Wednesday, May 23, 2018

My trip to Nyiragongo volcano and Virunga National Park


I travelled to Virunga National Park on 18th February 2018, after postponing this program for so long due to recurrent insecurity in the area. I was so happy that finally from 2016 the situation has improved. Today Virunga is a safer destination.
            The first surprise is the border post between Gisenyi (Rwanda) and Goma (Congo). A huge, modern building, almost as big as an airport, which makes it bigger than any other border post I saw in Uganda and Rwanda. Arriving in Goma, the capital city of North Kivu, the impression is of an organized town, with a lot of constructions going on, nice gardens and good roads, the sign of a fervid, prosperous season.
           
Dining hall at Kibumba Lodge
My journey continues out of town in the direction of Virunga National Park. Few minutes after the road is already murram, in bad conditions and so I understand the need of using a strong land rover for the transfer. The first destination is Kibumba Lodge, located at 2200 meters, at the foothills of Mikeno volcano. From here you can enjoy the first amazing panorama of the Rift Valley in front of you, just before the Lake Kivu, while behind the Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes. The lodge has a number of self contained tents, simple but elegant in the furniture, with veranda. Hot water and electricity are guaranteed by the hydroelectric project of the park. The best part of the lodge is the main hall and dining areas, with two nice fire places - considering that in the night the temperature goes down below 10 degrees. The quality of the food and service is outstanding, really remarkable in terms of variety, fresh vegetables, presentation. The lodge manager was also making sure that everyone was well served and making plans for the following day programs.
Nyakamwe silverback gorilla
            On 19th February was the day of my gorilla trekking. After early morning breakfast, the vehicle came to pick me to proceed to Bukima eco-tourist site, the major “hub” for gorilla activities. Indeed here are found four out of eight gorilla families open for tourism in the Park. With about 300 gorillas living in the park, the total belonging to habituated groups is 120. I trekked the Nyakamwe family of twelve members, named after the silverback now 22 years old. There are two babies of 1 and 2 years of age. After following the electric wire of the boundaries among farmland of maize, beans and bananas for about one hour, we entered in a group of six the tropical forest. We were told in the briefing that these gorillas are very calm and peaceful. Indeed, based on my previous experience in Bwindi, I definitely noticed that the gorillas we encountered were so calm, observing us at every moment and at the same time keeping playing, eating and carrying on with their life. There was a female seating in peace observing all of us one by one with curiosity, which helped us to make videos and photographs.
Internal cottages at Mikeno Lodge
After the trekking, I travelled to Mikeno Lodge. Located amidst thick forest, the lodge enjoys the most amazing panoramic view over the Rift Valley. The grass thatched big restaurant is impressive. The cottages, scattered in the forest, are spacious with an ensuite huge bathroom, with a fire place and sitting area.  I could appreciate the best selection of food, especially fruits and vegetables, which later on I discovered are organically cultivated from the lodge gardens.
Semkwekew Orphanage with the antelope and baby gorilla
In Mikeno you really have the feeling of what is Virunga National Park in terms of organization: a big structure with many departments including vehicles and maintenance, helicopters and pilots, lodge staff, tourism department, security and intelligence personnel, rangers and tour guides, gardening, community based organizations. The park is in fact a very efficient and sophisticated machine that makes most of the local economy and social life in the region. For example, the workshop of the Widows’ Fallen Rangers is a tailoring plant providing items and handicraft for the curio shop but also for the general decoration of the lodges, of course using the best of the typical Congolese fabrics.
Next to the head office, I visited the Semkwekwe gorilla orphanage and the gorilla cemetery where are buried about 15 gorillas, many of them killed by poachers. The orphanage was a surprise with the baby gorilla Muzuka of 3 years playing and sharing food with a young antelope, amazing to see this.
           
Costantino at the edge of Nyiragongo
The last activity of my trip was the Nyiragongo volcano climbing. At the base office, about one hour and half drive from Mikeno Lodge, the organization of the park provides with a choice of porters, the cooks, then the personal hike package in a rucksack including a rain jacket, sleeping bag, worm jacket, sweater, worm hat. With 24 spaces available per day, it is better to book in advance the space especially for large groups. The trekking itself to the peak at 3470 meters is not hard, about five hours walk with at least four stops for refreshment of snacks and with available latrines. On the edge of the volcano, where you walk through stones, there are 12 wooden cabins, basic dormitories equipped with sleeping mat.
The Nyiragongo at night
The night is quite cold there, below zero degrees. So considering that rain is quite common in this area, it is very much advisable to have a full change of clothes in case of getting wet (including shoes and socks), as there is no much opportunity to dry clothes on top. It was incredible to spend the evening then the night watching the continuously changing colors of the lava inside the caldera, from yellow to hot red though the fog. The panoramic view over Lake Kivu, the rift valley, the other Virunga volcanoes in front of you is a lifetime emotion worthy all the hardship. The cook provided us with hot meals both for dinner and breakfast, which was well appreciated in the low temperature.
I went back to Kigali leaving this area of Congo thinking that it is incredible that this could not be for long a top tourist destination, only because of the selfish interest of those causing insecurity in the region. The people here, especially the young people thinking about opportunities for their future, can no longer be deprived of what they deserve, peace and tourism.
Our company Destination Jungle is now organizing this trip to Nyiragongo and Virunga National Park, please enquire: http://www.destinationjungle.com/nos_safaris/nyiragongo-volcan-gorille-trekking.html 
Costantino Tessarin








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