Welcome to my travel and photography blog! Feel free to comment any questions below or contact me if you'd like advice on going to the DRC :) Most of the pictures here are from iPhone, but if you want to see my pro photos, check out my Virunga Gallery.
Why the DRC?
At the ripe age of 15, I did a work placement for my school at WWF - UK. That’s when I heard about Virunga National Park for the first time. A few months later, they officially launched their campaign against Soco, a British company seeking to drill oil in the National Heritage site - which was completely prohibited by Congolese law.
At the time, Virunga was closed to tourism because of the M-23 rebellion and the civil war tearing the region apart. Yet, remarkably brave people remained and continued their incredible conservation work to support the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas, and protect the luxuriant Virunga forest.
4 years later, as a young conservationist completing her second year at university, and preparing an internship at The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, I thought it was the right time for me to visit Virunga. Things were more stable politically, although with Kabila cancelling the elections in the DRC -meant to take place on 21st August 2017 - I didn’t know if I’d have another opportunity.
I spent my Reading Week - that week where you’re supposed to work and do extra reading and do all of your essays - doing my research, emailing Virunga and different companies who could take me there and dreaming of gorillas and volcanoes.
I figured out a budget, stalked people on Instagram, tracked rare visitors down and made up my mind. I wanted to go.
By May I had everything I needed money-wise, and chose to go with Inspired Journeys. Initially wanting to organise everything through the Virunga website, I found it easier to go with a company which dealt with the logistics but handed me to the park as soon as the Rwandan-Congolese border was crossed. The best of both worlds. I had a car from Kigali to Gisenyi/Goma booked, Congolese visa payed for and the process eased, emergency evacuation included and someone to help me cross the border - I’d heard nightmare stories about that part.
Inspired Journeys were great all along. Small details which made me really happy about my choice - such as creating my personalised travel webpage with all details and itinerary, or providing me with a luggage tag and Cap upon arrival. Kind and efficient, as well as reassuring considering I was about to travel alone to one of Africa’s supposedly most unstable regions.
The work Emmanuel de Merode has been leading and achieving for the past 20 years is incredible. My time at Lewa helped me define my own ideas about wildlife conservation - led sustainable development, and helped place words on the direction I believe conservation should be taking. Working together, merging synergies, and doing it for the people. “Making conservation about people”.
When everything was booked, the realisation of where I was going in August hit me. I confess, I felt nervous and slightly terrified at the idea of venturing alone into the alleged Heart of Darkness. But still, I was excited.
Getting to Virunga National Park
Summer days went by quickly, my conservation internship at Lewa too (great experience, more about it here) and soon, it was time for me to fly out of Nairobi to Rwanda and repack my bags for an extraordinary adventure. I was a little nervous about Rwanda Air, mostly because they have a 10kg hand luggage policy and my camera gear weighed 12kg lol. Obviously couldn't put my lenses in hold, so I hid my camera in my jacket under a scarf as I boarded the plan and when checking my luggage. (The worst were Qatar and Emirates, with a lovely 7kg policy...perfect pre-travel additional stress).
Things to know for The Congo - no international flights are permitted to land in Goma, and driving from Kigali is simpler than flying in from Kinshasa.I’d booked an Airbnb (lovely house and hosts, would definitely recommend if you’re ever in Kigali) to be ready to roll early the next morning.
Also, I was dazzled by Kigali...beautiful clean and modern city, trendy restaurants and brunch areas - Shokola was by far my favourite place (above). I rediscovered the word "living" when I had my first freshly made passion fruit juice. This place was a on a whole new level of Brunch.
I can’t say I wasn’t slightly anxious that Monday morning when I woke up. Everyone I’d met who’d been to Virunga on the Congolese side had assured me it was one of the most beautiful places they'd ever seen, and their most intense experience yet. I was excited -so excited- but had simply no idea what to expect.
It was better that way. I was all the more amazed. You get to Gisenyi after 4 hours of driving through the Land of a Thousand Mountains, including past the Dian Fossey Memorial. A small lake-side town, so beautifully constructed, so clean and so modern.
Very representative of Rwanda, I found. Then you cross the border…and it’s delightfully hectic. People and chickens everywhere, sounds of construction noises, a lot of dust… and music. Inspired Journeys had someone ready to help me cross the border and ease the visa process. I’d been worrying for nothing. Everything went smoothly, and pretty fast too. After 15/20 mins, I had my visa and I was in the Virunga National Park 4x4. The officers at the border were all quite sweet, and curious to see a 20 year old French girl on her own with two bags and a camera around her neck.
We drove through Goma to pick up two armed rangers (both women, Virunga has 18 female rangers ) and then off we were for a 2hour and a half journey to Bukima Tented Camp, my first stop. The differences between Rwanda and the DRC were flagrant, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. In a sense, yes, Goma was ashen and hectic, but it was easily comparable to some parts of Nairobi.
It was actually so much more alive - loud African or reggaeton beats resounded through town, accompanied by the constant rhythm of honking cars and motorcycles. Smells of food rose into the atmosphere, and chukulus rolled bumpily on down the road. As we left Goma, the landscape turned into miles and miles of cultivated land. The pressure put on the land grew more and more apparent as we got closer to Virunga. Incredible to see that immediately behind the park boundaries were acres of potato, carrot, lettuce fields. The conflict between man and wildlife, and now with forest too, was more than evident.
Driving past Mt Nyriagongo was very humbling. Its high crater was puffing out white smoke which seemed so pure in contrast to the grey rainclouds announcing the usual thunderstorms.
The trip to Bukima, although beautiful, seemed so long. Perhaps it was my incredibly urgent need to go to the bathroom which had started well before I even crossed the border, worsened by the bumpy “road” (the tarmac abruptly ends a few kilometres out of Goma… “that’s when there was no money left for the road” tells me Oscar, my Virunga driver for this transfer). So it was a volcano attacked dirt road for most of the journey. A proper African massage. But in that particular instance, all I cared about was reaching the loo - and fast. I would have been more than happy to stop on the edge of a the “road”, but there were people -and fields- everywhere, so I decided to suck it in and wait.
Virunga National Park stop 1: Bukima Tented Camp
Finalllly we arrived. I reaaaalllly couldn't hold it any longer and rushed towards the camp manager to ask for the bathroom before we sat down and talked security/ insurance policy. After taking care of all the disclaimers (reassuring), I finally took it all in. Bukima was absolutely gorgeous. A simple camp, ideally placed - a few minutes from the Bukima control post - and overlooking the two volcanoes - Mt Mikeno and Mt Nyiragongo. I got my tripod out and started taking some long exposures. It was cloudy, and rainy, but still well worth it.
That’s when I met the other guests staying at Bukima. There were 4 of us in total, the others being a lovely American couple and their private guide, Ethan Kinsley. Coincidentally, Ethan also happens to be the co-founder of Inspired Journeys. They adopted me, sort of, and let me tag as they were doing the same circuit I was through Virunga. It was so interesting to gain insight from Ethan who had come to Virunga many times, and I think my experience was just so much richer than it would have been otherwise.
Also, for all the avocado lovers out there, the Democratic Republic of the Congo produces THE BEST ones I have ever, ever tasted. They’re very fragile and don’t travel well, so the only was to taste these exquisite gems is to come here. But my breakfast of fluffy French toast, with scrambled eggs and homemade guacamole made my day. With fresh fruit, of course.
Virunga National Park stop 2 : Mikeno Lodge
So Mikeno is an entirely different story. It’s located in Rumangabo, Virunga NP’s headquarters essentially. The station was the Park’s last standing structure during the Second Civil War in 2011.
We passed huge UN trucks (wasn’t clear what their exact purpose there seemed to be…many locals feel like they just sit around rather than actually working towards something. Interesting debates and discussions to be had!) on the hour long trip to Rumangabo.
Mikeno is an absolutely stunning place. Monkeys all over the trees, and built overlooking the entirety of the National Park. You can see the forest stretching out towards its northernmost sectors…there was a tranquil aura about it that contrasted with the bustling livelihoods bordering the Park (except maybe for the Congohounds yelping in the distance for food and love, and the natural forest sounds of course). My thoughts were mixed about this. A beautiful, mystic and elegant place, yet disconnected from the reality happening right outside its walls.
On the other hand, tourism is such an essential component to achieving VNP’s conservation objectives. For too long Virunga was a fortress-like protected area, completely excluding neighbouring livelihoods relying on charcoal, bushmeat, fishing and agriculture for food and income. Social justice and equity are inherently tied to human-wildlife (and environmental) conflicts simply and evidently because it was not in their interests to accept the Park’s boundaries. Tourism and private donors are what is slowly but surely driving the Virunga Alliance Plan to success. In a sense, this is completely on track with my position on sustainable development and environmental conservation: how interests and local actors MUST be taken into account to start envisioning conservation success stories.
So although I felt slightly uncomfortable (which strangely, never occurred to me in countries like Tanzania where some parts of the country are also pretty bad. Perhaps driving through highly encroached areas triggered it more in the DRC, as well as the imaginary tied to the country’s reputation and statistics…) with the idea of sleeping in a simple yet luxuriously spacious and comfortable cottage (there was a bathtub, running hot water, and a king size bed, a fireplace…elegantly and beautifully designed) and eating really delicious food.
I definitely don’t regret spending a night there though (the warm shower was mooore than welcomed, well needed after a muddy, sweaty and ant-ridden gorilla trek, just before Mt Nyiragongo).
As soon as we got there, I walked around, visiting the Senkwekwe Gorillas orphanage, excited at the idea of meeting André, who has dedicated his life to taking care of what he now considers to be his children. It’s not easy, seeing them in captivity and a small, caged enclosure (the three residents are always brought in after 4pm for the night), where they bang themselves against the bars, squeezing their arms through the bars and reaching out towards you. But then again, they wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild. They have a second chance here, as ambassadors and carefully looked after by a man who loves them dearly.
I then moved on to check out the Congohounds. These guys are the elite poacher tracking team, used for patrols and securing areas, or looking for animal carcasses. It was just before their feeding time, which was blatantly obvious. They were patrolling around their enclosure, coming up to me with begging eyes before realising I had no food.
I was lucky to meet Julie, Virunga’s tourism manager, introduced to me by Ethan who knew everyone there. We chatted well into the night around a fire in the main area and with a bit of wine, talking politics and education.
All of them seemed a little worried in regards to the uncertainty of the looming constitutional obligation for Kabila to resign by 31st Dec 2017. Sadly, despite a seemingly more peaceful situation around the Southern Sector (Virunga is cut in Southern, Central and Northern, I was in Southern), the Park is home to various conflict groups, rebels and militias, whose most impacting activities towards VNP are driving insecurity, illegal logging for timber, and poaching. But I’m hopeful, and I believe in the work Virunga is doing. The amount of development generated by the park is incredible, and a real key towards peace building.
I must stress however, that I never once felt threatened or in danger. I was accompanied at all time, by at least 2 rangers in any activity I undertook.
Oh and also I had a little visitor at night. There I was, enjoying my huge bed space, trying to fall asleep when I felt one of my pillows move slightly, as if something was treading on it lightly, followed by a small bustling noise. I reached for my phone and turned the torch on…to see a frightened dormouse climbing up the curtain above the bed, and then disappear in the thatched roof. Cute.
Nyiragongo was a fantastic experience (most scenic hike ever, more so than Kilimanjaro), if you’d like to read about it, and what I recommend you do to prepare for it, you can read my upcoming blog post!
Virunga has had a special place in my heart for a long time, and visiting a place doing so much for the people surrounding the park was crucial to me. I wanted to see for my own eyes how a haven of security and development had emerged in a country torn by violence, injustice and corruption. De Merode’s thorough understanding of the different levels of justice and rights to the land fascinated me.
Today, the 4 million people based around the park, who live with less than a dollar a day have a reason to stop illegal logging for firewood and coal. They have a reason to stop killing gorillas. They have a reason to stop ambushing rangers. Incredibly, beautifully, it seems to be working in the Southern Sector, potentially even in the Central Sector of the Park as well.
The Congolese I met were welcoming, warm, life-loving people, who had music and rhythm, in their blood. Thank you for your patience and constant good humour !