Updated: Oct 17
In the depths of my soul-stirring wanderlust, I found myself irresistibly drawn to a destination shrouded in complexity and enigma. It has been known for too long as the ‘heart of darkness’, but it rewards intrepid travellers with beautiful people and some of the continent’s most exciting trekking.
My second adventure of August, 2023 was a solo trip to Rwanda & Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of my trips are chosen because they are unusual, a break from the bubble of everyday life. These trips go that little bit further in their quest to stand out from the rest. They are chosen after much deliberation.
In this ultimate blog for Gorilla Trekking in DRC via Rwanda, you will find lots of practical information as well as he realities of traveling here as I take you through my moving journey in this complex country that will set any intrepid traveler’s heart of fire.
Day 1 Land in Kigali, Rwanda. Explore Kigali
Day 2 Drive to Nyungwe, stay in border town Day 3 Cross border to Congo. Gorilla Trekking Day 4 Tchegera Island Day 5 Goma, visit refugees and orphanages Day 6 Cross border from Goma back to Rwanda, straight to airport
TABLE OF CONTENTS
FLIGHTS + VISA
The easiest way to is to fly directly to Kigali and then cross the border to Congo.
Unlike the other, more touristy countries in this part of the continent, visa for Indian passport holders takes some work in Congo. If you are going specifically for the gorilla trekking in Kahuzi Biega then you can get one issued for $100 with an invitation letter from a local agency. If you plan to head to other parts of DRC, then you have to apply for an embassy visa, that costs around $200 per person and may take much longer.
In Rwanda, I found that almost everyone speaks English in the shops and restaurants. in DRC, less so; people speak only French. If you don't speak it, always have google translate handy.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The dry season runs from June to September and December to February. If you are interested in doing the Gorilla Trekking, this is the best time to visit.
Most places in Rwanda accept card, so you won't need to carry much Rwandan Franc.
In Congo, it is best to carry Congolese Franc. Dollar bills smaller than 5 are not accepted anywhere.
HOW LONG TO SPEND IN RWANDA AND DR CONGO If your intention is do the Gorilla Trek, I would say 6-7 days will give you easy access to the relatively safe areas. If you have more time and the right documents, then there is a lot more areas to cover in DRC.
WHERE I STAYED
Since I was alone, I didn't want to spend too much on fancy hotels. I stuck with the backpacker style lodges and it works fine if you are on a budget.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN RWANDA
In Rwanda, I higly recommend hiring a car as it is very safe and the roads are well-maintained. If like me, you don't drive, then I suggest hiring a trustworthy driver to take you around. I contacted Francois (whatsapp on +250 783 752 526)
COSTS + LOCAL GUIDE FOR DRC
For the DRC leg, I went with Romuald from Ubuntu Voyages. He worked with the budget I had in mind, was professional, had good local connections, and was very flexible.
A trip to Africa is never cheap. Expect to pay upwards of $1500 for the most basic backpacker hostel-style accommodation - the cost for the gorilla permits + letter for the visa are included in this cost. If you want to stay in better lodges, then the cost will quickly double.
SOLO TRAVEL + SAFETY
DRC isn’t your mainstream tourist destination. There is always a risk, so going with a good local guide with connections is highly recommended. It is also the best way to experience this country. As is the case in most of off beat Africa, this is also an expensive place for solo trips but going with a guide definitely keeps that element of inherent risk in check.
GORILLA TREKKING PERMITS
This was the main reason I went. This is my second time seeing them after Uganda. The permits are cheapest here at $400 per person.
For tips on what to pack and how to prep for an intense Gorilla Trek, you can read my extensive blog post on Uganda.
Hang out in the different cafes and enjoy delicious roasted coffee.
Genocide Museum: to understand the dark history of Rwanda
Nyamirambo Women’s Center - an NGO for Rwandese women in the community. You can join a cooking, sewing or basket weaving class and support their cause. I weaved myself a earring. 🏽
A visit to Hotel Rwanda, the exact location where the movie was filmed.
One of the most enchanting activities is the immersive canopy walk, where you'll find yourself suspended above the lush rainforest floor, surrounded by a symphony of bird calls and the occasional rustling of primates - but there is a cost of $100 per person plus $40 entry to the park. I skipped this and did a free tour of the beautiful tea estates in the area - a good chance to meet the friendly locals.
For the intrepid hiker, there are pristine trails that lead to hidden waterfalls, each step an opportunity to connect with nature. If you are not venturing onwards to Uganda or Congo, then Nyungwe is also renowned for its diverse primate population, including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys, making it a prime destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
Kahuzi Biega, Gorilla Trekking
I have now had the privilege of experiencing this ethical wildlife encounter twice and I couldn’t recommend it enough! 🥲
Venturing into the dense Congolese jungles to meet the mountain gorillas is something I have been manifesting for two years. The hike was arduous, but as soon as I encountered these gentle giants, my physical discomfort faded away. Their eyes, so full of wisdom and understanding, looked straight into my soul, forging an inexplicable connection. This hour long encounter will make you believe in the magic of the universe and all its creatures.
Just like our hike in Uganda’s Impenetrable forest, my trek to find the endemic Eastern Lowland gorillas in Congo was an arduous one. The path was at times steep and unforgiving… but as soon as I encountered these gentle giants, my physical discomfort faded away. In their presence, I felt a profound respect for the delicate balance of nature, and I understood the urgency of protecting these near endangered creatures. Yet, my joy was tinged with sorrow as I realized the threats these magnificent beings faced. Poaching, habitat destruction, and political instability loomed large, challenging the very existence of these gorillas. My heart ached, knowing that their survival hung in the balance, and I vowed to share their plight with the world, hoping to ignite a spark of conservation in the hearts of others. So go, to help protect their sanctuary!
Permits: the tracking permits cost $400 in DRC and have to be secured ahead of time. Best to have a local agency sort it our for you, to save time.
Rules: you have to maintain a distance of 7-10 meters, remain absolutely silent, masks are mandatory, don’t make sudden movements if they approach you. Remain calm. The rangers are there to guide you. Remember you are in their home, there to observe and leave in peace. This is an incredible privilege, respect it.
Apart from Gorilla trekking, one of the most beautiful experiences to have in DRC is taking a boat to head to Tchegera Island, an oasis of serenity amidst the tumultuous present of Congo.
Its pristine turquoise waters offer solace and a sense of tranquility that is hard to come by in the mainland's chaos. I marveled at the untouched beauty of nature, and for a moment, the worries of the outside world seemed distant. This is the only part of Virunga National Park that is now open to public, so it’s the only way you can see the gorgeous volcanic Mount Nyiragongo. Unfortunately, if you want to hike it, you will have to wait for the war to stop.
To get to Goma, you need to take a speed boat (costs $40) from the border town to Bukavu. The journey takes 3 hours. I started at 6 a.m. and this was the breathtaking sky at the port.
The rebels are fighting not 100 kms from where I stayed. It’s a city all government advises against all but essential travel to, and it felt just as safe as anywhere else I’d visited in turbulent Africa. Music rang out from car stereos, scooters weaved in and out of traffic, women shopped at markets, and kids pushed overpacked chukudus down the streets. I wasn’t scared, I thought I would feel scared.. but Goma felt normal.
Violence is temporary and overpowering, but in the fine details, and the long run, always loses in the face of daily life. Danger isn’t an ever-present thing. Things are ok and then suddenly, they aren’t. The will of a community for stability is what stuck with me. People so helpful and ready with a smile and a bonjour madame. The human need to create a sense of “normal”
What is it like traveling in a country like Democratic Republic of Congo? It will be an unfiltered raw adventure that will make you unbelievably happy and then make you shed a few tears.
I leave not just with memories of awe-inspiring encounters but a profound understanding of the intricacies of life and the land that embodies them.
Family warned me when I told them about my plans. “Ebola”, followed later by “Crazy, you cannot go alone to the land of rebels”. Hubs had guerrillas on his mind. Me? All I could think about was gorillas, dark roasted coffee, undiluted nature and the raw authentic energy of Africa.I thought about the smell of the earth and endless rolling hills. I pictured the most intense wildlife encounters, the smell of morning ocean, the gut wrenching stories of displaced refugees and orphans.
I covered just a small part of this huge Central African country but I learnt that this is a place where beauty and challenges coexist. If you’re feeling inspired by the thought of a destination that is less than ordinary, I am here to tell you more about DRC and why, in-spite of what you hear in the media, you should give it a chance.
Thanks for reading. Leave your questions and comments below.
Lots of love,
To explore more destinations, be sure to check out other blogs for additional insights.