In February 2018, the Singita Grumeti Fund senior management team embarked on our annual weeklong teambuilding excursion to the iconic Virunga National Park (www.virunganationalparkcongo.com) in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The Virunga National Park, formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800 km² national park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north. Located in the southeast of the country, close to the UN stronghold of Goma, Virunga is as scenically spectacular as it is cursed.
An estimated 130 guerrilla armies and rebel militias roam the forests in and around the protected area and wreck havoc and lawlessness upon this beleaguered national park. This renowned biodiversity hotspot has 800 well-trained and dedicated rangers to defend it, but they are up against an estimated 2,000 heavily armed guerrilla fighters. Sadly, it is the local people and wildlife that bear the brunt of this never-ending armed conflict and the on-going insurgency. Yet, somehow, through all the fighting, civil unrest, shifting insecurity and corruption, Virunga has managed to endure under the most challenging of circumstances.
Despite its unenviable location, Virunga is undoubtedly the DRC’s premier tourist drawcard. The magnificent national park offers a wide range of attractions, tourist activities and exciting conservation projects. We went to Virunga (https://visitvirunga.org) to immerse ourselves in everything on offer; and we wanted to learn from our conservation counterparts.
While Virunga tourism focuses primarily on the multiple groups of habituated mountain gorillas within the park, we also hiked in search of semi-habituated chimpanzees, visited the Congo Hounds canine project, met the incredible women from the widows cooperative (over one hundred ranger wives have been widowed in the continuing conflict), had a special tour of the extraordinary Virunga hydroelectric program, and undertook the magnificent hike to the top of the active Nyiragongo volcano.
We started off basing ourselves at Rumangabo – the national park headquarters – where we stayed at beautiful Mikeno Lodge. This base afforded our team easy access to a detection and tracking demonstration by the Congo Hounds; the opportunity to go chimpanzee trekking; visit the Rumangabo gorilla orphanage, engage with the widows cooperative that ensures a sustainable income for the wives and families of deceased rangers; and the chance to take a full-day trip to see the unbelievably high tech and impressive Virunga hydroelectric operations.
From Mikeno, we made our way to Bukima Tented Camp: a rustic, mid-range camp that used to be the exclusive domain of gorilla researches. While it lacks the class and refinement of Mikeno, it is ideally situated for gorilla trekking excursions and exploratory hikes into the local lava tunnels.
Setting off early, a solid uphill forest hike culminated in our trackers locating the gorilla group and we enjoyed an amazing hour sat amongst a family of our close relatives watching them feed, groom, fight, play and dose. They interacted as if we weren’t even there; only a few of the youngsters showed interest in tormenting and playing with us: undoing shoe laces and sneaking up behind people to give them a fright. They were so human in their behaviour and interactions and it was an hour that will never be forgotten.
We then headed to the recently opened Kibumba Tented Camp where we could enjoy a night-time view of the fiery glow emanating from Nyarigongo Volcano and the goal for our next adventure. Next day we drove to the trailhead and collected our guides, porters and rangers for the long uphill slog to the ultra-basic A-frame Nyiragongo summit shelters. The five-hour trek to the top is tough and rewarding in equal measure. The volcano trekking experience and overnighting on the crater rim above an angry, molten lava lake rivals gorilla trekking for the accolade of ‘ultimate African safari bucket list experience’.
Sitting on the crater rim with legs dangling over the edge and staring down into the explosive lava lake inside the crater cauldren was an experience like nothing I’d ever witnessed before. Perched atop an active volcano high above the city of Goma watching the lava swirl, boil and bubble below with plumes of smoke and steam rising high into the night sky was a mesmerizing and hypnotic experience. I sat there long after the icy wind had driven everyone else to bed and it was only with great reluctance that I eventually tore myself away and retreated to the shelter for some rest.
Descending from Nyiragongo the next day, we made our way back to Goma and the lake where a boat was on standby to whisk us away to Tchegera Island Camp for some well-deserved R&R. The time at Tchegera also gave us an opportunity to reflect on an incredible visit to Africa’s most diverse, hauntingly beautiful and undiscovered safari gem – Virunga.
Unfortunately, on 11th May 2018 – just a couple of months after our visit – a Virunga tourism vehicle was ambushed, a ranger was killed in the contact, and two British tourists were abducted for ransom. Although they were later released, along with their injured driver, Emmanuel de Merode, Chief Warden of Virunga National Park, made the difficult decision to shut down all tourism operations for the remainder of 2018 to enable the ICCN team to audit and improve their security protocols and procedures. I sincerely hope that the park will be open for business again soon, because it offers one of the most genuine, varied and spectacular safari experiences in all of Africa.