforgettable experience but it will be the most kind to your wallet. Here is a breakdown of all the money we spent for two people hiking, exclusive of international flights in USD.
- $13 – One way Bus ticket from Kigali to the DRC/Rwanda Border ($6.5 per person)
- $200 – DRC Visa ($100 per person)
- $2 – Taxi from the DRC border to the guesthouse
- $300 – Two nights at the Coco lodge in Bukavu, DRC ($125 per night if you’re a solo traveler)
- $800 – Two gorilla permits ($400 per person)
- $80 – Full day driver to take us to the Kahuzi Biega National Park
- $100 – Tips for the park rangers ($50 per person)
- $150 – Meals and drinks for two days for two people ($75 per person)
- $60 – Two Rwandan visas for when we returned to Rwanda ($30 per person)
- $200 – One way Cyangugu to Kigali flights ($100 per person)
- $1,900 – Total price for everything for two people
- $1,100 – Total price for one person if you’re a solo traveler
As you can see, the price for two people including EVERYTHING is not much more than just the gorilla permit itself in Rwanda. Keep in mind in Rwanda, you’ll have to also pay for your transport to the Volcanoes National Park, ranger tips, accommodations etc.
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